MEMORIES ARE MADE OF THIS: THE JERSEY SHORE July 9th 2015 bY Calvin Schwartz
It’s the old proverbial; who better to write an article on memories of the Jersey shore. My ‘involvement’ begins before I was born, when my parents went to the Buena Vista, a Belmar hotel, for the weekend as WWII was slowly winding down in late 1944. They stayed in the attic; nine months later I arrived. When I was ten, my parents started renting a bungalow in Belmar for August. That first summer of ’55, I discovered the pinball arcade, navigating the dust underneath the machines for lost coins, the Shark River Jetty, its meditative properties and the olfactory sensations of the boardwalk, in part, which smelled like a telephone pole back in Newark.
The essence of the shore begins about six to ten blocks away from the sand and beach. Somehow only in Jersey, with the flatness of the geography of shore towns, from a distance, you can see the end of New Jersey and America; the vast blueness of ocean and sky meeting. That view is priceless and exciting. It’s that first shore sighting; a giant window to memories and new daily beach badge experiences. Yes, the beach badge, with its convoluted pin affixed to bathing suit. If only a season badge someday.
As I interviewed a diverse group of Jerseyans, many mentioned unique shore smells. Author Karen Kenney Smith, remembering a summer week spent at Asbury Park’s Atlantic Hotel liked the “musty smell of the tired carpet.” Moist ocean air everywhere contributed. Rock on Radio personality Danny Coleman focused on the panoply of boardwalk smells. They were pure Jersey food on boardwalk smells but, “Pizza aroma was everywhere.” Musician Carmen Cosentino still loves the smell of “peanuts on the boardwalk.” He explained somehow it mixes with the salt air of Jersey’s Atlantic Ocean and has this additive effect of making you want peanuts even more.
I’m not sure how I started talking about the hair-do of the Jersey shore but maybe we have our own home-grown style. Insurance industry analyst Susan Michelle’s grandmother’s friends always had their hair in a net sitting on the beach with cigarettes dangling from lips. A card game was always going on. Carmen’s thought on hair, “Jersey women had the strangest hair-do; it looked like a bee-hive.” Kathy Sinnott’s grandmother left the beach every day at 3PM to prepare for happy hour.
“And what happened when you left the Jersey beach to go back to your houses?” Kathy showered outside in the backyard in unique wooden showers with plank floors. It was to get rid of the sand fast. Susan used outside showers too or sometimes just a quick hose down on the back lawn covered with neatly manicured weeds and occasional crab grass.
I drifted into a serious line of questioning; parents and kids. Yes the Jersey shore fostered a special life-long bond and memory pool with relationships of kids to parents. Back then, people knew you as a kid and who you belonged to. Kathy remembered long talks with her Dad sitting on a porch or backyard before heading to the boardwalk. You always saw kids with parents hanging together. The shore was built for kids and parents. Retired Pharmacist Jack Cobin told about grandmothers sitting on benches and watching kids carefully and mother’s telling you not to go into the water for an hour after eating. “Kids in the neighborhood hanging out was like the Wonder Years; a naïve innocent time,” Kathy added. Writer and blogger Kevin Cieri thought, “Family time was playing Skeeball together.” Billie Jo McDonald, with more recent memories of the shore, would walk her children to the beach in November and wait for storms. For the homeschooling kids, they’d spend the first day of school on the beach. “It got to be that the kids could read the riptide. The Jersey beach was a grounding spot.”
Food is Jersey definitive. Everyone remembers. It was the Good Humor ice cream truck. For me in the 50’s, it was a bakery truck driving up and down the beach streets with bread and cake stuff out of the rear. I heard recollections about Syd’s, Vic’s, Zelbe’s, Max’s and The WindMill for hot dogs. Despite the admonition of Thomas Wolfe that you can’t go home again, The WindMill is still purveying hot dogs today. Also mentioned as a memory were soft-shelled crab sandwiches and salt water taffy right out of the local ocean; it tasted better indigenous. Kohr’s Custard in a cone; Karen once dropped her cone and to this day it’s always in a cup for her. Sandwiches were always taken to the beach, sometimes packed in shoe-boxes. French fries came in brown paper bags with small wooden forks and vinegar instead of ketchup.
