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Commencement 2010

Born in the Garden State

Taking Note

By Brian W. Kladko

There are exactly 308 of us at Harvard, according to the admissions office. We all have an ugly fact we've been hiding from the world, especially our Cambridge friends and acquaintances.

We're from New Jersey.

Especially in the first few weeks of freshman year, our home state plagues us, putting a chill on every budding relationship. Personally, I'd like to dump Garden State toxic waste all over the next person who uses that "What exit?" line on me again.

But no longer am I hiding. Nor am I going to take the insults lying down. This summer changed me, changed all of us. We no longer need to be ashamed of our home address.

One man, a man with a vision, a voice, and line after line of verse that has set America on edge, has caused us to lift our heads up high and shout, "Yes, we're from New Jersey!"

His name is Bruce Springsteen, but you can call him Bruce.

The Boss was born and raised in Freehold, a classic Jersey Town near the shore. He still lives in Jersey, in the shore town of Red Bank. (If you must ask, that's exit 109 off the Garden State Parkway).

But he doesn't just live in New Jersey. He is New Jersey. He's exhaust-choked freeways lit up by garish neon signs (see "Born to Run"). He's wild nights at the Jersey shore (see "Greetings from Asbury Park"). He's boring towns where there's nothing to do on a Saturday night anymore except write songs about them (see "Born in the U.S.A.").

Before this summer, Bruce didn't erase my misguided shame about coming from the "nation's armpit." But this summer was different, no denying it.

Bruce became an American god.

And I became one of his born-again disciples of New Jersey pride.

The man was able to immobilize telephone lines three times--once in New Jersey (of course), once in Pennsylvania, and once in Washington, D.C. Whenever and wherever a Springsteen concert was announced, pandemonium erupted. When the D.C. date became public, even the White House had trouble communicating whatever it had to communicate all day long. Bruce was even banned from playing in Fox-borough, Mass., an honor previously accorded to Michael Jackson. That means he's really big.

His concerts are just one barometer of the Springsteen-New Jersey movement. Sales of his 1984 album, "Born in the U.S.A.," have reached 5 million. Singles from that album still dominate both AM and FM. Even The New York Times loves him: "Like every rock megastar, he has crystallized something millions of people are thinking about...He has clearly struck a nerve."

I have to admit, I never went to one of his concerts. There's no way I am going to wait 24 hours for any kind of ticket. Nor do I have all of his albums.

But I figure that worshipping Springsteen is pretty much the same as worshipping the standard gods. You don't have to see them to believe in them, nor do you have to hear everything they said to believe the message.

And now it's not only OK to come from the Garden State, it's admirable. People are not just turning on to Springsteen when they buy his records or go to a concert--they're turning on to New Jersey. Springsteen and Jersey are one and the same, swirled together and inseparable.

Of course, Bruce doesn't just go around and promote New Jersey blatantly. That just wouldn't work, for obvious reasons. No, what Bruce has done is nothing short of genius. He has turned people on to Jersey without them even knowing it. He has made the unglamourous and uninteresting into something, well, glamourous and interesting. With his bulging biceps, faded jeans, 48-hour shadow, and gravelly voice he has conned the American public into liking something they thought they'd never like--the armpit of the country.

After years of persecution at the hands of comedians, our time has come. Walk proud, fellow Jerseyites. America's messiah has come, and we are his chosen people.

So we no longer have to grit our teeth anymore when some wise guy asks us what exit we live off. Just think of Bruce and his odes to Jersey highways. Look them straight in the eye and say, "Exit 38 off Route 287. It's really a great exit. Bruce even has a reference to it in one of his songs."

That should wipe a smirk off anyone's face. Even a New Yorker's.

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Commencement 2010Class of 1985