jen groeber: mama art

4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.

In the Beginning There Was Jersey Girl

What was the first CD you bought?

It was 1990 and I was torn between Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Box Set Live 1975-1985 and U2’s Joshua Tree (and maybe the soundtrack from Pretty Woman, but that’s both embarrassing and goes without saying…) In the end I chose Bruce. Because the first time I saw his ass in those jeans on the Born in the USA album, I hit puberty. Trust me. Also, I wanted that song, Jersey Girl.

Now I wasn’t always a Bruce Springsteen Jersey Girl. I was actually more of a Bon Jovi Jersey girl. You know, more hairspray, less flannel, more mall, less steel mill.


My hair and I, hanging out in the senior hall

But then I applied to Yale and got in.

That summer before college was like living a Springsteen song. Really. I would drive over to a bar literally called The Jug Handle (it’s a Jersey highway thing) where I’d flour chicken wings in the 99°  hallway of a garage, with my best friend and two Polish guys who’d threaten us with knives.

My beastie and I, flouring wings  Who knew that many refrigerators could make so much heat?  Summer 1989

My bestie and I, flouring wings
Summer 1989

Then I’d change in the bathroom into tight leggings, teased up hair, huge gold hoop earrings and a leopard print shirt with shoulder pads up to my earrings to wait tables inside.

Polish guys with knives. You couldn't make this stuff up.  Summer 1989

Polish guys with knives. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
Summer 1989

There I was working with weary women and men who’d literally talk about glory days down by the quarry and drag racing down the shore. And then they’d drop another basket of wings into the deep fryer, overfill another glass of beer, and set it  on the bar for the guys who’d show up at 11 am to drink and watch women doing aerobics on the two old televisions teetering on shelves near the ceiling.

Afterwards I’d race home in my dad’s 1982 Chrysler Le Baron convertible, shower the stink of chicken grease out of my hair, spray some fresh Aqua Net and put on an angora-blend Forenza sweater (with equally padded shoulders) and high-waisted pleated trousers to head to the mall for my job at The Limited. From the bar to the mall, the mall to the bar, I’d squirrel away whatever money I could.

When I’d first started working at the bar, my neighbor showed me around pointing out the cheap beer and old-timey cash register. He said that I was working at a place like this so that I knew why I had to go off to college. He said he wanted me working hard every summer, and then when I’d graduated, he hoped to never see me in that bar again. At The Limited the other girls would page me over the store intercom, “Yale. You have a call on line one. Yale? Line one.” It always got a laugh.

And so when I finally showed up to Yale in the fall of 1989, officially a student, with my bank account well-enough stocked and my suitcase full of useless blazers, silk blouses and pleated trousers, I thought I was ready.

The first day as I primped at the mirror with my mascara and Aqua Net, hoop earrings and scarf, my Greenwich, Connecticut roomie, dressed in a prep school t-shirt, pajama bottoms and Birkenstocks, pointed at my Bon Jovi hair and said, “You are not going out like that.” And so I put the hairspray away and combed my hair out, switched out the earrings, lost the scarf. I adapted.

Freshman dorm  Fall 1989

Freshman dorm
Fall 1989

When people asked where I was from, I’d say, “Near Philly.” But someone would invariably pipe up, “New Jersey!” When my roommate’s father pulled up in a green Porsche coupe to take us out, I guffawed. “You want me to get in that thing?! There’s, like, a homeless guy right there watching us.” And when in my sophomore year I found out that one roommate had been “introduced into society at her debutant ball” I fell off the couch laughing, yelling, “No WAY!” And then I found out that actually all three roommates had had some sort of official “deb” ball, white dresses and all. Such an awkward moment…

I mean, Princeton University is in New Jersey. Why did it feel like I came from a place unfit for membership in academia?

Who knew?

Who knew that coming from a family of such tragically terrible health issues, with a retarded brother, sister with disabilities and father on tube feeding, that it would be my class, or lack thereof, that would leave me feeling like such a misfit? I was clever enough, but there were gaps in my education, things that my own children know at age six, that I didn’t know at age eighteen.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the friends I made (even if most of them were debutants) and I learned an unbelievable amount about various cultures, history, the world, myself. But most days it felt like I caught a surprise glimpse of myself in some cosmic metaphorical mirror and was left thinking, “Wait. Is that what I actually look like? Seriously?!

The thing I realized in years following my graduation from college is that we were all misfits in one way or another. Like in the Baghavad Gita of my generation, The Breakfast Club, we were the dork, the jock, the outsider. One roommate would later come out (how she must have hated that debutant ball.) Other college friends would slowly make peace with whatever it was from their family that marked them -the divorce, dad’s mistress, their sexual orientation, race, class or religion, the eating disorder, the pressure- until they could grasp ahold of who they were as individuals, separate from all the trappings childhood had handed them.

