I’m a quarter through Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids. I don’t have anything to say about the book itself, other than I can’t wait to finish it. That aside, I was shocked to learn that Smith lived in my section of South (New) Jersey: towns like Glassboro, Pitman, Woodbury and Camden flitted past my eyes in their woodsy, towny andâ€”in reference to Camdenâ€”stabby splendor. Anyway, I have to reiterate my faith in books and readers finding each other like soul mates. I’m not a fan of Patti Smith’s music—that is, I’m not familiar with it, so I plead ignorance versus poor taste. But I can relate wholeheartedly to her reasons for fleeing South Jersey for NYC.
I’ve abandoned South Jersey twice in my lifetime, adding up to a seven year stretch split between Washington, DC and southwest Georgia (aka Not Atlanta). I was 18 when I first moved away. In the moment, I didn’t assign deep, artistic reasons for leaving; just getting away from the same people, the same streets and smells, the farmland and flea markets, was enough justification. Then again, maybe I knew, though I couldn’t articulate, the reality of my home.
It is predominately a blue collar area, with a few white collars peppered here and there. It has an “older” feel—slow, drowsy and uninspired. The people here are educated: most graduate high school, some earn Associate’s and Bachelor’s degrees. I don’t know everyone’s name; I don’t know their private affairs; South Jersey is rural sprawl, not a network of cloistered villages connected by a singular Main Street.
Iâ€™m sure writers live here. Theyâ€™re where Iâ€™d expect them to be: scribbling stanzas on the back of brown diner napkins, working out character sketches in their heads while attending to WWII and Vietnam vets, or driving trucks, or trudging within the chalky epicenter of a quarry. They might not call it literature: no, they â€œwrite rhymesâ€ or experience a personal catharsis through â€œjournalingâ€. They hide in plain sight, well-versed in begrudging acceptance: bills must be paid, children need steady hands, the world in South Jerseyâ€”trapped underneath overcast, the clouds as fortuitous signs for rain or snow, and nothing moreâ€”never aches to hear their songs, to read their stories.
For some, the Internet provides just enough interaction to stave relocation to artistic hubs, NYC for example. Patti Smith had no such convenience; desperate to become an artist, she boarded a bus and ventured towardâ€”maudlin as it soundsâ€”her destiny. Such a decision is far from anachronistic, for people still flock to meccas in search of respite from Smallvilleâ€™s ho-hum melody, as steady and irritating as the same guitar chords strummed over and again.
The stuff memoirs are made of: I left home for â€œpersonal reasons.â€ I rode DC Metro trains with Go-Go teenagers and Georgetown frat boys. I joined a nation of circus freaks. We treated previous nights with fugue indifference, so long as we defeated our specters during REM sleep. Poetry infused with ghost-ash; we built art houses with their phantasmic carrion.
I could be less cryptic, less writerly, and tell it straightâ€”tell it South Jersey styleâ€”but life away from home, swaddled by like minds equally warped by depression and trauma, evoked a habit of expression akin to a watercolor portrait waterlogged by a flood. Telling it straight ainâ€™t quite the same as telling it like it isâ€”or was.
Iâ€™m home now, back for four years, itching to leave once againâ€”most likely for good, holiday visits notwithstanding. Like Patti Smith, Iâ€™m cognizant of the incongruence between home and my personality, my desires. Or more to the point, Iâ€™m aware of South Jerseyâ€™s effect on me. Itâ€™s home. Not everyone knows my name, but home elicits old habits: it affords little expansion from the blue collar cocoon, no place to let oneâ€™s rainbow mane fall in relaxation (albeit Iâ€™m bald, but whatever).
South Jersey presses down on the imagination, stamps it out like a cigarette butt, though I see the teens getting restless. Their earlobes stuffed with black plastic discs, their colorful sneakers vaguely reminiscent of 80s styles I long ditched, I feel them scratching at the brick walls, sifting through broken beer bottles in the park, looking. Some of them will stay, whether by choice or otherwise, while some will jump ship and hop buses out of town.
About a year ago, I assumed I needed metropolis energy, as if I craved for DC days gone by. No. It is that begrudging acceptance again: I canâ€™t change my home, the realization reached by a punk legend, and if I stay, home will change meâ€”leave me hollowed and wishful, my tattoos and waterlogged memories rendered as mere commemorations of the past, and nothing more.