by Isaac James Baker
I quickly learned to apologize when people asked me where I was from. It just made things easier to get that out of the way early. It was obvious to the kids in school that I wasn’t one of them. I said words like “dat” when pointing at something. My sentences were laced with “friggin’”s. I slurred my words together with the slick, lazy tone of Joe Pesci drunk on wine. Still, they asked, begging for the chance to jump on my response.
And I guess I don’t blame them. I was the new kid in town. And my place of birth was an easy target. It’s a big red bull’s eye tacked onto the foreheads of everyone who hails from the most populated, polluted and thoroughly unpretentious state in the nation. Yep, I’m talking about Jersey.
I was thirteen when my father and mother, chasing after career opportunities, told me they were ready to uproot me, my brother, and my sister from our beach bum haven and move to Chicagoland.
Leave Belmar? I couldn’t understand the notion. No one left Belmar. Especially not me. I was born in Belmar – which means “beautiful sea,” by the way. It didn’t have any hospitals — that would take up too much real estate that could otherwise be used for bars or billiard joints. I was born at home, in my mother’s bed. And the house I was born in was two blocks from the beach.
That ocean was my home. The sand, the cold water, the jetties covered with crabs and barnacles, the splintered planks on the boardwalk. From May to September, I spent every hour I could at the beach, bodyboarding, skipping rocks, digging for sand crabs, jumping into the rough surf during high tide, collecting sea glass (sometimes just regular broken glass, jagged and shiny new). Sure, I got sick a few times a year from some bacteria or trash in the ocean. Sure, the lifeguards would call everyone out of the water every couple of days when a mass of bacteria-infested red tide would drift in. There was always the inevitable dirty diaper, used syringe, or hunk of scrap metal that would wash up on the shore. My friends and I would run over to check out such items with Christmas morning enthusiasm.
Yeah, Belmar was a dump, but at least no one pretended that it wasn’t. When no one worries about what other people think, they can calm down and enjoy what they’ve got, even if what they’ve got is just sand, shoreline and drunken vacationers from Brooklyn who puke all over the sidewalks every night.
Leaving Belmar meant I wouldn’t be pulling broken glass out of my bare heels anymore. I wouldn’t be stepping over used condoms on the way to the beach in the morning. I wouldn’t have to worry about seaweed getting stuck underneath my balls anymore either. But I also wouldn’t be sneaking out late at night to look through the windows of the rental houses on our block to see drunk girls undressing. I wouldn’t be getting together with the neighborhood kids, filling empty beer cans with sand and throwing them at tourists’ cars. I wouldn’t be sneaking into the high surf during storms when the lifeguards wouldn’t let anyone swim. I wouldn’t be collecting shells or picking up starfish from the tide pools, letting their hundreds of tongues lick at my palm.
Instead of sticking around town, letting my early teen years drift by like the changing tides, we loaded down our vomit-colored Dodge Caravan and set out for the Midwestern plains. Moving at thirteen is hell enough as it is. And it’s not like we were moving down the shore to Ocean City. No, we left Belmar for a place that, at least in the mid-nineties, had to be the richest, most Jewish, and most mind-meltingly boring suburb in the entire country.
Deerfield, Illinois. Where nothing grows unless sanctioned by a landscaping firm. Where construction crews work in the middle of the night so the residents don’t have to see their dirty and scruffy faces. Where even at the public library you can’t find homeless people. Where bankers from the north side of Chicago go to hide from their misery in half-million dollar condos. Where cul-de-sacs reign. Where good times go to die.
A few days out of the van from the cross-country trip, I donned a pair of worn corduroys, a sun-bleached surf t-shirt, and a pair of two-tone Chuck Taylors and walked into the first day of the seventh grade at Alan B. Sheppard Junior High School. I was anxious to scope out the kids that populated this strange Midwestern land.
For the most part, I found the kids in my school to be about as interesting as a cross-sectioned map of Illinois’ soil and bedrock. They were so damned simple! So clean! They all had the heavy-duty Land’s End backpacks and gleaming shoes: Doc Martens, Nike Airs, Michael Jordans, Airwalks. They had unwrinkled shirts emblazoned with snazzy-sounding names like Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie and Fitch. Some company always seemed to be announcing its existence in huge letters on everything that these walking billboards wore. The only names I had on my shirts were Bob Marley and Don Mattingly. These kids’ clothes were always spiffy and new. The best clothes I had were from the discount rack at The Gap. These kids all took the school bus or had their parents drop them off in shiny Cadillacs. I trudged over the railroad tracks to and from school. These kids lived in developments with names like Elk Run Gardens or Chesterton Fiords or something equally as ridiculous. I lived in a small house with splintered porch beams and peeling piss-colored paint that was sandwiched between a lumber yard and an abandoned factory that used to make Little Debbie dessert pastries.
