The Folks Down Under Get the Word at Last

November 6, 2009

(This article – entitled “The Folks Down Under Get the Word at Last” – was originally published in The New York Times on Sunday October 20, 1985, in the New Jersey section, page N.J. 23.  Some 25 years later, it is a bit of an historical artefact, but captures a nice bit of New Jersey impressions.  Bruce Springsteen, at least, continues to make a pretty significant cultural impact.)

Bruce Springsteen and John Sayles have made me p[round to be a New Jerseyan again.  It was not always thus.

In 1970, I lived with 15 other freshmen in a dormitory at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.  I was the only one from New Jersey, and I will never forget the taunts, gibes and New Jersey jokes.

Some years later, in common with many of my high school classmates, I moved to California.  I remember with pride my first California driver’s license.  It even carried a color photograph, something New Jersey didn’t have in those days.

And I remember how I even changed my speech:  “ahrange” (orange) became “awrange” and “Ahregone” (Oregon) became “Awregen.”

As an American living in Australia for the last five years, I am bedevilled by the perpetual inquiry, “Where ya from in the States?”

I used to answer “California.”  Australians understand California.  Most of this country’s television is produced in and around Los Angeles, and many people here have been to Fisherman’s Wharf or Disneyland.

The first time I answered “New Jersey,”, I received a blank stare and a muffled “Oh.”

Australia is a country with some 22 million cows and 17 million people.  England is “home” and that island in the English Channel is the only “Jersey” they know.  For many others, Jersey is a cow.

No longer.

Bruce Springsteen’s tour of major Australian cities like Sydney and Melbourne was sold out within hours.  His “Born in the U.S.A.” was already the top-selling album there, and $20 concert tickets were scalped for more than $200.  His was declared the most successful rock tour since the one by the Beatles.

All of this for a boy from New Jersey.

Australia is different now because of Bruce Springsteen.  In the small university town where I live, I hear teenagers singing “Johnny 99” (about the closing of a plant in the Bergen County community of Mahwah) and “fixing your hair up pretty” from the song “Atlantic City.”

John Sayles, the film director, grew up in Schenectady, N.Y.  At age 33, he is making films for his generation (those of us who went to high school or college in the 1960s or early 1970s).

Australians enjoyed Sayles’ first two films (“Return of the Secaucus Seven” and “Lianna”).  “Baby, It’s You” closed in Sydney after good reviews and an extended run and went on to play throughout the country.

The film, set in Trenton, was shot in Bayonne.  Jill (Rosanna Arquette) and “The Sheik” (Vince Spano), unlikely sweethearts, meet in high school in 1966.  Jill goes to Sarah Lawrence and “The Sheik” to Florida, both to escape and to “make” it.

Neither really does.  Sayles does not infuse Trenton (Bayonne) with a romance it does not have.  He treats it as it is, or rather, was.  He reminds us of the setting where we tried to become adults.

I knew, sitting in the Sydney cinema, that the nuances of “Baby, It’s You” were lost on the Australians.  But for the first time, I began to understand what it was like to grow up in middle-class ethnic New Jersey in the 1960s.

Now I answer “New Jersey” to the question and wait for the slow dawning of recognition.  If not, I tell them about Bruce Springsteen and John Sayles.