What does one immediately associate with New Jersey? Bruce Springsteen, the demagogic self-styled poet of the proletariat. Romanticizing the blue collar working class is as old as the hills and nowhere does the dichotomy between the haves and have nots reach it’s Yankee apotheosis than in the songs and lyrics of “The Boss” who sings about poor Wendy serving up sandwiches in Asbury Park, dreaming to ‘get out’ with her boyfriend so they can reach the West Coast to make more sandwiches. While Jersey Mike’s luckily avoids most references to Springsteen with just a marginal nod to beaches and surfing communities in south NJ, this sandwich shop is firmly ensconced in both Durkheim’s anomie as well as some more recent post-situationalist thought. The French sandwich is plain, devoid of the various optional toppings that Jersey Mike’s offers – from “Mike’s Way” (lettuce, tomato, onions, salt and pepper, oregano, mayonnaise, and something else I am forgetting). In France, a ham sandwich is generally just that – ham and bread perhaps with some mustard or mayo. And yet the anomie present in both the romantic longing in Springsteen’s songs and the chansons of Jacques Brel is evident in both situations. Make no mistake – Springsteen’s “Wendy” is not the French Marianne, a symbol of the people and the nation trampling over the Ancien Regime. It is as plain as day that Wendy is a deliberate reference to the hamburger chain of the same name and thus a Ouroboros of capitalist consumption and repression. Thanks to the strength of the American unions, the United States never seriously flirted with socialism and yet, much as in the condiments at “The Hat” (see my previous essay), the choice is there and simultaneously isn’t. To order your submarine sandwich “Mike’s Way” is a subtle but very powerful push for conformity, which is why Wendy can never truly leave Asbury Park, as is evident that together, her and the narrator will need to “live with the sadness”. And the narrator who says “Wendy let me in, I want to be your friend” if one opens one’s eyes is no different than a Fagin type of entrapment: for Wendy a life of wage slavery, for the consumer, obesity, diabetes and coronary ailments.
In addition, it psychologically induces conformity into the very people it wishes to romanticize. Order your sandwich “Mike’s Way” and soon enough you’ll be an accounting major at Rutgers like every single one of your classmates from Tom’s River High. The insidious aspect of it all is that Jersey Mike’s is as successful a corporate entity as Bruce Springsteen himself, and from their golden cages they are an obvious parallel to the party structure in Orwell’s 1984. Both “Mike” and Bruce belong to the “Inner Party” and while offering incentives – cheap pornography and lottery tickets in 1984, Mike’s ‘points’ which add up to a free sandwich after a number of purchases – actually demean and degrade the working class who relish these lunches. Some anarcho-primitivists like Unabomber Ted Kaczynski argue that complex societies, particularly industrial and post-industrial societies, directly cause conditions such as anomie by depriving the individual of self-determination and a relatively small reference group to relate to, such as the band, clan, or tribe. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of Jersey Mike’s. The small reference group one can relate to is the relative poverty of blue collar America. Fetishizing the spectacle as per Guy Debord – in this case, romanticizing the disenfranchised proletarian working class – is evident in the not too subtle word play that Jersey Mike’s is indeed a “franchise”. Debord of course follows Lukacs in commodity fetishism but the deeper roots are a disdain for the proletariat. By ordering your sandwich “Mike’s Way” not only are you continuing to promote conformity you are also making sure that Wendy will never, ever, ever get out of New Jersey and thus stifling any aspiration the proletariat can try to better themselves. It is a dark and difficult cycle that no amount of idyllic photos of young people in Wildwood and Cape May, oblivious to their bleak future, that adorn the walls of Jersey Mike’s can whitewash. If you want to “walk in the sun” like Wendy’s exploitative boyfriend claims they will while mulling over plans for her white slavery, then run from this franchise. Run faster than as if you were born to run.