You never say things like “down the shore” or actually call it the Jersey shore unless you’re in a moment of desperation and the list of clues you use to indicate your origin has struck out. You dig up what is probably your first memory and it’s an image of you and your dad clinging to burlap sacks throwing yourselves down a bumpy plastic slide with a thunderstorm brewing overhead and the ocean churning angrily under the Point Pleasant boardwalk.
Your dad tells you about things you don’t really remember but will cite later in life when describing the real Jersey coastline to inlanders: the heydays of Asbury Park before its only claim to glory was dancing with the ghosts of young Springsteen, back when the merry go round had real brass rings you were supposed to grab even though you were too scared to ride anything more than the stationary horse, before the fire leveled the amusement pier and snuffed out the whole economy, before the Stone Pony closed then reopened, then closed again. Be saddled with the responsibility of telling people later in life that people around there are not really “like that” because the characters they’ve seen on MTV don’t actually live there, that people around there are actually mostly like your dad, a hard-working guy who spent his days managing a men’s clothing store, spent his nights watching HBO and took his kids to the beach on the weekends, always leaving the house early enough to beat the tourists, who thought the boardwalk spectacle was about as interesting as the Burger King at the mall.
Learn to body surf with your dad and get hooked on the rush that would force you to pick up a surfboard by high school. Be the only Boy Scout in your whole troop to volunteer to plant dune grass on weekends to prevent erosion. Years later at midnight, rip up the dune grass and some of the adjacent fence for good measure to build a bonfire with friends on the beach because you’ve run out of stuff to do in this town and need somewhere to talk about how you can’t wait to leave.
You watch MTV make its slow, nefarious invasion that starts innocuously enough with a few interstitial video show intros shot at Water Works or on the boardwalk in the early ‘90s. You read the news your junior year that MTV’s vaunted beach house that symbolized the carefree, school-free days of youth would be setting up in Seaside that year instead of more exotic locations. You walk by the house but never catch any celebrities better than Jim Breuer, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, and Jesse Camp. You finger bang a girl on your bed one day and it’s so boring she tells you about being forced to totally request an ‘N Sync song so she could get on TV. You get the sudden feeling that your time being influenced by MTV has passed.
You never really realize you live in a resort town until you wake up one day sometime around Memorial Day and your plans to skip school and go to the beach are ruined by a clusterfuck of New York and Pennsylvania plates, cars stuffed to the windows with cheap Walmart body boards, shiny club shirts and spiky hair gel, each acting like it’s trying to fast-forward through the boring commercials of your every day life.
You decide to grow you hair out so no one confuses you for the spiked hair crowd. Discover that, gradually, every Jersey-born desire is being burned out of you by constant exposure to this crowd and suddenly you no longer yearn to own a muscle car, your love of modern rock radio is fading fast and, most of all, your defense of New Jersey as the Best Beaches in the World can’t possible still be valid, especially since the cost of a daily beach badge just went up.
Take out your rage with local elitism, which you have yet to be convinced is not justified. Liberally use a derogatory term to describe the worst of the visitors but never betray your local trust by sharing the term with them. When you want peace, drive down to the far south beach well beyond the boardwalk where you have to forge your way through thick, muggy foliage infested with flies just to get to the beach but once you do it’s worth it because you see no one but anglers and surfers. Sit on your board and don’t make a noise as a pod of dolphins passes not five feet in front of you, popping above a wave with a frightening fin and then sinking back into the water with a beautiful ease.
Get a job at a chain of boardwalk stands through a guy who sold your dad weed a few times. Spend the summers being accused of ripping off tourists and drunk guidos, come up with an endless stream of smart-ass reasons why you can’t “just give me one” of your prizes, which depending on where you’re stationed could mean CDs, sports plaques, Phantom Menace merchandise or half-cartons of cigarettes. Keep your legs in shape and your wits smart because a few times you’ll have to chase down a would-be thief who tried to jump over your stand and grab the latest Eminem album. Break up fights; keep an eye out for your female coworkers when the bar across the boardwalk lets out at 3 AM; time your break just right on Wednesdays to climb the roof and watch the weekly fireworks with the cute girls from the surf shop, all of you barefoot.
Watch the tide of Seaside obsession continue on MTV and spread like a strange fungus to the rest of the nation as the beach house returns again a few summers later. Then there’s a True Life episode called “I Have a Summer Share,” an hour-long embodiment of everything you’ve fought against for 18 years of being a boardwalk kid; the rampant, testosterone-fueled rage that makes people from far away act like they own the place, demand cheeseballs out of turn and cause all those fights you tried to break up. Then another episode shows the female version of the same thing. You watch MTV debut a show called Made that films at your cross-town rival high school over and over and over again.
You spend your last summer as a boardie at Seaside Heights working straight through Labor Day and watch the crowds die from overwhelming, intense intruders to a trickle of nonplussed locals, holding hands and passing shuttered gates. Your boss takes you out to the Beachcomber after you pull your gate down and gets you a drunk for the first time in your life at 19. You spend your first night drunk talking up a similarly disenchanted girl from Lucky Leo’s who has dark brown hair that shimmers off the neon lit Budweiser sign and promises she’ll escape Jersey and run away to California with you one day (she won’t).
You get up early to watch the sun rise on the beach. Eight days later you prepare to escape town to move down South and figure things out but it’s 9/11 and your mom makes you wait another day in the drag of post-summer New Jersey, and your anxiousness to leave it all behind momentarily overwhelms the tragedy. Drive south on the turnpike the next day and see kids in South Jersey standing on a highway overpass waving American flags and “United We Stand” signs. Choke up and vow to never live in New Jersey again.
You hear about a show called Jersey Shore coming soon. It makes you cringe and you know you won’t watch it, not that you have a blanket hatred of reality TV, but you’re sure that the people on it are not anything special, just the latest iteration of the same nonsense that clogged roads and sloshed too many Bud Lights at the Bamboo Club since you were riding the kiddie slide, thinking it would be about as interesting as if MTV made a show about people that walk four abreast on the sidewalk in New York City.
Years later, you’ll find yourself standing in a Party City in Brooklyn, stunned to see the same boardwalk on the packaging of a pre-made Halloween costume that everyone in America can buy to dress up like an asshole visiting South Jersey.
You head back to New Jersey for the longest stretch since that summer for the last days as your dad and cancer are negotiating the terms of his surrender. You step away from the hospital bed for a few hours to clear your head and you stand alone on the boardwalk when your mom calls saying it’s all over. In the distance on the pier, lights still twinkle as the freefall slams to the ground, rushing air up through the boardwalk, into the planks of your memory, the burlap sack you and dad rode suddenly ruffled by a new blast of air. Your boardwalk bosses are some of the only people you recognize at the funeral service.
Two years later, Jersey Shore premieres, with promos promising to treat your delicate last memories of Seaside Heights as kindly as a frat boy during pledge week. You don’t watch it.