The Essential Shore: Return of the Native

Dear Shoobie (and yes, unless you live year-round east of Route 55, you’re one of them):

As someone who was born, grew up, and has spent most of my life along the New Jersey coast (notice I did not say Down the Shore, but more on this later), I have been asked to define you — to explain to you precisely what a “shoobie” is and why we call you that. This is one of the more perverse assignments the folks at this magazine have handed me. As you might expect, my feelings about you are, to put it gently, complicated. They’re probably best relayed through the retelling of a segment I saw years ago on the reality show Blind Date in which a young Asian émigrée new to Los Angeles was set up with a greasy guy who worked as an Elvis impersonator. It was one of the producers’ more diabolical attempts at comic matchmaking, and sure enough, the two got off to a most awkward start, what with the language and cultural barriers and all. To my surprise, however, as the date wore on and Elvis’s groping grew more and more insistent, the Asian woman started groping back. Surfacing from a round of heavy tonguing, the woman, in strongly accented English, told Elvis: “I dunno — it’s like I love you but I hate you.”

But first the hate.

You are the worst drivers in the world. The worst! As you come barreling down the Parkway, causing mile-long backups at the Great Egg toll plaza every Friday and Sunday, honking your horn maniacally and weaving in and out of traffic, does it ever cross your mind that not everyone is on his way to a sunny duplex on the beach? That some of us waiting in the toll line could actually be going somewhere unpleasant, like, say, to work? You drive around the barrier islands cutting off others for parking spots, pulling out in front of cars, speeding down Ocean Drive, plowing over and pancaking in crimson blotches the poor turtles making their annual pilgrimage across the road from the marshes to the dunes to lay their eggs, all en route to Mack & Manco’s or LaCosta or Morey’s Pier. You’re ridiculous. Yo! South Philly girls — your asses look horrendous in those booty shorts with JUICY or HOTTIE written on the butt cheeks. Also, no more thongs! And take it easy with the gold. After five high-school summers spent slinging frozen custard at Kohr Bros. on the Boardwalk, I have two words for you: jelly sandals. And the OCBP clothing — don’t you realize that the only people meant to wear it are actual lifeguards?

Stop calling this “The Jersey Shore,” because nobody who actually lives here calls it that. As for “Down the Shore,” it’s ungrammatical, it’s nonsensical — nobody says, for instance, “We’re goin’ Up the City” — and, lastly and most profoundly, it’s insulting. Because there is no down without an up, which is to say “The Shore” exists only one-dimensionally and one-directionally, as a place to come down to — down from Philly, that is.

Just because you’ve been coming here year after year and know that Tater’s, despite what the editors of this magazine might say, actually has the best funnel cake on the O.C. Boardwalk, and Harpoon Henry’s in North Cape May is the best waterfront place to get drunk, or because maybe you own a monstrosity of a duplex on the beach (thereby elevating property prices so they’re no longer affordable for us few locals, to the extent that island schools are folding for lack of year-round residents), doesn’t make you of this place. A friend of mine from suburban Philly told me recently of a conversation his mother and a friend had last winter, in which his mother told the friend her family was heading “Down the Shore” for an unseasonably mild weekend. To which the friend replied: “Why on earth would you want to go Down the Shore in winter?” It never could have occurred to her that a walk on the beach is, as proof of God’s infinite fondness for irony, loveliest in winter, when the sea turns wild and green and foamy, the sand on the beach goes firm and compact and almost snow-white, clouds like electrified brushstrokes streak the sky at sunset — and you’re not there.

It reminded me of an exchange I had last summer at the beachfront bar/restaurant where I was a waiter, after I approached two 20-something large girls squeezed into polka-dotted babydoll dresses and Jackie O sunglasses who I could tell from a mile away undoubtedly graduated from Villanova. Even though I knew they were over 21, I carded them, because anyone who waits tables knows girls who are clearly over 21 love to get carded.

“Gladwyne?” I read off one license.

“Yeah,” the girl said, “but I’m not a shoobie. My parents have a house on the beach in Stone Harbor. We’ve been coming Down the Shore forever.”

“Huh,” I answered nonchalantly, and I could see the thought suddenly bubble up in her brain as she began eyeing me the way one might an exotic animal.

“Do you actually live here?” she asked. “I mean, year-round?”

Yeah, I told her, actually I do.

“Oh my God,” she gushed back, “but what do you do in the winter? I mean, it must be completely dead here. How do you live? How do you make any money? Do you have another job?”

Though they were all fair and legitimate questions, I couldn’t help feeling annoyed with her. “I deal drugs,” I said. “Now what can I get you two ladies to drink?”

And so I know what you’re thinking: Ingrate. Jerk. Self-righteous sand flea. And maybe you’re right. But as I said up front, there is hate, but there is also love. There are good things about you. Some of you are good-looking and tend to drink excessively and get horny easily during your summer vacation. And in all seriousness, you are, we locals fully realize and appreciate, if I might get sappy here, the wind beneath our wings, what keeps us from sinking into a stagnant sea of unemployment and insolvency. Visitors to New Jersey last year dumped some $38 billion into the state’s economy. Your presence created almost a half a million jobs in 2006. You’re also, in a roundabout way, responsible for my existence. Were it not for my maternal grandparents leaving their East Falls home every weekend 30-some years ago to bring their kids to their summer house in Brigantine, my mother would never have met my future father, the local, on the beach that fateful summer day. Truth be told, I cannot off the top of my head think of one single person I know in all of Cape May County who didn’t get here, somehow or other, by way of Philly.

In closing, just keep in mind that some of us aren’t vacationing. Remember to wear sunscreen, and cover up if you’re fleshy. Take good care of your server and bartender. And, I guess, also have some fun.

After all, as the signs tell you, we locals are Shore To Please.

P.S.: In keeping with the point of this assignment, I should mention that the word “shoobie,” according to John T. Cunningham, one of New Jersey’s foremost historians, comes from the days when trains first began departing Camden regularly some 100 years ago, ferrying mostly lower-income Philadelphians for day trips to the beach. In their hands they carried shoeboxes containing their lunches. “They’d be resented, of course,” Cunningham says, “as every generation seems to resent tourists coming into their hometowns.”

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