I’ve spent much of my adult life burdened with Jersey Shame. (Back me up here, peeps, because I know you know what I’m tawkin’ about—especially if you now live in NYC, where it’s your absolute duty to despise the “bridge-and-tunnel” crowd.)
When I was 16 years old, growing up in Monmouth County, I would traipse into the city with friends, desperately hoping we’d blend in with the cool kids as we got the napes of our necks shaved at Astor Hair, trolled for vintage clothing at Canal Jean Co. and stocked up on vinyl imports at Sounds on St Marks Place. (Little did I know then that the other kids were all from Jersey, too.) Though I did indeed get chills whenever I heard Bruce croon “I’m in love with a Jersey Girl,” that was private. I was far from ready to truly embrace that identity as my own.
In my 20s and much of my 30s, when some friends started leaving the city for cheaper real estate across the river (and others, who had never left, decided to settle in), I dug in my heels. “No way am I ever moving back to Jersey,” I’d declare, though I never had a clear reason why. What was really so bad?
As a kid, I’d spent my entire summers on the beach, blissfully swimming and body surfing and rock hopping across blue-black jetties. I frequently rode my bike through my quiet suburban neighborhood, and strode along its clean sidewalks to and from school till junior high. I’d spent unending (and, in retrospect, frighteningly content) hours in the mall, both shopping and working, rolling my eyes about it all along.
I consumed countless amounts of frozen custard, saltwater taffy, cheese fries and buttery, overcooked corn at Max’s. I became a Skee-Ball wizard and braved the haunted house in Long Branch.
In Asbury Park, I “walked the boards” with my family, rode the kiddie rides, got my fortune told by Madame Marie, watched fireworks explode over the ocean, saw Jaws in Convention Hall (and then, years later, Johnny Rotten in concert). I enjoyed many a sleepover at my grandmother’s, who lived on Ocean Ave, and shopped at Steinbach’s and Stride Rite with my mom. And, in recent years, I’ve had the thrill of watching Asbury come back to life—the pioneering gay homeowners and cool entrepreneurs proving wrong all the naysayers who thought it couldn’t be done.
I realized I loved Dirty Jersey long before this week, of course—my parents still live there, and whenever I go home to visit, especially since my 4-year-old’s come along, I’ve learned to embrace the beaches, the culture, and even the accented, no-nonsense, oft-crass fierceness of my people. I came to appreciate NJ to the point of deciding, ironically, just a couple of weeks ago, that we should actually probably be moving there so we can live in something bigger than a one-bedroom apartment, and so we can find a good school for Lula rather than get entangled in the NYC school-search insanity. No matter how many years I had spent running from home—whether out of a basic act of rebellion, a need to stay far away from what I feel are the downsides of suburban culture, or a simple need to chart a path that was different than that of my own parents—New Jersey, I realized, finally made all kinds of sense. And besides, it was home. I missed it.
And so it was with a sickening sadness that I’ve gazed, this week, upon gut-wrenching images of all the places I now know that I love, fiercely. The boardwalks, the mini-golf courses, the beaches, all swallowed up whole by angry waters. It is an understatement to say that I am no fan of Gov. Christie, but I was seized by his emotional report yesterday, and could relate to him being shell-shocked over all that’s been lost, over all of that nostalgia being swept out to sea.
My father has forever told me stories about how he, as a boy growing up in north Jersey, land of Philip Roth, spent joyous summers Down the Shore, in Bradley Beach, and how he was a teenage lifeguard there for many happy seasons. When he talks about those years, I can tell they were among the best in his life. And now, when I tell my daughter about my own Jersey past, I know I am talking about years that have been among the very best in my own life. I only hope that I will be able to pass some of that Jersey Shore joy on to her. And, knowing the tenacity of Jerseyites—whether tailgating on the Garden State Parkway or perfecting that tan—I’m betting I will.