Image Credit: George Coletrain
There’s nothing like being young, and leaving some place.
There’s not a lot to love about being from New Jersey. There’s the turnpike rest stop named for Walt Whitman, diners, the Pine Barrens and Jersey Devil. But we have The Boss.
Many of the older artists I love now—Van Morrison, Jackson Browne—I began listening to in earnest in high school. My parents had played their records growing up, but the act of listening to their albums as a young adult felt like both discovering and returning home, as I heard melodies and lyrics from childhood car rides that had been forgotten in favor of indie and punk rock music. But the Boss never needed to be rediscovered. He was always there, the patron saint of every shit town we lived in, in the whole shit state.
Name me another artist who can sing about a place you’re dying to leave with such longing, as if the desire to want to stay could be enough to overlook where you are. That’s New Jersey.
I lived in over a dozen towns throughout my childhood, bouncing along the coastal spine of New Jersey, then inland to Middlesex County. We had lived in small towns that existed in the teeth of larger places, with boardwalks that snarled in the guts of the thousands of tourists who descended each summer, demanding pizza and funnel cake and Top 40 radio blaring across sand that had the audacity to burn their feet. But then we joined ranks with those Benny’s and moved to the suburbs. We stayed there, more or less, through high school, as one parent and then another shifted houses and towns. The public schools anchored my brother, sister and me to Metuchen. I stayed, but it didn’t feel like living.
A shit town doesn’t need to be poor. But it does need to feel transient. The kind of place where the roads are pointing too clearly out. A place where your memories seem copies of someone else’s memories, a town that doesn’t care enough to foster its own soul.
Metuchen, the donut hole inside of Edison. Bisected by NJ Transit, book ended by the Menlo Park Mall and the Dismal Swamp, wrapped by 287 and U.S. Highway 1. It’s a town without much air. In high school, my friends and I hung out on Main Street, sitting on benches in front of closed stores where no one shopped, filled with clothing that had gone out of fashion two generations ago. We bought dollar store candy and energy drinks, and bull shit one another. Or we’d go to the Menlo Park Diner and eat fries drenched in gravy and cheese, attempt to cast fortunes with ketchup on paper placemats. We’d end up in basements, watching old movies, or at house parties where kids would wrestle for cameras as their friends threw matches at them. I’d stare at their burned arms on Mondays, hating them for their stupidity and myself for my jealousy.
I felt unmoored from my classmates, the outsider. I didn’t form friendships easily, certain of my own unlovability. I was sure that any bond I formed could, and would, be broken. I waited to grow old enough to leave Metuchen, but dreaded the movement away from the familiar and easily conquered. I knew there was life out there, but I doubted my ability to survive it. What kind of backbone did I have? I worried I was as much a product of Metuchen as anyone else; I was only pretending to be hard.
I felt both invisible and exposed. It was a life lived in front of mirrors—I hated what I saw of me reflected in my peers, and I hated when I couldn’t find my reflection in their faces. I wanted my grasp to extend beyond what I saw as a safe stasis, but worried that I was too small for such grand visions. It was safer, better to be discontent. To be bored.
Metuchen was boring. It was a shit town that my mother called safe, a shit town with a decent school district and a pond covered in scum we’d stand around in the summer. A shit town only 45 minutes outside of New York City by train, and faster on the express. It was easy to imagine leaving. A town full of losers, and I was ready to burn my way out.
There were doctors who lived there, and lawyers. People who commuted into New York to work in offices, and came back to their lawns. It was solidly upper middle class town. But there was an undercurrent of pills and heroin, and people who slouched in hoodies and took the bus. My senior year was a whittling of students who wouldn’t graduate, who either didn’t have the grades or flipped their cars while driving drunk.
I sat in between: parents who had middle class jobs but never enough money, split between two houses. At night, under my covers and studying my pain, I knew I would leave for college and cities, that I was smart enough to get out and find a new accent. I listened to albums late into the night, and imagined I was the first person to hear that inhalation of breath or that finger sliding on the steel of the guitar string. Music anchored me in my body even as it gave me a glimpse of a way out. When I think of high school, I think of walking through Metuchen at night, my CD player whirring, shuffling through fat and sodden leaves, the trees scraping at the telephone wires, as I stared into other people’s houses, imagining what another life would feel like. I think of the panic attacks I had daily, and how once I made it to college a few hours away, those stopped. I think of my driving my dad’s car, the CD player broken so the same six CDs rotated endlessly. I listened to The River over and over again.
