Thursday, June 20, 2013

RIP James Gandolfini 1961-2013

My husband is from California and he always shakes his head and rolls his eyes about the way New Jerseyans talk and think and feel about the celebrities from Jersey.  In California, a relatively large state, known for Hollywood, celebrities are a dime a dozen.  In New Jersey they are not.

If you are from New Jersey and your family has lived here for generations, you are most likely part Italian.  Jersey is a small state and Italy is a small country and if you are from both places, we are not so distantly removed...on some level, somewhere we are probably related and you are FAMILY.  Capisce?

So we think of Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Van Zandt, Jon Bon Jovi and James Gandolfini as family, as cousins.  And if you've lived here for a while you undoubtedly know one of their blood relatives.

When you hear about their fame, you are happy for them. You see them bringing a little bit of where you are both from in to their acting or their music; ok, you see them bringing A LOT of where you are both from in to their acting or music.   You feel a little famous yourself.  You share it with them.  It probably sounds hokey to people not from here, but there is a saying, "You can take the person outta Jersey, but you can't take Jersey outta the person."

I don't know anyone from Jersey who hasn't seen the Sopranos.  Most of us talk and laugh about how realistic it is to our family--not the Mob part necessarily, but the food, the idea of family, the Sunday dinners, the way they talk and's pretty spot on.  And every good New Jerseyan can recognize every single shot in the intro and has been there even before that show was filmed--that was part of the charm of the Sopranos, David Chase got it so right... THAT is where we live.  You can hear Jason's crew's chainsaws in the background of one episode.  Jason would run in to the guys --who mostly drove their own cars from location to location - all the time.  This is where we live.

I'm going to miss that smile.
So, if the Sopranos are where we live, James Gandolfini is who we are.  He is our friend, cousin, brother, neighbor.  He is not so distant from us.  A few weeks ago, we were at my brother's house for a barbecue and he was talking about how someone he works with grew up with James Gandolfini in North Jersey and how James still comes for barbecues, still hangs with the old crew and is completely down to earth, it's like they all just have jobs and his is acting.  Maybe he has more money than everyone else, but he still puts his pants on one leg at a time and he still knows where to find good pizza and that his mama's sauce is the best in the world.  He is one of us.

The rest of the country can joke all they want, but there is something special about New Jersey.  Our boys make it big and then rather than live in LA or Manhattan, they raise their families in Jersey.  James Gandolfini lived a few miles from me in Tewksbury and before that he lived in Chester, the town where we go apple and blueberry picking.

When I read that James Gandolfini was respectful of his doorman, I was not surprised, his dad was a mason and a bricklayer and he didn't forget where he came from.  It doesn't surprise me that he offered to pay for an employee to go to college, he knows how hard people work.  It definitely doesn't surprise me that he would invite hotel staff or the people who worked in his building in for champagne and caviar on New Year's Eve, he views himself as one of them.  One thing about true Jersey people: we are not snobs.  You can say a lot of things about us, we are tough and blunt and we will bite your head off and chew you up and spit you out, sarcasm is our second language and get two of us together in a fight and you won't want to get between us, but we are not snobs.  How can we be?  Our state is a joke and we like it that way because it means less people will realize how awesome it is.  We will also stick by each other.

"He was very New Jersey in the most positive sense: earthy and honest," Kirschner, former dean of Rutgers said. "He had a great sense of humor and loved teasing people."

So, today I may have to go and eat at the grease trucks in honor of my fellow Rutgers alum, James Gandolfini.  I wonder if he liked the Fat Cat or the Fat Darrell?  James Gandolfini graduated ten years before me, back when Mario Batali was flinging the 'bolis at Stuff Yer Face.  Once James got rich and famous he did a lot for his alma mater, he never forgot where he came from.

But what I loved best about James Gandolfini?  His acting was superb, but he never looked the part of a famous actor.  He just looked like a regular guy.  That made his characters more believable.  That, even more than the fact that he was a Jersey boy, made him one of my favorite actors.

Today my facebook is jammed with people saying they can't believe James Gandolfini is gone.  They are upset by this.  My friend called to say she had cried real tears when she heard.  The booth at the diner where the last scene of the Sopranos was filmed has a Reserved sign on the table where Tony sat as the credits rolled.  The owner said James Gandolfini will ALWAYS have a seat at that table.  
This is how we do it in Jersey.

I am sure James Gandolfini's family is like mine.  I am sure there is a pot of gravy in heaven and a feast is going on right now as he is reunited with those who have gone before.  

andato ma non dimenticato