There is just something about New Jersey that breeds a certain type of life and by extension, a certain type of person. It’s as if all those murky swamps, water gaps and rivers formed a natural economy that led to the confluence of jug handles, diners and highway stink. This in turn, begat an enormous amount of interstate travel options, which caused a lot of lost travelers to just settle in New Jersey rather than spend another hour on the Turnpike or its better looking sister The Parkway. This would at least explain how New Jersey came to be the most densely populated state (with a whopping twenty percent of the population foreign born). Of course, crowded areas make for strange bedfellows, which is how it is that soccer moms and gangsters can shop at the same stores and how such disparate entities as the World’s Oldest Nudist Camp, the Medieval Times Theme Park/Dinner Theater and the International Castor Oil Association can all co-exist in perfect harmony.

But I would argue that there is a larger factor shaping the people of New Jersey and that is that with the exception of Mall Rats and nail salon owners, just about everyone from the Garden State wants to escape. And because New Jersey is such a difficult state to escape from (mostly because wherever you turn there are tolls and tunnels all requiring cash payment), there is little room for error. You have to be strong, fierce, determined, tenacious and good with maps.In its essence, New Jersey is one giant chrysalis, inside which all us desperate caterpillars spin and rotate until we can become butterflies and fly away.

And much like the way that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a tornado in Texas, the escaped people of New Jersey exert tremendous influence over the world as we know it.

Take Bruce Willis as an example.

Walter Bruce Willis grew up in Penns Grove, New Jersey and later went on to become the uber, box-office success that he is today. But let’s suppose for just a moment that Walter Bruce Willis didn’t grow up in the armpit of the nation. Let’s say for argument’s sake, he grew up in Akron, Ohio. What would have happened?

For starters, he would’ve most definitely stuck with his first name, Walter, and Walter would have grown up content with his surroundings, comfortable in his own skin and state. He would have vacationed at Cedar Point, made out with girls to the strains of The Michael Stanley Band and eventually found work in the tire business.After that he would probably have married a local girl, with a name like Elizabeth or Mandy. They would have had two children and passed their leisure hours watching college football or visiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.And life for Walter and his family would have been just dandy, until 1995 when Russian nuclear missiles would have attacked the Eastern seaboard, killing millions instantly and causing others, including Walter, to die a slow and debilitating death from radiation poisoning.

But, Walter Bruce Willis grew up in New Jersey and due to that intrinsic desire to escape, he pushed himself to the limits and ended up becoming one of the world’s greatest movie stars. Of course, this wasn’t all Bruce did. Let’s pause for a moment and ponder a few of his minor accomplishments:

He coined the phrase, “Yippie Ki Yay, Motherfucker” thus enabling tough guys the world over to replace the outmoded and circumstantially limiting “I’ll be back!”

He named his daughter Scout, which in turn boosted readership of To Kill A Mockingbird.

He divorced his wife Demi, whose name I might add is actually a preposition. The resulting coverage of the divorce and Demi’s subsequent relationship boosted People magazine to record profits. The result was a rise of Time Warner Inc. stock prices, which in turn fueled the bull market.

But all of these pale in comparison to his most major accomplishment which occurred in 1994, when he agreed to star in the Color of Night. The film was instantly green-lit and ultimately made. And though it was panned by critics and is considered to be one of his lesser box office successes, the film was in fact responsible for saving the lives of millions, thus proving the Butterfly Effect once and for all.

Color of Night starred Bruce opposite the very toothy Jane March and was an intricate story involving sex, psychiatry, art and murder.But what most people don’t know is that Color of Night is the favored viewing of the sea-based leg of the United States Strategic Deterrent Forces (a.k.a. the SSBN), who prowl the oceans in sleek, stealthy submarines for one hundred day stints. Their primary mission:Nuclear deterrence. Their mission profile: To avert war while remaining undetected. There isn’t a crew member on the force, who won’t testify to the positive masturbatorial effect that Color Of Night has on the entire SSBN fleet.Something about that Jane March keeps them lucid, clear headed and alert, which is a good thing because on the morning of January 25, 1995, Norwegian scientists launched the largest sounding rocket ever from Andoya Island off the coast of Norway. Designed to study the northern lights, the rocket followed a trajectory to nearly nine hundred thirty miles altitude. To Russian radar technicians, who were no doubt foggy from the plethora of substandard Eastern European porn, the rocket appeared to mimic the flight of a U.S. Trident missile. From their perspective it seemed obvious that the U.S. was trying to blind Russian radar by detonating a nuclear warhead high in the atmosphere, so it could then launch an attack of some sort on Mother Russia. The response time was nearly instantaneous and Russia was suddenly poised to launch a full-scale, pre-emptive nuclear attack on the United States. President Boris Yeltsin put down his vodka, activated his “nuclear football” and lo and behold, WWIII was on . The United States scrambled to find an answer and thankfully it arrived from a SSBN crewman, who after a recent viewing of Color of Night, was so clear headed, lucid and mentally sharp that he determined that the rocket was no rogue, Neo-Con-guided Trident, but rather an annoying Norwegian rocket. Yeltsin got the message just in time and put away the nuclear football. The Eastern Seaboard was saved and millions were spared the debilitating death by radiation poisoning. To this very day, whenever statesmen discuss the Norwegian Rocket Incident, they secretly thank Bruce Willis for getting Color of Night made, because even the most inexperienced spy can tell you, that Jane March could never have gotten that movie green-lit alone.

