Paean to the Jersey Shore

I spent every summer vacation of my childhood at "The Shore," as we fondly called it. And also ventured on my share of adolescent beach days, as suburban teenagers with freshly-minted drivers licenses took the long ride down the Garden State Parkway, to Sandy Hook, past Asbury Park (with its proud sign advertising the home of Bruce Springsteen), Seaside Heights, Long Beach Island, Atlantic City, Cape May -- and our family's beloved Brigantine.

I moved away in 1992, and rarely returned except for family visits over the holidays and summer, and only twice since then have been back to Jersey beaches.

Not quite sure when it crept in, but years ago I began to acknowledge a nostalgia I had never expected. Most folks tune in nightly to Jon Stewart's hilarious and razor sharp The Daily Show for cutting edge humor and commentary, but I realized that I was tuning in as much to hear him curse -- New Jersey style.

It was The Sopranos that made being from New Jersey seem remotely cool, though more recently I've had to ignore embarrassing references to the show Jersey Shore.

No offense to those who stayed, including close family and friends, but having lived afterwards in New York state, Northern California, New York City and now Puerto Rico -- I call myself "tri-coastal" -- being from New Jersey didn't sound too compelling. When asked where I'm from in Puerto Rico, which happens often now going on my 15th year there, I always joke: "un lugar bien exótico -- Nueva Jersey."

A good number respond as having lived there too, many in Latino enclaves such as in Paterson, and a few from where my Peruvian and Croatian immigrant parents first settled in West New York, NJ, near Bergenline Avenue -- Caribbean immigrant communities throughout the region were likely doubly affected by this storm's havoc in Cuba, Haiti and Jamaica. Where my family ended up, Bergen County, gets recognized for being a stone's throw from "The City."

I began to nurture an almost anthropological perspective of my own upbringing there, from the outside looking back in, a curiosity piqued by absence.

I'm not a fan of Governor Chris Christie, whom I often refer to, in classic Joisey parlance, as "a blowhard," though that may also describe some of the men I have great affection for there, whom I greet with a hard slap on the back. But I haven't been able to share on Facebook the side-by-side mock comparisons of Gov. Christie at the Republican National Convention and on television Tuesday night. Right before this presidential election and in such a polarized atmosphere, even he elicited my sympathy, his face sullen, obviously sobered to the core by what he had witnessed.

I haven't been back to the Jersey Shore for years, but this week I remembered its screeching seagulls, sloping sand dunes, Astro-Turfed miniature golf courses, cheap sundries shops, and the amusement park rides and James's Original Saltwater Taffy on the Atlantic City boardwalk, the photos of hopeful beauty queens at the Convention Center where the Miss America pageant was held yearly. Where we made drip sand castles, caught sand crabs, brought home hermit crabs in screen cages and fed them water and lettuce in pill bottle caps (my first was named Mr. Crab, and I held a teary funeral when he eventually died), then later attended bikini contests, flirted with the lifeguards, and hoped to get a date with the lead singer of the local bar band, which played damn good covers of Journey. My mother worked and struggled so hard to give us summer vacations there.

I remembered with the sad affection of a Jersey Girl.

Seeking solace, I called my youngest sister, who along with half the family, now lives in South Florida. We talked about organizing a family summer vacation in the near future, as a gesture of solidarity and faith, to the Jersey Shore that will rebuild and come back to create more memories. The Jersey Shore that will overcome Hurricane Sandy, to once again build sand castles.

"I never saw my home town until I stayed away too long," says a line from the Tom Waits song called "San Diego Serenade." But to my mind, he's plaintively singing about New Jersey.