I grew up in New Jersey. I lived there until 2007 when I moved to Florida and reinvented myself as a writer. This past week has brought out emotions in me about my home state that I didn't even realize were there. Hurricane Sandy, which had only a slight impact on Florida with tropical storm conditions from its outer bands, slammed into New Jersey with unprecedented force, causing monumental damage to its famed beaches. Lives were lost. People were left homeless, their houses turned into a pile of rubble. The damage extended far beyond New Jersey's shoreline. Flooding and heavy winds impacted many states in Sandy's path. New York was also hit hard, particularly Manhattan, Breezy Point, and Staten Island.
Seeing the photographs of Sandy's aftermath, and watching the benefit concert on Friday night, November 2, with storm footage shown between performances, I couldn't help but think about the time I spent "down the shore", and realize many of the things I most enjoyed about it were washed away. When I was a child, every Wednesday during the summer meant a day trip to Asbury Park. My father was a barber, and since his shop was open on Saturdays, he closed it on Wednesdays. We lived in Paterson in northern New Jersey, and Asbury Park was about a ninety-minute ride down the Garden State Parkway. It seemed like forever. You've probably heard of Asbury Park, even if you're not familiar with New Jersey. It's where Bruce Springsteen got his start, playing in the local clubs, particularly The Stone Pony.
I loved going on the rides that were on the boardwalk. It was a major achievement when I graduated from the kiddie rides to the "big kid" rides. Asbury Park's Convention Hall is also on the boardwalk. I remember walking into it with my sister, probably in 1965 - I would have been 13 and Silvana almost 15. We wandered into a free concert by The Temptations. At least I think it was free, nobody stopped us. Music was always a part of any trip down the shore. I would bring my transistor radio, prop it up against one of my sneakers that was holding down a corner of my beach blanket, and listen to WABC, the best radio station at the time. The first time I heard Light My Fire and A Whiter Shade of Pale was lying on that blanket, through that crappy speaker. Over the years the family trips expanded to include Sandy Hook and Beach Haven, the latter on beautiful Long Beach Island (LBI to the locals), with the Barnegat Lighthouse at its northern tip. I spent a lot of time in the ocean, swimming and body surfing back to shore on the waves.
When my friends and I finally got our driver's licenses we were able to go on our own. Seaside Heights was the place to go for us in the early '70s. Sometimes a few guys would go for a weekend, get a room at some fleabag motel and cram six of us in it. When we were able to untie our tongues and speak to a female, we'd actually have a date for the day. I have some fond memories of the few girls I dated during those years. We'd walk along the boardwalk, Grand Funk Railroad blaring from the arcades, and I would inevitably fail to win them prizes at those rigged games. But one of those girls became my wife, so fortunately my arcade skills weren't a factor.
My wife, Evelyn, and I have one daughter, Jennifer. The shore cycle began again, as we took her on the kiddie rides at Seaside Heights and watched her graduate to the big kid rides. Surprisingly, she also grew up and preferred going down the shore with her friends, rather than with me and my wife. She also ended up going to college in the area, Richard Stockton College to be exact, in Pomona near Atlantic City. Atlantic City's boardwalk was destroyed although the casinos got through the storm relatively unscathed. I'm not a gambler and only went to an Atlantic City casino once, when we were there for my daughter's graduation. One thing I learned - experienced gamblers do not like to play blackjack with an amateur.
As empty-nesters, Evelyn and I changed our beach-going routine and in the last ten or so years of living in New Jersey preferred Cape May, on the southern tip of the state. It was quieter, had cleaner beaches, a nice pedestrian mall with shops and restaurants, and I always managed to get a big bag of almonds at the Nut House.
A lot of great memories, many more than I want to bore you with, but you get the idea of how much the area meant to me, and to so many other people. It will take time - a lot of time - but I'm sure New Jersey will rebuild the areas into even better destinations. If your impression of the Jersey Shore is Snooki and her brain-dead friends, please don't believe it. The people there are wonderful. They are going through a difficult time, but they're resilient and will overcome this tragedy. You can't keep New Jerseyans down!