The Shore – A Long Overdue Appreciation

You’ll notice that I did not entitle this “The Jersey Shore – A Long Overdue Appreciation.” That’s not because I wanted to disassociate it from the terrible MTV show starring Snooki, J-Woww and the Situation (though if I had, would you blame me?). No. It’s because for those of us that have lived our entire lives in close proximity to it… that have vacationed there for as long as we can remember, it has always been just “The Shore.” There’s no need to specify the state unless you’re not from around here, and by here I mean Pennsylvania, New Jersey, southern New York and to some extent Maryland and Delaware, though both states have their own coastlines and by association, their own “Shores.” My Shore? It is a part of our culture here in the mid-Atlantic. We grew up with it and many of us have started rearing our own children on it, much in the same way that our parents reared us on it decades ago.

If you ask people about their memories of the Shore you receive a whole range of responses. My wife’s memories, for example, are very different than mine despite the fact that our respective resorts were and remain only a few miles apart. Her memories involve time spent staying in one of the many, retro-Americana motels-turned-condos in North Wildwood, whereas mine involve staying in a one floor, three bedroom rancher in North Cape May a block off of the Bay. She remembers crabbing the inlets surrounding Wildwood Crest with her father while I remember fishing the Bay with mine. She remembers playing amidst the neon spectacle of the Wildwood Boardwalk while I remember the tranquil strolls I used to take through the Washington Street Mall. She remembers food like Mack’s Pizza and drinks like the infamous Lime Rickey. I remember Patty Melts and Shirley Temples from the Jackson Mountain Cafe. There are similarities between our experiences–Uncle Bill’s Pancake House, for example–but for the most part, her experiences seemed highly irregular to me at first and mine seemed the same to her. At first.

That’s because in both cases, we have made a concerted effort to duplicate our own experiences for each other over the course of our first 12 years together. Why? Perhaps to gain a better understanding of the other’s childhood, or perhaps just to get the f*ck out of dodge for a couple of days at a clip and go someplace not hemmed in by buildings and super malls. Maybe just because we both love the Shore so damn much and we can’t be away from it for long before we start to “dry out.” I honestly don’t know, but it has always been a part of our relationship, and one that I cherish greatly.

Early on, I would take her to Cape May at least once a year. In subsequent years our resort of choice has shifted back to Wildwood. Last summer, we took our then-two year old daughter Cara to the latter with us for her first time ex-utero (she had been previously while still sheltering in Nicole’s tummy) and watched her revel in the same things that we had reveled in as children. We watched her dig trenches in the sand and I helped her build a sand castle. She was terrified of the ocean but she went in once or twice, albeit while clinging tightly to her mommy or her daddy’s neck. She called the beach the “Big Sandbox” and the ocean the “Big Bathtub.” We ate dinner at the Ravioli House. We wandered along the Boardwalk. We went on rides and played games. We coddled her with junk food and ate a decent amount, ourselves. And while the week was slightly overshadowed by the specter of Hurricane Irene which had blown through a few days before our arrival, it was a wonderful, albeit truncated experience.

Fast forward a little more than a year to late October, 2012 and you know as well as I do what just “blew through” the Shore. You’ve heard the reports and you’ve seen the pictures. To say that Sandy was a vicious bitch is an understatement. In the process of “blowing through” she pretty much leveled the entire New Jersey coastline with a combination of high winds, huge waves and torrential rainfall. Not even my three year old throws a tantrum like the one Sandy just threw and Cara? She’s thrown a few dandies. I remember seeing the devastation that Hurricane Katrina dealt New Orleans back in 2005 and while I’d never diminish what that city endured and continues to endure I’m inclined to say that at this point? The scenes that are being played out over and over again both online and on television of the Shore look eerily similar to the scenes that we all grew so familiar with in August of 2005.

