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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What's with the weird blog name?

A few months ago, I renamed this blog, “Smoking Toward New Jersey.” When I was a teenager in Manhattan, "Smoke toward New Jersey" was what I said when someone blew smoke in my face. It was the late ‘70s. Kids smoked a lot. 

Back then, New York was an incredibly exciting place to be young, what with the heady rebelliousness of the punk scene, the downtown clubs that never carded, and the freedom of movement provided by a 24/7 mass transit system.  Jersey, on the other hand? Bridge-and-tunnel New Yorker wannabes whose mommies and daddies had to drive them to the station, and who didn’t know the difference between Sid Vicious and Adam Ant.
“Smoke toward New Jersey” pretty much summed up my attitude toward the Garden State at the time: a filthy, polluted, industrialized waste of a place where people were either too stupid or too uncivilized to do the only sensible thing - move to New York.
Now I live in New Jersey. Call it Karma.
I’ve discovered that, like most things in life, the truth about New Jersey is far more complicated than I’d once thought. I was wrong about a lot of things - and right about others - and ignorant of a whole lot more. 
So it turns out the whole state does not consist of foul-smelling refineries along the Turnpike. In fact, it’s quite a mixed bag. Some parts, like where I live, are actually quite pretty, with lots of open space and quaint old towns. Farms, even. But much of New Jersey is suburban sprawl - towns with no beginning, middle, or end, just a patchwork of housing developments and strip malls that can’t even really be called towns. The only way you know you’ve left one is when you pass a sign welcoming you to the next one. There are cities, too. Turns out Newark is not just an airport. What it is, I’m not altogether certain. I’m not proud to say I’ve never been. Well, except for that one Miley Cyrus concert at that big nameless arena, where every cop was on duty to protect the suburban families as they ran for their cars.
Which reminds me - the car culture for which I had such disdain in my youth? I’m 100 percent a part of it now. I’ve fallen into that cesspool of fossil-fuel consumption, and I can’t get up.  I’m not proud of it, but I’m sadly unmotivated to do anything else. Every once in a while I tell myself I’ll start riding my bike to run errands or get to work. “This time I mean it,” I tell myself. I am such a liar.
Other things I treated with contempt in my youth I have discovered to be pretty wonderful. Backyards, for instance. As I type, I’m looking out the kitchen window at the bird feeders; I see a downy woodpecker, a cardinal, a titmouse, and and a nuthatch. I know this because I keep the Peterson Field Guide of Eastern Birds on a shelf right by the window. This is a far more entertaining, educational, and calming activity than watching pigeons in the air shaft outside my New York apartment window. Or listening to the breaking glass of the looters in the street. Well, that was only during blackouts.
So what about the people? That’s where age and experience really kicked my ass and taught me a thing or two. Somehow, at 16, self-delusion was way easier. I put on a leather jacket, spiked up my hair, smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, and convinced myself that I was part of a radical counterculture scene despite my affluent Upper East Side private religious school, Ivy League college plans, and - oh yeah - living with my parents. So much for nostalgia.
To tell the truth, Jersey people ARE more or less what I expected. Most stick to the narrow world they know, looking very little beyond popular trends in fashion, music, politics - everything. My area is pretty affluent, and with that comes the usual bourgeois lifestyle of conspicuous consumption combined with circle-the-wagons-cuz-the-socialists-are-a-comin’ politics. But of course that doesn’t describe everyone, and even those whom it does describe sometimes have a lot more to say for themselves if you bother to scratch the surface. Sometimes. Not always.
Then again, when I go into the city these days, it’s the same there. A 50-story glass-and-steel high rise filled with 2 million-dollar apartments is just the urban version of the McMansions I see right here, across the street, built the year after we moved to what is now the "poor" side of the street. Manhattan streets are lined with Gaps and Starbucks and Victoria’s Secrets and Barnes & Nobles, without even the comfort of climate-controlled corridors in between. Yeah, I admit it. If I’m gonna buy the same cookie-cutter crap you can get in a mall, I prefer to stay warm and dry doing it.
I’d like to think that some of the gritty liveliness, the rebellious excitement of the New York of my youth wasn’t imaginary. But even if it wasn’t, it’s mostly gone now, anyway. Jersey, meanwhile, turns out to be not so bad. No worse than the rest of the country, anyway.
But that’s not saying much.

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