National New Jersey Day

This week we celebrated National New Jersey Day. Yes, that’s right. There’s an official day to nationally celebrate New Jersey.

There are plenty of reasons to celebrate New Jersey and I thought I would share some interesting facts about our awesome state, which officially became a state in 1776.

New Jersey State Seal
The New Jersey State Seal (source: state.nj.us)

First of all, we are known as “The Garden State” thanks to Abraham Browning. He bestowed the nickname in 1897, the state was full of garden and farmers, and agriculture was the predominant occupation at that time. While many joke it is better known as “The Mall State” now, if you head to the western part of the state, you will still see plenty of farmland.

The state’s seal was created by Pierre Eugene du Simitiere in 1777 and contains five symbols, each of which represents something about New Jersey. The helmet and the horse’s head crest represent New Jersey’s independence as a state. They also represent New Jersey’s status as one of the first states. In 1787 New Jersey was the third state to sign the U.S. Constitution. The woman holding a staff with a liberty cap on top is Liberty, who represents freedom. In ancient Rome, former Roman slaves saw a liberty cap as a badge of freedom. Liberty caps became popular again during the Revolutionary War. The woman on the right is the Roman goddess of grain, Ceres, and holds a cornucopia, filled with the many fruits and vegetables produced in New Jersey. The three plows on the shield symbolize the agricultural tradition of New Jersey. The state’s motto “Liberty and Prosperity” is written on the scroll.

The eastern brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) is native to northeastern North America and being so, was designated in 1992 as the State Fish of New Jersey. Based on results of a genetic-research study conducted in 2008 by NJDFW, it was been determined that wild book trout in New Jersey are descendants of the native species that colonized this area of the northeast following deglaciation about 12,000 years ago. It is an incredibly beautiful fish and my favorite fish of all marine life. It is also known as an “indicator species,” meaning brook trout only survive in the cleanest, most pure water. So if you see a brook trout in the water, known that is some of the cleanest waterway in the state.

The state tree is the Red Oak, a perfect choice for New Jersey because it is just like us. Tough, strong, and durable.

New Jersey is one of the top blueberry producers in the country and blueberries were the top crop in New Jersey for 2020 with a production value of $85 million, according to the USDA. Farmers in the Garden State harvested 46 million pounds of blueberries on 9,300 acres last year.

Farmland on the way to Frenchtown

New Jersey played a pivotal role in our nation’s fight for independence from the British. More than 100 battles took place in New Jersey. In 1776, crossing the Delaware River into Trenton; George Washington fought with, and ultimately defeated the British forces. This was one of the first major victories in the Revolutionary War. Morristown National Historical Park commemorates the sites of General Washington and the Continental army’s winter encampment of December 1779 to June 1780, where they survived through what would be the coldest winter on record. The park also maintains a museum & library collection related to the encampments & George Washington, as well as items relating to pre- and post-Revolutionary America.

We here in New Jersey have plenty to be proud of and love when it comes to our great state. For those who “think” they know us by what they see when they land at Newark Airport or some horrible television show about a bunch of idiots from New York and elsewhere, well, we know better.

Are You Ready for Some Spring Football?

A long time ago in a galaxy not too far away, there was an organization that was all about football. No, not that organization. Another organization called the United States Football League, aka, the USFL.

Growing up I was often asked why I wasn’t a Giants or Jets fan. After all, they played in Jersey and I am a hardcore Jersey Girl. Simple question; simple answer. They may play in New Jersey, but they are known as New York teams. Jersey does all the work and New York (as usual) gets all the credit. When the Giants won the Super Bowl, where was the celebration? In the Canyon of Heroes in NYC.

Nope, not having it. Enter the USFL.

When the teams were announced, New Jersey finally had a New Jersey team. The Jersey Generals. This league played football in the spring and summer at Giants Stadium in The Meadowlands. I was 100 percent all in!

