Photograph by Amy Toensing
Republished from the pages of National Geographic magazine
To: Lynn Addison
From: Cathy Newman
Re: Jersey Shore
Geddoutahere! You want me to cover the entire New Jersey shore in three weeks? For your information that's a 127-mile (204-kilometer) stretch of surf from Sandy Hook to Cape May Point. That's dozens of beaches, all those tourists to elbow out of my way (they made a hundred million trips last year), not to mention these hazards: sunburn, heartburn, mako sharks, card sharks, stepping on jellyfish, being stepped on by jelly sandals.
Editors! Why don't you get a real job?
A shore town without a boardwalk is like an ice-cream cone without sprinkles. Jersey's shore, I can report, has 28 boardwalks and promenades. Cape May's was first; Atlantic City's, where Vera Green of Yonkers and John Toulson of the Bronx catch a few rays, was second.
Dear Lynn: So I packed my sandals and "went down the shore" as they say in Jersey (it is never "going to the beach"). I thought I'd start at the north end and hit the sand in Long Branch. Yeah, right. In my face was a sign saying I needed to purchase a beach badge for five dollars a day. Badge shmadge. In Florida, where I grew up, you never paid a penny to go to the beach. What gives? Carl Jennings, Long Branch's recreation director, calmed me down by explaining that revenue from beach badges underwrites the cost of cleaning and raking the sand, lifeguard salaries, and general maintenance. You can walk on the beach for free, but come with umbrella and chair, and you fork out five bucks.
But even your badge might not get you where you want to go. Twenty years ago the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the public right to use beaches up to the high-tide mark. Problem is you have to get there first, and—badge or no badge—private beach clubs and homeowners often keep people away from the beach fronting their property. When I complained to a woman who owns a summer home in Mantoloking—one of the shore's high-rent districts—she replied that Jersey beaches are within a Frisbee throw of metropolitan areas like New York and Philadelphia, and there have to be limits. That's uppity stuff for a place like Joisey. I'm putting away my sunscreen. Will sit in the shade for the rest of the day.
Here's sand in your eye—Cathy
Dear Lynn: First they tell me there is no Santa Claus. Now they tell me that most sections of the boardwalk at Bradley Beach aren't made of boards at all—they're made of paving bricks. Maybe they should call it a brickwalk! It's a money issue, naturally. Wood boards need to be replaced every seven to ten years; pavers last forever. Towns like Lavallette and Atlantic City, which calls its boardwalk the Boardwalk with a capital B, stick to the tradition of wood. Others like Seaside Park use recycled plastic planks that last up to three times longer than wood. Kids like the plastic boardwalks—no splinters—but there's a hot-foot factor: Plastic turns searing in the sun.
Railroads actually gave rise to boardwalks. In the 1850s, when rails began to connect the Jersey Shore with eastern seaboard cities, tourism bloomed. But hotel managers got fed up with guests tracking in sand, so walkways made of wooden planks were laid down on the beach to save wear and tear on lobby carpets.
It also saved wear and tear on the tourists. "If you want to walk on the sand and not get gritty, then a boardwalk is the way to go," explains Dick Handschuch, a retired principal. He and his pal Sal Marino spent a year walking every inch (2.5 centimeters) of the 28 boardwalks and promenades along the shore in the course of writing a guidebook. Atlantic City's 5-mile (8.1-kilometer) boardwalk is the longest on the shore; Sea Bright's, at 200 feet (61 meters), is the shortest. Dick gives Ocean City three stars for having the friendliest boardwalk; Sal touts the magnificent ocean view from Spring Lake's boardwalk.
See you in September—Cathy
Dear Lynn: Say the words "Asbury Park" to a grown-up most anywhere along the shore, and the response is a dreamy look. I respond that way myself. My mother, Edith Koenig Newman, grew up on a farm in nearby Freehold, a 30-minute drive from the shore, and every summer of my childhood we drove up from our home in Miami Beach to visit the northern branch of our family—the New Jersey mishpachah. Asbury Park, where my mother's baby sister, Alice, lived, was on the itinerary. In 1949 Alice married Milt Ruben, whose family owned a game called Fascination on the boardwalk.