All this, from one tiny escaped butterfly from New Jersey’s polluted chrysalis.

What follows is a list of other people from New Jersey.

Buzz Aldrin, Bud Abbot, Jason Alexander, Charles Addams, Count Basie,Yogi Berra, Robert Blake, Judy Blume, Jon Bon Jovi, Zach Braff , Grover Cleveland, Tom Cruise, James Fenimore Cooper, Lou Costello, Steven Crane, Danny DeVito, Helen Gahagan Douglas, Michael Douglas, Thomas Edison, Connie Francis, Jon Forsythe, Daisy Fuentes, Derek Jeter, Allen Ginsberg, Leslie Gore, William Frederick Halsey Jr., Lauryn Hill, Whitney Houston, Ice T, Alfred C. Kinsey, Ernie Kovacs, Dorothea Lange, Huey Lewis, Jerry Lewis, Norman Mailer, Thomas Mitchell, Jay Mohr, Ricky Nelson, Jack Nicholson, Shaquille O’Neill, Joe Pesci, Zebulon Mongomery Pike, Joe Piscopo, Paul Robeson, Philip Roth, Antonin Scalia, Norman Schwarzkopf, Brooke Shields, Elizabeth and Andrew Shue, Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra, Tony Soprano, Kevin Spacey, Steven Spielberg, Bruce Springsteen, Alfred Stieglitz, Meryl Streep, Dave Thomas, John Travolta, Frankie Vallie, Sarah Vaughan, Dionne Warwick, Denzel Washington, William Carlos William.

Consider the Butterfly Effect that each one of them has had on the world, then see if you have something lousy to say about New Jersey after that. Better yet, the next time you meet someone who is originally from New Jersey, thank them, because the odds are, their very existence has no doubt helped maintain the delicate balance that ultimately allows for all life on earth to exist.

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KRISTEN BUCKLEY is a screenwriter, memoirist, and novelist. Her produced screenplays include How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, 102 Dalmatians and the upcoming Shoe Addicts Anonymous. Her first novel, The Parker Grey Show, was published in 2002, and her memoir Tramps Like Us was published in 2005. Her essay, "What I Am Is What I Am" appeared in About Face (2008, Ed. Christina Baker Klein) and her horribly embarrassing personal tale, "Escape from Downtown" was recently included in Larry Doyle's, I Love You Beth Cooper (Larry now owes her). She currently lives in Los Angeles. You can read her daily posts on her website KristenBuckley.com.

16 responses to “Tramps Like Us”

  1. Richard Cox says:

    This post is what would happen if Dan Brown exchanged his mock turtleneck for an Affliction T-shirt.

    Fact mixed with fiction on the Jersey shore.

  2. Irene Zion says:


    I just finished telling Joe Daly that Bruce Willis was capable of saving the world. (He had this ridiculous idea that Kevin Costner might be the one. HA!)
    I can’t wait to tell him!

    • Joe Daly says:

      Irene- I am sticking by my comment that Kevin Costner has one good Apocalypse left in him. While Bruce might give his life to safe the world, we still need guys like Kevin Costner in the aftermath, being all pissy and reluctant while inexplicably attracting followers. Unless it’s in water. Then I can take him or leave him.

  3. Joe Daly says:

    Great piece, Kristen! As a Bostonian transplanted here in San Diego, I find myself often explaining to Californians why I did or said something. Such explanations are never required for anyone in the Tri-State or New England area, because we simply know what it’s like to be pushed together in a big ol’ sweaty, grey, irritable stew of culture. I have New Jersey natives across the street and next door. They get it.

    Well done.

  4. Speaking as someone who spent his teenage years in the piney sticks of Forked River, NJ (with a clear view of a nuclear power plant outside my bedroom window), I just loved this piece. Yes, indeed. It does take a special breed of person to live in Jersey. And it takes a certain breed of individual to escape it, and to live to tell the tale.