New Jersey Generals logo

OK, so their first outing wasn’t great. Owner Donald Trump urged the signing of Herschel Walker and Doug Flutie; two players who would become household names. I still remember the commercials for “Flutie Flakes” that benefited autistic children (way before most people even knew what that meant).

Sadly, the USFL only lasted three seasons. My Jersey football team was gone… until now.

This spring the nation was reintroduced to the USFL… and the Jersey Generals.

Now, I’ll admit, I am quite bummed they are playing all the games in one location (Birmingham, Alabama), so unless you live in the area or are willing to travel, you are unable to check out the games in person.

I’ve watched two games so far and I have to tell you, I really enjoyed them! I hope the USFL is successful and is around for longer than its initial attempt. I’m quite happy to have a Jersey football team. Maybe by next year they’ll be able to play in the state they represent.

Peacock Pride

If you are a regular reader, you know I am most assuredly not a fan of college sports; most of all basketball. However, I am a huge fan of a great underdog story. If there is one underdog team that has swept the country it is the Peacocks of St. Peter’s University.

This small Jesuit college in Jersey City has defied the odds and made it to the NCAA “Sweet 16.” Founded in 1872, its total enrollment for the fall of 2021 was just over 3,000 according to the school’s website, as compared to the 31,000-plus enrollment at the University of Kentucky. Saint Peter’s coach, Shaheen Holloway, is a former McDonald’s All-American who went on to become a four-year starter for my Seton Hall Pirates in the late 1990s (I had to look that up). He played professionally abroad until 2007. He then joined Iona’s staff as an assistant coach before heading home to his Pirates in 2010 and joined the school’s coaching staff. He then moved on to his first head coaching gig at Saint Peter’s.

“I’ve got guys from New Jersey and New York City. You think we’re scared of anything? You think we’re worried about guys trying to muscle us and tough us out? We do that. That’s who we are.”
~ Saint Peter’s Head Coach, Shaheen Holloway

This is definitely my kind of guy. Born in Queens, he became a Jersey Boy early in life. He is true Jersey; dripping confidence and attitude. I love it.

So while I am not a basketball fan and will always be a Pirate, for this weekend (and hopefully for a few more weeks), I’ll share in some Jersey Peacock pride. Hopefully being a Jesuit college will result in some continued divine intervention.

Jersey Represent at the Olympics

As the Olympics in Beijing comes to a close, it is important to take a moment and say “thank you” to the athletes for bringing their best to the games. New Jersey sent over 30 athletes to the Olympics. Here are just a few of our great athletes.

Hakeem Abdul-Saboor – Bobsled

Growing up in East Orange, Hakeem showed an aptitude for multiple sports at a young age. He focused on football and track and field and eventually accepted a football scholarship to The University Of Virginia College at Wise to play the running back. Sadly, his football career ended his senior year due to an ACL injury which halted his hopes of pursuing a professional football career. However, he preserved. Hakeem represented Team USA at the 2018 Winter Olympics as pusher for two different bobsled crews and now represented Team USA at the 2022 games. What makes me the most proud is that in 2019 he joined the Army and serves as a Biomedical Equipment Specialist.

Kenny Agostino – Ice Hockey

A native of Mount Olive, Kenny is a left-wing for the US Men’s Hockey Team. Kenny graduated as Delbarton’s all-time leading scorer with 261 points. He was named New Jersey High School Player of the Year by the Newark Star-Ledger in 2009 and 2010 and recorded 50 goals and 83 points in his senior year of 2009–10. At Yale, he helped the school reach the championship game and defeated Quinnipiac 4–0 to win the first NCAA team championship of any sport in the school’s history.

Kelly Curtis – Skeleton

Growing up in Princeton, Kelly didn’t start competing in skeleton until college. Going into the Olympics, Kelly was ranked No. 14 in the world by the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation. For the two years prior to the Olympics, she was a member of the Air Force and participated in the service’s World-Class Athlete Program, which offers prospective and current airmen a path to a military career while being nationally ranked in their sport. She finished sixth in Beijing.

