(Originally published in The New York Times in 2004)
A Tale of Two Beaches
I was walking along the boardwalk in Ocean City, New Jersey last week when I remarked to my husband, “It’s weird, but the people here all look as though they could be my relatives. I feel like I’ve returned to my roots.”
“I always knew you were a Jersey girl at heart,” he replied.
I wasn’t sure if I liked that observation, or agreed with it. After all, my parents (both born in New Jersey) had left in 1958 when I was six years old. The first stage of our westward migration took us to Golden, Colorado, where we lived for the next fifteen years. Our family grew from myself and two sisters to six girls and finally, a boy. During our extended sojourn in Colorado (my father never really considered it home; it was more of a stopping off point), various relatives would visit us from New Jersey. They would marvel at the mountains and the wide-open spaces, fill up their suitcases with Coors beer, and go back. No one was ever tempted to join us out in the wild West.
About every other summer (or as soon as my parents forgot how hellish a trip it was), our family would pile into the car (usually a boat-like Chevy gasping its last breath) and drive straight through to my aunt Mary’s house in Manasquan. What this sainted woman thought when the nine of us finally drove up after days of sleeping in the car and eating Velveeta cheese sandwiches at rest stops, I can only guess. She couldn’t have been more gracious though, and never let on that we were causing her even the slightest inconvenience.
These road trips back east fed my parents’ souls, and kept us connected to our Jersey roots. We thought of our New Jersey relatives as exotic creatures. They talked funny and smoked and played pinochle all night in basements that had full bars, complete with red leather booths and a beer tap right in the wall.
But the best part of the trip for me was going to the shore. No matter how busy we were visiting friends and family, we always set aside a day or two at the shore. All these years later, when I cross the causeway into Ocean City, my strongest sense memory is that of the smell of the Atlantic Ocean. One inhalation of that Jersey shore air and I am twelve years old again.
It would be several decades before I would see New Jersey again. Continuing their westward migration, my parents moved to southern California, and never drove “back East” again. I went to college, joined my family in southern California, and didn’t give my Jersey roots a second thought. After all, I was at the real beach. The Beach Boys weren’t singing about Jersey girls…
Life has a funny way though of putting you back where you least expect to be. Which in my case would be on 59th and West Avenue, Ocean City, New Jersey, making an offer on a compact, but darling second floor condo. Due to a series of job and relationship changes, I now lived in Philadelphia. And after years of living at the beach in southern California, I was naturally drawn to the Jersey beach (excuse me, I mean shore).
There are many differences between the two coasts other than the fact that one is called the beach, and the other the shore. The obvious difference is that southern California beaches are populated by tan, fit, gorgeous wanna-be models and actors, and the shore is populated by… well the opposite of that. Let’s just say that in Hermosa Beach you won’t see a badly sunburned guy who is 5’ 8”, weighing 275 pounds, wearing dark blue dress socks with sandals, cut-offs, a skin-tight sleeveless t-shirt, several gold chains with medallions, puffing on a big cigar, and looking out at the waves at 7:00 in the morning.
There are no palm trees here at the shore, but you do have the dunes with their beautifully undulating sea grasses. You have the Boardwalk, with the timeless appeal of a neighborhood carnival; while the left coast has its bike paths and piers (Venice Beach comes closest to the carny atmosphere). They’ve got the surfers, while you’ve got retired guys standing in the surf with fishing poles. And whether you think sunrises or sunsets are better is totally a matter of personal preference.
But mostly it’s the intangible things, like the scent of the air – you could close your eyes, inhale deeply and know exactly which coast you are on. The Atlantic has a more pure ocean smell; it’s more intensely moist and salty, almost primeval. The quality of light is denser here too; a cerulean sky that is capable of turning bruisingly purple on a moment’s notice. The Pacific sky seems further away, and the sky is more azure, tinged with palest yellow and white.
When I call my mother in California inviting her to come to our new place at the shore, she gets quiet, and I am afraid she is crying. Then I remind her how much fun Aunt Mary is, and how great it will be to visit the cousins and their children, many of whom we’ve never met. And when I do see my Aunt Mary, after a thirty-five year gap of time, we laugh riotously over those days when the McDermott family car sputtered up to the curb of her house near the shore, and all nine of us spilled out for our shore vacation. It seems like just yesterday.