Letters

New Jersey's not that bad, Wyclef Jean's not that good, and there's nothing surprising about a thoughtful Marine. Salon readers speak out.


Salon Staff
June 9, 2004 12:00AM (UTC)

[Read "The Sopranos' Stomping Ground," by Suzy Hansen.]

As another New Jersey native, I was pleased to find Suzy Hansen's article characterizing its elusive yet somehow charming nature. When I was a college student in the Midwest, I too was lured into mythologizing my home state for lack of a truly accurate way to describe it. It was easy to take the perceptions other people had of New Jersey and spin them into a picture of this exotic, rough-and-tumble place where, indeed, only the strong survive.

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Honestly, how do you classify a place where it's possible to drive seemingly endless miles of neon-lit highway in the same afternoon that you see a wild bear in your backyard? How can you tell a person that you are from a place so connected to New York City that the city somehow feels like home to you and, in the same breath, describe your hometown as a place that doesn't have a single stoplight in it?

And though we have so many images and ideas of New Jersey to draw from, as Hansen points out so nicely in her article, pinning them onto the reality of New Jersey can seem like an impossible task. Yet, aimlessly driving through a boring and listless suburb of Rome (which was, might I add, strikingly similar to my own hometown) with an Italian friend and listening to Bruce Springsteen, I realized just how strong and precious some of these images are to those of us who know New Jersey, especially when we're far from home.

Years after moving away from New Jersey, I'm still at a loss to really describe it. Whenever I try, there's always some aspect of it that I can't quite get, some part of the verbal picture I'm painting that doesn't ring true. Now, living in Tokyo, I often say that I'm from New York when speaking to people whose English level is not very high. I've convinced myself that it's just easier that way because, well, everyone knows New York, right? Claiming New York as my home just makes the conversation that much easier, particularly because most Japanese people wouldn't have the first idea where a place called New Jersey was if I owned up to it as my home state.

Even though I've always felt attached to New York as a part of my roots, as a place that undeniably plays a role in making New Jersey what it is, I find myself inwardly cringing every time I hear myself deny my actual birthplace. Because, let's face it, despite their close fraternity, despite the fact that they are inextricably linked, I think it's safe to say that most New York and New Jersey natives alike would (forcefully) argue that they are decidedly unique.

As often as I try to steal a little of New York's glamour by claiming that I grew up "not far" from there when I do admit I'm from New Jersey, at the bottom of my heart I know that I grew up worlds away from the actual New York City. But, I guess, that is and always will be what New Jersey is to me -- an indecipherable place that can somehow perpetually seem so close and yet so very far.

-- Paige Baldwin

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I'm from the Valley. "Where?" The San Fernando Valley. Home of the Valley Girl. "Do people there really talk like that?" Like, yeah, we totally do. I'm soooo not even kidding. Sure, I stopped malling on a regular basis (yes, we called it malling) by the time I was about 14, but that doesn't mean I don't pull anecdotes out of my hat at parties with interesting people.

As someone who originated from a place almost as mocked as New Jersey, if not quite as well known, I hear this article loud and clear. I love the aura of ill-gotten glamour that surrounds people who grow up in so-called trashy places and still turn out OK.

-- Simone McCloskey

Once again, a New York City wannabe paints the entire state of New Jersey with a North Jersey brush. Ms. Hansen may be shocked to find that the "ironically named" Garden State is the nation's bulk producer of tomatoes and cranberries, corn, strawberries, peaches and apples: Yes, there is farmland down here, making up the greatest percentage of that terra incognita west of that small strip of Jersey shore.

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-- Bob Washburne

Thank you for the article about New Jersey. I grew up in Tennessee and went to Bard College in New York. At Bard it was as safe to bash the state of New Jersey as it was to hate George Bush or believe in the legalization of marijuana. I was always puzzled by this strange hate -- I mean, I had heard people make fun of New Jersey growing up in Tennessee, but no more than California had been put down for being full of crazy people. And then, being from Tennessee, I got to field questions about "what is the South like," as if my little town of Maryville were indicative of the whole Southern experience. So I can relate to the broad, dismissive strokes discussed in the article, even if Tennessee isn't the object of disrespect quite in the way New Jersey is. I mean, at least if you're from New Jersey people aren't surprised you're wearing shoes.

-- Lelia F.

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You think you get grief about New Jersey? Try being from Ohio. You might be considered tacky, but we have it even worse: We're labeled bland.

Hard as it might be to believe, not all of us in fly-over country live on a farm, sport jaw-dropping mullets, or dine exclusively on white bread and mayo.

-- Diane Garrity

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I enjoyed Suzy Hansen's article on New Jersey, but I wonder how many others who've lived in New Jersey were struck by the same thing I was -- Hansen doesn't actually write about New Jersey, but more specifically about North Jersey.

If Hansen thinks her Jersey-ites have an inferiority complex, she should meet people from South Jersey, whose experiences get lumped in as part of New Jersey without any specific mention or rendering.

Hansen's whole article is exclusive to North Jersey but for one mention of books set in Trenton (which is more central than south) and a strange reference to "southern hicks" wearing T-shirts inscribed with "Welcome to the Jersey Shore. Now go home." For whatever it's worth, I've never seen such people.