Kimi Goetz – Speedskating

A Flemington native and Hunterdon Central High graduate, Kimi earned a spot on the US Long Track Speedskating Team after placing second in both the 500- and 1,000-meter events during qualifying. Kimi switched to long track speedskating in 2018 after a fall during qualifying in short track led to a concussion. After her time on the ice, Kimi plans to pursue work in special education at the elementary level.

Charlie Volker – Bobsled

Another member of the Bobsled Team, Charlie hails from Fair Haven. After earning his BA in history from Princeton, he began bobsledding just two years ago and immediately showed great promise. Initially Charlie was headed to NFL mini-camps when COVID-19 ended that dream. His trainer suggested he try bobsledding. His team earned a top 10 finish in Beijing.

Thank You All

As I mentioned, over 30 of our favorite sons and daughters of New Jersey competed in the 2022 Olympics. We thank you all for doing Jersey proud!

The Language of New Jersey

If you live in New Jersey, you know we have a language all our own. However, if you are just a visitor, you may not know how best to communicate with us. Here are a few suggestion to help navigate a typical conversation.

“How You Doin’?”

Most people in other states start conversations with “hi” or “hello.” Well, here in Jersey, we start with “how you doin’?” Now to clarify, we aren’t really asking how you are; and quite frankly, we usually don’t care.

“You Good”

Now this one can be tricky. This phrase has multiple meanings. What is important here is the inflection. Here’s the full list of possibilities

You good: Are you OK?
You good: You are OK.
You good: How have you been?
You good: Stop talking. Just stop.
You good: You’re welcome.
You good: No need to apologize.
You good: You need some money?
You good: You got a problem?!

Down the Shore

In New Jersey it doesn’t matter where you live, you go “down the shore.” Once you are staying at the shore, then you “go to the beach.” And everyone has specific shore towns they prefer at certain points during their lives. In high school it is usually Seaside for the boardwalk food and the games. That was my spot. The hipster spot is usually Asbury Park. I’ve only been there once for 102.7 Beach Day in high school. Once I was dating my then-boyfriend (now husband), it was Island Beach State Park. After we were married, it was Wildwood Crest. If we could afford it, I would love a home in Cape May.

Benny and Shoobie

While we are on the the shore, there are two references to people who do not live down the shore full time and only venture to South Jersey during the summer. A “Benny” refers to Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark and New York-area residents who head down the shore. They tend to stick with the more northern shore towns. A “Shoobie” is the same as a Benny, but refers to visitors from farther south, usually Philadelphia. The origin is believed to come from day-trippers who took the train to the shore, bringing lunch in a shoe box many decades ago. People don’t carry their lunch in a shoe box anymore, but the term lives on. Now there’s a whole battle between the full-timers and the visitors, but that’s a post for a different day.

“Take the Jughandle”

A typical jughandle in New Jersey.

In all my travels, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a jughandle anywhere else. It definitely causes confusion for out-of-state drivers. Simply put, on many roads in the great Garden State, if you want to make a left, you go right, follow the road around, and then go straight. The term refers to the look of the turn; like the handle of a jug.

“Wow. That’s crazy.”

There often comes a point during a conversation when people just start to tune you out. Maybe you’ve yammered on too long. Maybe the listener has lost interest. It is pretty rude, even for a New Jerseyan, to tell someone to just shut up. That’s kept for very specific circumstances. If you hear “wow; that’s crazy” twice during the same story, that means “wrap up it; I no longer care.”

“Want to go to the Diner?”

New Jersey is without a doubt the diner capital of the world and we are proud of it. We all have our favorites and will just about argue to the death that ours is the best. When I was in high school, my friends and I would always go to the Arlington Diner in North Arlington and the Lyndhurst Diner in Lyndhurst. Later on I would go to the Tick Tock in Clifton. Now that we live in Morris County, we go to the Roxbury Diner, the Jefferson Diner, and the Hibernia Diner.

