Wednesday, January 17, 2007

"So what do you have to say for yourself?"

I peered up at the man in the booth as I forked over my sixty cents. A bit dumbfounded, I smiled at the kindly old man who took my change.

"Nothing?"

I shrugged my shoulders. "I'm headed south. That's about it. Can't say I'm excited about it."

He laughed and smiled and wished me a good day. I did the same to him, rolled up my windows, and continued straight ahead to get onto the Turnpike South to make the long journey back to Drew. I thought about that conversation for quite a few miles. It was seemingly insignificant, but it highlighted to me the many differences between my New England and New Jersey.

Something about New Jersey has always made me cringe just a little bit inside. Ok, I'm lying. Many things about New Jersey put me on edge: the drivers, the hordes of people, the number of cars, the tangle of highways, seeing shopping center after shopping center loom on the horizon...and I could go on.

The lack of nature here really bothers me. Let me be more specific - of course there's nature in New Jersey. There are beaches galore, trees, meadows, and flowers. However, I look at the nature here and it's...tame. The beaches are built up, the forests looked planned (even if they aren't), and flowers grow here and there as if they were planted with the precision of some town planner. It's not really nature.

There's no "wild" to it, like up in Maine or Massachusetts where areas of land remain unscathed by human hands. Even in the more built-up parts of Northern New England, the trees and flowers don't look planned - they act as if they belonged there by right. New Jersey nature, on the other hand, bows in service to humanity, as if it was ashamed to be there.

There's more to this difference than nature's demeanor. People are also very different here in New Jersey. As Ben likes to put it - you can tell by the people who check you out at the grocery store and by the people who take your money at the toll booth. My interaction with the Maine toll guy was so different than my encounters with the toll-takers on the GSP. Half the time, they won't look at you. The other half of the time, they silently stare. On the rare occasion you do get someone to speak to you, it's a mumbled "Thanks" as you drop your coins into their hands. I always make it a point to say "hello" and "have a nice day" and "thank you" - but it just doesn't seem to get through. I am having a small victory, however, with one toll person who apparently is starting to recognize me as I come through week after week.

People in New England are much more friendly. Having conversations is more of a natural occurrence in Maine; down here, people would more than likely look at you strange if you tried to strike up a conversation with you. I suppose it's the influence of the New York attitude, but while New Englanders appear cold and gruff on the outside, they are more genuine and friendly on the inside.

I do realize that this is a gross generalization. There are nice people from New Jersey; I've even met several. There are beautiful spots in nature; I've seen them as I go whizzing past on the highway. But truth be told, New England feels different. To me, it feels better - and much more like home.

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