I woke up this morning to find an astonishing video of New York City on facebook shared by my friend Kathy, who I grew up with in Manalapan, NJ. And that, in a sentence, names my two hometowns. My family lived in Brooklyn until I was eight, yet throughout my childhood, my father and grandfather’s stamp store was in the subway arcade of Nassau and Fulton streets in lower Manhattan. Manalapan, where I was forced to move (kicking and screaming, I might add), was a mere hour away, but another world in terms of transportation (we drove everywhere instead of walking or taking the subway) and especially in the size of our dwellings, which went from matchbox apartments to expansive Levittown houses, often split level with too many closets.
In Brooklyn and lower Manhattan, I had my haunts, mainly the pizza shop, delicatessan, school yards (where I seemed to attract kids who wanted to punch me), diners, Italian bakeries and synagogues. In Manalapan, I actually had the same kinds of haunts, the exodus from Brooklyn (and other boroughs) to the suburbs easily replicating what we left behind.
Being from New York versus New Jersey isn’t the same. As I often tell people about living in Kansas, I moved from the most-made-fun-of state (NJ) to the second most made-fun-of-state (KS). “You’re from Joooosey?” people would ask, which always struck me as ludicrous since that’s the way someone from New York might say Jersey. Those of us from Jersey tend to stress the r rather than the oi, so it’s more like, “I’m from Jerrrsey.”
Being from New Jersey? In the 1980s, the state legislature seriously considered making “Born to Run” the official state song (“Let’s give something to the kids,” one legislator said), but then someone read the lyrics: “Baby, this town rips the bones from your back/ It’s a death trap/ It’s a suicide rap.” I remember reading a survey that found that something like 80-plus % of New Jerseyans would move out of state if they could. At the same time, there’s a lot of beauty, verve, creativity, magic, surprises and outrageously good people in Jersey, and even more from Jersey, best epitomized by John Gorka in his song, “I’m From New Jersey.”
Being from New York puts in the categories of being cool, stuck-up, mean, fast-moving, or worse (the expression “She’s from back east” usually doesn’t translate to my benefit). Of course, we New Yorkers had our cache rise after 9/11 when people around the world declared, “We are New Yorkers.” I’ve often found New Yorkers pretty down-to-earth and helpful. Maybe it’s because I speak the language, but whenever I land in an airport or train station and find myself confused in the city, it’s easy to find generous help. I love the intimacy among strangers too: how, when I was trying on clothes once in a department store, a woman came up to me and said, “Sweetheart, that’s all wrong for you. Try this.” Or the woman who, as we were walking down the street one summer day, pointed at man ahead and said, “That man has lady legs.”
I claim both states, both places, both peoples. I’m from New Jersey. I’m from New York. I claim Manalapan, Brooklyn and the Nassau-Fulton subway station. “New Jersey people, they will surprise you,” John Gorka sings, which is true, but it’s true about New Yorkers too.