Though I was born and raised in New Jersey, I didn’t truly love my home state until I became a reporter. Growing up in the ‘burbs, it seemed like all the action was happening across the river in New York City. How wrong I was.
So consider this my thank you letter, New Jersey, for all the stories you have given us over the last 350 years. Here are just a few of my favorites from recent history:
1. Ellis Island is New Jersey
On May 26, 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court settled a long legal battle between New York and New Jersey over which state had sovereignty over Ellis Island. That day, the court ruled in New Jersey’s favor and forever altered the stories of immigrants who thought they had arrived in New York.
My ancestors were among those huddled masses that came to Ellis Island by boat from Europe — in our family’s case, Norway and Italy. From the stories my nana tells, the voyage was no luxury cruise. The cabins were cramped. People got sick.
Not long after they left Naples, my great-great-grandmother was participating in a fire drill when she slipped climbing a ladder from one deck to another. She fell backwards into a pool of tar that had gotten sticky in the summer heat. The tar got onto her clothes and into her hair. When she finally arrived in New Jersey, I imagine my great-great-grandmother was more than ready for a fresh start.
2. The first ‘Hello’
Alexander Graham Bell is credited with inventing the telephone, making his first call on March 10, 1876. His idea for a greeting? “Ahoy!”
But over in his lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey’s own prolific inventor Thomas Edison had a better idea. Edison is said to have coined the word “hello” sometime in 1878. And I think we can all agree that it was a much, much better idea. I mean, hel-LO!
3. ‘The biggest story since the Resurrection’
That’s what H.L. Mencken said of one of New Jersey’s most infamous crime stories: the kidnapping of “the Lindbergh baby.” On the night of March 1, 1932, the son of the aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne was abducted from their Hunterdon County home.
It had all the elements of a gripping news story: The kidnapper left a note demanding $50,000 for Charlie Jr.’s return. President Herbert Hoover said he would “move heaven and earth” to find him. Even mobster Al Capone offered his help from a jail cell in Chicago.
Poor Charlie Jr.’s body was eventually found by the driver of a delivery truck about five miles from the Lindbergh’s home. To this day, conspiracy theories still abound, keeping this New Jersey story alive in our collective memories.
4. ‘The War of the Worlds’
In 1938, on the day before Halloween, millions of radio listeners began hearing strange news reports. Martians had landed just outside of Princeton in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, and were heading for New York City, killing thousands of soldiers and tearing up power stations and railroads.
Cue mass hysteria.
The following day, the front page of the New York Times read, “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact.” I’ve heard stories that some New Jerseyans actually got into their cars and started hightailing it outta there.
Kudos to you, Orson Welles, for showing us — for better or worse — the power of radio.
5. The Parkway
Gov. Walter Edge broke ground on what would become the Garden State Parkway on Nov. 8, 1946. It would take more than a decade to connect the 173-mile route to the New York Thruway.
Unlike the turnpike — which gives credence to the haters who say New Jersey’s just an overpopulated industrial wasteland — the parkway offers a much more scenic route. It’s just mile after mile of trees following the curves of New Jersey’s coastline. There’s nothing like stepping on the gas with the windows down, counting the exits ’til you reach the Shore.
6. Fantasy Island
Everyone’s got their summer shore ritual, and this was ours: We’d pick up Nana at her retirement community in Whiting and drive to Long Beach Island. First: dinner at Howard’s with a view of the bay. Then, once the sun had started to set, a trip to Fantasy Island Amusement Park.
We always started at the arcade — a junior version of Atlantic City with fake slot machines that spat out tickets and plastic coins. There were machines filled with bright-colored stuffed animals just there for the taking with a joystick-operated claw — if only you had enough quarters for a few tries. And of course, there was Skee Ball. I was never much for sports, but I was pretty damn good at Skee Ball.
After collecting some plastic prizes, it was off to the park. Every year I’d grow a few more inches and qualify for a few more rides — the Himalaya that cruised backwards and forward to Top 40 hits; the twirling tea cups that made my stomach queasy; the Viking ship that that threatened to flip upside down as it swung back and forth, higher and higher.
The place seemed so huge to me as a kid — and so full of choices: ice cream or funnel cake? Snow cone or cotton candy?
The Ferris wheel was always our final stop. Nana would waive up to us from a bench as my parents and I took in the view of the island glinting with lights.
Fantasy Island is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
7. ‘My truth is that I am a gay American.’
On the afternoon of Aug. 12, 2004, I was doing what any average New Jersey teenager would: chatting with my BFF on AOL Instant Messenger. Meanwhile, Gov. Jim McGreevey was doing what any average New Jersey governor would: making headlines.
I grew up in a bedroom community where the mayor of New York was of more significance than even the governor of New Jersey… Though, perhaps things have changed in the last four years.
But this was big news: The governor was telling the world he was gay, that he’d had an affair with a staffer, and that he was resigning.
I can still remember when that IM came in from my best friend with a link to a news article about it. We were 16 years old and trying to make sense of it. There was no Facebook or Twitter conversation to see what others had to say. No YouTube where we could watch the press conference again and again. It may have been the first time we ever talked politics — and I don’t think we had any idea what we were really talking about.
Years later, I would meet Gov. McGreevey, who by then was going just by “Jim.” There was a small group of people gathered to hear him speak about his new work ministering to women in prison. I was struck by how quickly a story can change.
8. ‘Everybody in New Jersey Was Arrested Today’
It’s safe to say that Gawker headline was rather misleading. But when 44 people — including politicos, rabbis and a guy selling kidneys on the black market — are all picked up by the feds on the on the same day, perhaps we can allow for some hyperbole.
That was July 23, 2009. The following summer, I’d walk into a newsroom for the first time. At The Jersey Journal in Hudson County, the shockwaves of that day were still reverberating in the pages of the paper and in the banter of veteran reporters who now really had seen it all.
That fall, I was assigned to cover Hoboken. One of my first stories was gathering local reactions as former Mayor Peter Cammarano reported to federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. He had pleaded guilty to taking $25,000 in cash bribes from an FBI informant.
One Hoboken lifer told me, standing on her stoop, smoking a cigarette, “If you’re going to go to prison, do it for something big. Twenty-five grand — not worth it.” You just can’t make it up.
9. Oh, Sandy
In Hoboken, we all thought it might not be so bad. But by the time Hurricane Sandy made landfall on Oct. 29, 2012, the Hudson River was angry and grey, and waves were crashing over our famous waterfront. The wind was snapping branches off of the trees. That night, the power went out, and it would stay out for another two weeks. Friends and I huddled in my apartment around the radio. It was not some schlocky disaster film. It was real life.
The next morning, it was off to work — talking to fellow residents who’d been evacuated from their homes, residents who were fed up with flooding, residents who were hungry and cold. In the days that followed, I also talked to people who were uplifted by the generosity of their neighbors, to restaurant owners who offered hot meals for free, to people who set up makeshift charging stations. I was glad to have my work as a radio reporter to distract me from the long, frustrating days of the aftermath.
The following Sunday, Gov. Chris Christie came to town. People clogged the streets outside of City Hall and speakers hooked up to generators played Frank Sinatra songs. The Hoboken police chief sang along into my microphone.
10. The day I learned that Thomas Edison is responsible for all those cat videos on YouTube
On Thursday, June 19, 2014, I attended WHYY’s morning news meeting. The rest is history.