articles & essays

“Her Inner Jersey Girl”

By Cathi Hanauer


Also adapted for Living on the Edge of the World: New Jersey Writers Take on the Garden State, edited by Irina Reyn

If it's true you can never go home again, it's got to be equally true you can never really leave. At least, not if you're me and the place you're trying to kiss good-bye is New Jersey. I've been gone for almost 25 years now, and I certainly can't imagine ever moving back, although every time I visit my parents in West Orange (that's 145 on the Parkway) and drive by the old Mitola's, where I spent high school lunch periods snarfing roast beef subs with vinegar, oil, and extra mayo on a mountain of meat atop a football-sized roll, believe me, I'm tempted. And yet, with each year and mile I put between myself and my Jersey childhood—and with all the places I've lived since (London, New York State, New York City, Arizona, Manhattan again, and now western Massachusetts) —lately I find myself admitting, if not actually offering up, that I'm a Jersey Girl.

Go figure. Because for years—and I apologize in advance for this confession—I tried desperately to deny, or at least disguise, my suburban New Jersey roots. To me, this took the form of wearing looser clothes (I could zip them without lying down!), lower shoes (who knew girls could actually bend their knees when they walked?), jeans without large designer labels displayed prominently on my butt. I cut my "big" hair into a bob (I looked all wrong, like Deborah Winger in Betrayed), listened to girl bands from down south, ate thick-crust pizza you couldn't fold down the middle if you tried, and bought a Volvo. (Gag! My high school friends wouldn't dare be seen with me.) And yet, here I am, middle-aged, with a dog named "Rosalita" (yes, after Bruce's Rosalita), my hair long and wild again, and a feeling of dismay when my children, Manhattan-born and Massachusetts-raised, pronounce water as "wah-ter" or coffee "cah-fee." I want to yell, "It's WOR-ter! It's CAW-fee! What are you, from Chi-CAW-go?!"

Both of my novels—written ten years apart—are set in the Jersey suburbs: the first, My Sister's Bones, in West Berry, loosely based on West Orange; the new one, Sweet Ruin, in an unnamed Jersey commuter hub that's a cross between Maplewood, Montclair, and the New England college town where I live now. It's not that I haven't tried other fictional settings—midtown Manhattan, Tucson's desert—but they just didn't have the character of New Jersey… or characters, I should say. There isn't a "type" I've observed from any of these places (no, not even New York) who's as distinctive, lively, and frankly just plain funny as the people I remember from Jersey and the fictional characters they've spawned for me. "Cindi and Joey," for example. She's a sun-worshipping single mother who says things like "I was hysterical crying" and calls everyone by a 3- or 4-syllable name (Cynthia, Zachariah) even if they don't actually have one; he's a newly Buddhist personal trainer who favors wrestling singlets, bumper stickers, and woven ankle bracelets. Let me tell you, I had more fun writing scenes with Cindi and Joey than just about anything else in that book. In Bones, there was the narrator's boyfriend, a wrestler named Vinnie DiNardio who was as wide as he was tall and said things like "don't get all hypodermic about it" but was a real peach; and the narrator's best friend, teenaged Tiffany Zefferelli, tough-talking daughter of a New Jersey bookie.

Tiffany was, surprise surprise, based on my real-life Jersey childhood best friend, who, along with her family—I'll call them the Pizarros—epitomized, and still does to some extent, New Jersey for me. No matter that they were fresh from Staten Island when we met and would move on, a decade later, to Texas. And no matter that not all of New Jersey was like this (Basking Ridge, the woodsy WASP-ville where my sister lives now, and Princeton, home of, well, Princeton, are two places that jump to mind that are not)—and maybe none of it is anymore. West Orange, for one, is now a mecca of diversity, a place where transplanted young white highly educated Brooklyn families— commuting fathers, stay-at-home or part-time working mothers—share blocks and schools with first- and second-generation Haitian, Dominican, Asian, India, and Latina families, to name a few. But my New Jersey was and is the Pizarros, and to me, they were the ultimate Jersey girls: four Farrah-haired starlets and their young, zaftig, peroxide-blond mother, a martini-sipping, Winston-smoking, loud-laughing, late-sleeping Sicilian Italian who, when not in a long t-shirt or babydoll nightgown, dressed in spike heels, tight jeans, short white rabbit fur coats, and hot rollers (the jumbo set of which was permanently plugged in at their house). She was everything my own thin, proper, turtleneck-wearing, balanced meal providing, PTA-leading, Halloween-costume-sewing, sweetly firm elementary school teacher of a mother was not. My mother, whose idea of a swear was "Jeepers!" and who simply would not ever, for any reason, utter the words "Bah fongool." Which, of course, only made the Pizarros all the more exciting for me.

