My little hometown in New Jersey was briefly Internet-famous this week for a truly embarrassing reason. Seems the owner of Jimbo’s Deli, a fellow named Jim Boggess, decided to drum up some publicity for himself by hanging a sign in his front window saying “Celebrate your white heritage in March” and concluding with “White History Month.”
The original interview with Boggess by the Hunterdon County Democrat (a funny name for a paper published in a consistently Republican county) contains such gems as: “No matter what you are — Muslim, Jewish, black, white, gay, straight — you should be proud of what you are. I shouldn’t have to feel bad about being white.” and “I just want to be included. Why is this such a big deal? I don’t get it.”
Of course, Boggess was engaging in some old-fashioned, analog trolling, and of course he knew why it was such a big deal. He caused a great deal of consternation among his neighbors, especially a black former customer named Bhakti Curtis, who filed a complaint with the Flemington Police — who took a walk down the block, looked at the sign, and determined it “wasn’t derogatory or racist.”
Hunterdon County Democrat reporter Rick Epstein interviewed Boggess and Curtis, and posted that story on NJ.com. It was picked up by various other outlets, including but not limited to some fringe conservative sites. I won’t link to them here, but the comments sections are a marvelous treasure trove of idiocy and racism.
Now comes the news that Boggess and Curtis have made peace, and that Boggess agreed to take down his sign. Apparently Epstein’s original post attracted over 500 comments, prompting the NJ.com moderator to shut down the comments section. Many commenters attacked either Boggess or Curtis. Epstein even received a hateful email on the subject of his own Jewish last name. Curtis reported “threatening and abusive” phone calls and emails. He told the Hunterdon County prosecutor’s office, and the cops have promised to keep an eye on his home (you know, the same cops who decided the original sign wasn’t a threat). Today, Curtis suggested he and Boggess take a nice picture together, and Epstein snapped another photo.
I took a particular interest in this story because I’m from Flemington. I went to nursery school at the Presbyterian Church in town, right across the street from the war memorial. I attended elementary school out near the farms, right when they were all beginning to be bought up and turned into planned developments. Then it was back to Flemington proper for middle school, and after that I went across Route 31 to the high school. Like any Jersey kid in one of these small towns, I grew up steeped in local lore and legends. We heard about the ghost in the Union Hotel, then a bar and grill that used to be an actual hotel — it’s where the press stayed during the Lindbergh baby trial, the famed Crime of the Century (there is another Crime of the Century every year or so these days, it seems). There was the grave way out in East Amwell where a mysterious red light gleamed at night, evidence of a spirit who had yet to pass onto the next world. I went over during the day once and found a red night light at the grave of a child. Her toys were arranged around it.
The Hunterdon County Democrat arrived every Thursday at the end of our driveway, and I’d open it up eagerly to read the Police Blotter – still do every time I’m home. You never know which former high school classmate has been caught stealing a John Deere tractor or selling drugs in the parking lot at Lowes. Speaking of Lowes, you can also visit Flemington’s Home Depot or Wal-Mart if you like – as with virtually every small town in the United States, Flemington has been invaded by the big box chain stores. But to its credit, it has a dedicated and determined group of small business owners and townsfolk committed to bringing independent business to town, whether it’s the cat hotel or the candy shop or the gelato place or the best restaurant in town, Matt’s Red Rooster Grill. Or, I suppose, Jimbo’s Deli.
For me, at least, Flemington was a good place to grow up. It was safe from some of the crime that plagued the larger towns and small cities in New Jersey. In moderate traffic, it was about 90 minutes from Manhattan and 90 minutes from Philly, just far enough away to be shielded from the realities of city life. It was also far enough away to feel like the country, a world away from any cosmopolitan metropolis and its big-city values. But occasionally – very occasionally – ugliness would penetrate its cutesy protective bubble. I imagine that’s what it’s like right now for folks who didn’t much like Jimbo’s sign.
Of course, Jimbo was only saying what a lot of other folks were thinking. After all, Flemington has never been particularly progressive, though it has always had its artists and freethinkers (plus, funky gay enclave New Hope, PA, is just 20 minutes up the road). Maybe that’s changing. I hope so. It’s always had a great deal of potential, and a surprisingly vibrant coffeehouse culture (you know, in the one coffeehouse that’d be open for a number of years, soon to be replaced by another. I believe there are now two coffeehouses in town).
I think about the other guy at the heart of this controversy, Bhakti Curtis. He got hate mail and vicious phone calls because he stood up to Jimbo. I’m sure a lot of that mail and those phone calls came from the outside world, from people who looked at Bhakti and Jimbo as opposite sides of a perceived cultural war that pits their favorite kind of freedom of speech (you know, the racist kind) against the nanny state, as represented by a black dude who gave the cops a heads up that some white guy was being a shithead.
I don’t know Bhakti Curtis or Jimbo Boggess, and I don’t know their politics or their religion, their morals or ethics. But I do know that in the case of Jimbo vs. Bhakti, nearly everybody in town’s got an opinion. Some see Jimbo as the aggressor, while others blame Bhakti for stirring up a fuss by saying anything. He should’ve just let well enough alone, goes this school of thought. Would’ve been better that way.
But in a world where there will always be Jimbos, we need Bhaktis to speak up, to run the risk of incurring the ire of those who would prefer that everybody keep quiet, avert their eyes, and plow forward without stopping. How unfortunate that a guy who did the right thing was subjected to the wrath of strangers. How telling that he was the one who suggested a peacemaking photo might help set things right. I hope it does.
Flemington will survive this mini-media storm, as has survived any number of other stresses and strains. But I hope the smarter folks back in my hometown learned a lesson from all this public attention, which is: Be a Bhakti. Stand up for what you think is right, even if people tell you to shut up – especially when people tell you to shut up.
Oh, and the next time you’re craving a sandwich, don’t go to Jimbo’s. Go to II Bros. over on Commerce Street. Seriously. Place is friggin’ awesome.
Sara Benincasa is a comedian and the author of Great and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She tweets @sarajbenincasa and is currently on tour: dates are at SaraBenincasa.com/shows.