They poked fun at my Converse All-Star shoes right away. A place where Chuck Taylors were actually the butt of jokes, not objects of worship? Where in the hell was I? They called me a bum because of my family’s rundown Dodge Caravan, which was known around town for polluting the tree-lined Deerfield streets by spitting filthy, black smoke. When walking around town, or even to and from school, I would frequently get stopped by cops in squad cars. They always looked at me like I was high when I told them I was just walking around, that I didn’t have a particular destination in mind.
When I’d order a soda at lunch, the kids would smirk: “No soda. They only have pop.” No one knew what pork roll was, but they were disgusted when I told them it was delicious when served on a Kaiser roll with eggs, cheese and ketchup. When I brought ham and cheese to school they’d mock me for eating a “filthy animal.” It followed that I too was filthy. When I ate my p.b. and j. sandwiches during Passover, the kids — who all brought matzo and cheese sandwiches — would stare at me like I was peeing on their shoes. I’d never had a matzo before, so during Passover I asked a kid named Ethan if he would like to swap his matzo with turkey for my p.b. and j. on a hard roll. He told me that I could go to hell.
But I’ll give them one thing, the kids at Alan B. Shepherd Middle School could be pretty damned witty with their Jersey bashing:
“Isaac’s mom’s driving? Hell, no, I’m not getting in her car! She’s from Jersey!”
“That’s right, you don’t even think Gino’s East is real pizza. You’re from New Jersey, so you like those wimpy thin slices, all greasy and sloppy.”
“Hey, for field trips growing up, did you guys go to the place in the tall grass where they whacked that guy in The Godfather? That was, like, the next town over from you, right?”
“Jersey? Aren’t there lots of Irish out there. I’ll bet your Catholic, too, right? Don’t they, like, not even have bar mitzvahs?”
It quickly became clear to me that I had one of two ways of trying to survive in this hostile new environment. Option 1: I could stick to being myself, the kid from The Dirty Jerz. I could retaliate, poke fun right back at these damn cornfielders for their Chicago-style “pizza,” which everyone with a brain knows is just an abomination, the messy bastard child of lasagna and some sort of tomato pie. I could keep calling it soda no matter how many kids giggled. This, of course, would result in me being branded the outcast, the uncircumcised misfit from The East.
Or there was Option 2: I could adapt. I could change. I could try to become one of… them.
I chose the latter option. I tried to mold myself into a Chicagoan. I cheered for the Bulls even though I didn’t give a damn about basketball or Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen. When other kids took off for the Indiana dunes during the summer, I joined them, even though those dunes had nothing on Long Beach Island, Cape May, hell, even Belmar. I went swimming with schoolmates in Lake Michigan, a shimmering blue body of water that was so clean it terrified me.
Pop. I even called it pop. I ran over that word hundreds of times in my mind until I engrained it into my East Coast psyche.
Eventually, my chameleon methods seemed to work. I made what could loosely be called friends at that school. A stricter definition would be “people I could be seen with at lunch tables.” But, in seventh grade, that’s not something you just pass up.
Over time, I found pretending to be someone else exhausting. I was not a Chicagoan, no matter how hard I tried to be. I was a Jersey Boy. I was made in the Garden State. (Yeah, that’s right, Jersey’s called The Garden State, not The Paper Mill State.) Out in Illinois, surrounded on all four flat sides by Jewel grocery stores and Old Style billboards, who was I? What the hell was I doing there? Transplanted from my cracked blacktop, my sand-swept home, I began to wonder if Deerfield’s loamy soils were just too rich for me.
Still, I told myself, I was there. I had to do the best I could.
The first girl I dated — or “went steady” with, as they said out there in those days — was named Michelle, Michelle Something-or-other-stein. She was a rich Jewish girl with these pug-like puffy eyes and she was three inches taller than me. But she had a nice rack and decent curves, which, again, in seventh grade, is not something you just pass up. I still don’t know why she agreed to go out on a date with me. I don’t think it was a pity date, maybe more of a curious sociological experiment she wanted to undertake. Our first date consisted of us making out in a parking lot behind a movie theatre. After a good minute or two, I slipped my hand up her shirt, making my move toward the bra strap. Out of nowhere, she pulled away from me and tried to strike up a conversation.
