With the advent of real-life TV dramas, New Jersey is almost always socially defined by its association with TLC’s Cake Boss and MTV’s Jersey Shore. Absent in the minds of American audience members are the myriad of nominal towns — whether suburban or city or rural — that actually construct the personality of the Garden State. I hail from the all-together diverse, most densely populated (per square foot in all the U.S.) town of Guttenberg, tucked neatly between the popular landmarks of the New York City skyline and the newly built Giants Stadium. Three explicit memories comprise my general assessment of the one-square mile municipality.
In my inexperienced, elementary days, I had the joy to visit family in central, suburban Jersey, where unsullied pavement seemed to cheerfully welcome any and all residents and guests. One particular feature of Old Bridge was its dark, almost ghoulish, nights. Coming from a town of plentiful street lights, in which the mom and pop birds would birth and raise their nestlings, it was difficult for my prepubescent mental capacities to fully understand black streets. How could people see in front of them on night walks? What if a child gets lost? All such questioning only created a deeper appreciation for our urban, city lights back home.
As for my ebullient recreation, my three older brothers quickly instilled in me a love for wiffle ball, teaching me finger placements for every possible pitch, revealing hidden back streets — where a garage’s boxes served as the strike zone and far off roofs served as the home run zone — and encouraging me to fiercely focus on the white plastic ball until the precise moment where a vicious thrust would send it flying. For larger, more professional games, we’d play stick ball, but wiffle ball was always choice one.
Now for ziti. Although one might argue this memory fits better into my Italian family’s personality, its difficult to strip it from my overall memories of Guttenberg. Repeatedly, whether arriving home from arduous hours at school or a friend’s house or from the playground, there would be waiting for me, as if divinely appointment, a steaming, cheesy and perfect bowl of ziti topped with devil-red meat sauce and prairie-green basil. Ziti, as with street lamps and wiffle ball, is inextricably connected to my impressions of Guttenberg.
And so, I suppose for anyone to truly know any town, city or suburb, he or she must play, live and eat there. To simply and indifferently debase New Jersey to the levels of some “real”-life sitcoms is a total indignity. Perhaps others would remember Guttenberg negatively, but they probably never played wiffle ball under a street lamp while munching on ziti.