“Perhaps this is our strange and haunting paradox here in America — that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement… We never have the sense of home so much as when we feel that we are going there. It’s only when we get there that our homelessness begins.” ― Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again
Hurricane Sandy wrecked communities rich and poor in NJ, from the Staten Island-meets-Miami style multi-million dollar homes of Bayhead to the blue collar bayfront bungalows near where I grew up. Its images were unimaginable and unbearable to me: of trashed boardwalks pushed into the sea, of an iconic roller coaster dumped into the ocean, of a road leading into the tide where homes used to be. From a thousand miles away and desperate for news of what was happening at home, it looked as if my childhood had been washed away and that the entire Jersey Shore that I knew and loved was gone.
Eight months later, towards the beginning of last month, I went home to NJ for a couple days expecting to find a ruined way of life there, but also hoping, still, to catch a faint whiff of the competing aromas that signal “home”at the Jersey Shore: the fried dough of zeppoles just before the powdered sugar goes on, the sweet muck of a local salt marsh at low tide, the extra garlic on pizza slices and the salt spray coming off the ocean. All of these live deep in the soul of NJ for me. I found all of it, at once, and witnessed small moments in the sad seaside ritual of rebuilding the storm-damaged communities that I hold dear.
I can’t pretend to be untouched by grief at the total destruction of the shore towns that are a backdrop to a thousand stories in my life. But the Jersey Shore is more than a place; it’s more than its wood-plank promenades and town squares on stilts. It’s more than its carnival lights. It’s more than a staging ground for summer. For many, it’s an identity and an attitude. I love the shore best on foggy days when you can’t even see the boardwalk or the ocean, but can only smell it. I love the dampness and the feeling that you can almost lick the salt out of the air. I love the dampness in the sheets at night when you go to bed. You’d never put up with that anywhere else, but at the shore, it just feels right! When you walk around at night, you smell the boardwalk everywhere. There’s always a far-off murmur of traffic. It feels safe. It feels comfortable. It feels like home. All of these things, thankfully, remain.
*Photo of where a house used to be in Union Beach, one of the hardest hit communities in NJ.
*Post title from “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” by Bruce Springsteen