Back then Asbury Park was still the jewel of New Jersey's north shore. In summer everyone dressed up to walk the boards. Children surrendered to the magic of the carousel.
Asbury Park was also a rite of passage for newly minted teenage drivers who lived near the shore. "When you got your driver's license, you made the circuit," explained historian Helen-Chantal Pike. "Guys drove around town, radio cranked up to full volume, preening for each other. Girls flirted with the boys. Boys mooned the girls. And everyone gawked at the bikers hanging out in Mrs. Jay's Beer Garden."
Nostalgia has many guises. Some of us turn misty at the memory of the fried clams at Howard Johnson's. The restaurant, still standing, looks as if one of those flying saucers in a 1950s sci-fi movie had soared right out of the screen and landed next to the boardwalk. Others hanker after the lost taste of the popcorn and ice-cold Stewart's root beer sold at the Mayfair Theatre.
That was then. This is now. Race riots in 1970 tore up part of Asbury Park, accelerating a downward spiral that kept going. Property values plummeted. Slumlords moved in. Visitors stayed away. Today Asbury Park, derided by some as Beirut by the Shore, is waiting for the Messiah of Urban Renewal to appear. There was a brief sighting in the late 1980s, when the city sold its beachfront property to a developer who had Big Plans. But he went bankrupt, leaving behind the skeletal remains of an unfinished condo complex. Now oceanfront Asbury Park is an urban wreck of empty lots and decayed buildings. "It's the Lost City of Atlantis," Pike says.
But wait. In the past few years a new developer with deep pockets has materialized. Plans have been submitted and approved. This time, people say, it's going to happen. Really! Really! At long last Asbury Park is on the rebound!
The gay community has moved in, snapped up Victorian properties, and renovated them to within an inch of their gingerbread lives. Restaurants and home furnishing boutiques are sprouting. Hopes are high.
"We're taking baby steps forward," says Robert DiSanto, manager of Paradise, the largest gay club in New Jersey. He's the first openly gay member of the Asbury Park Board of Education.
"Will Asbury Park actually come back?" I ask.
"Not overnight," he says. "But it will, even if we have to do it one house at a time."
Dear Lynn: Aunt Alice still lives in Oakhurst, not far from Asbury Park, so I invited her to reminisce over lunch. But first she had some business to settle.
"So. You were up in New Jersey last year and didn't visit?" she said.
"Sorry, Aunt Alice, but…"
"You never call. I rest my case."
As for Asbury Park: "Milt and I don't come here now," she began. "Our car was vandalized right by the boardwalk a few years ago. Don't you go walking around at night. Too dangerous."
"I'm telling you, don't go out at night."
"Tell me about running the games," I said, nudging her on.
"I stocked the prizes, collected the money, and sometimes ran the mike." Meaning she delivered the come-on pitch. "You should have heard me. I had the crowd all whipped up. Little me on the microphone." She looked pleased.
After lunch we drove by the boardwalk.
Aunt Alice was sad. "Upsetting," she said, surveying the decayed buildings. The Casino, where she had delivered her pitch, was pocked by broken windows and peeling paint. We peered inside the building that had housed a carousel, but there wasn't much to see—merely a cavernous ruin of a once glorious space.
"Will Asbury Park come back?" I asked.
"Not in my lifetime," said Aunt Alice.
Dear Lynn: I spent the day looking for Bruce, Asbury Park's most illustrious citizen. Rocker Bruce Springsteen grew up in Freehold, but his career is forever linked to Asbury Park. Now he lives in ritzy Rumson (ten miles (sixteen kilometers) north), but he never forgot Asbury Park. And Asbury Park has never forgotten him.
"Does Bruce eat breakfast here?" I asked the waitress at Frank's. Frank's is a deli on Main Street, and on the wall behind the counter is a photo inscribed: "To Frank's. Where the elite meet to eat," with Bruce Springsteen scrawled across the top. Surely Bruce has his eggs over easy at Frank's?
"Never seen him here," the waitress said, slamming my coffee on the table.