  5. Lorna says:

    As one who escpaed from a small armpit of a town in CA (most call it that, anyway), I can relate. I’d love to have a Jersey accent for a couple days and sort of take it on a trial run. Fun read. I shall now go stretch my wings.

  6. Greg Olear says:

    I view NJ as the Ireland of the United States — we produce a disproportionate number of talented people, especially creative types, who leave as soon as they can.

    Hailing from the Garden State, I enjoyed this piece. I always forget Willis is from NJ…he’s not the Bruce we care about.

  7. angela says:

    i second Greg’s statement! Bruce Springsteen will always be the only NJ bruce for me, and not just cuz his aunt was my third grade teacher, and once back in 1984, Clarence Clemons hurt his back in the Friendly’s where my brother’s friend’s mom was a waitress and had to take him to the hospital, where my algebra teacher was with his son, and where, sitting in the park lot, they claim a Cadillac pulled alongside them, a window rolled down, and it was Bruce himself asking where the E/R was, and while my algebra teacher calmly (somewhat) told him, his 14-year old son died a thousand deaths.

    anyway, great piece, kristen! and thank you for the excuse to tell my bruce springsteen story. 🙂

  8. Simon Smithson says:

    There’s a book on the Sopranos that makes the excellent point that if you dropped the ‘New’ from anything else, people wouldn’t know what you were talking about – but say ‘Jersey’, and everyone knows instantly.

    Thank you, Jersey, for my continued existence, and the existence of those who I love and cherish.

  9. It’s all about Jersey pride. I spent my entire adolescence trying to figure out how to escape, now I can’t wait to take my kids to Seaside Heights! Jersey is great – the people are the best…

  10. One other note re the Costner/Willis situation mentioned above: There’s no WAY Kevin Costner could ever save the world. Where is this Costner thing coming from? Swing Vote? For the Love of the Game? The Upside of Anger? Waterworld? vs… hmm… Die Hard 1-4, Twelve Monkeys (if you haven’t seen the movie that inspired it La Jetee – do so)? Pulp Fiction? Bruce always trumps Kevin. Which reminds me, once I was playing poker at this celebrity poker thing and I was at the table with Bruce Willis, and Don Cheadle and Jon Farvreau, and Sly Stallone of all people (don’t ask why I was invited, I don’t know), and I was losing, and sulking, and muttering ‘this sucks’ and then I won a hand and I CHEERED, and basically I gloated as I pulled in all the chips – then Bruce smiled at me and said, “Doesn’t suck now, does it?” and I giggled like a three-year-old. Oh, and I was also sitting with John Cusack, and I kept wanting to ask him to say lines from SAY ANYTHING but I didn’t because I was so shocked by the size of his enormous head. Now that I think about it, I think John Cusack would be a better choice to save the world than Kevin Costner. He would just raise his boom-box and play In Your Eyes and the world would be saved.

  11. I just spent a surreal day in Asbury Park where I strolled the boardwalk and had a really fabulous lunch in a “surf shop/art gallery/restaurant.” While I was there a cheerleading competition was being held in the convention center on the boardwalk — large groups of cheerleaders were everywhere performing stunts, warming up, taking pictures, giggling while their mothers/coaches ushered them from one location to the next all wearing eerily similar outfits that included enormous designer handbags, dark hair and Juicy Couture sweatsuits. Into the middle of this carnival a large black bus pulls up and a wedding party disembarks. The bridesmaids wore black strapless dresses with enormous red roses pinned to their impressive examples of cleavage, along with very high, very teased black hair rocking the bump-it look — they were all — groomsmen included — carrying fistfuls of red balloons. When the bride and groom joined them they released the balloons and then started posing like they were about to be on the cover of Rolling Stone ( before it experienced shrinkage).
    I LOVE New Jersey.
    I shot three rolls of film….

  12. Judy Prince says:

    “Demi, whose name I might add is actually a preposition”

    “escaped people of New Jersey exert tremendous influence over the world”

    Kristen, this was an awesome piece. Your extended riffs on Bruce Willis
    and The Color of Night exemplifying Chaos Theory is glorious original
    comedy; your wit the flavour throughout.

  13. JWo says:

    Jersey is one of a kind! My mom is from Trenton. “Trenton Makes the World Takes”.

  14. Thanks for all the kind words!

  15. Mary says:

    Oh, New Jersey! It’s like a kid brother who is usually obnoxious, but when he has a good idea and pulls it off, it’s a really good one. Really funny piece. Thank God for Bruce Willis.

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