I am grateful that Wildwood and Cape May made it through the storm… not necessarily unscathed but less-scathed then their counterparts further north. It means that the landscape that I return to in subsequent years will not be overly altered from what it was the last time I was there (we did not make it down this year due largely in part to the arrival of baby number two, Natalie). But a few of the scenes that I have witnessed of the areas north of Wildwood have been especially jarring. The one that really sticks in my mind is the still of the Fun Town Amusement Pier in Seaside Heights, New Jersey.

Understand that I was primarily a southern New Jersey beach goer growing up but when my mother and my father first separated  and then divorced in the late 1980’s my father moved to northern New Jersey. He took a liking to older, less frequented resorts like Asbury Park, Sandy Hook and specifically, Seaside Heights. He took me and my little sister to the last on numerous occasions and much of the old pier that has since been annexed by the Atlantic Ocean used to be our playground. The steel spine of the roller coaster that now sticks up and out of the water? I rode on it a few times. The log flume too. Long before Seaside Heights was Jersey Shore-ified by Snooki and her alcoholic brood it existed and has existedin my mind as a slightly less significant keystone of my childhood than Cape May.

But now? Little remains of not only the pier, but the Boardwalk that I knew so well and what does remain is battered and broken, some might say beyond repair. But I will not. I have faith in the good people of New Jersey and in her surrounding areas. Even in Snooki and her drunken counterparts though admittedly, my faith in them is slightly less then my faith in… well, normal people. I know that they will work together to rebuild what was destroyed. I have faith in their governor who has quickly transformed from a frequent target of ridicule to a Rudy Juliani-esque figurehead of strength and leadership. It is said that leaders… true leaders emerge from the ashes of disaster and while I never doubted Governor Christie’s capability to run his state (not always to my agreement but what politician, Democrat or Republican ever does?), I have seen a different side of him these last few days. I have seen not just a politician but a man who’s own childhood was spent along the Shore. A man who is visibly exhausted and mentally scarred from watching what nature did to the beloved locales of his own youth. And while I’m not endorsing the man for president in 2016 he has finally forced me to take notice of him. For what it’s worth? Insert pat on the back and handshake here. Well played, Governor Christie. Well played, indeed.

This blog entry is not a political propaganda piece, however. Anyone who uses something like this to further their own agenda or the agenda of another is a reprehensible human being which is why I am grateful that, even with arguably the most important presidential election of my lifetime less than a week away, the two major candidates for the highest office in the land have suspended what has been an increasingly ugly campaign in an attempt to focus on more pressing issues like saving lives and rebuilding infrastructure. Were I an undecided voter this year (which I am not), the candidate that campaigns the least between now and November 6th would win my vote and no other issues would matter (’cause let’s face it: They’re of equivalent  if not equal minds on what needs to be done to fix this country, they just wear different ties).

But that is neither here nor there. The title of this blog entry is “The Shore – A Long Overdue Appreciation” not “My Feelings on Politicians and Election Day, 2012 (with a look ahead to 2016).” Perhaps I should refocus on the piece that I had originally intended to write.

Many outsiders, even some that have lived in this area their whole lives think of the Shore as little more than one big and dirty amusement park by the sea. They think of it as a landfill covered by overpriced properties and mom and pop establishments that do a year’s worth of business in four or five months and then shut down. They use the term “overrated” when they describe it. Even people that I work with have a low regard for it, citing that it is “not a real seashore, not like Florida or California, or Hawaii or the islands of the Caribbean.” Those people? They have read way too many stories about hypodermic needles and medical waste washing up on the sand. The Shore is more than just the place where New York City’s garbage goes to die. It hasn’t been that for decades and even when that was occurring it was occurring in one or two, isolated places and not up and down the entire coastline. It is more than tacky, plastic souvenirs, bumper stickers advertising mile markers and hermit crabs. What is it?

