Millions and millions of years ago, before anybody even thought of Carl Sagan, there were not seven continents, but just one--a large land mass shaped like a loaf of bread going around a corner. It was called New Jersey.
New Jersey, from which all civilization and culture subsequently sprang, is the subject of celebration in the Festival of American Folklife beginning today on the Mall, along with French influence.
As the Folklife Festival brochure makes clear, "New Jersey is populated with nearly 100 ethnic groups," and "more than a million of its acres are farmland," which makes it "second in the nation in growing cultivated blueberries, third in raspberries and spinach, and fourth in potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and peaches," has a vibrant pharmaceutical industry, abounds in robust maritime opportunities and has been the center of the North American silk industry.
The Folklife Festival, however, flops at explaining the origin of the slogan "Garden State," which it erroneously associates with truck farms. In point of etymological fact, "Garden State" is a reference to the Garden of Eden, which was originally located near Paramus. Unfortunately, "The Garden of Eden State" does not fit on a license plate.
It is a proud state, and hence the expression, "Proud as New Jersey." Its immediate heritage is Amerindian, specifically the peripatetic Turnpike and Parkway tribes, which today lend their names to great North-South thoroughfares. Later New Jerseyans, among them Walt Whitman, Joyce Kilmer and Vincent Lombardi, are today memorialized at specific Turnpike-side rest stops, where tourists stretch and take photographs, while smiling New Jerseyans replenish automobile tanks from the state's ample supply of gasoline.
The Folklife Festival lists these cultural exhibits of diverse, surprising New Jersey:
Sicilian-American marionette theater.
Afro-Puerto Rican music and dance.
The Barnegat Bay Sneak Box.
Well, it is true that Puerto Rico and Africa were originally part of the mother continent of New Jersey, and Sicily, too, so New Jerseyans are in that sense natural cosmopolites and of nodding acquaintance with customs that would astonish anybody from, say, France.
The 100 ethnic groups of New Jersey have always gotten along very well, except when they have come in contact with one another. But New Jersey is a state that believes in a continuing dialogue, in which issues can be aired and amplified. The amplification of the continuing dialogue between Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Anthony Imperiale in Newark in the '70s, for example, could be heard by former mayor Hugh Addonizio all the way to Lewisburg, Pa., where Addonizio happened to be in prison. In 1969 there were 145 public officials indicted in New Jersey--clear proof of the high standard of public service required by the citizens.
As for the Barnegat Bay Sneak Box, it is a real example of the maritime luster of the Garden of Eden State. The Folklife Festival presents oyster shucking and lobster trap-making as indigenous crafts, and that well may be, although New Jersey is no Maine nor is it Tilghman Island (it has no desire to be), and you are damned lucky to find an oyster alive, although the bottom of Raritan Bay is paved with them dead, several feet thick. Lobsters? Well they eat lots of them at the Lobster Shanty in Brielle, so many that it is a three-hour wait and not worth it. But that's the restaurant business for you in summer, and says nothing about New Jersey. The real New Jersey seafood is scungilli, sliced thin in a garlic salad and served by someone named Vito. Follow this up with a Carvel cake and you know why the license plates mean "Garden of Eden State."
But the Barnegat Bay Sneak Box--well. It is a low watercraft built traditionally of cedar, and it was originally used for hunting ducks. It got its name from a practice New Jersey sportsmen had of sneaking up on a duck and knocking it out with a single punch. Later, a sail was added, and the Barnegat Bay Sneak Box, as built by Dave and Lonnie Beaton's boat yard in Mantoloking, became the Cleopatra's barge of many a knock-kneed lad. A funny-looking craft, the shape of which was adopted (without credit) by the designers of Studebaker automobiles, the sailing sneak box had a funny habit of submarining precipitously, filling with a trillion gallons of Barnegat Bay water and requiring 600 hours to bail out while under flank attack by crabs and mosquitoes. The war in the Pacific was nothing compared to sailing a sneak box in Barnegat Bay.
But that was what made New Jersey kids tough. Full of scungilli and Carvel cake, sneak box-trained, hip to bomba singers like Rafael Cepeda, esthetically illuminated by Sicilian marionettes and lying in bed at night under the New Jersey moon tuned into Jocko's Rocket Ship on WNJR in Newark, it was pretty hard to want to be anywhere else.
New Jersey was the rhythm of a concrete highway, the flicker of a drive-in movie screen under a particulate sunset, a downshifting zoom up onto the Pulaski Skyway, where Buicks cruised weightlessly above the sea of commerce. Elizabethport, where the ships' bows touch the airport lights of Newark! Bridges Goethals, Walt Whitman, Tacony-Palmyra! Tunnels Holland and Lincoln!
It is true that on summer nights, steamy as Washington's, things do not always go well. Cars collide, and neighborhoods and the banks of rivers bubble ominously, and from time to time, on the back porches of houses from Bayonne to Rahway, old men rise from their chairs to watch the sky go orange over exploding oil storage tanks. Distant sirens, distant flames. "Look, Grandfather!"
The Folklife Festival is a grand thing, but New Jersey is grander and plainer. A shrug and a pizza and a thumb in your eye--there's New Jersey, plain enough. Walt Whitman and Vince Lombardi and Joyce Kilmer--and Carl Sagan, and yes, Bruce Springsteen.