Disco Fries

While we are on the subject of diners, let’s talk about something unique to Jersey – Disco Fries. No one else could come up with this combination, I promise you. Diner fries with melted mozzarella and topped with brown gravy. This is usually a 3:00 a.m. request on the way home from wherever you were earlier in the evening. After my prom, we headed into New York City. On the way home we stopped at a diner and ordered Disco Fries.

North Jersey/South Jersey

Now New Jersey may be a single state, however, there is a distinct difference between the language of North Jersey and South Jersey. I am a life-long North Jersey resident, so my language includes sub (a sandwich on long Italian roll), Taylor Ham (a much beloved and delicious pork product), Mischief Night (the night before Halloween when the focus is on the tricks and not the treats) and the teams are the Giants and the Jets. In South Jersey, a sub is a hoagie, Taylor Ham is Pork Roll, Mischief Night is Goosey Night, and the team is the Eagles. We all agree on one thing, however; Central Jersey is a myth.

And More…

There’s a lot more when it comes to the culture and language of New Jersey, but this will get you started. There is one thing you will discover quickly; we have serious Jersey Pride! We may joke with each other about our state, but if you’re not from here, you will get a mouth full of Jersey attitude if you try to dish it out. Yes, we know we have a sort-of accent. No, we don’t find asking us to say words like “coffee” or “water” funny. We aren’t really amused by “what exit,” even though we will ask each other. Jersey isn’t just a place to live. It is an attitude. And you are either from here and have it or you are from somewhere else and don’t. Jersey people will always stand up for other Jersey people. Even the ones we don’t like. We are all about protecting and representing. That’s what Jersey Pride is all about.

Paterson’s and Newark’s West Side

When you’re a Jet, You’re a Jet all the way. From your first cigarette, To your last dyin’ day.

My favorite Broadway show, hands down, is West Side Story. The show that put Stephen Sondheim on the map has transcended time. I remember watching the movie for the first time in middle school during general music class. The music has been ingrained in my head ever since. My husband and I had the song “One Hand, One Heart” sung during the candle lighting ceremony as part of our wedding mass.

A few years ago Steven Spielberg decided to take on the monumental task of remaking West Side Story. It is set for mass release this upcoming weekend. Obviously I haven’t seen it yet, so I am reserving judgement, but needless to say the bar is quite high.

Paterson as late 1950s NYC (Credit: Aristide Economopoulos, nj.com)

What I am excited about is the movie’s filming locations. Nope, it wasn’t filmed on the “West Side.” It was filmed in Paterson and Newark, New Jersey. Yes, Spielberg decided to film his remake of this monumental piece of art in The Garden State.

Spielberg’s team transformed several blocks of downtown Paterson into late-1950s New York City. From half-torn-down buildings to altered storefronts, the team was meticulous.

Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise directed original film adaptation of the Broadway show, which was released in 1961 and went on to win 10 Oscars, including best picture.

Production then moved on to Newark at 744 Broad Street, which was made to look like Bamberger’s. I regularly heard about shopping trips to that store from family members. Sadly, the real Bamberger’s closed in 1986. The department store chain’s flagship store opened on Market Street in Newark in 1912 and eventually spanned an entire block.

The topper to all these Jersey connections is Rachel Zegler. This Clifton native is playing the role of Maria. I’ve seen a few of the short videos that have been released so far online and her voice is absolutely spectacular. I am sure she will make Jersey proud!

Like I said, I’m reserving judgement on the entire production until I see it. I hope Spielberg did not stray too far from the original show. I am sure, however, that Jersey will be positively represented.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: John Basilone

In an earlier post, I noted that Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian descent made up approximately 10% of the entire fighting force during World War II; more than any other ethnicity. Despite Italian immigrants kept under surveillance and some put in containment camps, they volunteered by the thousands to fight against their Motherland.