"Ever had any Bruce sightings on the tour?" I asked Jean Mikle, who runs a Bruce Springsteen Rock-and-Roll Walking Tour around Asbury Park with Stan Goldstein.
"No," she said, "but a friend of mine sends one of Bruce's handlers newspaper clips when a story about him appears."
At the Saint, a nightclub in Asbury Park, owner Scott Stamper told a group of Bruce fans from England about the time the BBC filmed Bruce singing "Born in the U.S.A." at his club and how right on the very spot where he was standing Bruce turned and said: "Scott, hand me a Rolling Rock and a shot of Cuervo." The group looked properly appreciative; some lined up at the bar to get a Rolling Rock and Cuervo for themselves.
Nearly everyone in Asbury Park has a six-degrees-of-separation story about Bruce. Often it's a tale about how someone's cousin-in-law's daughter went to school with Bruce's cousin-in-law's son's next-door neighbor once removed.
Helen-Chantal Pike tells the best story. "I know the owner of a book store," she said. "One day five scruffy guys came in and started digging in their pockets for enough change to buy a book." Bruce, it turned out, was one of them, and the book was a rhyming dictionary.
"I can top that," Aunt Alice said, when the topic of Bruce surfaced at lunch. "My sister, your Aunt Molly"—she paused for effect—"lived right next door to the Springsteens in Freehold."
Dear Lynn: Bay Head, as its name implies, sits right at the top of Barnegat Bay. Bay Head is shipshape. It is as neat and tidy as the knife-edge crease in an admiral's trousers. "Bay Head," Evalyn Shippee informed me, "was founded by people of intellect and taste."
Shippee, who owns a gift shop in town called the Jolly Tar, drove me around in her mint green Jaguar to prove the point. Along East Avenue stand "cottages," each bigger than the next.
Oh to sit on the back deck of such a home overlooking that pearl of an ocean with martini in hand! "How much?" I asked. "About five million," Evalyn said. Later we drove around a neighborhood of what Evalyn called affordable homes in the $650,000 range, but it was not the same. Evalyn is the founder of the Bay Head Historical Society, which is actually headquartered in a Victorian clapboard house that sits in Point Pleasant, the next town to the west. It seemed to me that even the historical society has been priced out of Bay Head.
Later that week I was invited to lunch with Bob Spillman, commodore of the Bay Head Yacht Club. As soon as we sat down in the club dining room, Scott, the ma�tre d', scurried over and placed the commodore's flag on the table as a kind of centerpiece. Through the plate glass window we watched the Bay Head Yacht Club burgee—a pennant with a five-pointed blue star on a white background—flapping merrily in the breeze. After lunch we walked down to the dock and admired an A-class catboat, which is 28 feet (8.5 meters) of gorgeous laminated oak, cedar, mahogany, and brass. I think I would enjoy learning to sail such a boat.
"How do you join the club?" I asked.
"We don't have a waiting list," the commodore explained, but before my heart leaped too high, he went on to add that there is a pool of candidates. First, several members have to write letters of recommendation on your behalf. Even with a grandfather in the club you're not a shoo-in. If you make the initial cut, you are interviewed by the membership committee, and your name is posted on the bulletin board for review.
Get a load of those pecs. It's enough to give a Jersey girl palpitations. The view from Joey Harrison's Surf Club, a popular bar in Ortley Beach, features a human landscape in all shapes and sizes. Diversity rules on the 127 miles (204.4 kilometers) of the Jersey Shore.
Should you be so lucky, my friend, to be invited to lunch at the club, you'll need to dress up a little. Check the code, which varies from meal to meal and day to day—and applies to anyone over the age of eight. Lime green and pink seem to be popular, but I suspect a splash of madras would not be out of place.
Dear Lynn: Last night I was out with our photographer, Amy Toensing, and she got into an argument with Enigma. The Enigma is one of the performers at the Bros. Grim sideshow at Funtown Pier on the Seaside Heights boardwalk. Seaside Heights is pure honky-tonk, slightly seedy, and darker in tone than more family-oriented towns like Ocean City to the south. Enigma (his real name doesn't matter, he told me) is covered with blue-green tattoos, has horns growing out of his head (Teflon implants), sports a pair of nipple rings, and is blessed with an amazing digestive tract. Among other feats, he can swallow a sword with hardly a burp.
