Jersey Strong, But Really (Alternate Title: I Cried the Whole Time I Was Writing This Post)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

[Warning: This post contains lots of photos. Also, lots of emotions.]

Prince Harry made headlines today when he visited Seaside Heights, N.J., the town where Jersey Shore was filmed & which Hurricane Sandy essentially laid bare. Have you seen post-storm photos of a roller coaster sitting in the ocean? That's Seaside Heights, & that roller coaster was torn down today. It used to be on the shore, of course, not in the water, & it was a main attraction at the Casino Pier boardwalk, one of two competing amusement park piers that were a summer destination spot for families & guidos alike.

Let's talk about the Jersey Shore for a minute, shall we? I'll get to Seaside Heights shortly, but let's start with nearby Asbury Park, home of American legend & all-around badass Bruce Springsteen. I'd been to AP only once before - last October, just before the storm hit - but a few weeks ago, Nathan & I found ourselves in town on a Sunday, grabbing coffee at America's Cup & brunch at Toast.  Though downtown Asbury Park appears unscathed (at least by now), I was shocked by the remaining damage we witnessed along the boardwalk just a few blocks away. Signs say the Jersey Shore is open for business, but, well, it sure doesn't feel like it:

The AP boardwalk is mostly in tact at this point (it reopened in March), but there are still telltale signs of damage:

The beautiful old Convention Hall at the end of the boardwalk is open to the public, but only sort of. Many of the doors are still boarded, & not much is going on inside - just a store or two open for business.

The abandoned old casino at the other end of the boardwalk, creepy even before the storm hit, has been even more gutted than it already was, & it remains closed for the forseeable future.

Along the boardwalk, a few places are back in biz, but the majority of stores & kiosks are still unopened, visibly damaged, boarded up - with no indication as to their return.

Because I thought the remaining damage in Asbury Park was devastating, Nathan wanted to take me through Seaside Heights, which is only a few miles away from our home. I'd never been - either before the storm or after - & he wanted to show me some of the real devastation there that is, essentially, in our own backyard.

I cried more than once that day, as we drove through a beach town that was clearly once a bustling summer hotspot but is now, in the bluntest of terms, absolutely trashed. At the boardwalk, called Funtown Pier, you could almost envision the way this place used to be, just a few short months before - bright & colorful, loud & crowded, home to so many people's best summer memories. In one night, though, Hurricane Sandy wiped it away.

When we arrived on that windy April day, the boardwalk itself was open but many of the stores & restaurants along it were still severely damaged, not yet ready to re-open for the upcoming summer season - if at all. There were sandbars in places where no sand should be, a remaining telltale sign that something wicked had this way come. We bought penny candy from a taffy shop, one of the only stores open that day, doing some small part to support the once-vibrant Casino Pier as it tries to rebuild itself, this place, these people.

The beach that runs parallel to the boardwalk - & the amusement park that used to stand there - was closed, decimated, blocked off with fences & police tape & signs warning lookyloos away from it.

What we saw beyond the fencing was horrifying, stomach-turning; at one point, I thought I was going to throw up, & instead I just started crying these hot, silent tears that I couldn't stop. Even now, having seen much of it myself, I can't look at pictures of the Funtown Pier taken by professional photographers in the immediate aftermath of the storm without that vomity feeling turning my stomach again. It wasn't just sad - it was scary, too, in that eerie sort of way that the ocean sometimes is, when you remember that it's not just beautiful. It's also powerful, & we are, quite simply, not.

Only four of Funtown Pier's 40 amusement park rides made it through the storm, & more than 50 feet of pier fell away when waves began to batter the coast. What's left of the beach was scattered with the carcasses of once-welcoming rides, now knocked over & covered in sand, rusted & mangled & dirty.

A year ago, this was a place tourists & locals alike flocked to for a fun day at the shore; I never saw that side of Funtown Pier, but I could almost imagine it before me, kids licking ice cream cones & begging their dads to win them cheap stuffed animals at dart-&-balloon games on the boardwalk, their biggest concerns sunburns & splinters & long lines.

What hit me hardest at Funtown Pier was the sight of a beautiful old Ferris wheel sitting solidly in the ocean, attached to almost nothing on land. Though it was still standing, its position - again, solidly in the ocean when the pier below it crashed into the sea - rendered it wholly unsalvageable. Nathan & I visited on a Sunday; just a few days later, the iconic Ferris wheel was demolished

When we left Funtown Pier, we drove through the town of Seaside Heights, down the road that runs parallel to the beach, where many people people live(d) & rent(ed) modest summer homes. The beach access roads were all closed down, orange barrels advising explorers to turn the other way or risk police questioning. Down some of the streets were Dumpsters, cranes, construction vehicles, people out working - & down other streets, there was almost nothing at all, because there's simply so little hope of rebuilding. We saw houses & apartment complexes that burned to the ground when they caught fire after the storm, homes that looked as though they'd been hit halfway through with a wrecking ball, homes you could see straight into & outr the other side of, homes in piles of rubble with caved-in roofs lying atop them, homes with boarded-up windows & phrases like "We'll be back" spray-painted upon the siding. Big homes, little homes, homes with Halloween decorations still hanging in the windows. Homes where maybe no one will ever live again.

It took me almost a month to write this post, in part because I'm bad with time management, & in part because I was so emotionally impacted by what I saw in Asbury Park & Seaside Heights that I just didn't know what to say. I've lived here for nearly a year now (!), & for months, I've carried on with my life just miles away from absolute devastation. I never visited it, never volunteered to help rebuild after it, hardly even thought of it beyond seeing it on TV. My heart broke for the people affected by it, but I didn't fully comprehend that these people are my neighbors now.

The other day I was in the locker room at my gym, changing out of my sweaty gear, & I overheard a conversation between two women. One was saying that it turned out to be a blessing in disguise that she couldn't have children because she can't imagine experiencing homelessness with kids in tow. Homelessness. As I eavesdropped further, I realized that she had been displaced from her home in the storm - & that "displaced" is not even the right word because her home is gone now, & she's living on friends' couches while she tries to figure out what to do next. The Jersey Shore is full literally thousands of people like this woman, living in my town & in my gym & sitting next to me in Starbucks, & I didn't even get it, you know? I just had no idea, not really.

And what am I doing about it? The answer is still nothing. I just don't know. I still don't know, & I don't feel good about that. But I know that's it's horrible & painful & unbelievable & that, if nothing else, visiting the shore last month solidified one thing for me: For so many people, Hurricane Sandy was not just a scary thunderstorm that tossed a few docks into the backyard, like it was for Nathan & me. This shit is real, & it's still really bad, &... & we're connected to it, whether we want to be or not. We live in New Jersey now. We are part of New Jersey now. We were here for this, & we're still here for this, & that matters to me much, much more than I thought it did.

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