At graduation we wore Mickey Mouse graduation caps we’d bought over spring break, just enough self-deprecating humor to color the big day. And we listened to our graduation speaker, Jodie Foster, reflect on her days at Yale.

I’m going to plod ahead before everybody wakes up and kicks me off the podium. I suspect that this is an example of the typical Yale impostor syndrome… It’s the one where you hear the clock ticking and you wait for some kind of stewardess to tap you on the shoulder and say “I’m sorry. I’m afraid we’ve made a terrible mistake in the records department. I’m afraid you’re an idiot; you don’t know what you’re talking about. Kindly remove those potato chips from your mouth and follow me to the dungeon.”

Wait, wait, wait, am I the only one that ever thought that?

~Jodie Foster, Class Day Speech, 1993

We would all go on to become doctors, artists, authors, lovers, mothers and fathers, eschewing so much of what defined us in those early days. And Jodie Foster was right; I would open up Forbes Magazine, flip through the New York Times, turn on NPR, and recognize the faces and voices of classmates changing the world in large ways and small ones.

I sing to my children sometimes at night, and one of their favorite songs is Springsteen’s Thunder Road. I try to explain its meaning to my kids, ‘the skeleton frames of burnt out Chevrolets. They scream your name at night in the streets, your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet.’

It seems to have something to do with the mysterious time between being a child where you accept all that has been, and being an adult, relentlessly pushing through what is. That in-between is a shedding of the past, a burst of freedom, too many surprise glimpses in the cosmic metaphorical mirror, a screen door slamming and a dash to the street. It’s ripping away the things that were put on us in order for us to find what lies beneath.

And in the aftermath, to pick up a few relics of the past, the ones that matter most, the ones that still define us a little bit anyway.

Go in the bathroom and put your makeup on
We’re gonna take that little brat of yours and drop her off at your mom’s
I know a place where the dancing’s free
Now baby won’t you come with me

‘Cause down the shore everything’s all right
You and your baby on a Saturday night
Nothing matters in this whole wide world
When you’re in love with a Jersey girl

Bruce Springsteen~ Jersey Girl (by Tom Waits)

[This was written as part of WordPress’ Weekly Writing Challenge, In the Beginning. And it was sponsored by Aqua Net; we had no idea the damage it was doing to the environment, but oh, what it did for our hair.]

16 comments on “In the Beginning There Was Jersey Girl

  1. Burns the Fire
    June 26, 2014

    I feel a book coming on. With pictures.

  2. Margie S
    June 26, 2014

    You Jersey girls can’t claim all of the bragging rights, in the 80’s, us Boston (pronounced Bawstin) girls had aqua net, giant hair and earrings, too. I have no doubt that you have made Yale proud! They knew a good thing when they saw it.

    • jgroeber
      June 26, 2014

      I think my “hook” in the Yale admissions process may have been the cultural diversity I’d bring… not so much Aqua Net being sprayed on the freshman campus at Yale, even in 1989. And I bet Boston girls totally rocked it. Although, who was your band? Hard to beat Bon Jovi and Bruce as your representatives!

      • Margie S
        June 28, 2014

        Lol, we do have a few but fell in love with Aerosmith, listening to 8-tracks. They all rock. Honestly, do you like listening to Bon Jovi or looking at him?

  3. reikiday
    June 27, 2014

    Brilliant. Not that I expected anything less than, but still.

    • jgroeber
      June 27, 2014

      How awesome are you for reading? Really. Baby got you up? Go sleep! (And thank you so much for stopping by and for corroborating the Polish men with knives.)

  4. adventureswiththepooh
    June 27, 2014

    Another great one. You go, girl.

    • jgroeber
      July 7, 2014

      Thank you, college pal. I sense the story of not quite assimilating (but faking it nonetheless) is not just my own.

  5. Brett Morris
    June 27, 2014

    Boston has Aerosmith don’t they?
    You were an awesome Jersey Girl.

    • jgroeber
      July 7, 2014

      From one who can bear witness to the glorious bouff of hair I wore… Thank you. And yes, there’s Aerosmith… But nothing beats the one-two punch of 1989 Bruce AND Bon Jovi.

  6. Michele
    June 27, 2014

    Love Love Love this one! Very well written…. Cough Cough Aqua net??? I used Vidal Sassoon I think??? (Spelling????) Keep on blogging Jennie!!!

    • jgroeber
      July 7, 2014

      Ha! Vidal Sassoon also packed a punch. And you know what they say. Beauty is in the eye of the hairspray holder. 😉
      (I’ll always remember driving in your car listening to You Give Love a Bad Name. Talk about quintessential Jersey days.)

  7. Pingback: Palermo Palms | litadoolan

What? I'm totally listening. Tell me. No, really, tell me.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 4,314 other followers

Follow jen groeber: mama art on
%d bloggers like this: