Until you’ve seen it from a bike, you haven’t really seen it. Take my home state of New Jersey. If you drive through the very sizeable towns of Edison, Woodbridge, and Piscataway sealed up in a metal death box — otherwise known as a car — you are not observing the landscape. You are part of the landscape. You are a passive receptacle, a blank space written upon by American capitalism. Why do you think you are rushing frantically to get to nowhere to do nothing? It’s only when you ride 20 miles out in the open, under your own power, that you really begin to understand the “civilization” around you, that you become a subject rather than an object. It is only then that the immense loneliness, the immense emptiness, the immense nothingness of the United States of America begins to reveal itself.
Is there any place more truly American than the state of New Jersey?
Forget the inbred Bible thumpers and gun humpers in the South and the Midwest. There’s nothing very American about those people. They’re still ignorant serfs waiting for orders from their masters, the slave owners of 1861, or the corporate oligarchs of 2019. “I got my gun in my hand and I’ll shoot any nigra or any Mexican that man on Fox TV tells me to.” Forget Boston or New York. That’s old Europe with a few modifications. Forget Seattle or San Francisco. Those are gated communities for the rich, the future neoliberal utopia where the poor have been bred out of existence by their inability to pay the rent or find a place to go to the bathroom. Southern California I guess comes close, but it’s still basically a temporary outpost built on top of a desert, a shimmering mirage destined to disappear when the water runs out or the power gets turned off for good. Chicago perhaps qualifies but I’ve never been there so I really can’t say. Vermont is also in contention. After all, the beautiful lakeside city of Burlington transformed an Eastern Europe Jew from Brooklyn named Bernie into an iconic American rebel known as “the Bern,” a man hated by upper class white feminists and feared by the health insurance industry. But Vermont has too many French people and too little environmental devastation to be genuinely American. Nope, I’m afraid there’s only one place in North America that truly represents the nation founded in 1776 and that’s my very own home state of New Jersey.
This is not a compliment.
Let’s get back to Woodbridge, population 99,000, Edison, population 99,999, and Piscatway, population 56,000. Any one of them could be the largest city in Vermont, Wyoming, or either of the Dakotas, and yet none of them has anything resembling a walkable downtown. I mean literally nothing. You can stand anywhere in Woodbridge and it could just as easily be Edison. You can stand anywhere in Edison and it can just as easily be Woodbridge, and you can stand anywhere in Piscataway and the only way you can even tell you’re in Piscataway is that eventually someone will ask you how to get to the campus of Rutgers University, which is somewhere across the Raritan River and gigantic in size but impossible to find unless you not only have a GPS but have lived in Middlesex County for at least the past 10 years. Woodbridge, Piscataway and Edison are wealthy, educated, multicultural cities and yet there’s nothing there, at least nothing you could call “civilization.” Civilization in Central New Jersey is an ugly 5 bedroom McMansion and a pair of SUVs, and that’s about it. There’s no art. There’s no culture. There’s no beauty, no eccentricity, no identity, nothing to mark it off as someplace people valued and cherished as their home. Oh, human beings have certainly made their mark in Woodbridge, Edison, and Piscataway but nothing about the mark they’ve made is particularly human. It’s business, emptiness, empty business, identical to any one of hundreds of towns all over the United States. It’s prefabricated desolation.
I have no idea why Donald Trump’s moronic followers care so much about immigration. Immigrants don’t change America, at least in Woodbridge, Piscatway and Edison. Conversely, America doesn’t really change immigrants, at least in Woodbridge, Piscataway and Edison. Everybody who comes to central New Jersey from any place in the world, Poles, WASPS, Italians, Indians, Muslims, Asians, Hispanics, Hungarians, Jews, Catholics, Russians, Laplanders and Pacific Islanders, pretty much does the same thing. First you completely repress yourself. You warn your kids “not to talk about politics.” You go to whatever place of worship you go to on whatever day of the way you find holy and you go through the motions but your heart really isn’t in it. What you really want is for your kids to go to the right schools and get onto the right corporate ladder, to have a bigger McMansion and a bigger SUV than your neighbor, to have a bigger bank account, and a bigger dick than your father did. What you really want is to construct your own little world on your own personal little cul de sac, and worship your own household gods, at least when you’re not too busy working to build the altar for those household gods, which of course costs money.
It is a wealthy, prosperous, bleak, empty landscape. Riding 20 miles from downtown New Brunswick, a hideous old city that dates back to the 17th Century and preserved slavery well into the 19th century, back to my house in Cranford — a racist little suburb in Union County hopelessly trying to convince itself that it’s small town America and not part of the New York metropolitan area — is to get lost every three or four blocks, to stop, check Google Maps on my iPhone, and wonder how everything can look so relentlessly the same for so long. That’s really the most exhausting thing about long distance cycling. It’s not the physical toll. My fat, middle-aged body can pedal 100 miles with ease. It’s the sheer exhaustion of riding 10 blocks that feel like 10 miles, feel 10 miles because you don’t know where you are and there’s no variation to let you know you’ve made any progress. It’s easy to ride through a suburban landscape you know by heart. You can simply tune it out and lose yourself in your own thoughts. But riding through 20 miles of nothingness focused on nothingness in order to find your way through nothingness is worse than the labor of Sisyphus. It’s like being in hell.
In fact, in some ways, I’m not afraid of death for hell, if there’s a hell, is probably a lot like central New Jersey. After I die and they put me in my coffin, I’ll simply lift up the lid and get back on my bike. Then I’ll spend the next 100,000 years trying to figure out if I’m truly in the realm of the damned or simply riding through Woodbridge, Edison, and Piscataway, forever.