After far too much of my parents' money wasted on a college education, this was my first adult decision: disappearing to the Jersey shore. (Or in Philly-speak, "down the shore.") Yes, the Jersey shore is for families, vacationers, second-homers, retirees, and all the sedate relaxation. But the real Jersey shore is a coastline of crazy tidal forces and shifting sands in conflict: growing up and avoiding growing up, eroding and replenishing island life, opening and closing the bridges. And the prime time for those waters is between the ages of 18 and 21 years old. There is just no better way to start life out than with the sublime irresponsibility of a summer at the Jersey shore on your own. It's like time off from real life--and living it for real.
In this particular summer, my younger brother and I lived just above squalor with fellow drunks, druggies, deadheads, and other delinquents who were either our friends or freeloaders who possibly knew our friends. Most of them slept until noon and barely held jobs as dishwashers or gas station attendants, preferring cave-like beds above shoe stores, boarding house basements, and skanky apartments behind real homes. When energy returned, they would look for girls by lying on the beach in lean, tan, and suave stupors, thinking that lazy handsomeness was what any smart female would want on a shiftless Tuesday afternoon. They lazed easily, while annoyed mothers struggled to switch hands between Stephen King, the toddlers, a diet Coke, Goldfish, and bundles of yellow and red plastic toys. (For the All Time Best Day at the Beach Migration, though, nothing tops my other brother and his friends, who once hauled their entire rented living room, furniture, couch and all, to the beach, and decorated the dunes with themselves, naugahyde, and Barca-loungers.)
Anyway, that wasn't us. Every morning, my brother and I rode our bikes, no matter how hungover, to 9th Street and the Boardwalk. We would not have missed work for the world: we were salt water taffy makers at Shriver's Salt Water Taffy. Salt water taffy makers! Who was lucky enough to get that job? We never missed a hungover day of work all that summer. First of all, we would have been letting Hank Shriver down. Hank was a grandson in the family business, tall, lanky, and trapped in the role of upholding his family's mission: making the Boardwalk sweet and full of color since 1898. That's why he spent every summer longing for winter to come. We had the impression that Winter Hank calmly dined with friends, frequented the theater, read good books, and hibernated in peace.
Summer Hank, though, was a frazzled lunatic of candy-making business who never stopped moving: through the fudge room with a gurney full of chocolate walnut on life support in dire need of cooling; under the taffy machine again for maintenance on the damned British-made works; up to the front counter to patiently serve a demanding grandmother who required the exact gift box of nonpareils and liquorice that her mother had bought her every year since 1936 and who was now mortified that no such gift box was on the shelf; ordering taffy boxes in 5,000 shipments; stringing 4th of July bunting; teasing the ladies circling the packing table to go faster, and on and on. He was a whirling dervish that spun as sweetly and incessantly as the taffy on the wrapping machine. All the while, he would enter the room as if in a Shakespeare play where Italian fudgemakers and candy-coated cutthroats were conspiring him to his grave, "Oh my god, corn syrup is going to kill me today! Look at those corn syrup barrels, you think I want to move that fucking 100 gallon corn syrup drum? I think I'll just go stick my head in it."
Why did Hank do it? Why 14 hour days of a mad game of Candyland? Why did we show up for work when we could have opened a sofa bed on the beach with bikinis, beer, and the Atlantic as far as the eye could see? Why did we love the days of taffy flavors as much as the keggers at night? Looking back now, a few days after Hurricane Sandy, I think it's because for one summer, my brother and I were part of making the Boardwalk the Boardwalk. We had a part in the show and a front row seat at what the crowds have sought for 100 years. Yeah, the flashing lights. Skeeballs shooting up alleys. Coasters twisting kids' stomachs in knots. Punks slouching by all in black in 90 degree heat. Silly surreys pedaling back and forth. Girls we knew from high school stopping in so we could flirt with them and sneak them a few freebies. And right in the center of it, we got to make taffy behind the window. Showman of spearmint, brothers in arms working the Boards, wiseasses with sugar cane, emperors of teaberry, hosts of open parties, nurses to the drunk one night, drunks for the nurses the next, taffy slackers growing up at the Jersey Shore, where everyone takes a break from time from Memorial to Labor Day.
That's the Jersey shore to rebuild, the place where people like Hank Shriver are forever going to be working their asses off to make a temporary Boardwalk of easy life on the edge of a continent full of interior anxiety, to make a spot to plunk down your folding chair and hold a private sit-in against growing up or growing older during summer.