Finally Getting Into a Jersey State of Mind

For the globe-trotting daughter of a New Yorker, appreciating the Garden State's charms took some time.

Illustration: Daniel Diosdado

In the movie Desperately Seeking Susan, the title character, played by Madonna at the height of her black leather-and-lace-wearing fame, is asked where she has been. She’s been gone so long that people thought she was dead. “No,” Susan responds. “Just in New Jersey.” That line has stuck with me my entire life—and so has a sense of shame. 

I was born and raised in New Jersey, but my mother, a transplant from Brooklyn before Brooklyn was cool, would not admit in conversation to our New Jersey address. When asked where she lived, she would say, “Englewood, outside of the city,” as if somehow that wasn’t New Jersey. I never saw the waterfalls in Paterson. I went to the Bronx Zoo. We went to the beach on Long Island, taking day trips to Jones Beach and vacations in Montauk. Honestly, I did not know the Jersey Shore even existed. 

Sad to say, when I received a scholarship to attend Rutgers, I did not give it a moment of consideration. I was not going to live in New Jersey for another day. After college in Pennsylvania, I hightailed it to San Francisco. I knew no one there at the time. I had no friends and no place to live, but the city represented an idea of the literary life I wanted to lead. I got a job in a bookstore. 

Life, as I am sure everybody over 30 knows, takes you places you don’t expect, like San Francisco, where I lived for five years; like Kenya and Tanzania, where I traveled with a friend just because she invited me; like Hattiesburg, Mississippi, a town famous for its golf courses and hospitals, where I went to graduate school for a degree in creative writing because I got my second offer of free tuition. I did not pass it up, but I was not destined to live in Mississippi. 

My roundabout journey took me to Astoria, Queens, then Germany with my then husband, and now—can you guess?—back to Jersey. 

And not by default. New Jersey is a proud choice I made. This is the state where I chose to raise my daughter as a single mother. Where I send my daughter to public school, where I vote for candidates who represent my values. We go to Asbury Park for a fun beach day, with coffee at Asbury Park Roastery, popsicles at Betty’s, and Korean tacos on the boardwalk at Mogo’s. When we want a quiet beach day, we go to Spring Lake. 

I live in Montclair, a town where I can get my hipster literary kicks at Watchung Booksellers readings and the Montclair Literary Festival. Sometimes, I run into the book editor of the New York Times at my favorite café. It’s called Local, which I suppose is what I am.

My daughter is proud of her New Jersey roots. I ask her, sometimes, if she would rather live in New Jersey or New York, where her cousins live. Her answer is always, unflappably, New Jersey. I wonder where she will go to college.  

Marcy Dermansky is a best-selling novelist who lives in Montclair with her daughter and two cats. Her novel, Hurricane Girl, is out in paperback. 

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