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Photograph by Traci Hukill
Jersey Boys: Dennis Murawsky, Chris Matthews and Tim McCormick keep the fires burning 3,000 miles from home with the Poet & Patriot's annual New Jersey Night.

No Exit

You can take the boy off the Turnpike, but you can't take the Garden State out of the boy, especially at the Poet & Patriot's New Jersey Night.

By Paul Wagner

I am embarking on a tour of the tackiest towns in the Uuu-nited States," announced Bette Midler in the first spoken line of her first-ever tour. "And believe you me, honeys—when it comes to tacky, Passaic, New Jersey, is numero uno!"The thundering ovation that followed, bringing the audience to its feet and the Divine Miss M's show to its first stop within 30 seconds of beginning, says a lot about the character of New Jerseyans.

Like, for example, that there's no such thing as successfully shaming a New Jerseyan. Because whatever you can dish out they've already heard, and usually, more pointedly. Widely considered the Okies of the East, they're used to hearing all about their defects, and when that conversation starts, the fun, for Jerseyans, has just begun.

Let some unsuspecting Manhattan cabbie publicly opine that a driver from Trenton is a "juik from Juisey," and the volume of responding opinions concerning the cabbie's mother, her footwear, her forbears and her former and present professions will be without rival in the history of verbal combat. It is an aural wonder to behold.

What makes New Jerseyans so perpetually ready for a good fight? Is it their pride at inventing baseball, modern football and drive-in theaters, for which they refuse, in every case, to apologize?

No, it's that they're trained from birth to fight the centuries-old War Against New York. Jerseyans never forget that war, and have never, at least in their collective unconscious, forgiven New Yorkers for winning its first big battle in 1765, when—despite pulling a surprise Sunday raid and successfully capturing and imprisoning leaders of a New York county that New Jersey considered its own—they ended up having to give what is now Sussex County back.

They've been determined, even if it takes adopting the frightening garb of higher hairstyles, longer mohawks, shorter skirts, glossier suits, fancier jackets and the secret weapon of all great warriors from the Celts to denizens of Camden—pounds of heavy hair gel—never to lose such a battle again.

And they haven't.

New Jerseyans have not only successfully rebuffed every one of New York's repeated attempts to annex it, but have also captured most of New York's port activity for their cities of Newark and Elizabeth, lured away nearly half of New York City's middle class to their suburbs, and nabbed hundreds of corporate offices to populate their commercial eastern shore. Even alleged tough guy Rudy Giuliani has repeatedly complained that whenever there's federal money up for regional grab, New Jersey lands it while New York looks on, baffled.

The Jersey Mystique
This feistiness, this nerve (or, as Brooklynites say, "dis nuive"), this absolute resolve to win despite insult and injury in the process, unites New Jerseyans from the northernmost tip of its diamond-shaped top to the southernmost tail of its comma-shaped bottom.

Whether bred in the industrial wreckage of Jersey City, raised on Pam's Path in polite upper-middle-class Morristown, or reared at the spectacular Cape May Courthouse—whose building's white spire perches on green lawn so gently sloped that its descent to sand and waveless ocean form one unbroken shimmer—New Jerseyans revel in their reputation as second-rate and their reality as winners. It's in their blood.

But also in their blood is the inevitable shadow side of maintaining the energy for continual war (even if only verbal); namely, a stark fatalism, a deep if grudging acceptance that life will often be unpleasant. "I'm from New Jersey/ I don't expect much," sings folkie John Gorka; "If the world ended today/ I'd adjust."

And adjust they do; New Jerseyans don't fall for dualistic worldviews that urge them to "reach for the light;" they're perfectly OK with: "there's a darkness on the edge of town." Because there is. This is why the most commonly phrase spoken in daily life is "Whatcha gonna do?" The answer, of course, being that there isn't anything yer gonna do. It's the way it is. Which produces significant frustration, since New Jerseyans are trained in constant action.

That sense of frustration, however, needs to be stated gently, because at a population density 13 times the national average (1,030 people per square mile), the social contract must be maintained.

And the tension between those two—the maturity of accepting all of life, whether nice or nasty, and the necessity of keeping on and encouraging others to keep up the good fight—gives Jerseyans an unusual complexity of character. On the outside, a strutting social gloss and willingness to wade into the dark waters and curse any sharks in the way. On the inside, a knowledge that the sharks are never far away, and that a doomed attempt at rescue might be needed at any time.

And that, in turn, produces artistic, often even poetic, patterns of speech and expression loved and admired by much of the world. Just look at the short list of famed New Jerseyans: Lauryn Hill, John Travolta, Jerry Lewis, Molly Pitcher, Bruce Willis, Frank Sinatra, Dorothy Parker, Jon Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen. Notice a pattern? A determined intensity, an equal ease at public laughter and tears, an oddly insistent quality? They carry that with them wherever they go. Even if it's California.

Garden to Golden
Such as, to cite just one instance, the 23rd Annual New Jersey Night, conceived and hosted by Chris Matthews, former Santa Cruz County supervisor, and held at his Poet & Patriot pub on Saturday, Dec. 1.

Where, framed by a flat wooden wall-hung carving of New Jersey bordered by unblinking green holidays lights, pub owner Matthews (originally harking from Elizabeth, N.J.) and five companions—the Bad Boys of New Jersey—belted out rock & roll hits from the '60s and '70s, a cappella, in several joyous, chaotic sets.

And where an a cappella-only singing contest followed, featuring numerous Garden State to Golden State transplants, including Tiya (of Highland Park, N.J.) who has competed 10 times previously, won twice and wowed the crowd with Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." And Brett Taylor, not of New Jersey but certainly Jerseyan in nuive, who won cold, hard cash with a solo "Bring It On Home to Me," earning an encore of "Old Man River."

Matthews had promised that "everyone wins!" and sure enough, they did. Even a contestant who had slurred his way through a broken version ("oh—wait—I did that verse already!") of an off-color drinking song about seven women locked in a restroom ("she broke her suspender/ and injured her gender") collected a ticket for a free drink.

The audience, though, collected far more. Not only did the Irish, Italian, Dutch and African American members of the Bad Boys deliver a perfect demonstration of New Jersey popular culture, but the singing contest emcee, Dennis Murawsky, followed through in top style. "OK, I been asked to announce that somebody has lost a cell phone," he announced between contestants. "So look for it on the floor, and if ya find it, sell it back to 'em. I mean, it's only proper, since they were too stupit to keep it in their pocket in the first place. Am I right?" And in that series of statements, we see all three foundational elements of New Jersey character.

First, there's the call not to sympathy but to action. Jerseyans aren't passive. They can't be. They've got to fight New York. They don't say, "I'm so sorry you're sick," they say, "I'm comin' over with soup." And they do. And if you don't open the door, they pound on it shouting, "Git your ass outta bed—I'm sicka holdin' this damn soup!"

Second, there's the call to initiate the shaming ritual, the source of virtually all earthly fun. "Too stupit to hang on to your phone, huh?—what's that worth?" is the next likely step. If the respondent is smart enough to answer, "Worth more than you'll ever be!" the entire weekend's schedule, including that of family and friends, has been successfully filled.

And third, there's the phrase, "Am I right?" which isn't really a question but an assertion demanding assent, unless one wishes to end up learning fascinating new things about one's mother.

One final note: this writer has been to Passaic, N.J. And it is tacky. Really tacky. Not at all the kind of place any self-respecting person would be from.Am I right?

Paul Wagner was raised in Wayne, New Jersey. What's it to ya?

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