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  SIX THINGS YOU DON'T KNOW ABOUT: NEW JERSEY.  
   
   
 

It's hard to blame people from New Jersey for having a bit of a complex.

We're consistently referred to as the "Armpit of America," we suffer the ignominy of having two professional football teams reside in our state without taking our name, and our neighbor to the west, Pennsylvania, actually has the gall to proclaim, "America Starts Here!" (Which, truly, wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't plastered on billboards as you enter the state from the New

 
 

Jersey highways.)

Maybe we should get over it. We've got mountains, rivers, beaches, upscale housing, and enough woodland and farmland to get lost in for weeks. The Garden State still ranks in the top five states in production of cranberries, peaches, blueberries, bell peppers and spinach. Plus, there's just enough urban grit to weird people out. Yes, these days I'm humming the Sopranos theme when I'm crossing the Pulaski Skyway from Newark to Jersey City these days, but drive across this yourself sometime, and tell me there's a more majestic three-and-a-half mile steel structure in America. Yeah, I didn't freakin' think so.

 

#1: Yes, We Really DO Know What Exit We're From.

People love to ask New Jerseyians this question, but whenever I'm asked, I hit back with enough information to kill a horse. "Exit 131 off the Parkway, the Rahway/Iselin/Metuchen exit to Route 27, but the 131A exit is actually easier, and skips a couple of lights, and you can easily get up to Wood Avenue that way…" Soon, anyone unlucky enough to have asked the question is gasping for air.

It's ironic that the denizens of the flat, unpopulated states choose to make fun of New Jerseyites with this "insult," because it only serves to highlight a striking disparity. Namely, we know where we're going, and you don't.

The limited number of exits on the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway (it goes up to 172, but any Jerseyite worth his/her salt can name you about 20 exits in a row) means remembering our exit isn't a challenge -- we also know three or four alternate routes to get anywhere. In fact, knowing three shortcuts to the Newark Airport is a special source of pride. (I favor exiting the Parkway two exits early, at 140A, taking 22 East to Route 1 South for about 30 seconds, with the airport just on the right.)

Having a sense of direction is paramount for drivers in the state that pioneered the Jughandle, after all. That's a delicious torture where, if you want to make a left turn on a major highway, be aware of it, oh, 250 feet or so before the turn comes up. Then you get off on the right, and cross the road you were just driving on. Makes perfect sense, right? Think about it: If you miss your exit in Arkansas, who cares? Just make a U-turn in the middle of the road (as if it matters where you're going).

But here, the wrong turn or failure to exit could leave you in Staten Island, downtown Newark, Philadelphia or Manhattan. And trust me: the only thing worse than being trapped in Lincoln Tunnel traffic trying to get to New York City is when you're trapped in tunnel traffic not trying to get to New York City.

 

#2: Rah, Rah! Hey, Hey! Cheerleading Started in N.J!

Nowadays, the image of cheerleaders tends to be associated with buxom blondes whooping it up for some big country boys crushing 73-17 victories out in the fields. But cheerleading actually got started in New Jersey, when the Tigers of Princeton University decided the best way to distract their opponents -- the Rutgers University Scarlet Knights -- would be by yelling what they called "The Scarer," that is, blood-curdling shouts anytime one of the Rutgers faithful ran with the ball.

Of course, yelling while playing football makes it difficult to concentrate, so Princeton lost that first game, way back in 1869, by a count of 6-4. The next time out, they figured a better way, which was to have supporters stand on the sidelines and yell at the Rutgers players to distract them. This time, it worked, and Princeton ended up winning, part of an ongoing feud between the two tony schools that goes on to this day.

To say that the schools responsible for the cheering sections amassed at the sidelines of the nation's football factories don't even make a dent in national college football is something less than an understatement. Princeton, of course, is in the Ivy League, which produces the odd basketball Cinderella story now and again, while Rutgers is well known as one of the worst Division 1-A schools in the country. After finishing 7-4 and barely missing a bowl berth in 1992 (thanks to a terrible loss to Division 1-AA school Cincinnati), Rutgers is a pathetic 32-90-1.

Meanwhile, the rest of you have us to thank for the Cowboy cheerleaders, the Rally Monkey, thundersticks, and the wave. Ponder that for a while.

 

#3: It's Illegal to Pump Your Own Gas.

Ever stopped into a rest station somewhere in America, and you see a broad-shouldered type who seems like knows his way around the chassis of an engine and could mount a ceiling fan in a pinch? And yet, for some reason, he's spitting up bile, trying to avoid bawling crocodile tears as he fumbles with inserting the nozzle into his gas tank, rereading the instructions on the pump, again and again?

Barring any other obvious explanation (he's seven years old, for instance), you can go ahead and assume he's from New Jersey. Go into a gas station at any of the rest stops in New Jersey and you won't find any sign that says "Self-Service." It's all full-service. So don't get out of your car, unless you've got a craving for a road map or a piss. The NJ State Legislature justifies this in a number of ways -- saying cashiers can't see what you're doing, that low-income earners are subjected to the hazards of self-service gas in other states because, in other states, full-service is more costly, and because attendants don't make proper checks at those stations anyway.

