Here at The Common we think a lot about “place,” but that’s not quite the same as thinking about where you’re from, something Sonya Chung recently mulled over in her column for “In House.” I find myself thinking about that topic pretty often, ever since moving to Western Massachusetts for graduate school two years ago. Growing up in New Jersey, twenty-five miles outside of Manhattan, New York City cast a long shadow. “The city” was as much a part of my identity as summer trips down the shore. My father, along with a majority of people in my town, commuted to work in the city every day. He would come home with his coat smelling distinctly like an NJ Transit train car: part newsprint, part stale air.
I felt the sway of New York City most powerfully in terms of sports. With very few exceptions, New Jersey’s teams actually belong to either New York or Philadelphia, and it’s the NY/Philly allegiance that most greatly distinguishes North Jersey from South Jersey. (In a state that’s less than two hundred miles tip-to-tail, that may not seem like such a big deal, but ask anyone from New Jersey—it matters.) As a northern-central New Jerseyan, with parents who are former New Yorkers, our loyalties were clear: Yankees, Knicks, Jets.
Sports-wise, living in Western Massachusetts has been more difficult than I expected; it’s one thing to be a member of the very slim minority when it comes to sports fandom. It’s a different situation entirely when nearly everyone in your adopted hometown also happens to hate all New York teams without compromise. These past two years I’ve found myself clinging a little bit harder to the teams that I grew up with, as if I have to remind myself not only where I’m from but who I am. When the football season began a few weeks back, I once again found myself shrinking from the overwhelming Patriots mania, steering clear of sports bars on game night, lest any locals discover I’m a fan of their division rival and drive me out of town.
When I do admit to someone that I’m a Jets fan, I always qualify it with: “I grew up in New Jersey—it’s not my fault!” It’s a cop-out to say that, but it’s also the truth: I am the product of a place, cast by fate into the suburbs that climb the backs of the Watchung Mountains. And that’s what I tell myself anytime the Pats bumper stickers and ubiquitous Brady jerseys start to get on my nerves: it’s just where they’re from. They can’t help it.
In the South, it’s isn’t the NFL that takes center stage each fall, it’s college ball. Both Frank Deford and Rick Bragg recently noted the fever pitch of South Eastern Conference fans precisely because it’s unique to the region. (I have a friend who used to sign all his emails “Roll Tide,” in a show of solidarity for his Alabama team.) Of course there are college football fans in the Midwest who would stand up and challenge that assertion, but as Deford points out, “it’s impossible to ignore the pride the South feels for its football. As no other section of the country remains so closely connected…so does no other section of the country boast of a regional predominance in any sport. Just because the Yankees have won all these years, the Northeast has never said, ‘Hey, we got the best baseball up here.’” (I can’t argue with that.)
And Bragg put it this way: “For Southerners, to say we do not care [about football] is to invite suspicion. We must know football to be Southern.”
Case in point: Brett Michael Dykes’ essay in the New York Times about the heated rivalry between Alabama and L.S.U. In preparation for his trip to Tuscaloosa, Dykes “made a point not to pack any clothing that might out me as a person with any ties to the state of Louisiana, much less as a Louisiana State fan. I had even put the purple and gold L.S.U.-themed Snuggie…away in a closet a couple of days before heading to Alabama, thinking that its continued daily presence in my visual periphery might subconsciously compromise my objectivity in some way.”
Although being from the Northeast means not having much experience with powerhouse college teams, I still understand Dykes’ nervous hesitancy. I can count the number of times I’ve worn my Jets hat in the last two years on one hand. It’s become more of a decoration in my apartment, hanging prominently on my bedroom door, than a piece of wearable clothing, but I’m beginning to reconsider its status. Just the other day I saw a man in Target wearing a Jets hat and I had to restrain myself from chasing him down for a high-five.
Elizabeth Byrne is the Book Reviews Editor of The Common.
Photo from the Library of Congress