Sunday, August 16, 2015

seaside rendezvous

I first went to Seaside Heights, New Jersey just after I met Mrs. Pincus. We were not yet married, just a couple of kids looking for some fun at the shore. By this time, the Atlantic City of our youth had all but disappeared. It was now making the hopeful transition to becoming the Las Vegas of the East. Family resorts had been converted to casinos, amusement piers went bankrupt and were shuttered and the beach was no longer AC's number one destination. Seaside Heights, as I was told by my art school pal Eric who spent his summers in the small North Jersey community, stood unchanged for generations. The boardwalk, while considerably smaller than its famed Atlantic City counterpart, was lined with games of skill (like Whack-a-Mole and SkeeBall), spinning wheels of fortune and several piers jammed with carnival-style thrill rides.

One summer day in the early 1980s, Mrs. P (in girlfriend mode) and I tackled winding Route 37 through the notorious Jersey Pine Barrens*, to the tiny burg just over the oddly-configured Thomas A. Mathis and J. Stanley Tunney twin bridges. As we approached, we spotted the tracks of rollers coasters rising above the typical Jersey shore homes, We could hear the cheerful sounds of a calliope mixed with the angry chirp of seagulls and the calming woosh of the ocean. It was as though we were transported back twenty years to the fond memories of days spent lounging by the pool at The Deauville and evenings spent spinning on the Tilt-a-Whirl on Million Dollar Pier.

Mrs. P and I met Eric on the beach in the morning and later "walked the boards," marveling at the sights, riding the rides and even scoring a full box of candy at one of the wheels when the arrow finally landed on our quarter-covered number. (Of course, we had already plopped down twice the amount a box of candy would cost had we just made the purchase in a legitimate store.) After a nightcap of a Kohr Brothers chocolate-dipped cone, Mrs. P and I said our goodbyes to Eric and headed home, still joyed from a day's visit to a time past.

We returned to Seaside Heights regularly, even after our son was born in 1987. By this time, Atlantic City showed no signs of its former self, as the casino business was experiencing a massive construction boom and dizzying revenues. Seaside Heights still offered fun for the whole family. Rides, games, the beach and pizza slices bigger than your head.

Of course, time marches on. Our son grew up and a ride on the Whip could no longer compete with concerts and college and girls. Mrs. Pincus' interest in casino gambling blossomed and we found ourselves in one Atlantic City casino or another nearly every weekend. Our trips to Seaside Heights became less frequent, eventually ending altogether. The next time we heard the name "Seaside Heights" was in 2009 when MTV presented Jersey Shore, a "real life" look into the lives of a group of self-proclaimed "Guidos and Guidettes" sharing a house near the town's boardwalk, I never saw an episode of the show, but I know it was an extremely popular cultural phenomenon. It made Seaside Heights a household name as more tourists clamored for a glimpse of Snooki, The Situation and their assorted partners in crime.

After four years of ridicule based on Jersey Shore's infamy, Seaside Heights was assaulted by Hurricane Sandy (or "Super Storm," as it was dubbed by every major and local news outlet because everything needs a name) in the fall of 2012. Mrs. P and I sat in front of our television in a Las Vegas hotel room and watched in horror as the piers we once walked upon and rides we once rode upon were reduced to splinters by voluminous rains and violent winds. However, in the aftermath, the scrappy little town-by-the-sea banded together, determined to rebuild in time for the important summer season. For the most part, Seaside Heights bounced back and welcomed tourists as they had in the past, only to be knocked down again in September by a devastating fire that destroyed over fifty boardwalk businesses as well as one of the more popular amusement piers. But, again, like a phoenix, Seaside Heights rose unfettered and greeted tourists in 2014 with open arms, open beaches and open bars.

"we're gonna get to that place 
 where we really wanna go and 
we'll walk in the sun"
Last Sunday, just my wife and I (refusing to admit to the label "empty-nesters") returned to Seaside Heights after an absence of almost twenty years. Filled with nostalgic curiosity (and looking for an excuse to kill a Sunday afternoon), we decided to check out the progress and changes since our last visit. First, the private parking lot in which we regularly had secured our car was now a municipal lot, outfitted with automated, credit card-accepting kiosks dispensing tickets in lieu of a real-live teen with summer job. The boardwalk, however, looked nearly as we remembered — packed with bathing suit clad tourists, toting giant stuffed animals awarded by one of the many spinning wheels of chance or daintily stuffing a deep-fried Oreo into their zinc-oxide smeared lips. Groups of teenagers mingled with clutches of extended families and the atmosphere was buzzing with joyful activity. The beach was just as jammed with sunbathers and sand castle-builders and volleyball players. Music played. Rides spun to dizzying heights. Pizza doughs were tossed high in the air. Mrs. P and I strolled the truncated boardwalk and took in the sights, the sounds and the smells. We were happy — very happy — to see that Seaside Heights was thriving and vibrant. And when I saw that sign in the window of a boardwalk bar, I knew the more things change, the more they stay the same. Seaside Heights is gonna be okay.

The missus and I each had a slice of pizza as big as our heads, then started for home.

*The Jersey Devil was nowhere in sight.

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