The advantage to this? You can sit in your car, relaxing with the radio on, while some schlub fumbles with your money. The disadvantage? But range outside the 7,417 square miles of the state (and that's not a lot), and the whole world thinks you're an idiot.

 

#4: Modernity Started Here.

There's a long history of people fleeing Newark, N.J., but one of the first who did it was Thomas Edison, who moved his laboratory from Newark to Menlo Park, N.J., a section of Edison, about 45 minutes from New York City. It had a nice location, just a stone's throw from the Pennsylvania Railroad, and Edison had his father build the lab, which was completed in 1875.

He worked in Menlo Park for five years, eventually moving his lab further north, to West Orange, and later moving to New York City. Needless to say, his impact on, well, every freaking thing in the world was somewhat dramatic. While in Menlo Park, Edison invented the carbon telephone transmitter -- making telephony a commercially practical endeavor; the phonograph (his favorite invention), the incandescent light bulb, and a way to systematically distribute and measure electrical current switches, fuses, sockets and meters.

According to Neil Baldwin's biography of Thomas Edison, when the incandescent bulb was invented, Edison was "already fantasizing (although he had no idea what it would cost) about "lighting up" the town of Metuchen, about two miles distant, running the current over poles set along the country lanes so that "all kinds and classes of people may have an opportunity to judge of it…"

In 1954, the town of Raritan decided to rename itself Edison, after the Wizard of Menlo Park. A memorial tower remains in North Edison, but oddly, if you want to see what remains of the lab, it's in West Orange, N.J. Portions of the machine shop (but not the whole lab) were actually moved to Dearborn, Mich., by Henry Ford. The tower tour closes at 4 p.m., which means the 131-foot tower is now really just the place nearby residents pass on the way to the train station.

 

#5: We Have Hillbillies, Too.


Generally, the image of New Jerseyites is that of three types: hair farmers wearing Bon Jovi T-shirts hanging out at Jenkinson's on the boardwalk; patrician, Christie Whitman-esque clenched-jaw types in western Jersey, and your garden-variety car thief.

But up in the Northern part of New Jersey, in the Ramapo Mountains, right near the New York State line, live people who used to be called the Jackson Whites. Good luck trying to trace their origins, too: their surnames would indicate they're Dutch, but come from a mixed grouping of people that include African-Americans, Native Americans, and Europeans, possibly of both Dutch and Hessian descent. The name comes from the old way of referring to hill people/freed slaves as "Jacks," and was likely a combination of "Jacks" and "Whites." These days, they prefer to be referred to as "Ramapo Mountain People."

Concentrated around the Mahwah area, historical articles about the group suggest they'd developed their own dialect mixing English and Dutch; other legends suggest they're a mix of prostitutes who wandered off to an area that was thought sympathetic to outsiders. As is typical of secluded types, most of what has been written about them-at least some decades ago -- is of the fantastical variety rather than based in any sort of reality, suggesting that they're something less than human beings.

By most accounts, however, they were indeed quite private, guarding their mountainous territory vigilantly. America is full of clannish types, but the idea of such a group existing, even all the way through to the 1970s, in an area just thirty miles from teeming, overrun New York City, in some ways, is indeed a bit strange.

 

#6: Tony Soprano Does Have a New York Complex.

Even though Tony Soprano, head of the New Jersey-based crime family on HBO's wildly successful (and only occasionally airing) TV show, "The Sopranos," is constantly looking over his shoulder at the encroachment of John "Johnny Sack" Sacramonti of the New York-based Lupertazzi crew, in real life, the scales aren't even close to being balanced.

The DeCavalcante Family, which has been a mainstay in New Jersey for several decades, apparently has to get all its potential "made" candidates vetted by the New York mob, and just one "no" vote from the guys on the other side of the river will scuttle the process. In addition, potential members of the crew have to maintain New Jersey addresses, to get around a New York-imposed rule that says nobody from New York can be a member of the Jersey gang, according to Ganglandnews.com, run by Jerry Capeci, a journalist who has covered organized crime for decades. (According to the Web site, FBI files show that the Joisey-based mobsters also, for the most part, love the show, similar to how the 1972 release of The Godfather resulted in old-time traditions being dusted off, such as kissing the ring of the boss.)

If the Jersey guys aren't first in terms of respect, the state has certainly known its share of dead guys. Longtime racketeer Dutch Schultz (a.k.a. Arthur Flegenheimer) was killed in a bar in Newark, N.J. in 1935, along with several associates.

There have always been rumors about former Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa's disappearance (and assumed murder) in 1975 -- namely, that he's buried under the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J. -- but his last meeting actually took place in Detroit. The union was never shy about killing execs of supermarket companies (and others) who dared cross them, as Robert Wunderle found out in 1989. The veep of Supermarkets General, the parent of Pathmark (based in Carteret, N.J.) was found in a ditch -- after reportedly talking with reporters about union abuses.

 

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