Wednesday, October 31, 2012

In Search of America-The Jersey Shore

There's a little summer bungalow on the corner of Bay Boulevard and New Brunswick Avenue in Lavallette, New Jersey. It once belonged to my maternal grandfather, Antonio Scotti, who emigrated to America from the tiny fishing island of Ischia (off the coast of Naples, Italy) in 1918. I don’t know if the bungalow is still there anymore, or if Hurricane Sandy claimed it as one of its many victims on Monday, but I wanted to share with you exactly what that tiny house and being “down the shore” means to us here in New Jersey.

When my grandfather bought the house (and the lot across the street from it) back in the 1950s, Lavallette, like most of the Jersey Shore was nothing like it is today. Most of the houses were tiny, many were hand built by the owners themselves from Post World War II military scrap wood hauled down from up north, down Route 9 (no Garden State Parkway yet) and finally, onto Route 35, the two lane road that connected the barrier island on which Lavallette sits to the mainland. From Belmar, to Point Pleasant, to Seaside to Long Beach Island, the coast of New Jersey was the “blue collar Riviera”, a place where tired workers from places like the Ford Plant, Alcoa Aluminum, Maxwell House Coffee plant and the thousands of labor intensive factories from the north could come for a few days each summer with their families and enjoy the fruits of their labor. America was booming and immigrants, like my Grandpa were living their dream. His children were all married. Some, like my mother, were divorced. All had children, and his snowy-white hair and imposing presence made him the perfect patriarch for our family. He loved being called ‘Grandpa’ by us kids, and ‘Pa’ or ‘Papa’ by his own adult children.

In the late 50s into the late 60s the little bungalow was the place where all the cousins, aunts and uncles spent our summers. Some came for a few days or weeks, and others like my sister and I were sent off shortly after school ended. Our mother was single and the family felt  we kids would be better off with some adult supervision down there than to be roaming the streets all summer and getting into “God knows what’ kind of trouble. I fought with my mother about going down there as I got older, preferring instead to hang with my friends back in Fairview. But all of that began to drift away the moment I crossed the Driscoll Bridge and saw the giant Dutch Boy paint billboard on the other side. It would be just a short while before the smell of the ocean would fill the air, the concrete I knew back home would give way to the sand and the ubiquitous yellow stone that is synonymous with being Down The Shore.  

The bungalow only had two bedrooms. Grandpa shared his with one of us kids (a much sought after honor, by the way). The rest of us slept on mattresses on the floor, or on one of the many pullout beds. Meals were served at the long wooden picnic table in the kitchen, often consisting of crabs (hard and soft shell), caught  earlier that day out in Barnegat Bay, bluefish or flounder caught at the ocean, or the eels and blowfish caught by us kids in our seine nets or by Grandpa from his beach fishing spot.

I remember the eels especially. Like long slimy snakes, they always put up a fight when hooked, and I can remember Grandpa’s face light up when he knew he had one on the line. He’d smile, get all excited and in his broken English, tell us that “eets a bigga one!” Then, when we’d get back to the house, he’d chop off the head, skin it, cut it into sections and fry them up in the big cast iron frying pan my aunts kept in the oven. I know it sounds gross to some of you reading this, but to us, it was a delicacy.

Days for us kids were spent swimming in the bay, or earning spending money by catching baitfish in our seine nets and selling it to the local bait store. We’d go to the Ben Franklin 5 and 10 up on Route 35 and buy bubbles, kites, and whatever junk our couple of dollars could afford.

We played until the sun went down....kite flying, Wiffle ball, and for the really brave, jumping off the bridge that separated Lavallette from West Point Island, where the rich people lived. On July 4th, we’d sit on the beach and watch fireworks light up the night sky all across Barnegat Bay. It was paradise, and even as kids, we knew we were in someplace special.

When we were all settled in for the night, some lucky grandchild would get to sit on the swing with Grandpa that was inside the enclosed porch of the little bungalow. Gramps paid us a penny to pluck the very few black hairs that lay hidden among his beautiful shock of white hair. I know we must have hurt him, but he was patient and paid us for our efforts.

There was only one television in the house and reception was spotty at best, even with a rooftop antenna. There were never any arguments over what was watched. We watched whatever Grandpa wanted or we watched nothing at all. As bad as the reception was most of the time on the old black and white set, it always miraculously cleared up on Saturday nights when wrestling came on. There was only one champion in our house, Bruno Sammartino. Grandpa loved him, and so did we. 

 When we were older, (eleven or twelve) we’d be allowed to go to the ocean by ourselves. We knew enough about safety in the water and we sure as hell knew that we weren’t allowed to go alone. And when we hit our teenage year, we were allowed to go to the boardwalk at Seaside Heights by ourselves. We dressed in our summer finest and walked the five miles to ‘hang’ out at the arcades on the boardwalk or play miniature golf. Of course, we had to be back by eleven pm but it didn’t matter; we were grownups in our minds and were tasting freedom for the first time.

I kissed my first girl on one of the benches that dotted the Lavallette beach along Barnegat Bay. It was late summer, and Veronica, the girl whose family had rented the house next to my Grandpa’s empty lot had captured my eye almost from the day she arrived. Our kiss was both an awakening and a goodbye; she was to leave the next day. I cursed myself for waiting so long in pledging my undying summer love for her but I remember it to this day.