“So, you’re from Jersey?” she asked, chuckling awkwardly, like she was desperate to get me talking about something, anything.
“Yeah,” I huffed out as I slid my hand out of her shirt in defeat. What the hell was she doing? Here I was about to round second base and she wants to talk about where I grew up? What the hell is wrong with these people?
“I heard people from New Jersey have health and mental problems because of the stuff that washes up on the shore. They basically swim in toxic waste, you know?”
“Oh yeah?” I said, trying but failing to peel my eyes off of Michelle’s boobies, which were bobbing mere inches from my face.
“Yeah. My mom told me that there’s condoms and needles on the beaches, all this shit that they dump in the water up in New York.”
“I saw a used tampon in the sand once,” I said.
“It was all wet and soggy.”
“God, I bet you’re so glad you got outta there!”
I laughed aloud. How wrong this girl was.
See, I had been hoping my tough East Coast roots would score me some street cred in Chicagoland. After all, I was a Jersey Boy and this was an affluent Jewish sleeper community with country clubs and organic grocery stores, even in the mid-nineties, way before the organic thing became super hip. These kids all had Audis and Volvos just waiting for them to turn sixteen so they could wreck them after drinking a bunch of wine coolers in their friend’s basement. Compared to these Chia Pet yuppies, I thought I’d seem edgy, maybe even a bit of bad ass. I thought this might help me get some action.
It didn’t really work out that way. I never got a second chance to try for Michelle’s tits. She dumped me the next day via a note written on ruled paper and passed underneath my desk during English class. It said: “Isaac, it’s been fun. :-) But let’s break up. K? Cool. Bye. Michelle. XOXO.”
This set the tone for the rest of the semester. Months passed and I still never rounded second base. Rich Jewish tits still eluded me. So did any meaningful friendships. I hadn’t been invited to join a schoolmate at temple, let alone attend a bar or bat mitzvah. It seemed every weekend someone was having a huge party, becoming a man or a woman, getting tons of money and presents. The kids would all come into school with personalized T-shirts announcing the mitzvahs they had attended. “I Rocked All Night @ Eugene Cohen’s Bar Mitzvah! 9-20-95.” “Betsy Orenstein Became a Woman and All I Got Was This Bat Mitzvah T-Shirt!” I felt like a loser in my sun-bleached Quicksilver threads. When I turned thirteen, no one noticed. No one wished me a happy birthday, not even my teachers. I brought some of my mom’s homemade cupcakes into class, but nobody ate them, not even the fat-ass kids.
When I told some classmates that I couldn’t go to Six Flags (they call it Great America out there, not Great Adventure like they do in Jersey) with them because my mom said she couldn’t afford it, the last rich nail was driven into my East Coast coffin.
Option 2 had failed me. I had tried to squeeze myself into their uniform, but it didn’t fit. I was now a boy without a tribe.
One Saturday that winter, I was perusing CDs at Best Buy. I bought an album by Less Than Jake, a punk-ska band from Florida that I had followed for a year or two. Losing Streak was filled with a dozen or so poppy, punchy songs, one of which started off with a recording of what sounded like a 50s-style barbershop quartet. It went like this:
I’m from New Jersey and I’m proud about it.
I love the Garden State.
I’m from New Jersey and I brag about it.
I think it’s simply great.
All of the other states throughout the nation
may mean a lot to some,
but I’ll pick to New Jersey
for New Jersey is like no other,
I’m glad that’s where I’m from.
I remember listening to that intro a dozen times as I walked along Deerfield Road, noticing how there were no empty beer cans or McDonald’s wrappers littering the side of the street. I hit the skip back button on my Discman to hear it again and again from the beginning of the track. Finally, I listened to the song all the way through.
Of course, when Less Than Jake kicked in after these proud New Jersey brothers of mine finished their little ditty, the tone shifted drastically. The song, after all, is titled “Never Going Back to New Jersey.”
Well, I thought, I sure as hell am.
ISAAC JAMES BAKER was born in Belmar, New Jersey, in 1983. He grew up surfing and causing trouble on the Jersey Shore long before words like “Snookie” and “The Situation” further diminished the Shore’s already terrible reputation. He writes poetry, short stories, and novels, and is working on his master’s degree in fiction writing from Johns Hopkins University. His novel, Broken Bones, the story of a young man’s struggle in a psychiatric ward for anorexics, is forthcoming from The Historical Pages Company. He lives in Washington, D.C.