As someone who spent many an idyllic summer at the shore in South Jersey and then lived in North Jersey my first few years out of college, I have to say the two halves of the state are as different as Georgia and Maine. Relaxing on the beach in Cape May or Stone Harbor, it is all but impossible to believe you are in the same state as downtrodden Elizabeth or dreary Union City.

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South Jersey has its own flaws to answer for -- the urban decay of Camden that is every bit as bad as any corner of North Jersey, and the unrestrained sprawl around Cherry Hill and Marlton -- but on the whole South Jersey is much nicer and certainly more evocative of the name "Garden State."

The sights on Tony Soprano's drive may be indicative of North Jersey and the Newark-Jersey City area in general, but they illustrate South Jersey not at all, and therefore can't be said to represent New Jersey in any comprehensive way, any more than the Upper West Side is representative of upstate New York.

Hansen's article was well-written and interesting. But she should clarify -- she was writing about North Jersey, not New Jersey.

-- Joe Haas

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I live in Bayonne, N.J., and I've never experienced "revulsion" or an "identity crisis" or a "sense of disrespect" about the state.

Suzy Hansen complains about New Jersey being "glossed over with broad, dismissive strokes," yet makes statements like "But for those of us from New Jersey, who've long whined about our inferiority to New York..." I know of no consensus among New Jersey residents who think our state is inferior to another.

Hansen ought to qualify her comments, because she certainly doesn't speak for me or the people around whom I grew up and live. Sounds like she's someone who bought the negative mythology and longed to be elsewhere. Since we are the most densely populated state in the union, she's welcome to go and make room for the rest of us.

-- Sam Favate

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[Read "Preacher's Son," by Baz Dreisinger.]

Wyclef Jean's name shouldn't be mentioned in the same breath as Bob Dylan and Bob Marley. Jean and the Fugees had one big hit, "Killing Me Softly," which just happened to be a cover of a cover. Now that he is on his own, what has he done? Where is his talent? Where is his originality that results in a truly euphonious sound? He speaks of selling as many records as Michael Jackson. Well, he's right: the 2003 Jackson, not the 1983 version. Also, his humanitarian bona fides become suspect when it is mentioned that he owns 37 -- 37! -- cars. How many Haitians could be fed and schooled for the price of, oh let's be conservative, 30 automobiles? (Jean could make do with seven, I'm sure ... anything for the cause.) Jean and the Fugees were overrated then, and he's overrated now. They sold millions of records, but so have Ricky Martin and the Spice Girls. To claim that Jean has true artistic longevity would be as absurd as claiming the same for Martin et al.

-- Carl Beatty

I always appreciate it when any sort of mainstream media outlet publishes or airs an intelligent, thoughtful piece about hip-hop. But why devote an entire feature article to someone who the writer admits can't rap and can't sing? Especially when there are more talented rapper/singers in existence like Mos Def, Lauryn Hill and Q-Tip. Why champion Wyclef as the one to rescue hip fop from its "purgatory of bling-bling and booty" when other MCs like Talib Kweli, Common and Kanye West are light-years ahead of him in that respect? Wyclef Jean as hip-hop visionary? Sorry, he'll have to get in line behind the Roots, and OutKast.

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-- Nick Adams

I laughed until the milk came out my nose when I saw Wyclef Jean's name right up there with Bob Marley and Bob Dylan. How about next week you breathlessly compare Jessica Simpson with Meryl Streep and Katharine Hepburn?

-- Douglas Dawson

[Read "Muzzling a Marine," by Scott Lamb.]

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I must say, it is disappointing and frustrating to me how you stereotype people who serve in the military. Scott Lamb comes across as being shocked that the Marine press officer in the film, "Control Room" is thoughtful and insightful. (He calls the Marine an "unexpectedly thoughtful media critic.") Why is the serviceman's insight and candor so unexpected? Don't you people get it? The young people who serve in the American military are not propaganda-bloated robots. They can be incredibly attuned to issues, and their direct experience with war and the politics of war can make their insights more realistic and revealing than the insights of media pundits on the same subjects.

Yes, I am disappointed that the Pentagon (run by civilians and politicians) is seeking to muzzle this young Marine. I can tell you, as a former Marine officer myself, if he were under my command, I would have him talking to anyone who would listen! Sometimes I wish Congress would bring back the draft, if only to have the prejudices of inducted writers and TV reporters subjected to some serious reality-testing. Geez!

-- Kirk Kicklighter

Reading Scott Lamb's story about the Pentagon pulling the plug on Lt. Josh Rushing's candid insights, I saw nothing particularly surprising about his treatment by the Marine Corps. Military spokesmen are trained to stick to the script and when they don't, they are reassigned. Simple as that. The Marine Corps is probably no longer the right place for Lt. Rushing. I cannot help but think that a good career move for him would be to come to Washington and hire on with Alhurra, the U.S.-financed satellite news network broadcast across the Middle East. The campaign for hearts and minds cannot be won by candor alone, but until we have better policy in place it is as good a starting point as any. Lt. Rushing could help make a difference.

-- Brian Berger


Salon Staff

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