While living in New York City, we couldn’t help but notice it across the Hudson River. All the way down the side of the Big Apple, it reflected back at us like a twisted mirror, and it wasn’t a pretty sight.
I could imagine privileged children long ago, innocently asking their fathers while staring across the water, “Daddy, what is there on the other side of the river?” and their fathers would reply cautiously, “There’s nothing there, son. That’s New Jersey, and you must never go there.”
We only saw a portion of New Jersey and this recollection of my handful of journeys across to the rough side of the river may not give it a fair representation. Nonetheless, feel free to read on out of curiosity as I explain how despite showing a rather ugly face in public, the state actually does have some hidden treasures.
Each day we’d see New Jersey staring back at us over the Hudson at us like New York City’s bitter outcast little brother. We had all the glamour and class on our side of the river, and New Jersey had been left in the shadows. From Manhattan, it didn’t look like there was much over there. New Yorkers had told us that ‘Jersey drivers’ were bad drivers and television had shown us Jersey Shore and the dirty casinos and boardwalks of Atlantic City. I’ll admit right now that we never travelled down to see those sights, but we did end up doing quite a few trips into Jersey. From simply driving across the state or picking someone up at Newark Airport, to a Taylor Swift concert or going fruit-picking at an orchard, we slowly got used to what the state had to offer.
It all started because New Jersey was in the way of our travels further inland. From Manhattan, the George Washington Bridge, the Lincoln Tunnel and the Holland Tunnel all go straight across the river to New Jersey and it was the quickest way to get to states like Washington DC or Pennsylvania. For our first trips we cautiously made our way over the George Washington Bridge and stuck to the highways that cut straight through the state and out the other side. Quite often, this would take us along the long and straight New Jersey Turnpike – a major highway that goes on forever and offers views of industrial factories and wasteland – all of which the state seems to have a lot of. Then we started taking slightly less major routes, and we saw some of the suburbs. They seemed quiet and a bit rundown, but apparently the prestigious Princeton University was nearby, although we just wanted to keep going.
At this point most of what we had seen of New Jersey was from the highways without really stopping, but then we did stop. Okay, so we stopped because we hit gridlock traffic going back into New York City but it still gave us a chance to see a bit more. We saw old parts of Newark and Jersey City that again looked rundown and reminded us a bit of Harlem in NYC, and we saw more of the same when making a trek out to Newark Airport. There were lots of homeless people wandering about and it all seemed a little rugged and dangerous at night. We were glad to get away from there.
After a while, we started making more daytrips across the Hudson, to pick up dry-cleaning or visit certain stores. We began to notice that there was definitely a benefit to visiting the poor man’s Big Apple over the river, and that was because it was so close yet didn’t have the insane prices of New York City. That’s also about the time we noticed the gas prices. With tax changing from state to state, New Jersey has some of the lowest gas prices in the country, while New York has some of the highest. It was pretty much worth travelling over the Hudson just to fill your car up with gas.
By now we had seen enough to be rather intrigued by New Jersey, so when we were looking for things to do, we kept it in mind. That’s when we discovered what we thought would be the perfect way to get a taste of this state in one visit – the 25th State Fair Meadowlands was coming up, and their slogan was “We put the JOY in JOISEY”. We decided to take our friends’ 4-year-old twin boys along for the experience and drove out to the Meadowlands Sports Complex where the fair was being held. Unfortunately, it turned out that the real New Jersey State Fair is a horse and farm show in Sussex, and it that’s where you’ll see New Jersey’s good side, but we had missed out on that one and arrived in Meadowlands and decided to make the most of it.
As soon as we had our tickets and entered the gates we realised it was much of what we had already seen of the state – the cheap, rundown parts, at least. All the rides and funhouses were old and on wheeled trailers so that they could move about the country and set up quickly. It was even set up in the carpark of the stadium, rather than any real venue itself. I’ll admit that the food stands were good, being cheap fatty American food, but the sideshow games seemed like they were run by dodgy carnival folk. Overall this State Fair resembled a cheap travelling carnival (although this one came with a chairlift to get lazy people from one side of the fair to the other without walking).
However, there were a few interesting things to explore. Firstly, we stumbled across a shack with a sign that read FREAK SHOW. We walked on only to find more of these sorts of stands, with words like ‘mutants’ and ‘weird’ written all over them. After a while, curiosity got the better of me like a guilty pleasure, and I paid the 50 cents to the dodgy guy at the front and walked in to see ‘the smallest woman alive’. The shack was really small so before I walked in I didn’t understand where she could be, but then I realised she was sitting on the other side of a wooden board right behind the guy who takes your money. I had my camera ready but I immediately realised I had made a mistake as I came around the corner. I put my camera away as I laid my sights upon an old, dark skinned midget lady maybe around 30 inches tall, sitting in a chair holding a photo album. “Hello,” she said, and caught off guard, I replied, “Hi”. After a moment’s awkward silence that felt like an eternity, she held up her photos. “This is my granddaughter. She is studying the computers at college.” I nodded and responded enthusiastically while she pointed out photos of her extended family. The signs had referred to her as ‘Tiny Tina’ but her real name was Gloria, and she was a 67 year old grandma from Jamaica. As soon as someone else came around and she greeted them, I got out of there.
That wasn’t a freak show – that was merely a poor little lady with a birth defect being forced to stare at a wall while she waits for people to come and take photos of her. I felt really bad, but didn’t know what I had expected. I made a decision that if I paid 50 cents for any more freak shows, they would be to see weird unidentified animals, and not living people. I soon came across one of these, promising the legendary chupacabra beast, two headed things and weird alien-like fish washed up on foreign shores. Once again, I was disappointed as all the stuff I found inside was underwhelming. The ‘chupacabra’ looked like a shrivelled chihuahua dog that had been preserved, and the two headed snakes and lambs with extra legs just looked like poorly made movie props. In fact, everything inside looked like a poorly made movie prop. I was done with these freak shows.
We then came across a small petting zoo which also had a few more exotic animals locked up in cages. There were colourful parrots, lemurs, monkeys, and even a kangaroo, all looking awfully depressed lying down in their tiny cages under the big canvas canopy. They even had a real elephant and a camel giving rides to paying customers just outside, where they walk around in circles a few times. The camel looked really depressed, and it didn’t seem to be because no one was choosing to ride him over the elephant, because the elephant looked depressed, too. It was all very sad and I could imagine animal welfare organisations getting quite heated if they saw it.
One show that involved animals that was actually quite good was the Alligator Show, which was put on by two guys from Florida. These guys handled the gators really well and made the show really informative when it came to what to do when you come across a gator, and even conservation of their habitats. Of course, being a gator show, they also did cool tricks like putting a hand inside the open jaws of a gator, or holding its mouth shut with his chin. You could also line up at the end to get your photo taken with a baby gator, if you paid for it, which we did not.
After the Alligator Show, it was time to visit the big circus tent, and what we found in there was really quite terrifying. It wasn’t because of the sheer madness of their stunts, but instead because the tightrope act included a woman who was obviously scared to death. She was shaking with fear and concentration, sweating while she walked high above our heads. The entire crowd saw it, too, and it was hard to watch. After a while, we just left to see other things.
Next, we passed the potbellied pig racing which was quite entertaining. A lot of the fat pigs stopped midway to chew something up on the ground, and the race actually took quite a while to finish. Either way the race seemed to be a big hit with both adults and kids so we hung around to watch a couple of the races ourselves.
I had noticed a helicopter flying overhead all day, and soon I discovered why. As the helicopter landed nearby I saw the famous symbol on the side and read the sign next to it. It was the original Batman Batcopter from the original TV series, and you could go for a ride in it for only $30. I’ve never flown in a helicopter before and thought it was be just perfect for my first ride to be in one that belonged to Batman. However, it was the end of the day and we didn’t have the time or the money to do such a thing. I’ve regretted it ever since.
On the way out, we walked past a busy stage where some trashy looking teenage girls were dancing and singing along to some pop song. They looked just like the girls from Jersey Shore with their big fake hair and spray tans, and I couldn’t understand why New Jersey would put this act on and represent itself in this way. Puzzled, we walked back to the car to head home.
Our next adventure into New Jersey would be for a Taylor Swift concert in at the Prudential Center in Newark. Jessie’s sister was visiting us, and while I think Taylor Swift is a very decent singer and songwriter, they were crazy about her, so when we couldn’t get tickets to her Madison Square Garden show, we looked just over the river and got cheaper tickets for her New Jersey show.
We caught the busy PATH subway train which connects New York City to New Jersey, and found our seats in the giant sports stadium right up the top at the back (we had bought our tickets at the last minute). The concert was actually really good, with so many special effects and set changes it was like watching a theatre production, and Taylor Swift has a great stage presence, too – although it can’t be that hard when you have thousands and thousands of people filling a huge indoor stadium screaming your name and holding up glowing signs for you. Despite taking forever to get back on the trains crowded with TS fans all dressed in glitter and hearts, it was a really good night out in New Jersey.
Our last major daytrip to New Jersey was when we went to Alstede Farms in Chester, NJ to take our friends’ kids to pick fruit from the orchards there. We had been looking for something to do with the kids for a while that would get us out in the summer sun, and this seemed perfect, and as we drove out there, we began to see another side of the state. There were open fields of grass and hilly farms – nothing like the rundown suburbs we had seen before. When we got to the farm, it was a perfectly sunny day and we wandered about picking apples, strawberries and raspberries in this perfect natural setting. We bought some great organic icecream which we ate at a picnic table then fed the goats and donkeys some of our harvest. We had a great day in Jersey, and it seemed that the state had a few secrets we didn’t know about.
As we drove back through the grittier parts of the state before getting back over to New York City, we got caught in traffic and came across more of the familiar homeless people wandering about between cars asking for change. We drove past a huge electronic billboard that displayed a photo and details of a criminal wanted by the FBI. Everything once again looked old and worn out, like the New Jersey we had experienced before.
Our final views of New Jersey were as we drove upwards, either a shortcut to Upstate New York or to get to northern Pennsylvania, and that’s where we saw the state’s good side again. Up north where the New York state border spills over the Hudson to meet New Jersey, you find pristine woods with wild deer walking about. On the other side, where New Jersey meets northern Pennsylvania, you find scenic roads that travel through the mountains, where you might even come across black bears (not so beautiful, as we saw a couple of dead ones on the highway). There were truly great parts of the state out there, but you just had to find them.
So why does New Jersey put forth such an ugly face? It’s nickname is the Garden State, but it seems it should be the Secret Garden State, when it offers images like those from Jersey Shore, or their sad, rundown carpark carnival, all making the state seem like an old worn out joke. Why keep showing this side of your state when you obviously have so many better things to offer, and you hide an Ivy League university in rundown suburbs? That’s when it started to make sense. Maybe the good parts are hard to find because they want them to be hard to find. Maybe their ugly public face is just a façade to cover up the real New Jersey that the locals are secretly keeping to themselves. They have cheaper gas, scenic organic farms and produce, and cheaper Taylor Swift tickets, and they don’t want everyone to come along and crash their party. That would be why the first things you typically see of New Jersey are rough and unattractive, when the state is actually full of hidden gems. That’s why when you peer over the Hudson River from Manhattan you probably don’t want to go to New Jersey. That’s why they keep making episodes of Jersey Shore.
Jessie and I made many trips into and through New Jersey while we lived in New York City from February to December, 2011.
We went to the State Fair Meadowlands (not to be confused with the New Jersey State Fair which is a horse and farm show in Sussex) on Saturday, July 9th, 2011, and we saw Taylor Swift live in concert at the Prudential Center in Newark on Sunday, July 24th, 2011. We also spent a day picking fruit and feeding animals at Alstede Farms in Chester, New Jersey on August 30th, 2011.