Amusements on the beach boardwalk were endless; every town from Asbury Park to Point Pleasant had pastimes. For me, if I behaved during the week and watched my infant sister Hildy, the family would go to Asbury Park on Saturday. The merry-go-round was mostly magical. I never grabbed the brass ring. Pinball in the arcades was prolific on boardwalks, Ocean Avenue or in memory. Today, the Pinball Museum in Asbury Park captures the particulates with vintage games like the Gottlieb and Williams machines. And back to the future with an original game, the baseball pinball where you can even adjust the pitch speed. Susan remembers the ‘Grabber Machine’ which she played all summer long trying for that elusive big prize; one year she won and still talks about it. Ironically, the other day, a local television news story focused on that machine. They reported the machine is programmed (fixed) to not yield a winner until all the prizes inside were paid for. Bingo had its fans in Bradley Beach. And of course Palace Amusements and Tillie and Seaside stirred memories. Music wise, it’s easy for me to write about The Upstage Club in Asbury Park, open from 1968 to 1971 (I’ve been researching it) where the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny, Vini Lopez and Steven Van Zandt started out. And you played volleyball on the beach even under the light of the silvery moon. Film maker Chris Eilenstine remembers, “There was always something to do.”
There is a life cycle to the Jersey shore. Many towns had pavilions where little kids hung out, sometimes with arts and crafts. Then teen dances sprung up in those VFW or religious halls after a day of listening to transistor radios on the beach. Jack reminded that Loch Arbor beach, adjacent to Asbury Park, became a college hang out. Shore towns sometimes mirrored different ethnic enclaves. Humorously, Carmen told me that his father bought a house in Bradley Beach and when he dated a Bradley Beach girl, he was instructed by the date to hide his crucifix under his shirt; a scene right out of the movie ‘Goodfellas’ (celebrating a 25th anniversary) Chris, to this day, says “I love the diversity, the great culture play, small town feel and originality of the Jersey shore and you can hop on a train and be in New York City in an hour.”
Pondering a good visual to portray the Jersey shore when I was listening to the Everly Brothers sing ‘Bye Bye Love’ in 1955, I just thought of the movie ‘The Summer of ’42.’ Jersey shore was small towns, simple beach structures, like on the island in the movie. Stores were basic and general. Painted paper sale signs hung on windows; beach chairs and umbrellas on the sidewalks creating impulses to buy. Movie theaters boasted they had air-conditioning, were mostly double feature and had that beach dank damp smell. I want to say I saw ‘Now Voyager’ starring Bette Davis down the shore one summer. Some towns were regal with their Victorian architecture; I’m thinking Ocean Grove and Spring Lake. Jersey shore is old and historic.
There’s a paradox to the crowds and long lines of summer; the solitude and introspection of the winter months at the Jersey shore. Some towns turn off traffic lights in winter. Back in college, I used to get the key to my friend’s beach house in Bradley Beach and go there to study. It was cold but eerily quiet and productive. David McMahon, from 40 Foot Hole Studios, would rent a shore house for the winter for its ultimate peace and solitude. “I love the winters down there. I’d just bundle up and sit by the ocean.” That’s the other side of the shore; the down winter time; something which provides a unique identity. You can be in a state with eight million neighbors but find this spiritually special desolate shore place in a world all by itself with few winter neighbors and even fewer year-around pizza establishments.
And finally what is that common denominator that makes the Jersey shore unique, memorable and passed down from generation to generation? It’s the people of Jersey who’ve won their independence from New York and Philadelphia these past years. New Jersey is hot culturally and media wise. Just look at national pop culture; The Soprano’s, Boardwalk Empire, Jersey Shore, Jersey Housewives, Garden State, Jersey Boys; and of course Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi globally. What really is that bond that puts the whole state together then and now; that matrix of shared pride and experience; that place we all rushed to re-build after Sandy and showed our resilience to the world? It’s the Jersey shore. And I still remember it like it IS yesterday.