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.")
Sceurman, 47, a quiet, bearded man, grew up in Essex County, hearing stories of a nun encased in glass on the side of a road, and of a place called Heartbeat Road, where passersby can supposedly still hear a murdered person's heart. When he was about 9, Sceurman's older brother tried to scare him by driving him to an area in Clifton that was supposedly home to albino residents who -- local legend said -- would eat strangers venturing into their midst.
Sceurman has always had a love for things squalid and paranormal. On a date in the early '80s, en route to a hot dog stand, he diverted the car through a dump to explore. His date married him.
He worked for about 20 years as a graphic artist for an alternative music magazine that he still co-owns. In the late '80s, he began sending out a newsletter to friends, updating them on his life and including a section on strange things he wanted to explore in the state. After a story about the newsletter in a local paper around 1993, Weird N.J. acquired a small fan base, who eagerly read Sceurman's thoughts on "The Glowing Grave of Montville," "Interesting Hikes in Industrial Waste" and "Mysterious Bigfoot Sightings in the Northwest Corner." Sceurman offered recommendations on unique bars (Mom's Place in Wallington: "The best shuffleboard") and published muddy photographs of things like the town of Sea Breeze, "The most desolate place in New Jersey."
Mark Moran, 43, a graphic artist who'd also grown up in Essex County -- fascinated by tales of a nearby Mafia family compound, and by a Bavarian-style castle that supposedly hosted satanic orgies -- started contributing photographs to what was then essentially a pamphlet in the mid-'90s. Around 1996, Moran and Sceurman joined forces. Their magazine comes out twice yearly, selling for $4 an issue on newsstands. A recent issue, No. 21, has sold 60,000 copies.
There's a Web site, www.weirdnj.com, and a book called "Weird N.J." that came out last September and has sold 100,000 copies. Their next book, "Weird U.S.," is scheduled to come out in October, and they've shot a pilot episode for a show of the same name for the History Channel. Sceurman says they only began turning a profit in the last two years.
Their small office, located in a historic battery factory in downtown West Orange, features a painting of a three-eyed devil on velvet, a Nixon poster and an autographed photo from Butch Patrick, who played Eddie on "The Munsters." There are books with titles like "The Big Book of Freaks."
Sceurman says the office is ideally situated to pick up twin scents that seem to encapsulate the ethos of New Jersey.
"The wind's blowing west, it's the dump," he says, sounding pleased to be able to share this. "When it blows east, it's the Dunkin' Donuts."
If Weird N.J. stands for anything, it stands for giving voice to the unheard, the artists, the brave souls who dare to live differently.
The elderly are the most creative. An old man builds a pyramid of 200 bowling balls, and an old lady crafts lawn sculptures from thousands of milk jugs. One time she makes an Easter bunny; one time a 75-foot rainbow with a pot of gold at the end. She is thrilled to have visitors, even when she's not expecting them.
When you show up on your tour of South Jersey tourist destinations, she greets you enthusiastically, wearing only a towel.
She is Josephine Stapleton, 70, a bus driver who lives in Mays Landing, not far from Atlantic City. In front of her house: approximately 1,000 one-gallon milk jugs, painted and arranged into an American flag. Also: some split tires that are supposed to act as flower planters but that are currently empty; plus concrete blocks lining the grass. In the back yard: a rusting trailer, a pile of tires, a doghouse with the word "Spot" scrawled on it, and a bathroom sink on a tree stump, acting as a birdbath. There is also Stapleton's alter ego, a dummy made entirely of milk jugs, wearing a mop wig and a housedress. She changes its outfits with the seasons.
"This is Jugabelle!" Stapleton says on a recent afternoon, after she has changed from her towel into a purple outfit. "Everybody loves her to death."
Sceurman trains a video camera on Stapleton and interviews her for the benefit of Weird N.J. fans.
"Have you ever met any other jug bottle artists?" he asks.
"People came to me and they wanted to know how to start it," Stapleton says. "And I said, it's a lot of hard work, so if you don't wanna work, don't start it."
Sceurman and Moran spend whole days visiting people like the Milk Jug Lady.
If you study old issues of Weird N.J., you find that certain phenomena are described over and over. There are the wavers -- old men, mostly, who sit on lawns or at roadsides and greet passing cars. There's been Wavin' Willie and Wavin' Joe, Dave the Wave, the Birdman of the Pulaski Skyway, an Elvis impersonator named Ed, and some guy that Moran calls Do-It.
"This guy's a trip," Moran says. "He runs down the street jogging, and whenever he sees you, he throws up his arms and yells a big 'Do it!' "
There are the collectors: the guy who collects raisin boxes, and likes to dress like the Sun-Maid girl, and someone else who collects the ink fillers from pens. A feature called Cemetery Safari chronicles the state's most eccentric graves and monuments: a stone armchair, a life-size stone Mercedes-Benz.
Not everything can be witnessed, of course -- chiefly, the paranormal incidents that Weird N.J. chronicles. There is a haunted mental hospital where an abandoned piano supposedly still plays; there is a Jersey Devil that's always bothering people. Sceurman and Moran throw everything into their magazine indiscriminately, giving equal respect to fact and myth.
"If we printed the real story, we wouldn't have a magazine," Sceurman says.
And really, does it matter if the "Possessed Pole of Passaic Park," a street sign that supposedly rocks back and forth, is actually possessed? Isn't it enough that people pose for pictures with it?
Even though the Marks are in their forties, this is a publication in some way created by teenagers, possessed of cars and burdened by boredom. Weird N.J. is a collage of suburban legends. Even those of us who didn't grow up in New Jersey have spent afternoons looking for monsters in our neighbors' back yards. We've all tried -- and failed -- to find the albino village.
Every issue features letters from readers. They write in with stories, like the tale of "The Sock Man of Middletown," who supposedly would pay teenagers $5 per pair of dirty socks, and "The Lump Man of Butler," who had a huge lump between his eyes. They pose questions: "You guys ever check out the crematory in Hightstown?"
Among the hard-core fans is William Angus, 33, a phone company customer service agent from Bergen County who ventures out to find Weird N.J. landmarks between three and 10 times a month. He has seen an abandoned American military jet decaying in the woods, and an abandoned mental hospital near a morgue, where an apparition may or may not have jumped into one of his photographs. Sometimes he takes his 5-year-old son on cemetery trips.
"I am obsessive-compulsive, and I don't say that as a layman; I have been diagnosed," Angus says. "When I have a whole day, I leave at 7 o'clock in the morning and I might not be back until 8, 9, 10 o'clock."
Sceurman and Moran tend to steer clear of their fans. They get a lot of mail from prisoners, for example. When the phone rings one afternoon in the office, nobody picks it up. Mark Moran eyes the caller ID.
"That could be Neil," he says, referring to a guy who sends them creepy letters, written all in capitals with no punctuation.
In some way, such letters are reassuring. They are proof that, despite New Jersey's relatively small size, there are vast tracts of odd beauty still to be explored. Moran and Sceurman don't worry about running out of material.
"As long as there's New Jersey and people living in it, there will be a weird element to it," Moran says.
On a recent tour of southern New Jersey, Weird N.J.'s Mark Sceurman, left, visits with Josephine Stapleton, the Milk Jug Lady of Mays Landing, and Mark Moran, above, tours Our Lady of the Highway shrine.
Weird N.J. tends to celebrate collectors like Stanley Hammell, who has 10,000 glass telegraph insulators mounted on poles around his lawn.