It is the sum of a million… a billion or more shared memories, dating back not just decades but centuries. Some might say it is the lone similarity between the generation being born in to the world currently, the generation that proceeded it, the generation that proceeded it and onward and backward. In my opinion? Those people would be correct. After all, it is difficult to discuss World War Two with someone unless you’ve studied it. It is difficult to relate to Disco when you’ve never heard a Donna Summer song. It is difficult to discuss “Twilight” when the only vampire book you’ve ever read is “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and it is difficult to relate to an iPad when all you ever used as a child was a typewriter.

The Shore, though? When you tell your grandfather about the Lollipop Motel in North Wildwood he knows what you are talking about without the benefit of a Google search. When you tell your grandmother about how much you love Kohr Brothers Frozen Custard she smiles and says, “so did I when I was your age.” When you tell your aunt or uncle about “The Shack” in Long Beach Island she or he immediately removes her or his iPhone from her or his pocket and brings up a picture of a teetering, gray-black, roofless structure with a tarnished American Flag hanging over its facade. “This Shack?” she or he says and you smile and nod. When you meet a stranger on the street who is wearing an Asbury Park sweatshirt and you look at him, nod and say, “Stone Pony,” he knows immediately that you are talking about the place where Bruce Springsteen got his start 40 plus years ago and he gives you a thumbs up. Even people that disagree about which Allentown Billy Joel was referring to–Allentown, New York or Allentown, Pennsylvania–concur that families from both towns “spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore.”

Why? Because despite time’s sometimes cruel advance the Shore remains timeless. Certain aspects of its appearance change on a whim and in the days, weeks, months and years ahead, likely to be known as the post-Sandy Era or Epoch, many of the aspects of its appearance that my wife and I grew up with and that we introduced Cara to last year will most certainly change, even before we can introduce Natalie to them. There isn’t much that any of us can do about it: Sandy took choice out of the equation when she roared ashore like a child who’s pissed off that you scolded at her for not eating her carrots and told her to go to bed. But despite it… despite its ever altering face the Shore is still the same place that it has always been. Despite the fact that the Star Jet roller coaster in Seaside Heights has been claimed by the Atlantic Ocean and now looks like a twisted, modern art interpretation of a drowning snake in its death throes what it was and what it represented remains and always will remain. Those rides upon its steel spine will remain a part of not only my memory, but a part of millions upon billions of others’ memories, as well.

And that, really, is the crux of what this little piece of Mental Flatulence is about: Memory, and how it personifies itself. How it lives and breathes despite the fact that most people call it an “abstract concept.” It’s not, guys. It’s as alive as I am. We all have memories, whether we summered at the Shore growing up or vacationed in Disney World every year. I would never claim that one is greater than the other… that Atlantic City is greater than Virginia Beach or that Ocean City, New Jersey is greater than Ocean City, Maryland. I can only speak from experience and per my experiences? There is something special about my Shore that transcends a popular reality show on non-Music Television. Maybe its just me but I don’t think so. I’ve seen the comments, the Facebook statuses and the Tweets about what happened there, and the majority of people that are talking about it are doing so from their own, individual memories. “Remember when we went here,” and, “look at what happened there.” Here? There? Everywhere up and down the coastline? “There be haints, guys,” as Pat McClane (I almost made it this whole blog entry without an ENDWORLD reference) might have said if given the opportunity. Years upon decades upon centuries worth of haints that exist because of our own, shared experiences. While superficially, much of what we knew has been forever altered beneath the surface, the Shore that we grew up crabbing, fishing, eating, drinking, playing upon and strolling through… the “Big Sandbox” that we grew up digging trenches through and building castles upon… the “Big Bathtub” that we grew up terrified of unless we were clinging tightly to our mother or father’s neck…

It is still there. It always has been and it always will be. Not because it was spared Sandy’s wrath but because it wasn’t.Because Sandy, despite the swath of destruction that she left in her wake did something entirely unexpected. She made something that had, like Governor Christie, been reduced to little more than a punchline in a sub-par reality show real again. I won’t thank her for that anymore than I’ll endorse Chris Christie for president in 2016. But I’ll never forget the impacts of either, and that may end up being the most important thing that I take away from this experience.

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