In New Jersey, it is a semi-frequent custom to have to deal with people who aren’t from New Jersey but who nonetheless have much to say about it. Attending college in Pennsylvania, for instance, allowed me the chance to amass a calcified clot of grievances about the federated region where I’ve spent 27 years of my life. Altogether, they generally amounted to the fear that their very moral and physical contents have been grossly, inhumanly misshapen as soon as they crossed the border in search of the grain alcohol they simply couldn’t live without. New Jersey, like the past, is a foreign country, and we do things differently here. Laws are not so much rules as they are friendly suggestions, manners consist not so much of polite greetings as they do euphemistic threats, and “environment” is a fluid concept at best. Its citizens are abrasive in character, less tight in the tongue, so to speak, in our choice of words, regardless of whether the circumstances are in camaraderie or in confrontation. In other words, it is difficult to imagine any other state producing a band called Deadguy, let alone James Gandolfini.
Thus, the revelation of the Great George Washington Bridge Traffic Jam Scandal of 2014 — or “Bridgegate,” for those with more time constraints — confirms some of the most-deeply-held biases about the state, and very little else would need to be said. How resoundingly logic has failed us. Whatever goodwill the public gave us after Hurricane Sandy (or rather, after Republicans thought it rather gauche to lend us some money in its wake), it was very quickly rescinded with this latest episode of government maleficence. To some, the past 48 hours of news coverage were marked not by the exposition of abuses of power and more by how creatively reporters could shoehorn allusions to “The Sopranos” or “Boardwalk Empire” or, more nonsensically, “The Godfather.” There is, it seems, an idea that New Jerseyans actively expect and even seek out mischief of this kind, and that corruption isn’t simply corruption but a state of nature. While it would be presumptuous to say that certain people are gunning for failure in New Jersey, a chance to revel in schadenfreude for a state that apparently offers nothing but untold misery is too tempting to pass up.
To be fair I can see where this perception comes from. Christie’s antics are amateur hour compared to previous New Jersey leadership. Frank Hague ran Jersey City like his own fiefdom for three decades, and controlled a Democratic machine that influenced gubernatorial elections and, to some extent, presidential elections. While Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, as “Boardwalk Empire” suggests, was basically a career criminal with political power. This is to say nothing of the lesser inductees of the Jersey rogues gallery: Robert Torricelli, Sharpe James, Harrison Williams, and Christie’s hated predecessors, Jim McGreevy and Jon Corzine.
New Jersey teems with political corruption, but then so do most other parts of the country, or pretty much every other civilization that requires the consent of the governed. Yes, we elected and reelected Chris Christie, just as the people of Illinois elected and reelected Rod Blagojevich or the as the people Maricopa Country elected and reelected Sherriff Joe Arpaio. It might be worth noting that we also elected Tom Kean, a man whom my godfather, a Democratic lifer, called “a Republican you can trust,” not to mention Frank Lautenberg, Bill Bradley and, God help us, Woodrow Wilson. Admittedly we were less successful in electing Richard Codey who only served as Governor when he absolutely had to. Christie’s power, moreover, is not absolute. Despite his landslide, the Democratic majorities in the legislature remained largely unchanged, further assuring a conciliatory, if not outright benevolent, dictatorship.
For most of my life I generally accepted New Jersey as just another state in the Union, with allusions to its toxic waste cartoonishness as a defense against how boring it tends to be. Yet further examination reveals to it be a state of stark contrasts, out of which its confused political character is a product rather than a source. As the most densely populated state in the country, New Jersey’s citizenry is a tapestry (though probably to most people a petri dish) of culture clash. It is ethnically, socially, and economically diverse, sometimes wildly so (New Jersey simultaneously houses Alpine, one of American’s wealthiest communities and Camden, one of its poorest). It’s hardly harmonious even on a good day. It would be too rosy a view of things to say that we like each other all the time, but we at least tolerate each other, and we do our utmost not to wish ill on one another. We prefer our elected officials flexible, however willingly or begrudgingly so. We don’t mind gay marriage, but we also don’t mind less obscenely high property taxes, and we’ll make it plain that we need no further hindrance to our mobility than is already extant for little to no reason at all.
Seen another way, our supposed abrasiveness is simply being an adult writ large, and treating others as such. Sure, you might be more comfortable in Pennsylvania, the “Nice Guy” state, and you might have more fun in New York, but at least in New Jersey you’ll get the best diner service at any time of the day, no matter how big of an asshole you are. So stop by, and tip accordingly.