My main memory of "Tiffany's" two older sisters—I'll call them Tina and Gina—is them leaning, in tandem, in their amply filled bras and (yup) hot rollers, out the windows of their turret-like second floor hallway (their house was pink stucco, I kid you not, like a fairytale castle with an Italian Jersey touch) to tell me "Tiffy" was still asleep, but I was welcome to come wake her up. (No easy task; first, I had to get Tina or Gina to come down and unlock the door, and then—well, let's just say I was in awe of Tiffany's teen-like ability to sleep away the day, when I could rarely sleep past 8:15 a.m. and even when I could, my father, a work-loving physician, woke me up.) Mr. Pizarro, for his part, was a big, overwhelmed, teddybear of a guy who somehow put food on the table, Ludwig drumsets under the Christmas tree, and steering wheels, attached to little white cars, into his daughters' hands—all the better for them to cruise around in while not attending school, Aretha Franklin and Donna Summer blaring from the speakers.

And so what if once in a while their phone or cable service got shut off because they "forgot" to pay the bills? They all still had fun—and this is what I took from them, something that's still with me. Mr. P alternately paced the place wringing his hands at the latest predicament his daughters, dog, or wife had gotten into (the time Tiff and I exploded purple spray paint all over the kitchen, say, or when Benny, their poodle, ate a box of crayons and pooped little rainbows all over the yard), and sat at the table, napkin tucked in his collar, gushing, "Honey! These meatballs, honey! Honey, you've outdone yourself!" (It was true, too. Mrs. P's meatballs, the size of Pro-Penns, melted like butter as they passed through your lips.) Mrs. Pizarro was many years younger than her husband, and as young-at-heart as her teenage daughters were in actual age. Rumor was, when she and Mr. P first met, she lied to him about her age by, oh, six years or so, and by the time he found out she was 16 and not 22 to his 28, give or take, he was already hen-pecked by her enormous blue eyes, girlish laugh, and wish for him to take her away and make a proper woman of her.

And he did. He gave her the ring, and then the house in the Jersey suburbs, and she filled it with their girls. And if they weren't quite the sons he'd maybe hoped for, well, boys came along soon enough. When the Pizarro girls weren't sleeping, applying makeup, dieting, breaking their diets, dancing to the latest WBLS disco hit, or doing their hair, they were on the couch watching the soaps with their boyfriends or down in the basement, where there was always a pool game in play. These games featured guys with names like Carlos and Rickie, twentysomething men with hair slicked back and Betty Boop tattoos on their biceps that danced as they aimed their cue sticks, cigarettes glued to their bottom lips. Around the table would be stashes of Mr. or Mrs. P's latest hobby or business endeavor: the Shakley diet powder she sold for a while, various products from the superette he owned down on Main Street for a year or two. (The Pizarro girls all worked the deli and registers and never seemed to actually ever charge anyone—'G'head, take the sandwich, pay next time,' they'd say, wagging their hand—until Mr. P finally sold the place and moved on to other things.).

Once, there were boxes and boxes of shoes Mr. P had brought home from somewhere: sparkley silver and black pumps, skinny-heeled maroon sandals, gold and purple "platforms." They were rich! Or, okay, they would be, as soon as he got the business off the ground. And for weeks, teenage girls, friends of Tina and Gina, streamed in and out of the house, hair cemented to great heights as they teetered around the basement trying on shoes, telling each other how "absolutely GAW-geous" they looked, how "ohmigod, so sharp." In the end, half the shoes disappeared into the Pizarros' own closets or corners of the basement or yard—some chewed to shreds by Benny, others used as hammers by Tiffany and me as we worked on our "clubhouse" (the crawl space under the kitchen), still others simply kicked off during someone's Tab or cigarette break and never retrieved. And then there was the time we all had to hide in the basement, crouched down quiet as mice, while two men in dark suits rang the doorbell again and again, finally giving up and swaggering back to their cars—white El Dorado's, black Lincoln Continentals, windows as tinted as the yet-to-be-invented Ray Bans—and we all stood back up, straightened our skin-tight clothes, and breathed a sigh of relief. I never did know for sure what Mr. P did when he wasn't at home, but whatever it was, I'd be surprised if he didn't know some of the early Sopranoes—the ones who no doubt inspired the decades-later show.