One such great child of Italian immigrants was John Basilone from Raritan, New Jersey. One of 10 children, Basilone was born in Buffalo, New York in 1916. He grew up in Raritan. At age 15 he dropped out of school to work locally for a short time before joining the military.

Staff Sergeant John Basilone
Source: Wikipedia

He first enlisted in the Army in July 1934 and completed his three-year enlistment with service in the Philippines. Basilone was initially assigned to the 16th Infantry at Fort Jay, New York, before being discharged for a day, reenlisting, and being assigned to the 31st Infantry.

After his discharge from the Army, he again worked locally for a short period of time; this time as a truck driver. He wanted to return to Manilla and serve once again, so he reenlisted; this time as a Marine.

He went to recruit training at Parris Island, followed by training at Marine Corps Base Quantico and New River. The Marines sent him to Guantánamo Bay for his next assignment and then to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands as a member of “D” Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division.

In 1943, he returned to the United States to help with the War Bond effort. He was highlighted in Life and Movietone News. His hometown of Raritan had a parade in his honor. He helped raise money for the War effort.

While he appreciated all the accolades, he really wanted to be back fighting for his country. He requested a return to active duty multiple times. He was offered a commission, which he turned down, and was later offered an assignment as an instructor, but refused this as well. When he requested again to return to the war, the request was approved. He left for Camp Pendleton, California, for training on December 27. On July 3, 1944, he reenlisted in the Marine Corps.

After his request to return to the fleet was approved, Basilone was assigned to “C” Company, 1st Battalion, 27th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division. On February 19, 1945, the first day of the invasion of Iwo Jima, he was serving as a machine gun section leader on Red Beach II. With his unit pinned down, Basilone made his way around the side of the Japanese positions until he was directly on top of the blockhouse. He then attacked with grenades and demolitions, single-handedly destroying the entire strong point and its defending garrison. He continued to fight alongside service members until the very end. It is believed he was killed by a burst of small arms fire.

His actions helped Marines penetrate the Japanese defense and get off the landing beach during the critical early stages of the invasion. Basilone was posthumously awarded the Marine Corps’ second-highest decoration for valor, the Navy Cross, for extraordinary heroism during the battle of Iwo Jima.

He was the only enlisted Marine to receive both the Navy Cross and the Medal of Honor in World War II. Two United States Navy destroyers bear his name.

He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Virginia. He left behind his wife, Lena Mae Riggi, who was a sergeant in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve during World War II. They met while he was stationed at Camp Pendleton.

Basilone made America proud, especially at a time when the country needed heroes. He stood up to be counted in the new homeland of his family. He made not just his country proud, but New Jersey proud, as well as those of us who count ourselves among the 1.5 million New Jerseyans of Italian descent proud. We owe him a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Frankie Valli

“Newark, Belleville; Frankie Valli walks on water. As he should. Frankie Valli has been around so long he’s attached to everything and everybody. And they are very proud.” ~Steve Schirripa, Talking Sopranos podcast.

Belleville has been home to plenty of talent over the decades. Connie Francis, Joe Pesci, and of course Francesco Stephen Castelluccio, known to the world as Frankie Valli.

Francesco Stephen Castelluccio, aka Frankie Valli
Credit: discogs.com

As Schirripa says, he’s attached to everything and everybody. We all have a Frankie Valli story. For me, I have two. Castelluccio grew up in Stephen Crane Village on the border of Belleville and Newark. My Uncle worked as a maintenance man at Stephen Crane Village. He took the bus from our house in Belleville early every morning and came home every afternoon. As kids we were allowed to walk down to the end of the block and wait for him; but no further than the manhole cover!

His first single “My Mother’s Eyes” was a favorite song my Uncle Chubby would sing with his own band, Chubby O’Dell and the Blue Mountain Boys. To this day whenever I hear that song, I think of my Uncle Chubby and smile.

