I traveled a bit a few weeks ago. We went to the Jersey Shore, or we rather, as I was informed, we were “down on the Shore.”
I’ve been in New Jersey before (I have family in Jersey and in Pennsylvania), but I’d never been that far down into South Jersey, my only experience with this part of the state being reruns of reality TV and pop culture jokes/references…as well as reading the news in a post-hurricane Sandy East Coast watching first weather, then a fire, destroy huge chunks of the waterfront.
My wife is from New Jersey, and joked about it as “her homeland” in the way that she’s heard my family talk about where we’re from in Europe. It made me think a lot about homes, about the idea of a “homeland,” about a place where you’re from with its own culture and unique identity, and as much as we as Americans (and New Yorkers especially) tend to mock New Jersey, it (like so many places in the US) really does have its own unique culture that’s a lot more complex, I feel, than just tanning and corndogs and obnoxiously-bad club music for homophobic shitheads with bad hair. And that culture, despite how it looks, reflects (at least to me) an odd relationship where people who recognize growing up in toxic places nonetheless feel some level of nostalgia because there have been bright spots in there that have brought legitimate joy.
There’s a lot of toxicity, let’s get that off the bat, because that’s probably the best way to describe it. Not trashiness or just bigotry, but toxicity, because it’s a constant slow-seeping feeling that gets more and more obvious the longer you’re there. The amount of pretty-awful racist and hurtful novelty t-shirts was wild, and what was even wilder was seeing them on sale side-by-side with cheesy “I’m with him/He’s with me” shirts appealing to the June Gay Pride market also on the boardwalk and beach, two sides of the coin both feeding into capitalism, trying hard to catch and claim every single form of tourist dollar in any way, shape, or form.
It makes sense as places like Seaside try to continue rebuilding post-Hurricane Sandy, and you can see the newly-reformed and re-planted dunes created artificially to help shore up and restore the natural order and structure of the beach, and you see just how new the boards of the walkway are underneath you, how new so many buildings are, and the one taco place is a Brooklyn-transplant joint with bagged pork skins passed off as chicaronnes taking up space that could be served by an actually-good restaurant but hey, that’s how money works and gentrification, right? Even on the Shore. Try to hustle, try to make money and rebuild your life, better your life, stay alive, stay afloat. Not everyone can make it onto a cooking/travel cable TV show as a “local favorite,” so of course seasonal places pull out every trick in the book to try and pull in as many tourist dollars as possible. Capitalism is probably the one idealism that rises above all the “Punisher skull/Blue Lives Matter VS Rainbow Pride flag superimposed over a TV show superhero screen print” battles that seem to be raging on the front of the shirts worn by summer Shore temporary inhabitants.
It feels very wild and surreal to be a part of and even passively see.
At the same time though, I can understand the appeal even if, and especially if, you’re not the type to spend your days in squalor only go to out and party like it’s an approximation of 2005 in a European rave somewhere in a Cold War warehouse. We found the types of older Formica-top places I loved serving fried and raw seafood and drinks in the hard scratchy plastic diner cups that look cloudy but are just old with use and having seen a lot of ice cubes crackling against the inside of the cup. the drinks were cold and the boardwalk food…
…man, I love trash vacation food.
I finally had fried pickles and good fried Oreos, actually good stuff. Do you know what a really good fried pickle tastes like? It’s perfect. Somehow, the heat of the fried batter mixes with the sourness of a dill pickle to make something that almost but not quite tastes sweet, that really-fine line I’m constantly looking for with some foods, because the older I’ve gotten, the less I like “sweet” sweet stuff, although I ended up making an exception as we left the Shore, because we ended up stopping at an original Stewart’s for a Taylor Ham and cheese on a roll and a float, which on a 90-plus degree day, was absolutely perfect right before hitting the road back to civilization.
No, it’s not an Old-World European capital, or an obscure foreign tourist-friendly but not tourist-overwhelmed destination. Yes, it very much feels like and looks like the cliche of reality TV and every joke New Yorkers make about people from southern New Jersey.
Every place is a homeland for someone, regardless of how they feel about it, about what sort of relationship they have with it. Ultimately, the conversations we need to have are not about who comes from what place or how faraway it is, but what we took from it that shaped us and what we left behind that we knew was wrong, was toxic, was not needed to grow as a person. Yeah, in comparison to where my family is originally from, New Jersey isn’t quite as exotic, but it’s a place that has just as many less-than-desirable traits and problems and social/cultural baggage I don’t care for and actively push back against.
Any place I’ve never been is a new adventure for me, because any place that offers something new to see, to eat, to interact with and mark down as another edge of the map that I can confirm exists and is full of actual people, that it’s a place where people go and enjoy themselves and take a weekend or a week during the summer. It’s what we did, its what others do, it’s what I like to do, and it’s what I feel I could definitely do again.