It is one of the happiest days in my memory.
It was December, and very, very cold, and we had driven down the Shore in separate cars. My brother and sister-in-law and I went to the title company office and signed paper after paper after paper, â€śsigning our lives away,â€ť as people often joke, though in this case it felt like our lives were really just beginning. My brother and I had achieved an audacious dream weâ€™d held for years: We now owned a Shore house.
We had grown up in the Northeast, in a modest brick twin, the sons of a garage supervisor and a housewife who took us for a week each summer to North Wildwood, where we gorged on bad Boardwalk food, cavorted through the Pirate Ship, and swam in postage-stamp motel pools that to us seemed Olympic. When you are young and from working-class Philadelphia, going to the Shore becomes very meaningful very quickly. Those annual trips not only became part of the glue that kept our family intact, but they instilled in my brother and me a deep, abiding love of the Shore that has continued, unabated, for decades.
So when he approached me in 2007 with the idea of buying a place, I was both incredibly stoked and incredibly scared. Could we afford it? (Really, more like, Could I afford it? One of us works in finance; one of us works in publishing. You do the math.) And where to buy? Actually, this last question was almost moot. We had outgrown Wildwood by college, partied in Sea Isle in our 20s, and then, once the babies started coming (specifically, his), moved up the coast to Ocean City, which brashly declared itself â€śAmericaâ€™s greatest family resort.â€ť I would have considered Downbeachâ€”I had lived in Longport for two years in the â€™80s, when I was working in Atlantic Cityâ€”but my sister-in-law had her heart set on Ocean City, so Ocean City it was. We finally found a three-bedroom place facing the bay in the quieter south end, and on that chilly December day signed the papers that made it ours.
We did the right thing. I know that. Because if you are a Shore person, if it is truly part of your blood, like an infection, you know the visceral thrill of driving over a causeway and feeling your blood pressure drop 10 points by just rolling down the window and taking in a big gulp of marshy salt air. You know the giddiness of shopping at a Shore supermarket, which just seems so much more fun than shopping at a supermarket at home, in large measure because being there gives you permission to buy stuff you would never allow yourself to eat in your â€śrealâ€ť life. (Tastykake cartons, two for $5? Why not? you say, tacitly nodding to the woman wheeling the cart next to yours.) You know the anticipation of buying your beach tags, because yes, it is patently unfair they charge you, but bigger yes, itâ€™s so fun to see what design they put on this yearâ€™s seasonal pass, your literal badge that you live here part of the year. I have done some of my best writing, best thinking, and best living at the Shore. Itâ€™s not cheap, but as an investment in my sanity, itâ€™s paid off, and more.
And then this week Sandy came.
I am, unfortunately, no stranger to flooding. I owned a home out in the country that flooded more than once during my seven-year ownership. There is nothing quite as sickening as walking down your basement steps and smelling the stench of backed-up sewer water. But somehow, I never really thought much about flooding at the Shore, which I know sounds silly. Our street in Ocean City backs up at the ends sometimes after a big rain, but in the five years weâ€™ve had the place, thatâ€™s been about it. Even during Irene last year, we escaped. So when Sandy came this year, I was wondering if we would escape again.
I donâ€™t know. But itâ€™s highly unlikely. When the state cuts off entry to your town because itâ€™s too dangerous, things arenâ€™t looking good. At some point the town fathers of Ocean City will give the all clear, and all of us who indulged in the fantasy of owning a place at the Shore will scurry down, bracing for that awful turn of the corner onto our respective streets, hoping to find the houses we left. Some of us wonâ€™t. And some of us will find tattered remains. No one knows, because very few people are now there. And itâ€™s scary and awful, to think that this dream you worked so hard to achieve, that you spent years saving to attain, could have been literally washed away overnight.
It isnâ€™t about the money. I mean, it is, but not the heart of it. Because the destruction caused by Sandy is about much more than real estate. Itâ€™s about the Shore, our Shore, the Shore that each summer promises us renewal and a few weeks or days or maybe just hours of carefree living, where nothing bad ever happens. Perhaps thatâ€™s why this feels so shocking, such a jolt to the system. Itâ€™s like someone came in and robbed your house while you werenâ€™t looking. I was watching the news last night, and they showed the flood damage to Kesselâ€™s Korner, the burgers-and-milk shake joint on Asbury Avenue thatâ€™s been there for â€¦ well, forever. The owner was telling about how he had to literally swim out the window when the floods came. Listening to him, seeing the damage, my heart hurt.
Yes, yes, there have been warnings for decades about overdevelopment at the Shore, and I suppose I am now one of the guilty parties, one of the ones who scooped up a small sliver of sand to call his own. But really, can you blame me? Blame anyone? The world may see the Shore as Snooki and Jersey Shore, but you and me, we know differently. We know there are few greater pleasures than unplugging from your day-to-day life and bolting over the Ben Franklin or the Walt Whitman, to the promised land 55, or 70, or 90 miles away. The Jersey Shore is a promise, a pledge that no matter what, it will restore and renew you.
I donâ€™t know what I will find when I finally do get back to Ocean City. But no matter what, I will never lose my faith in the restorative power of the Shore, because somewhere inside me that little boy wandering the Pirate Ship is still very much alive. It may turn out that Sandy has beaten him badly in this battle. But sheâ€™ll never take him in the war.