The music of The Four Season was part of the soundtrack of the youth of not just North Jersey, but America. Songs like “Can’t Take my Eyes off of You” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” are engrained in our memories. Castelluccio’s original inspiration was another Jersey boy, Francis Albert Sinatra.

The 45 of My Mother’s Eyes
Credit: Roots Vinyl Guide

A new generation was introduced to Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons in 2005 when Jersey Boys opened on Broadway and was an instant hit. Bob Gaudio, an original Four Seasons member, sought to make a musical from the discography of the band. He hired book writers Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, and director Des McAnuff. Brickman suggested creating a show about the band’s history, instead of repurposing their songs. Sharing the group’s “rags to riches” story. Everyone fell in love with their music all over again.

Castelluccio still tours and recently recorded a new album, A Touch of Jazz, which is his iconic voice singing his favorite tunes from the Great American Songbook.

So Castelluccio started singing in the early 50s and all these decades later, he is still growing strong. God willing, he still has a lot of music left in him.

October is Italian Heritage Month

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know I am a proud New Jerseyan. I am also very proud of my Italian heritage. October in Italian Heritage Month and as I do each year, I plan on writing about New Jerseyans of Italian heritage that have made a significant impact on our state or our country.

Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian descent have a unique history all our own. More than 1.45 million residents of New Jersey reported having Italian heritage according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The town of Fairfield is home to the most residents with Italian heritage in the United States. Seven of the top 20 towns in the United States with the most residents of Italian ancestry are right here in the Garden State.

The great migration from Italy took place between 1880 and 1914; a total of 13 million Italians came to America and made it home.

At its height, Seventh Avenue in Newark was one of the largest Little Italies in the United States with a population of over 30,000 within one square mile. The center of that neighborhood was St. Lucy’s Church, built by Italian immigrants in 1891. St. Lucy’s holds the National Shrine to St. Gerard, the patron saint of expectant mothers.

That’s where the story of my family begins. The First Ward of Newark.

Like the countless other Italians that came to America, they came to build a better life for their family and future generations. They worked hard, many changed their names to sound American, they learned English, and became citizens. My Uncles joined the military along with the 1.5 million other Italian Americans during World War II, making up 10% of the total fighting force, eager to prove their loyalty to their new home country. While they were off fighting against their homeland, however, tens of thousands of Italian immigrants in America were subject to curfews, forced from their homes, and lived in military camps without trials. They were considered Enemy Aliens.

These Italian immigrants came to America looking for a new home and were ready to prove themselves as good Americans and work. Unfortunately, they weren’t always able to find it. “Italians need not apply” was a common theme. We were looked down upon, no matter where we went in the country.

The lynching of eleven Sicilians in New Orleans in 1891 was the largest and most outrageous mass lynching in United States history. The lynchings took place on March 14, 1891. New Orleans Police Superintendent, David Hennessy was gunned down in October 1890. As he gasped his last breath, he supposedly uttered, “The dagos did it.” Officials quickly arrested numerous area Italian immigrants and attributed the slaying to “Mafia activity.” After a public meeting where people called the Italians “not quite white,” a mob gathered shouting “Hang the dagos!!” To avenge the murder of a popular police superintendent, unrestrained mobs went into the city jail and beat, clubbed, and fatally shot eleven Italian prisoners.

Dago. WOP. Guinea. Ginzo. Goombah. Just a handful of the names Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian descent have been called over the years. Each of which gets a giant eyeroll from me. They are meant to hurt. They only hurt if you let them. I remember hearing a story from my Aunt who said when they moved into a new neighborhood, a neighbor approached her mother (my Grandmother) and asked if they would be going to “our church,” to remind them they were outsiders. Without missing a beat, my Grandfather said “I though it was God’s church.”

From name calling, to lynchings, to being considered enemies of the state, to the stereotype that all Americans of Italian descent are “connected,” I say… whatever.

Let me tell you what it means to me.

