Lilacs, Kiełbasa, and Why New Jersey Deserves Better

“Well, I give up. What’s the catch?”

“Oh, no catch. Although we are technically in New Jersey.”

The way American television talks about New Jersey, one would think the apocalypse already happened, but only there. The air is semisolid industrial waste and the beaches are made of finely ground syringes. The people are ruder than the rudest New York stereotype, bizarrely puffed-up Italian-American caricatures, elitist Princeton heirs, and immigrants from all over Asia and Latin America, somehow all at once, with only racism letting anyone have something other than the most impossibly overwrought “New Jersey accent.” It’s treated as New York’s leavings and the USA’s armpit, in media as obnoxiously cliché as How I Met Your Mother and as original and usually-compassionate as Steven Universe.

None of that is the New Jersey I remember from the eleven years I lived there.

I lived in a low-income neighborhood in one of New Jersey’s bigger cities, in the northern half of the state. My neighbors were all black, except for the other Hispanic folks across the street. My parents hated that neighborhood and considered it unsafe and dirty. I and my siblings were not allowed to visit, or even go near, the park on the next corner. Mom and Dad told me that it was a place where crack dealers and fences for stolen goods spent their time, and they didn’t want me being near that potential violence and even more potential “bad influence.” The police presence there was usually zero and occasionally very high. As immigrants just getting their start, they knew they were priced out of anywhere else, so they slowly made their gutted shell of a home into something beautiful, and something out of place among its neighbors.

I’m intensely suspicious of those memories now, after learning more about the relationship between racism, black-majority neighborhoods, the police, and the ideas people from societies with somewhat different racial dynamics can form about their USian milieu.

But I remember a lot more than that.

I remember the gray dinginess of the Hudson River estuary that we sometimes visited if Dad had business in that region, looking over the water at Staten Island and other oft-maligned parts of New York City.

I remember Canada goose migrations and fields of green feces and pink clover.

I remember school classes that mixed black, white, various Hispanic, and various South, East, and Southeast Asian students, all treating each other as friends, all scaring the daylights out of me in proportion to their loudness and extroversion.

I remember the lilacs. So many lilacs.

A tree with low-hanging branches covered in pink flowers instead of leaves, on a tree-lined street.
Jersey City, New Jersey Not far from where I grew up. These aren’t lilacs.

I remember Mom’s massive rosebush that took over the entire back fence and gave fragrant white flowers for months at a time. I remember, this year, deciding to grow a miniature rose on my windowsill because I missed that beautiful behemoth.

I remember the yew, holly, juniper, and rhododendron plants Mom set up at the other end of the yard, that never amounted to much but delighted me anyway. I remember the berries, splashes of color against the other fence.

I remember the fishing trips to the Rahway River, and the little area next to the waterfall where we found crayfish, Gambusias, Chinese mud snails, and on two memorable occasions, some jerk’s discarded Chinese algae eater and an adult snapping turtle pinned between rocks on the waterfall.

I remember whole corridors of flowers on major highways, next to plaques reminding travelers that they were within, not the Keystone State or the Empire State, but the Garden State.

I remember the cherry tree in my aunt’s backyard, and the effusion of its flowers every year.

I remember a school system that challenged gender roles, made no secret of the horrors of chattel slavery and the indigenous American genocide, and was more prepared than most to deal with my autistic quirks. I remember it being filled with lively imaginations and a deliberate, perhaps even tokenizing effort to celebrate the immigrant and indigenous American heritage of its student body, which did not neglect to name the indigenous territory (Lenapekohing) that once encompassed this state.

I remember the conspicuous and ill-conceived absence of any such celebration of black culture alongside Jewish, Irish, Italian, various Hispanic, and various Asian.

I remember neighborhoods where one could barely see the sky above the canopy of flowering trees, an uproar of purple and pink and green, shading the ground with beauty.

I remember Mom putting slices of kiełbasa wiejska, pronounced “kee-basa” in her warping of the Polish sounds, in spaghetti with marinara sauce, an Italian-Polish-American monstrosity that could have been born nowhere else, a comforting treat I make myself now and then when I need one of the most deeply familiar, deeply emotional tastes I can experience.

I remember packing our tiny house into boxes and moving across the country, the odds and ends left behind, the shock I never really processed of things as basic as the weeds and songbirds no longer being what I remembered.

I remember telling people I was from New Jersey, or having them notice it in the way I used to pronounce “coffee,” and immediately apologizing.

“You’re from New Jersey? I’m sorry.”

I remember being, not angry, not annoyed, just…baffled.

I remember being angry and annoyed.

I remember feeling frustrated, even a little betrayed, when someplace as beautifully kind as Steven Goddamn Universe felt the need to insult the place that gave me such lovely memories in such a boring, ham-fisted, predictable way.

I remember the holly.

I remember the cherry.

I remember the chickadees.

I remember sleepovers at my grandmother’s apartment.

I remember the one tiny piece of my life when I was sure my parents didn’t hate me.

I remember the lilacs. So many lilacs.

Lilacs, Kiełbasa, and Why New Jersey Deserves Better

3 thoughts on “Lilacs, Kiełbasa, and Why New Jersey Deserves Better

  1. AMM

    I lived in Princeton, New Jersey (the town Princeton University is feudal lord of) for 7 years, and now work in an office where at a WAG half of the people live in NJ. Where I lived is right on the line between the flatlands of South Jersey and the endless rows of ridges that are North Jersey. I remember bike rides on country roads and hamlets that are little more than two crossing highways. There’s a reason it’s called the “Garden State.”

    I think the reason New Jersey has such a bad reputation is that it’s next to New York, and New Yorkers look down their noses at anything that isn’t New York (just as Manhattanites regard anything outside of Manhattan as uncivilized jungle.) And most of US media are centered in New York, so just about everything you see on TV is done from the rather provincial NYC point of view. BTW, Long Island doesn’t fare much better, NYCers assume it’s populated entirely by hicks. (Having a town called “Hicksville” doesn’t help.)

  2. 3

    This reminds me just how goddamn much I need to take a cutting of my mom’s lilac bush in Jersey and bring it down to where I am now in Baltimore.

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