I admit it. I'm from New Jersey. I have logged nearly four times as many years living out of the state as in it -- my family moved there when I was 8 and I Ieft promptly at 18 -- but because it's where I went to high school and got my first driver's license and learned the proper pronunciation of "shore" ("shoo-wa"; because why have one vowel sound when you can have more?), I guess I'm more Jersey girl than not.
So my ears pricked when I learned of last week's corruption sweep in the Garden State: 44 people arrested on charges ranging from money-laundering to human organ trafficking. The details include mayors, state assemblymen and rabbis taking bribes from a real estate developer.
There's also something about nearly $100,000 cash being stuffed in a cereal box. Any HBO fan who's ever wished the salty operatics of "The Sopranos" could be merged with the labyrinthine scope of "The Wire" need only type "NJ and Apple Jacks" into Google News.
Dirty politics is nothing new in New Jersey. Ever since the days of the legendarily crooked Frank Hague, who served as the mayor of Jersey City for 30 years, until 1947, bribe-taking and backroom dealing have come to be seen as more or less quotidian. So what is it about this little state, nestled like a vestigial organ between the more vital sovereignties of Pennsylvania and New York, that's so conducive to big trouble?
Theories abound. There's the deep entrenchment of party machines, the idea (dubious as it seems) that crooks can more easily fly under the radar because of high population density (New Jersey is the third-smallest U.S. state but the 11th-most populated; there's less elbow room in New Jersey than any other state in the union) and, of course, the legacy of Hague, who was declaring himself "Boss" long before Bruce Springsteen assumed that mantle.
There's also the sad fact that New Jersey -- and, by extension, its diphthong-averse citizens -- has always suffered a rather intractable inferiority complex. Seen by most Americans as either the apotheosis of mall-ified, homogenous suburbia (several of its counties are actually considered part of the greater metropolitan areas of New York City and Philadelphia) or the ultimate industrial wasteland (the view out of Newark airport does N.J. few favors), New Jersey's identity has long been rooted in punch-lines, most notably that toasty old chestnut: "You're from Jersey? Which exit?"
In fact, such quips are so commonplace that I'm reminded of another region whose (mostly) undeserved bad rap is due in no small part to ever-present, well-worn assumptions about bad air and sprawling, blighted crapitude: greater Los Angeles. In certain respects, our fair region could qualify as New Jersey West -- and not just because we constantly fight the head wind of hackneyed digs -- the "La La Land, life's a beach" cliches and Woody Allen's line about how our "only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn on a red light" (you can do that in New Jersey too, by the way). No, it's the whole feel of the place, the crisscrossing freeways and the love of automobiles, the way the region has so little focus, it's more a collection of neighborhoods and municipalities.
And yet it's also the way both places are blessed with a commendable lack of smugness about themselves. Just as New Jersey lives in the shadow of New York and Philly, Southern California is forever contending with the sanctimonious posturing of Northern California. We are perpetually being told our coastline isn't as dramatic and our populace not as literate. San Franciscans refer to their town as The City and do a lot of chest-thumping about how the taxi drivers quote Rilke and the sourdough starter dates back to the Gold Rush.
But Southern Californians, like New Jerseyites, don't bother with such boosterism. Instead, we inhabit a place of secret delights, of hidden backyard gardens and the best restaurants tucked improbably into strip malls. It's a place whose identity is no more limited to beaches and traffic jams than New Jersey's is to landfills and the turnpike.
God knows, they're not interchangeable. Southern California, while not immune to shady political dealings, is not the current mecca of malfeasance that New Jersey is. It also has better road signs, better weather and is, well ... just better than New Jersey (sorry, Bruce).
But even as I cringe at the string of sordid revelations in my home state, I can't help but also smile just a little. As many Jerseyites-turned-Southlanders (and there are a lot of us) know too well, places not known for esoteric high culture, civic splendor or salt-of-the-earth morals have distinct advantages. I'd list them here but I don't want to give them away. We have a reputation to protect.
Meanwhile, have you heard the one about the rabbi, the mayor and the assemblyman who walked into a bar? Yeah, me too.