When you tell somebody you grew up in New Jersey, people assume certain things – namely, that your father was the model for Tony Soprano, or that you have a heavy accent that sounds kind of like Brooklyn by way of a kazoo on steroids, or that your home was wedged on the corner of Chemical Factory Lane and Smokestack Way. And there is some truth to this narrow vision of New Jersey.
But my New Jersey was Hunterdon County, a beautiful swath of land directly across the river from Bucks County. I ran around fields and forests when I wasn't playing softball on neatly manicured diamonds in pristine parks, or reading books from the well-funded local library. And because I grew up in one of the only remaining agricultural strongholds in New Jersey, where the game butcher wasn't too far from the dirt racetrack, I grew up in a slice of what some pundits call "Real America," which is to say: white, Republican, and far fonder of guns than gays.
My hometown sits just about halfway between Manhattan and Philly, but at times it feels a world away from forward-thinking major cities. The county where I was raised overwhelmingly favored Donald Trump in 2016. Flemington's biggest claim to fame besides an outlet mall and being the birthplace of E Street Band keyboardist Danny Federici (R.I.P.) is that the Lindbergh baby murder trial was held there. In 2018, it does not seem so odd to me that rampant xenophobia characterized the coverage of the trial. Charles Lindbergh later joined the racist America First movement and urged the government to negotiate with Hitler. When I was growing up, local high school kids and community-theater actors reenacted the trial each summer. They sold tickets. For some reason, no one in Flemington thought that was incredibly bizarre.
And yet, Flemington isn't at all far from New Hope, which was the closest place to go to see drag queens, punks, and hardcore bands; to get your ears or tongue pierced; to get a tattoo; to see theater; to watch poetry slams; to do the things that, in the '90s, it was not always possible to do in Flemington.
I don't exactly fit in in Flemington, but I love Flemington. I love Hunterdon County. Loving where you grew up can sometimes be rare in show business; many of us fled places where we were ostracized or simply bored in order to act or do stand-up or direct or write in Los Angeles or New York.
I have a podcast called Where Ya From? on which I interview people like actors Ben Stiller and Adam Pally about their origin stories. To my surprise, I have found that many of my guests, like Stiller, bestselling author Michael Arceneaux, and podcast host Krystyna Hutchinson, love where they grew up – Manhattan, Houston, and North Wales, respectively. Pally was raised in Livingston, in Essex County, and he seems to like it just fine.
Musician Jonathan Coulton enjoyed Colchester, Conn. Actor Thomas Sadoski (Life in Pieces) isn't particularly fond of College Station, Texas, but he loves the friends he made there. And I get that. Because I'm glad I'm from Flemington. I'm glad I made the friends I made. Growing up there, in this island of homogenous rural culture in one of the most diverse and densely populated states in the nation, gave me the ability to relate to people from political and religious backgrounds quite different from my own. It gave me a lasting love for the beauty of nature, and a lasting appreciation for and dedication to the economic prosperity of small family farmers.
Flemington was "normal." Flemington made me weird. And I'll never stop being grateful for that.
Comedian Sara Benincasa is the author of five books, including "Real Artists Have Day Jobs." She hosts the podcast "Where Ya From?" and lives in Los Angeles.
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