Being an American of Italian descent is never forgetting where you came from and honoring it every day. It is about faith and family. It is recognizing our ethnicity is that last one it is “allowed” to be made fun of and not letting it bother us. Ours is a history of food, culture, art, and music that should be celebrated.

I am a New Jerseyan. I am an American. I am of Italian heritage. I hope you go on this historical journey on me for the next month.

Book Review: brat: an 80s Story

When anyone meets me for the first time, two things are obvious. I am a born-and-bred Jersey Girl and I am a Gen-Xer. I still love the music and movies of the 80s. Nowadays when I drive, there are very few radio stations I listen to; most of which are satellite and focus on music of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. My favorite movies included a small group of actors that came to be known as the Brat Pack. Everyone had their favorite. For me, it was Andrew McCarthy.

I saw a lot of myself in the characters he portrayed. In St. Elmo’s Fire, he played a wannabe writer who gets his first byline. I grew up wanting to do two things as an adult: be a writer and a photographer. While I never became a full-time accomplished writer, I do have a few bylines to my name and have a few blogs where I get to scrawl and scribble, even if no one really reads them.

So why am I telling you all this? Stick with me.

Whether it was because I was a teenager or not, the 80s were an awesome time in history (and yes, I used “awesome” on purpose). And the Brat Pack movies had a lot to do with it.

There were times watching McCarthy it almost felt like he wasn’t acting. As if those roles really fit his style. I now know in some instances that was true. Enter his book brat: an 80s story.

brat: an 80s Story by Andrew McCarthy

This fellow New Jerseyan shares his rise – and fall – and rise again in the fickle world of entertainment in his recently published book. Of course as soon as I heard about its release, I needed to read it. Trust me when I tell you, it did not disappoint. I read it over the course of two evenings. The last time I read something so quick was a book from another important figure from my youth; fellow Jersey Girl, Judy Blume, and the book was Summer Sisters.

I quickly switched back to 16 again, watching those movies, listening to that music, and doing things, well, let’s just say I am thankful social media wasn’t around.

As I read, and he mentions places in Jersey in the first few chapters, I found myself wondering if the arcade on 22 he went to was at Bowcraft (a home-grown amusement park), how everyone in Jersey MUST be good at skee-ball and if his brother ever played golf at Hendrick’s Field, the public course in Belleville behind my house. He talked about hanging out in Washington Square Park, which made me remember my first job in the City and walking over to the park and eating my lunch there while I watched the street performers. He talked about going with a friend to the second-hand clothing shops, which made me think of my regular visits to the Unique Boutique.  Like him, I went to the Raccoon Lodge. The biggest difference, however, is that he was 17. I wasn’t allowed into the City on my own until after I graduated from college. But I remember feeling just as wide-eyed as he describes his experiences of familiar places to me.

He spoke of the awkwardness of his high school years. While he was always self-conscious about looking too feminine, I was often self-conscious about looking too masculine. By the time I hit high school, my mother started to give up on getting me to “dress like a girl,” and I fell into the habit of oversized sweatshirts and jeans. I stuck to my denim jacket (complete with a music note of safety pins on the back), an Army Class A jacket I picked up at a second-hand store in Bloomfield, and my father’s camel-hair coat. Add to that my voice was kind of deep for a girl my age, which was quite obvious when I would shout over the marching band as drum major. Sophomore year I felt compelled to chop my long hair off, which completed that perfectly boyish look, even if that really wasn’t the goal. When a teacher from the high school first met my brother, he said to a colleague once he thought I was out of earshot “I’m trying to figure out if he’s more feminine or she’s more masculine.” And so it was and so it has been for most of my adult life. Many years later at a full-time job, I learned some of my colleagues referred to me as “Man Benschoten” instead of my proper last name. I never seemed to be able to outrun that “boy thing.”  Sometimes it still bothers me, sometimes I shrug and don’t care in full Gen-X fashion.

