I first started reading the news when I was pretty young. I don't remember how young--six or seven probably--but at some point my parents noticed I was taking an interest in the issues of Newsweek and National Geographic my dad sometimes left lying around, and, perhaps unaware that they were letting loose a horrifying daily compendium of sex and violence and man's inhumanity to man on a first grader, subscribed to the New Jersey Star-Ledger just for me. I read it every day after school. At a time when most kids were just beginning to discover their place in their school communities I took an active interest in my place in the world. At first it was just the comics page, and photos from some of the inserts--one of my most vivid early memories is a picture of a grim-faced U.S. Marine in desert camo, staring over a burning oil field from a helicopter during what I would later learn was the first Gulf War--but as my vocabulary and my reading comprehension increased, soon I was reading recipes and TV reviews and Dear Abby columns and the rest of the lifestyle section. I didn't have any interest in the War on Drugs or or tax hikes or Medicare reform, in part because I didn't have the slightest bit of context necessary to understand those things. But I knew just enough to understand articles on charities that teach theater to orphans, and interviews with people who train dogs to help blind old ladies cross the street. And as I learned more about my neighborhood and my place in it, I took a special interest in the local news--pieces on boat-building classes for kids going to high school along the shore, new fire trucks for the fire department, ballooning competitions to benefit the elderly. At that age, my world was exactly that big. I didn't know anything about drugs or taxes or international relations aside from what I read on the front page, but I did know that if I read in the paper that my favorite bagel shop had been robbed last week, that the next time I go there I should secretly tip the guy at the counter an extra ten cents. It was my first sense of context for the world outside, a world that most Asian-American parents keep out by carefully wrapping their children in swathes of insularity, in the vain hope that someday their little ones will fall out of love with their adoptive country and return to their true homeland.
As I grew older, and learned more about what it really meant to be a citizen and an American, the news served as a useful early warning system. As in, oh, that's what drugs are, that's why people get angry before elections, that's why the police are always arresting people who have drugs. I got a feel for the previous generation's zeitgeist. I learned why people hated Milli Vanilli, I begged my parents to vote for Bill Clinton, I was furious at my classmates for being so racist about the O.J. Simpson trial. I read reviews of pizzerias thirty miles out of town, where I would likely never go, and recommended them to friends. I memorized sex advice before I even knew what sex was.
It wasn't until many years later that I truly came to realize how much a gift the Star-Ledger had been. Not just because I can reminisce with people in their mid-thirties about things I should by all rights be far too young to know about, like the drug wars that left Trenton a city of graffiti and bulletproof glass, or the Colecovision game console, or early morning DJs for radio stations that stopped airing years ago. Not just because all those op-eds shaped my early writing style, and led me to write vociferous high school polemics about school politics in a country where children were not expected to have a voice (which in turn brought me to Oberlin). Not just because, after a nearly two-decade absence, I feel completely at home out here, less than two hours by NJ Transit from the town where I was born.
It was a gift, and one I took for granted, because the Star-Ledger was so damn good. I can't vouch for the accuracy of its reporting or the integrity of its journalists, never having stayed long enough in New Jersey to experience much news firsthand, but the quality of the writing is and has long been comparable to that of big-city newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post. Most of the front-page national and international news is the same as anywhere else--seems like the only folks who write big news copy these days are AFP, the Associated Press, and Reuters--but the op-eds, the local news, and the fluff sections are fantastic. Honestly, as much as I love the New York Times, if I had grown up with the Times instead of the Star-Ledger I never would have stuck with it long enough to develop a genuine interest in becoming part of the world community. The Star-Ledger knows just how to be provincial but not gossipy, sophisticated but not snobby, worldly but not cynical. I never realized just how amazing it was until I bought a new issue on a recent visit to Edison and realized it is actually as good as I remembered.
Take the Munchmobile, for example, which has run for over 12 years now (I was there when it started!) and is one of my favorite summer-exclusive Sunday columns. Basically the Star-Ledger staff bought a used hot dog truck (complete with enormous faux hot dog on top) and a couple times every summer their food reviewers, ticking down a long list of reader-submitted recommendations, will get into it and road-trip all across the state trying to find out who truly has the best hot dog or pizza or falafel or whatever in New Jersey. Never foie gras, lobster, or filet mignon--only junk food! Predating Food Network reality shows with a similar premise by almost a decade, the result is a pleasing and useful survey of cheap eats, written in a brilliant self-mockingly pretentious style, and free publicity for a lot of local restaurants. It is, by far, the most New Jersey thing any newspaper has ever done--and it's still going on. Peter Genovese writes it now, and they've added a blog and video sections--it's still fantastic. Note especially this blog entry from a recent excursion, for which the first photo is of a smiling, attractive lass named Natalie Batos-Vacca (seven syllables!) holding up a gigantic rack of ribs at a grandmotherly-looking, out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere place called the Walpack Inn. (A later photo depicts a woman named Angie Tsoi-Lenoff.) If that isn't New Jersey, I don't know what is.
If I had a car, I would eat at a different "Rated Best X in New Jersey!!" every week, and the Munchmobile would be my guide.