This article was originally published in the April 1996 edition of Central NJ Mensa FORVM
New Jersey is the Rodney Dangerfield of the states: both get no respect. Any comedian who mentions "New Jersey" in his or her routine is guaranteed plenty of laughs.
Maybe that's why one word sums up the New Jersey attitude: attitude. It's how New Jerseyans cope, not only with the ridicule, but with high prices and taxes, political corruption, pollution, and endless traffic jams on the Garden State Parkway on summer weekends.
It must also have something to do with the climate. New Jersey summers can be oppressive, resulting in the above mentioned traffic jams of people flocking to beaches which are already so crowded you can't see the sand. In the summer, New Jersey's mosquitoes and greenhead flies have attained sizes big enough to be detected on radar at Newark Airport. Winter in New Jersey, like the state itself, is extremely unpredictable. On January 15, for example, it's 14 degrees with 10 inches of snow on the ground. On January 18, it's 43 degrees and raining. And on January 23, it's 60 degrees and sunny. March in New Jersey often goes in like a lion and comes out like a polar bear.
Or maybe it's because although James E. McGreevey was the first known gay governor of New Jersey and Christine Todd Whitman was the first female governor, neither may have been the first one to wear a dress. In the early 1700's, the colonies of New York and New Jersey shared the same royal governor, Edward Hyde, 3rd Earl of Clarendon, Lord Cornbury, a cousin of Queen Anne and rumored to be something of a queen himself. Legend has it that he used to prowl the New York waterfront at night in drag. There is even a portrait presumed to be that of Lord Cornbury wearing a dress. He wasn't a pretty sight.
Contrary to popular belief, especially on the West Coast, New Jersey is not some vast toxic waste dump site, bedroom community, or Mafia graveyard wedged tightly between New York and Philadelphia. From the rolling hills of Sussex County in the northwest to the Victorian splendor of Cape May, there's more to New Jersey than which exit to get off on the Garden State Parkway or the New Jersey Turnpike.
The real New Jersey is a microcosm of the United States: large cities, peaceful villages, beaches, mountains, farms, lakes, forests, scenic beauty, an ethnically diverse population, commerce, technology, historical, cultural, and educational institutions -- all packed into an area of less than 8000 square miles.
The land of Sinatra and Springsteen is filled with many contrasts: the hellish oil refineries near the New Jersey turnpike and the pristine wilderness of the Pine Barrens; 21st century high-tech computer installations and 18th century farmhouses and churches; the squalid slums of inner Newark and the mansions of Peapack and Rumson; huge shopping malls and century-old general stores; the glitter of Atlantic City and the ivy of Princeton; descendents of the original 17th century colonists and newly arrived immigrants.
New Jersey has been called "The Crossoads of the American Revolution." One hundred battles were fought in the Garden State, and Princeton and Trenton both served as temporary colonial capitals. The famed "Molly Pitcher" battle, the Battle of Monmouth, which turned the tide of the Revolution in favor of the Americans, was fought near Freehold in 1778. And when George Washington and his troops crossed the Delaware on Christmas Day in 1776, they left near Trenton. Washington probably spent more time in New Jersey than in any other state outside of his native Virginia.
When you're traveling in the southernmost counties of New Jersey, you're technically in the South because this section of the state is actually below the Mason-Dixon line. In fact, although New Jersey was a Union state during the Civil War, several New Jersey regiments fought for the Confederacy. New Jersey was also one of only three northern states which did not re-elect Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency in 1864. This does not seem surprising, given the sometimes fractious nature of New Jerseyans.
New Jersey has its own state motto ("Liberty and Prosperity"), state bird (eastern goldfinch), state flower (violet), state animal (horse), state song ("I'm from New Jersey," which was not written by Bruce Springsteen), state dinosaur (Hadrosaurus foulkii, discovered in 1858 in Haddonfield), and state insect (honeybee, not the mosquito). To date, New Jersey doesn't have an official state food, but the beefsteak tomato, the August pride of many a new Jersey backyard gardener, ought to be a serious contender.
New Jersey even has something most other states don't have: its own legendary creature, the Jersey Devil, the mysterious lord of the Pine Barrens and the namesake of New Jersey's pro hockey team. Numerous legends abound about the Jersey Devil's origins, but the essence is that the creature was born around 1735 near what is now Leed's Point, about 10 miles north of Atlantic City. The Jersey Devil has reportedly been sighted as far away as upstate New York and even Canada.
But there's New Jersey. And then there's the rest of the United States. You can't be neutral about living in the Garden State: either you love it or you hate it. Often it's both ways. You can take the New Jerseyan out of New Jersey, but you can never take New Jersey out of him or her. And maybe you have to be a little crazy to live here.
But it will never bore you.
NJ map courtesy of