Like him, I enjoyed my time alone. For him, he smoked pot. For me, it was riding my bike over to the high school, climbing to the top of the stadium, sitting in the corner and reading. Smoking pot never even crossed my mind. As far as I knew, none of my friends did and my mother could have worked for the CIA. She found out everything. It wasn’t worth the risk.

“Like the first light of dawn, there is a transitory magic in it, a singular quality, something so fresh it seems it must be occurring for the first time.”

Like McCarthy, I found solace in the arts program. For him it was (obviously) drama and it started him down a successful path that led him to NYU. Me? Well, I never got out of the chorus/background dancers, with the exception of one actual line in the production of “It’s Christmas Charlie Brown” (“watch it lady, you almost made me drop my packages!”). I was in concert band, jazz band, chorus, orchestra, drama club, and marching band. I wasn’t “officially” on stage and light crew, but I helped out backstage with the plays before I summoned up the courage to actually try out. For me, that’s as far as my artistic journey went. I didn’t have “it.”

1986 Mercury Cougar
Me in my Cougar, 1988.
Yes, I thought I was that cool.

His announcement to major in acting when he went to college went over about as well as my announcement to major in journalism. I was pushed at every opportunity to become an attorney. When I came home with my declaration form for the Communication Department, well, I’ll just say it didn’t go over well and leave it at that. Like McCarthy, I stuck to my guns and kept with it. And I discovered I did have an aptitude for certain parts of the process. For me, it was print production and typography, along with writing.

We both had our own departmental champions. For him it was Terry Hayden. For me, it was Dr. Don McKenna and Professor Pete Rosenblum. That dynamic duo were my supporters at every turn. They told me about this thing called “prepress.” Where I get to be involved in the actual process of preparing work to go to press. I was in love. Like McCarthy, I was eager to learn all I could. Also, like McCarthy, some teachers were less than thrilled with my feeble classroom attempts. We both struggled with speech class. My prim and proper professor attempted to remove the Jersey from my accent and teach me a proper mid-Atlantic speech pattern (think Katharine Hepburn). Shocker – it didn’t work. I passed, but I think only because I just kept showing up to class. I didn’t care. I dove head first into learning all I could about prepress and writing.

Throughout the book, he has the ability to weave stories of experiences of his past and how those experiences affected his career as he continued to learn and hone his craft. I took special attention to how he handled anxiety while shooting his first feature movie, Class, and how as a director he quietly says “aaaand… action” instead of yelling “ACTION!” like we all see in the movies.

He told his mother he was a pessimist. I call myself a realist. I think they are two sides of the same coin.
Just about the same time he was becoming interested in the technical aspects of filmmaking, I was becoming more and more interested in the technical aspects of photography and press work. As a girl, however, opportunities at the time were limited. At one job, I did become friendly with a stripper (not THAT kind) and would let me watch him work during my lunch and would occasionally let me make bluelines. Every so often I was told I was told I had aptitude. And just like McCarthy was told “you became a pro on this one, Andy,” I would fly high.

One page 130, he finally gets to my favorite of all the Brat Pack movies; St. Elmo’s Fire and devotes a solid twenty-something pages to it. His character, Kevin, felt like it had followed me around my entire life. Cynical, sarcastic, in the background of the group, the oversized clothes, the camel-hair coat. His behind-the-scenes account of the “Respect bongo” scene, my favorite of the entire movie, was just wonderful.

He talks about his use – and abuse – of alcohol. The year he went into rehab was the year I graduated from college. He faced his demon head on and won. Instead of thinking of it as the end of his career, he continued to push forward. He found his way to… writing.

I also give him a lot of credit for how he handled the end of his father’s life. Gracious is hardly enough to describe how he faced the situation.

Overall, I really enjoyed his writing style and his ability to construct some beautifully written sentences. Over time he came to accept his role as a member of the Brat Pack. He now understands that for many of us fellow Gen-Xers, those movies hold a special place for us. For that, I am thankful.

I hope it is a little easier bein’ you now, Mr. McCarthy.