My fondest memory of the shore came on a Friday night during a nor’easter. Grandpa had picked me up in Fairview and we were to ride down there in his white, 1961 Oldsmobile (it had, gasp...air conditioning!)

I don’t remember much about the ride up until we hit Route 35 and were just going through downtown Point Pleasant. The rain and the wind were pounding against the car and the wipers, while slapping dependably, were being severely overworked, even on high speed. I was scared and I think Grandpa might have been a little nervous too.

“You hungry Babba?” Babba was a pet name he had for us grandkids. He didn’t use it often, but when he did, you could see the love in his eyes. He could light up a kid’s heart with it.

“Yes, I am”, I replied.

He pulled the Olds into the parking lot of a long gone restaurant called the Normandy Inn in Normandy Beach. The parking lot was nearly empty, but a soft light shone through the windows. We got out and ran for the door while the cold, early summer rain and the northeast wind slashed at us.

Inside, it was warm, dry, and dimly lit. We sat near the fire place and I distinctly remember being thrilled about it because I had never seen a fireplace before which had an actual fire going!

Grandpa told me I could order anything I wanted, and so I had flounder, and I think he might have too.

During dinner, we laughed and talked while the storm raged outside. I don’t remember what the conversation was, but I do remember that I never felt safer or more loved than I did at that moment. I never wanted it to end.

But it did end, and when we went back outside, the storm didn’t seem as threatening as it had before. We traveled southbound on Route 35, turned right onto New Brunswick Avenue and in moments the yellow ‘Down the Shore’ rocks that covered the property crunched under the weight of the Oldsmobile. We were home and we were safe.

Grandpa Scotti’s presence and influence loomed so large in our lives that when he died in 1967, the family grew apart almost instantly. We no longer had him as the center of our familial universe, and thus, we retreated to our own immediate families, to build new branches and create new traditions on our own family tree. But the memories of the bungalow in Lavallette still bind the cousins together whenever we have occasion to meet, which these days seems to only be at wakes. Strange though, how whenever we do meet up for those fleeting few moments between grieving and reminiscing, inevitably the subject matter turns toward something that happened long ago at the little bungalow on the corner of Bay Boulevard and New Brunswick Avenue. For a kid that had little in the way of a normal family life from September to June, those precious weeks with aunts, uncles and cousins in the summers at Lavallette still comfort me and lift me from the sadness into which I fall from time to time. When I feel unloved or alone, I think back to those single, brilliant days as I watched my Grandpa’s still strong arms row his boat out into Barnegat Bay, until he found a ‘spot’ where the fish and crabs were. He’d toss the heavy anchor overboard and the splash of it hitting the water would douse my lips with the salty bay. Once settled, we would spend hours in safe, serene silence which was punctuated only by my Grandpa’s fishing rod suddenly spasmodically bending, while his fishing line grew tight enough for a Walenda to walk across.  He pulled in his catch with great delight, unhooked it and threw it into the galvanized bucket filled with bay water, where it frantically tried to escape to freedom. Then, he would coach me with silent hand signals as I  pulled my crabbing lines inch by inch toward the surface until we could see the crab feasting on the moss bunker tied to the end of the line. Grandpa Scotti was a ninja with a crab net, and the blue claw never had a chance to escape.

That little house was a haven for me... so much so, that when I moved down here twenty-five years ago, I made it a point to visit it from time to time. When I was going through a painful divorce, I came there often in the fall and winter, parked my car and just sat there looking at the house and the bay across the street. At the time when I was contemplating the most monumental decision of my life, I went there many times because I needed something substantive to hang on to when everything around me was crumbling. And now, after this horrible event that has nearly destroyed it all, I’m not even sure that it is there anymore. For all the help it has given me for so many years, I feel helpless now knowing that it is there all alone. I can’t tell it how much I loved it or how much it matters in my life. I can’t fix it if it is broken, and I can’t say goodbye to it if it is destroyed. All I can do now is hope.    

The Jersey Shore isn't just a place, its part of the DNA for anyone born in this place. Every single Jersey native is connected to it, whether by late night trips down the Parkway after prom to watch the sun rise, or moments when the 'wheel' stopped on your number or color and you actually won something. It is sausage and pepper sandwiches and transistor radios on the beach. It is newly born summer love and rites of passage. It is Springsteen, Bobby Rydell, The Four Seasons and the Drifters telling us to go under the boardwalk. It is a source of pride and a right to brag about something no other state could ever hope to match for it’s unimaginable combination of sheer natural beauty and utter tackiness. It is our way of giving the rest of the country, and particularly New York City, the collective middle finger for heaping an awful lot of abuse and disrespect on us. We know what we have....we surely know.

The shore I once knew is gone now because of Hurricane Sandy. I don’t know what will replace it. Given the times we live in, I suspect that the upscale residents of Lavallette and the surrounding towns which have replaced the blue collar workers of the past will demand a new Jersey Shore which is more suitable to their ‘refined’ tastes. The ‘Guidos’ and the ‘Bennies’ from up north still come down, but they’ve been confined to the neon ghetto that was Seaside Heights. Yeah, it’s not going to be the same. After all who needs a miniature golf course with a 20 foot tall lumberjack smiling at them all the time when you can have an organic produce store instead?    

That’s it. I’m done bitching. Everybody hug, everybody eat, and please, everybody pray for New Jersey. Abbondanza!