Why would you want to go to New Jersey?
I’m reading Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler and there’s this bit where a character says:
“Yes, it’s a cool place…cool is always past tense. The people who lived it, who set the standards they emulate, there was no cool for them. There was just the present tense: there were bills, friendships…a million trite decisions on how to pass the time. Self-awareness destroys it. You call something cool and you brand it. Then—poof—it’s gone. It’s just nostalgia.”*
Nostalgia. That’s what South Jersey had going for me. My memories, my dad’s memories, and my grandmother’s memories.
My aunt’s too but she’d rather stick around in Orlando. As she drives me to the airport, I rattle off what sounds like the hipster mantra.
“It’s cool because nobody ever goes there. It’s, like, forgotten.”
I am that arrogant millennial who takes Instagram photos of abandoned buildings and totally disregards the, like, you know, poverty.
But revisiting Pennsville, New Jersey, at the hipbone of Delaware and Pennsylvania, made me realize something: this place is only forgotten by those who have moved on to more urban settings (guilty wave). For farmers, veterans, hunters, and, randomly, kayakers, South Jersey is alive and thriving.
Take Day 1 for example. Mom, Dad, my brother Chris, and I go shopping at the one…the only…Cowtown!
Fronted by a delightfully horrific cowboy—akin to the starey-eyed Peter Pan at the Peter Pan Put-Put in Austin, Texas (just a comparison)—Cowtown is a red-barn market. Our feet sog against the rain-soaked gravel as we patter past stalls selling one-dollar nail polish, leggings, and flat-brimmed caps.
Inside the main building, the damp air is stuffed with the smell of hot dogs and Dutch pretzels. I pass kiosks selling machetes, bouquets of dollar bills, and dusty gummi worms. One table has bleachers of glass bottles with handwritten labels on them. Juicy Couture. Marc Jacobs. Alien. All for ten dollars a bottle. Hip-hop and kung fu music blare through the aisles.
Back in the day, my grandma once spoke aloud about how she wanted to listen to music while she strolled through the carnival by the Delaware River. My grandpa then rummaged through Cowtown and found a speaker that was about a foot wide and a foot thick. My grandma carried that thing everywhere she went.
Nighttime. I lug my sleep-deprived body to Dad’s unofficial high school reunion. ‘Unofficial’ meaning it was organized by alum—aka my dad’s best friend since they brawled on someone’s lawn at eight years old—and ten of the roughly one hundred attendees who went to this high school.
It’s at the VFW. Which means when you order gin, they pour you half a cup and charge you two dollars. There’s burgers, chili, and chips. Two drinks in and Chris passes me a bag of chips to kick me out of my sleepiness. Under the tent, a band plays what my dad’s tatted-up friend calls “some redneck shit.”
But I know what’s going to happen. That redneck shit is going to turn into ZZ Top. One second of hearing that boogie guitar intro and I’m back to being sixteen. My first concert. I’m at Ribfest in Naperville, Illinois to see the furry guitars, long beards, and cigar puffs.
But even before the band plays “LaGrange,” they play “Sweet Home Alabama.” My family and I rush to the dance floor, drinks sloshing down our forearms as we two-step.
Let me just say, three years of clubbing at college was fun. Shuffling with my family to a live rendition of “Walk This Way” takes ‘fun’ to a whole new level.
Who needs a Nashville house party? Just throw me in a VFW in rural South Jersey with my favorite people in the world and I’m good. No alcohol needed.
Day 2, I already know will involve three things: Italian subs, milkshakes, and wine (arguably my three favorite things to consume).
On our way to my grandparents’ house, the fam and I stop at The Italian Kitchen. We always go here. Dad and Chris get their Philly Cheesesteak fix. I lust over their individually-wrapped slices of cake and internally clap with delight when Dad gets the coconut one.
There’s a machine where you press a button and it pours you a cappuccino. This stumps me.
“Why? Isn’t a cappuccino just milk and espresso?” Chris says.
I stare at him in disbelief.
I get to see my aunt at my grandparents’ house. We wolf down our sandwiches—Italian sub for me—and pick at the coconut cake.
After some catching up, we go for a ride and get peanut butter milkshakes from the historic custard stand. My aunt gets ice cream with sprinkles. Or, in Jersey slang: jimmies.
Cool? Yeah. Then and now. For me and the Jersey folk.