Amy wanted to photograph Enigma at breakfast eating his bowl of muesli, but Enigma found that idea a total…well…enigma.
"Breakfast? Muesli? I am the snide, cynical, and bitchy Enigma. Don't you want to photograph me swallowing a red neon tube?" he kept asking.
It turned out to be a career concern. Enigma, who is sweet not snide, was afraid if readers saw a photo of him in an everyday situation, the magic would evaporate; no one would come see him perform. We all have our vulnerabilities, even a tattoo-covered man with horns and nipple rings.
Enigma lives with Katzen, the Tiger Lady, who is tattooed with tiger stripes and has luxuriant whiskers growing out of her upper lip (Teflon, again). She was furious at Amy for even asking to photograph her out of her professional context. "This is who I am," she said, whiskers vibrating with fury. "I won't let you photograph me outside the tent."
Amy patiently tried to explain that she wanted to show readers a different, authentic side of the performers' lives.
"Sometimes people have too much information," Katzen retorted.
It was the proverbial debate between illusion and reality.
Will wonders never cease?—Cathy
Dear Lynn: THERE IS NO SALT WATER IN SALTWATER TAFFY. Couldn't you just cry? Bernt Hage, who has been making candy for 35 years at Berkeley Sweet Shops on the boardwalk at Seaside Heights, explains the origin of saltwater taffy like this: One day a big storm came up and blew waves over a vendor's tray of taffy, and when a child asked for some of that "saltwater taffy," the name stuck, so to speak. Bernt says there are only a few makers left on the entire Jersey Shore. The rest of the stuff is probably mass-produced in Hoboken and passed off as boardwalk taffy. Berkeley makes 17 flavors in 150-pound (68-kilogram) batches. Banana, chocolate, and vanilla top the best seller list. For the more adventurous: root beer and molasses mint. Bernt gave me his secret recipe, which I pass along to you:
100 pounds (45.4 kilograms) corn syrup
36 pounds (16.3 kilograms) sugar
15 pounds (6.8 kilograms) vegetable fat
Stir ingredients and cook to 248 degrees Fahrenheit (120 degree Celsius). Pour in stainless steel pans and cool.
Put on taffy-puller machine for three minutes. Add flavor and color. Put in batch roller, and then rope sizer. Cut into two-inch (5-centimeter) strips and wrap in wax paper.
Yield: 13,000 pieces (enough to make a convention of dentists very happy).
Dear Lynn: While other kids at the Hun prep school in Princeton were studying calculus and Latin, Jim Rigot was at Monmouth Park betting trifectas. The others went on to Ivy League schools and became doctors and lawyers. Rigot became vice president of casino operations at the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa in Atlantic City.
In 1976 New Jersey voters approved gambling in Atlantic City, and the city has been rolling the dice ever since. Last year 32.2 million visitors left 4.5 billion dollars in the 12 casinos here. At the Borgata there are 3,512 slots and 139 tables for games like roulette and poker. Rigot tells me that men prefer shooting craps, women like roulette, and it's a 50-50 split for blackjack. Culturally, Europeans like roulette and baccarat, Asians like mini-baccarat and pai gow tiles, whereas craps is quintessentially American. For a player, the best bet is blackjack. The house advantage on blackjack is only 0.5 percent compared with baccarat (1.2 percent), craps (1.41 percent) and roulette (5.26 percent), with slot machines up there at 8 percent, probably more. I prefer Go Fish, though no one seemed to share that particular interest at the Borgata.
Dear Lynn: Knowing how important it is to hold expenses down on assignment these days, I had a hamburger for dinner. All right, it cost $41, but give a girl credit for trying. How can any hamburger cost that much? Let me tell you. It was a 20-ounce (567-gram) Kobe beef burger the size of a softball. According to chef Romeo DiBona at the Old Homestead steak house, this baby is made from the beef of cattle that are fed beer and whole grains and massaged daily with sake. It must be one happy herd—for a while, anyway.
