Long before other states became the butt of national jokes about their hanging chads (Florida), crooked governors (Illinois) or latte loving lifestyle (California), there was New Jersey.
The Garden State existed in an alternative reality of Snookis and Guidos on MTV's "Jersey Shore," with mobbed up Sopranos in velour track suits and big hair as far as the eye could see. Then Hurricane Sandy struck the state in October -- leaving at least six dead in a wide swath of destruction -- and suddenly real life in New Jersey didn't seem so funny.
It took weeks to restore power to much of the state, and with thousands of hurricane victims facing a cold, dark holiday season, a group of New Jersey expatriates from around the Bay Area have banded together to launch "A Very Jersey Xmas," a nationwide campaign for storm relief. Using Mountain View-based crowdfunding Web platform Fundly, organizers are throwing a party where revelers are encouraged to "Jersey up" Christmas in the guise of their favorite Jersey character (such as Bruce Springsteen, Tony Soprano or Queen Latifah).
A Chris Christie impersonator is expected. The faux governor is rumored to be in seclusion -- carbo loading.
Like Christie, the state's corpulent capo, New Jersey is big boned. Eight million residents and a lot of hair spray make it the most densely populated -- and in many ways stickiest to leave -- state in the nation. "It means you have these intense, shared experiences," explained Jersey transplant Pat Reilly, a publicist who served as Willie Brown's press secretary when he ran for mayor of San Francisco and now is spearheading the effort to raise funds. "Watching Sandy bear down on my friends and family, on my state, was terrifying."
She's from Bloomfield, which Reilly described as "five miles long, two miles wide, with 20 pizza parlors. And I probably worked at 10 of them." Like many Jerseyites, she spent summers at the shore, where the hurricane ripped up miles of historic boardwalk. "For me, seeing the Seaside Heights rollercoaster in the Atlantic was like seeing the Golden Gate Bridge in the Pacific," she said. "That boardwalk is a landmark that almost defines what it means to be from Jersey. I lost my retainer on that rollercoaster back in 1979."
Jim Gold, who is going old school to the party as Hoboken native Frank Sinatra, grew up in Montclair, N.J., before moving to the Bay Area to work at SAP Labs in Palo Alto. "There's a sense of horror and helplessness seeing it from 3,000 miles away," he said. "I spent countless hours on the boardwalk at places that are now underwater, places that are iconic for so many of us."
Bill Clerico, the 27-year-old CEO of Palo Alto startup WePay, rallied to support his home state after returning from a Thanksgiving visit there. "It's crazy," Clerico said. "You drive through places like Seabright, and it's like driving through a canyon -- there's debris piled on either side of the road. Growing up in that area, the ocean was what we did every day during summer, we'd be down at the beach club. And all those places are gone, or changed forever."
Reilly said fundraising efforts like "A Very Jersey Xmas" weren't possible even five years ago, but crowdfunding sites like Fundly -- powered by WePay -- have allowed small nonprofits and short-term relief efforts like hers to reach beyond a door-to-door donor base. "The idea is that a lot of people come together on the Internet to make something awesome happen," said Dave Boyce, CEO of Fundly. "With people's friends networks already assembled on the Internet, the ability to use those same networks to do something more than play virtual Scrabble has only become available in the last few years."
The superstorm also made landfall in New Jersey's neighboring state, New York, where national media make their homes. Boyce said that on the Fundly platform, fundraising for aid in the two states has probably run about 75 percent in favor of New York. "The devastation was similar," he said, "but (Jerseyites) haven't seen the same coverage."
That's true even though New York, unlike Jersey, is not a place inclined to think of itself as just "York." The organizers of "A Very Jersey Xmas" haven't hesitated to have fun with the stereotypes that once made their beloved state a bit of a joke.
"Part of being from New Jersey is you don't have that chip on your shoulder that New York does," Reilly explained. "What other state in the nation has so many characters who can be identified with one word? Snooki? Bruce? And I think that speaks to New Jersey's character. It's a state filled with real people who can take a joke."
Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004. Follow him at Twitter.com/BruceNewmanTwit.
The party is at Temple Nightclub in San Francisco on Dec. 5 from 6 to 9 p.m. Donation levels range from $10 (the "Snooki") to $1,000 (the "Real Housewives of New Jersey"). Proceeds from the parties will go to the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund (http://fundly.com/very-jersey-christmas-sf).
are you from Jersey?
New Jersey has produced many famous names. Here are a few:
Bud Abbott, comedian, Asbury Park
Lou Costello, comedian, Paterson
Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, astronaut, Montclair
Judy Blume, author, Elizabeth
Jon Bon Jovi, musician, Sayreville
David Copperfield, magician, Metuchen
Allen Ginsberg, poet, Newark
Whitney Houston, entertainer, Newark
Ernie Kovacs, comedian, Trenton
Jerry Lewis, comedian, film director, Newark
Norman Mailer, author, Long Branch
Jack Nicholson, actor, Neptune City
William "Count" Basie, band leader, Red Bank
Joe Piscopo, comedian, actor, Passaic
Antonin Scalia, Supreme Court justice, Trenton
Norman Schwarzkopf, Army general, Trenton
Frank Sinatra, singer, actor, Hoboken
Kevin Spacey, actor, South Orange
Bruce Springsteen, musician, Freehold
Meryl Streep, actress, Summit
Sarah Vaughan, jazz singer, Newark
Dionne Warwick, actress, pop singer, East Orange
Ray Liotta, actor, Newark