I could write a whole trilogy about the Pizarros, and maybe someday I will. After all, "Tiffany" is the one who pulled me into the New Jersey I would come to know, love and leave, yet never quite truly depart. ("You can take a girl out of Jersey," says one of the characters is Sweet Ruin, and you know the rest.) She pulled me away from Ann S.—my quiet, studious first best friend who wanted to become a vet someday and actually did— and into the world of Tonys and Frankies, of Donnas and Angelas and Marias, of thick necks with thick chains with Italian horns dangling from them, of thick black hair gleaming in headlights as drivers leaned out their car windows to yell, "'Ey! 'Sup! You goin' to Anthony's party tonight, or what?" Tiffany pulled me into the world of tiny tough girls with big shoes and the boys who loved them, of tight huckapoo shirts unbuttoned too low and then pinned strategically at the point to reveal the most boob with the least bra. (So what if the pin showed? We cared not.) And I fit right in, at least on the surface. She and I played a mean game of touch football—with her "quartering" and me at tight end, we were known to crush boys twice our size—but we knew, too, how to sweet-talk macho Coach Miller (Coach, we have craaamps! We caaan't do gym class today!") and we knew when it was time to quit marching band—we both played trumpet—to don tiny red skirts and fluffy pom-poms and cheer on our boyfriends' football team.

With Tiffany, I ventured "down the shore"— Belmar, Tom's River, Seaside Heights—and joined the line of West Orange teenagers piling into Evy and Ivan's tiny beach house. Evy and Ivan were our friend Arlene's parents—Arlene was the baby of their collective kids from several marriages—and they welcomed anyone who knew her to stop by and stay for awhile. We slept wherever we found a spot, emerging in the morning to troll the boardwalk in bikinis, baby oil, and Candies "Come Fuck Me"shoes for the girls, "guinea T-s" for the guys (hair already blown back Danny Zucco-style), stopping first for warm donuts from the bakery where Arlene worked, and, later, for cheesesteaks and meatball sandwiches on the boardwalk. With Tiffany as my coveted sidekick—she was cool, she was Italian, everyone loved her—I took it all in, so that later, I know now—when she and her family were gone, leaving nothing behind but their house—I could immortalize it all in a book about a shy Jewish girl with a best friend from a warm, wacky Italian family that disappears.



It's the people who make a place, of course, and then, in return, the place comes to form the people. Not that parts of New Jersey aren't like this too, but where I live now is rife with natural beauty: fiery sugar maples in fall, sparkling lakes and rivers in summer, families of black bears, mothers and their cubs, trekking across my front lawn in spring. (Way too much snow in winter, but what can you do.) Except for my town itself—a lively, left-leaning college hub full of lesbians, writers, professors, shrinks, holistic healers, street people, and musicians—western New England seems mostly made of subtle, good country folk, the sort who grow their own fruit for jam and don't throw popcorn in your hair at the movies, the sort among whom it's a pleasure to own a house, raise your children, share a school and a town center with. I like living here at the moment: I like how it tones me down just a bit, I like the people it's making my kids into. But periodically I run into someone from New Jersey—there are more of us up here, I think, than most New Englanders would like to admit—and when I do, there's an instant connection, a banter we immediately seem to fall into. "You're from Jersey too? Get out! Bloomfield? No way! Did you know Paulie Castellano? Dominick Perroni? Trez Di Martino? You're kiddin' me!" I can feel myself let down my guard at those times, feel that age-old Jersey girl part of me surface and stretch, thrilled to be freed from its cage.

Those times, and—go figure again—when I sit down to write. Because what comes out is not the maples and gleaming icicles of New England, not the eerily beautiful Arizona desert with its stately saguaros and armored reptiles that dart among them, and only sometimes the urban jungle of Manhattan, with its intensity of smells, tastes, and sounds, its swarming, scurrying, stunning human mass. But New Jersey, my New Jersey, the New Jersey suburbs…well, there it is, on the page. The pizza places and malls, the gas stations and manicured country clubs, featuring tiny tan women and buff, olive-skinned lifeguards killing time between morning and evening workouts; the traffic and highways and toll plazas, change flung from car windows into those wide scratched-up white plastic bins. And the air conditioned homes in which people like the Pizarros laugh and cook "macaronis" and "pasta vazool" and shoot pool and try on shoes and curl their eyelashes and drink amaretto and "martoonis." It's a setting I love to relive, a setting that speaks to and inspires me. Why else would I write about it again and again? It's my way of staying close, of never really leaving. No matter how long I've been gone or how far gone I am.

Cathi Hanauer