Dear Lynn: Am feeling guilty about the hamburger. Today I saw another side of Atlantic City with Bill Southrey, director of the Atlantic City Rescue Mission. The mission provides shelter for up to 300 homeless people a night and serves more than 500 meals a day, but its guiding principle is to tackle the underlying causes of homelessness.
Bill and I walked the boardwalk and talked about the hidden world under the boards. Some 200 homeless people live there, and if you peer down through the slats you can spot the bedding where they settle for the night. As we walked, some of Bill's former residents came up and briefed him on how they were doing: One man had been off drugs for four years. Another had been sober for five. But no sooner does one problem get solved than two appear in its place. One woman approached Bill to say she was having trouble getting a new pair of prescription glasses. Another needed help writing a job rósumó. Bill listened attentively and told each one where to get help. He slipped a man playing violin on the boardwalk a few dollars and stopped to talk to another who confessed he might need to come back and live at the mission. Bill said he'd look forward to seeing him.
As we passed the Trump Taj Mahal, Bill opened his wallet and showed me a photograph he had taken on his eighth-grade class trip to New York City. It was a man sleeping on a bench with his belongings stashed under him. "While everyone else was taking pictures of the Empire State Building, you focused on this?" I asked. He nodded.
We went to the rescue mission on Bacharach Boulevard. Such a big building, I said.
"It's so big," Bill sighed, "because the need is so great. It would be nice to solve some problems and move to a smaller one."
Bill told me that the worst day he'd ever had at the mission was the day his high school football coach turned up at the door.
"Billy?" said the coach, whose life had veered out of control.
"Coach R__?" Bill replied, swallowing hard.
Afterward, I wrote the Atlantic City Rescue Mission a check for $41. Call it hamburger redemption.
Dear Lynn: Queen Victoria, that princess of chintzes and fussy decor, would have loved this place. Frank Lloyd Wright, that master of the simple, disciplined line, would have taken one look and promptly impaled himself on the nearest picket fence. Cape May has one of the greatest concentrations of Victorian architecture in the country. There are 600 or more wooden Victorian buildings crowned with cupolas, turrets, gables, and frosted with fretwork spandrels, scalloped brackets, spindle running trim, and fish-scale shingles galore. In Cape May even the curlicues have curlicues.
Still, Cape May is restorative. It's that long horizon, the soothing oceanic swell—the best lullaby ever invented. I am standing on the southernmost point of the Jersey Shore. Time to hit the Garden State Parkway and head home. For the record it has rained constantly. I will not be wearing a tan when I return, but a layer of RUST.
Ain't life a beach?—Cathy
To: Lynn Addison
From: Cathy Newman
Re: Jersey Shore text
A theme? You say you want a theme to tie the Jersey Shore story together? Why not ask for blood? Oh, all right. Try this:
Nothing connects the towns of the Jersey Shore other than the shore itself. Asbury Park is as different from Atlantic City as a penguin is from a pelican. Likewise for Wildwood, Long Branch, or any other of the towns that dot the hem of the shore. There is no common ground—except the frail connective tissue of nostalgia. The shore is about memory. It is about family ritual. It's about childhood softened by the haze of distance. Every summer for ten years my friend Kathy made the pilgrimage from her Wilmington, Delaware, home with her family to her grandmother's beach house in Ocean City, New Jersey. "I remember the smells," she tells me, eyes brimming with tears. "The whiff of Coppertone. The astringency of Noxzema. The burnt-sugar smell of cotton candy."
Painted in pastels, Cape May's Victorian houses are sweet as saltwater taffy. Architectural excess is a hallmark; the entire town is a national historic landmark. Cape May, like the rest of the Jersey Shore, can be quirky, but it's always fun.
And so we remember…The car ride to the shore and that landmark last bridge before the sea greets us with its damp embrace of salt air. The race to eat an ice-cream cone before it melts. The sound of adult voices talking into the night, while we children settle down to sleep.
The shore is the Lost City of Atlantis in us all—a submerged longing for innocence and simplicity, for how we once were. And so we go again and again (if only in our minds) to places like Ocean City, Asbury Park, and Cape May. Places where we don't have to grow up. Places where we can grow back down.
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