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When I read the news of Salena Lesniak’s death at age 43, I could scarcely comprehend the words before my eyes.
“Wow,” I said to myself, “that headline makes is seem like she’s dead which makes no sense and can’t possibly be true.”
Of course, it was true.
Iconic LGBT ally
Salena cemented herself into the annals of Garden State political history when she hosted the first gay wedding in New Jersey history back in 2015. In addition to decades of pro-LGBT advocacy, Salena was a zealous champion of animal rights and the longtime wife and partner to Senator Raymond Lesniak.
If I had to describe Salena with a single word, I’d choose fun. She was a hoot. And our time together always included cute clothes, good wholesome gossip, and lots of champagne.
Usually the good stuff.
Preferably Veuve Cliquot.
“I hope we don’t look too bougie,” I quipped to the waiter, “But yes, we’ll have another bottle.”
“Were not bougie, we’re childless,” Salena clarified. “We don’t have kids so we can afford it.”
And if Salena was the craziest dog mom in Garden State history that’s ok with me. I’m too busy planning my cat’s bar mitzvah to judge.
Those were the kind of jokes we shared and I’ll miss that.
And when I think about Salena’s beloved dogs Penny and Sammy, I’m nauseous. Those dogs were robbed. We were all robbed.
Mostly, Salena was robbed.
A Rose By Any Other Name
To most people, a Sloppy Joe means a ground beef/tomato sauce concoction served on a hamburger bun.
At Bella Gina’s in Linden in Union County, their Sloppy Joe comes with “turkey, ham & Swiss cheese on 3 layers of (hearty) rye bread smothered in coleslaw & Russian dressing.”
In Salena’s hometown of Linden, the Sloppy Joe is something like a wet, sloppy, un-grilled rueben sandwich. And certainly nothing like what most of us grew up with.
I learned about the only-in-Jersey-style Sloppy Joes earlier this year when I stumbled across some listicle ranking New Jersey’s 10 best sandwiches.
I immediately called Salena, noted Union County foodie, to confirm the existence of this alternative Sloppy Joe sandwich.
“You need to come up and try one,” she said and I promised I would.
But I never did.
And now she’s gone.
Embedded in my regret is a reminder to grab your phone and call someone you love. Or someone you’ve drifted from. Or the bestie you haven’t have lunch with in a while.
The drive to Linden from Cherry Hill to say goodbye was brisk, a reminder how easy that Sloppy Joe road trip would’ve been. It was brutally hot for Salena’s final journey and the AC in the funeral home was blessedly up to the task. It was a tender mercy on a day when shock and grief occupied our thoughts.
Senator Lesniak, perched next to his wife’s coffin, held court admirably. The grief-stricken look on his face told the story.
Eventually I gravitated toward the kitchen because that’s what women and gay men do at funerals. Gretchen Hickey, Linden Councilwoman, greeted me at the top of the stairs with a long hug. She and Salena were sisterly and you could tell she was hurting by the look on her face.
Gretchen has a queer son whose coming out was markedly less bumpy for having an iconic LGBT ally like Salena for a surrogate auntie.
Someone suggested a toast and a bottle of Veuve Cliquot appeared which honestly felt like a perfectly-chilled, bubbly kiss from heaven.
“To Salena” someone cried out. We, the newly-minted stewards of her memory, were too stunned and sad to conjure up the stemwinder Salena’s remarkable life deserved.
Then we drank to a friend who’d be proud we brought the good stuff.
Someone popped open more champagne and I needed little nosh before having another.
I’m not a religious man but when I saw a huge tray of Jersey-style Sloppy Joes on the counter, I couldn’t help but chuckle because the lord is supposed to work in mysterious ways and there he goes being all obvious about things.
And as I stood there in the kitchen of a North Jersey funeral parlor having a Jersey Sloppy Joe for the very first time I was grateful that my broken heart didn’t interfere with the appetite.
Because that sandwich was spectacular.
It was truly a Jersey original.
Just like Salena Lesniak.