You may drive out of a shit town, but you don’t leave. When a classmate goes on to light his arm on fire pledging a frat, or another drops out of school to become a Budweiser girl in Florida, gets waylaid by drug abuse, crack ups—it’s under your nails, nestled in the quick. Maybe you become the doctor or lawyer your parents planned on, but you still feel a fraud for your bank account, the reasonable number of wine bottles in your recycling bin. Someone knows. You know.
Bruce knew back in 1978 with “Badlands” or 1984 with “My Hometown”. Bruce has you nailed to whatever cemetery where your shit town lodges the bodies of the glorious dead.
Maybe your parents knew too, back in their own shit towns, before they found one another: a suburb of a perpetually dying casino city; a town founded by a great-grandfather whose descendants were all born on the wrong side of the tracks. Bruce knows there’s no transcending a shit town, only exchanging one for another.
This is the splinter of a shit town—you wonder if you ought to want more. After all, this town was good enough for your family. Your beloved mother. Who do you think you are to leave? To want more? Why can’t you be happy with what you have?
But you’re not, and you can’t.
Bruce never said we could escape the past. But he sings about not wanting to be ashamed.
So you leave. And every time someone mocks your shit town, you know you don’t belong. Every time someone teases your accent (isn’t there always the l in “both”, the a in “coffee”?), it’s as if you shouldn’t speak, as if your mother taught you the wrong pronunciations. How do you leave a place and also leave the shame? How can you leave a place and not the people who still live there? What must it be like to come from a place without the outsider’s conceptions, which were built on reality TV and mob movies? How do other people create themselves?
I wish I knew. I’ve moved up and down the East Coast, out West, and back again. I moved abroad and returned to the U.S. I love New Jersey enough to defend it, but not enough to ever want to return.
Bruce’s work is interested in cycles: sons who become their fathers, the manufacturing circle, roads that never lead out, only further in, deeper into whatever town full of losers you started from. I don’t want to say I’m from Pennsylvania or Connecticut, some bland place. And so, I’ve tried to embrace New Jersey, even as I shift further away. But does my history say about my future? What if “not quite” is the best I’ll ever be?
When I go home for holidays, and I stand around with my cousins and uncles and drink cheap beer and talk shit, I know I don’t belong there either. I’ve moved too far. I don’t know what to say most of the time, and wonder if I’m as snobby as I fear they’ve always thought I was. But I can’t help feeling I haven’t moved far enough.
Bruce has made a career out of straddling that middle place. The place in between. The best I can do, when someone tells me they’re sorry that I’ve from New Jersey, is to respond, “you’re welcome for Bruce Springsteen.” I want to write. But what can I say that Bruce hasn’t already said first?
At times, I google my hometown. I check to see which famous people have risen from it. I check in hopes of one day seeing my name. I want to make my shit town proud. I want to put teeth in it that it dug in me. I want to raise it slightly, if only because in being raised there, I found the desire to leave– and the ambition to make it so.
There was a bar we would drive past on the way to my father’s called “Used to Be’s”, so named because it was always shutting down and reopening under new names. I wondered sometimes why anyone bothered. It was clear that no restaurant could withstand the winters without tourists, the competition of other greasy burgers and fries. But Used To Be’s remains, building on the idea of the past, even as that past goes nameless and forgotten.
Brynn Downing served as the 34th Writer-in-Residence at St. Albans School for Boys in Washington, DC, and she continues to teach writing and literature. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and her BA in Global Studies, focusing on Masculinity and Nationalism in Former-Yugoslavia, from the College of William and Mary. She serves as the Managing Editor and Interviews Editor with Four Way Review. Her work has been published in Post Road, The James Franco Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry and Prairie Schooner, among other places. You can find her online at: www.brynndowning.info