Weird N.J., Celebrating The Odd State of Mind
Twice a Year, the Magazine Uncovers Something Uncanny Around the Corner
By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2004; Page C01
Someday centuries from now, when people want to know about the great state of New Jersey around the dawn of the millennium, they will turn not to history books or time capsules but to Weird N.J., a magazine that captures the spirit of a varied, beautiful and truly exotic place.
Here, in the publication created by Mark Sceurman and Mark Moran, decaying drive-ins and huge rooster statues and men with pompadours are things of beauty. In their New Jersey, some place called Midgetville is always just around the corner, and so is albino village, where the albinos are murderous. Everybody in the state has a story. Some guy claims he has Hitler's toilet seat.
Here is New Jersey, explained.
Other states have their eccentricities, but few have New Jersey's reputation. You don't hear any good jokes about Connecticut. New Jersey stands for our flashier, coarser self, the self that lets its dark roots show and doesn't care. Think of New Jersey and think of girls shoving past each other in nightclubs. Think of roadside diners with Greco-Roman facades and mauve vinyl seats, their counters laden with heavy Danishes wrapped in plastic. Think of all those 30-year-old guys living in their mothers' basements, working out every night, cornering other guys in bars and asking them to step outside.
"We can take any [expletive] that people throw at us," Sceurman says.
Because of Mark and Mark, cranks are not friendless. In this New Jersey, everybody's a conspiracy theorist and everybody believes in UFOs.
Today, the men are touring southern New Jersey. They visit a man who has 10,000 glass telegraph insulators mounted on telephone poles around his lawn like alien trees, and they stop by a gold-colored church shaped like a pyramid, known as the Temple of Hope and Knowledge, which is now up for sale. (A tattered sign recommends that worshipers attend "the service for one to beg for mercy and hope.") They go to a roadside Catholic shrine called Our Lady of the Highway, which is located in a triangular building smaller than a Taco Bell, next to a Sunoco station.
They stop for lunch at an empty roadside bar whose desolation they find appealing, and whose menu offers only one dessert item: "Jell-o Shots $1.00."
They hunt for a couple of roads they've heard about: Unexpected Road and No Name Road. When they find them, they get out of Sceurman's jeep and take pictures like giddy boys.
"We get joy out of the most mundane things," Sceurman says.
Mark and Mark could have grown up in Providence and started a magazine called Weird R.I., but they didn't. Could there be some cosmic connection between their geography and their mission, some power that New Jersey exerts over its inhabitants, driving them to celebrate their eccentricities?
It is an old state, so it's had plenty of time to build weirdness. It is the nation's densest state, capable of cramming much weirdness into a small space. It has wilderness: dirt roads running through the Pine Barrens, and the Meadowlands, where the dead keep quiet. It has lonely warehouses off turnpike exits, and casinos in Atlantic City, where it is always daylight and old people carry their dreams in plastic cups. And, of course, it has that northern stretch that sits under a sulfurous cloud, and every time you drive through it, you look at your boyfriend like it's his fault, those beans he had for lunch.
Is there any less graceful word than Hackensack? (Or Mahwah? Or Ho-Ho-Kus? Or Peapack?)
You tease the state and it gives you the finger. You don't feel bad for it the way you feel bad for much-maligned West Virginia, because New Jersey can take care of itself. Notice how Jerseyans excise half of their state's name, as if one word is enough: Just "Jersey." (As Sceurman points out, New Yorkers, for all their attitude, never call their state "York.")
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
On a recent tour of southern New Jersey, Weird N.J.'s Mark Sceurman visits with Josephine Stapleton, the Milk Jug Lady of Mays Landing.
(Thomas P. Costello For The Washington Post)
Transcript: Post reporter Libby Copeland answered questions about Weird N.J.