Last summer, I went on a four-month, 16,000-mile road trip (plus flights to and from Hawaii from Las Vegas) to see the 18 states I hadn’t been to yet. When making small talk with strangers, they’d often ask me where I traveled from.
“But you don’t TAWWWWWK like that,” they’d say when I told them I’m from New Jersey while riding on a national park shuttle bus, or checking in a hotel, or sitting at whatever local coffee shop I’d found in Tulsa, Bozeman or Denver.
“I’m from South Jersey. We don’t speak like that there,” I’d reply.
If I tried to just respond first with “South Jersey,” they’d look at me like it didn’t make a difference.
It very much does make a difference, to the point that in 1980, six southern counties in New Jersey voted in a non-binding referendum to split South Jersey off into the 51st state. It was largely a publicity stunt, but one meant to make a point about the organizers’ grievances, one being that state politicians took our tax dollars and flung them north, never to return.
This might seem like a stupid fight (most often battled now by sharpened pitchforks flung online) but where we live is our identity, and as someone from the Eagles-loving, shoobie-hating part of the state who most definitely does not tawk like that (but may slip in a Philadelphia-borne “wooder” for “water” when she’s tired), it stings to be lumped together with Jersey’s northern half — a part of the state stuffed with ridiculous McMansions, real housewives who do tawk like that, and always kowtowing to its God New York City, especially when you’re a South Jersey Phillies fan who firmly believes that Jesus hates the Yankees (but also: fuck the Mets).
In South Jersey, we don’t talk like the Sopranos. We go down “the shore,” not to the beach, but our South Jersey beaches sure as hell don’t look like whatever MTV shows on Jersey Shore. When I take Amtrak to New York, I don’t feel like I’m home again until I pass the “Trenton Makes the World Takes” sign, which for me is a plot point on the real dividing line of the state (don’t give me this Driscoll Bridge nonsense; I didn’t even know what it was until I was interviewed for a documentary about the divide because yes that documentary exists).
This kind of state fight, these unofficial battles of ideological borders that divide the residents within, isn’t unique to New Jersey, of course. On my road trip, I was told that Huntsville a.k.a. Rocket City is not like the rest of Alabama; that I won’t truly see all of the states until I’ve been to the upper peninsula of Michigan; that Lawrence is the only sane part of Kansas; and don’t even get her started on the differences in the islands of Hawaii. In November, California will vote on a proposition to split the state into three parts. This seems more serious than the South Jersey referendum, but the Los Angeles Times called it a “longshot proposal,” and the split would need to be approved by Congress if it passes. There’s a lot more politics behind that decision than I can get into here (and wouldn’t dare since I don’t know nearly enough about how the state should divide itself), but the roots of the debates I’ve read start from people feeling like they’re labeled the wrong way. New Jersey is my state, but it doesn’t describe where I’m from. I’m from South Jersey — that is my home.
Our country grew in ways that haven’t cared about borders set up along rivers and mountain ridges in 1787, 1819, 1837, 1850, and 1861. Physically crossing a river is no longer an undertaking, nor is flying from one end of the country to the other, which blurred those boundaries, and regions grew into themselves within and across state lines, which is why I feel like I’d be more at home in my dad’s town in eastern Pennsylvania than in my brother’s in a New Jersey suburb of New York City. That’s also how you get the kombucha and bikes lanes of of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia divided by guns-and-camo Pennsyltucky; New York City fighting for subway repairs while upstate New York rolls its eyes about problems they do not think are theirs, and me yelling at Bruce Springsteen that he’s wrong in his memoir Born to Run to say that is Ocean County is part of South Jersey, which I did even though I know I could be excommunicated for daring to doubt our patron saint the Boss — himself one of the few things both side of New Jersey agree on.
I doubt redrawing state lines would do anything but further fracture a country that already feels like it’s tearing apart at the seams, but the debate is a silly distraction I sometimes welcome. I’d much rather laugh at the absurdity of Jon Stewart’s claim that Central Jersey exists, (when it definitely does not) because what it all leads to is discussions about what people really love about a place that makes it theirs.
A friend in Cape May, the town at the Southern tip of New Jersey, told me that North Jersey is anything above their border, and I can see that from his point of view (though when I wrote books about the Southern Jersey Shore, I went all the way up to Brigantine). That’s why I’m not going telling you what the real dividing line is. Because no matter how you try to debate me on it, I’m right. And you’re right too, as is Bruce Springsteen, Jon Stewart, and my Cape May friend, because where the line is isn’t physical. Instead, it’s relative to the experiences of what we call home.
When I drove up, down and around the U.S. in probably the least effective way to see those 18 states possible (especially with those flights to and from Hawaii), I often wouldn’t be able to tell what state I was in if I didn’t have a map, and the feel of each location shifted along with what I saw through my windshield. Local spats about what makes up each region I drove through wouldn’t mean much to me, just like the distinction of being from South Jersey didn’t mean much to the people I met on the road. But for the few people who asked more about South Jersey, I would tell what made it special, about sunsets on the beach in Cape May, the smell of my mom’s backyard right after a storm, and the BLT at the diner in the town where I grew up.
Even if things like a sunset, a sandwich and the smell of fresh rain aren’t really unique, together they pull out the feeling of my home, and then they’d tell me about the special things about their special region in return. Maybe I didn’t want to live there, even if the person talking about that place gets that same dreamy look when they talk about a few of their favorite things. But it made me miss those things I told them about, which is eventually to where I returned, for good, once my wandering was over.
Well, as long as Springsteen is OK with it.