“The Jersey in Me,” by Alan Cheuse.
A bridge closes and a writer’s gorge rises.
“I’ve learned from painful experience that the heat of Jersey anger never goes out, not when stoked by some unkind word or gesture from stranger or supposed friend. Or a traffic incident.”
Editors’ Note: This essay appeared in Broad Street’s “Bedeviled” issue in spring 2015. Alan, who is at his most eloquently irascible here, died July 31 that year from injuries sustained in a car accident. We offer this piece to his legions of fans, with our deep gratitude for his friendship to the magazine.
The Jersey in Me
I’ve tried to live a civilized life, despite the handicap of having been born and raised in north Jersey — specifically, in Perth Amboy, the town nestled on the little elbow of land that pokes out into the confluence of waters made by the meeting of the Raritan River and the Arthur Kill. But whenever I feel a perceived wrong, as in, say, someone cutting me off in traffic or elbowing his way past me in a line at a sports event or a supermarket, I can feel what I call the Jersey in me rising. And I want to smash them in the nose or kick them to their knees.
That’s how we learned to make our way in that rough-and-tumble part of the country where, in the midst of run-down houses and smoking factory stacks, the proximity of water and the sun-dappled horizons of the nearby Atlantic made the difference between ugliness and beauty.
On the streets we fought intertribal battles, Jews against Catholics, kids from lower State Street (which meant near the sandy beach along the northern shore of the Raritan, off-limits for swimming since the polio epidemic of the Forties but still there for Sunday-morning excursions among the decaying carcasses of the horseshoe crabs and pollution-smitten fish) against kids from north of Smith, the main shopping district street. In the schools the same battles took place now and then, sharpened when we reached high school with black kids cursing us for being Jews and us thinking of them as, in the Yiddish terminology of our parents and grandparents, schvartzes, the pejorative term for black-skinned people.
But the race-baiting and race-hating made up only part of our tribal attitudes. Most of it grew from having to survive on those streets and in the schools playing the Other to those we thought of in the same way. Poor black kids, working-class Hungarians (we called them Hunkies or Mulyaks, a term I’d never heard before growing up in Perth Amboy and have never heard since). All in all, we fought with each other as though we knew without a doubt that the pie of life held only a finite number of slices, and what someone else got we never would partake of.
That certainty made for belligerence in chance encounters and nurtured that sense that I have always thought of as the Jersey in me. Quick to feel insulted, quick to respond, and determined to do it with a force and arrogance that trumped the original act.
As when a sallow-skinned Protestant boy in the high school locker room sneered at me and called me a kike.
My reflex response was to charge him, take him by the neck and slam him against a row of metal lockers. A few of my Jewish friends heard the noise and came running, and before this kid knew it we had shoved him into an empty locker, slid the door shut, and slapped on a spare lock.
We could hear him calling for help and pounding on the metal door as we left the locker room without looking back.
That’s Jersey retaliation, as I’ve come to think it.
Like when a squat Hungarian-American boy charged at me on the street corner for no reason other than he mistakenly thought he could beat me badly. I reached into my pockets and found, of all things, a safety pin, quickly opened it, and stabbed him in the ear.
Or when challenged in a schoolyard. I picked up a baseball bat and swung it at the chunky boy in front of me, hitting him in the belly so hard he first dropped to his knees and then toppled the rest of the way, like a tree at the ultimate swing of a woodsman’s axe.
I don’t mean to sound like I’m bragging. But there’s a little of that in any Jersey guy who’s testifying, no getting around it. After forty years of meditation and a lot of other changes in my life, I can still feel that same red-hot Jersey anger rising in me upon occasion.
I’ve learned from painful experience, in marriages, for example, and in the public world of work and friendship, that the heat of Jersey anger never goes out, not when stoked by some unkind word or gesture from stranger or supposed friend. Or a traffic incident.
Certainly when I see the swagger beneath the feigned humility of an authentic overweight Jersey bully testifying to his own rectitude in a televised news conference in the early days of an unannounced bridge closing and a planned traffic jam orchestrated by said bully.
Jersey words rise up on my gorge, and I shout them at the screen.
Who’s with me?
Alan Cheuse was the author of numerous novels, short story collections, novellas, and essays. He was also well known as a book reviewer in print and on the radio, particularly on NPR, where he made drive time stimulating through his appreciation for all forms of literature in the most mellifluous of voices.
His books included Song of Slaves in the Desert, Paradise, Listening to the Page: Adventures in Reading and Writing, An Authentic Captain Marvel Ring & Other Stories, and the travel book A Trance After Breakfast. In 2015 a revised version of his 1986 novel, The Grandmothers’ Club, appeared under the title Prayers for the Living. He grew up in New Jersey but settled in Washington, D.C., and Santa Cruz, California. A beloved and passionate teacher, he died as the result of a car accident on July 31, 2015, on his way to Santa Cruz after teaching at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.
Read his obituary on NPR’s website here.*****************************************************************
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