Category Archives: Jersey Shore

Where Rabid Bobcats Roam

On the shuttle ride from Sedona to the airport in Phoenix, our driver shared with us the following:

— A rabid bobcat attacked a waiter in Sedona who was putting out the trash.

— How Arizona towns along the highway got their names: Bloody Basin; Big Bug Basin, Bumble Bee near Bumble Bee Creek, and the delightful Deadman Wash. As you can imagine, the town names came from bloody exchanges between white settlers and American Indians, between white settlers and deadly insects, and between white settlers who discovered other dead white settlers. You have to wonder if white settlers had stayed home, what the signs would say today—or if there would be any signs at all.


As he relayed these stories, an almost-full moon was peering from between the giant red rocks, those sentinels of mysticism that drew a couple all the way from Romania. They sat in front of us on the shuttle, on their way to catch a flight to London that night. Even in 2017, despite crystal shops and taquerias and psychics, the outskirts of Sedona—and the extraterrestrial landscape that is Arizona—still appear wild, and somewhat still dangerous. I have an insect allergy (hornets and wasp stings might kill me, though oddly, not bees), and wouldn’t dream of hiking anywhere in Arizona without my EpiPen in my back pocket, ready to draw like a 9 mm, which are aplenty in Arizona—an open-carry state. Not that guns keep you safe from everything in Arizona; there are towns named after folks attacked by bees, red ants, and other things that crawled. Even if you don’t have an allergy to anything, perhaps everyone should travel around Arizona with an EpiPen; the state’s legends alone made my antibodies flare up.

Still, I was safe in an enclosed shuttle where the windows were up and the air conditioner was on, even though it was February, about 60 degrees out, and I would’ve enjoyed an open-window ride despite the risks of bugs nearby. And I enjoyed the driver’s stories. All the passengers did. Including myself, there were four New Yorkers and two Romanians. A self-identified Brooklyn Jew who was in his sixties and worked as a commodities trader sat in the front seat next to the driver, and when the driver wasn’t sharing Arizona lore, the guy from Brooklyn was talking about himself. Because that’s what sixty-something guys from Brooklyn do, go on about how New Yorkers are “the strongest people in America,” though given what Arizona residents endured and live with, I beg to differ. My guess is Texans are pretty tough, too. And Alaskans. They are bad asses up there.

Suburban New Jersey doesn’t have stories like these. I live perhaps 500 feet from the British-Hessian Invasion Route trail, a path marched in 1776, so as you can see, it’s been a long time since shit went down in my ‘hood. More recently, black bears showed up hungry, suburbanites freaked out. The black bears don’t even get a chance to go rabid and taunt a waiter (or bite people). The very idea of black bears wandering about keeps the annual New Jersey Black Bear Hunt legit, some bullshit about keeping black bear numbers in check. Just another blemish on a state that lost any sense of conservation long before I reluctantly unpacked my bags here. Drive to Atlantic City or any spot along the Jersey Shore and you’ll see what I mean; every inch of road leading up to the beach has been commercialized with billboard after billboard; it takes forever to get a clear view of the ocean without something getting in your face to tell you to buy something. It doesn’t have to be this way; in Vermont, billboards are banned so as not to obstruct the lovely view. This has been the case since 1968. Only three other states do this: Hawaii, Alaska, and Maine, three states home to lovely views. New Jersey decided differently, going after commercial potential, as New Jersey does. As for Arizona, I saw a few billboards along the highway, but not as many as I see en route to the Jersey Shore. It’s as if Arizona businesses decided not to compete with the landscape because when towns are named “Deadman Wash” you know who’s going to lose.

I spent a week in Arizona earlier this month. The sunlight and lack of New Yorkers (until the shuttle ride), and the fact that New Jersey was 2,000 miles away were all very rejuvenating. Living here depletes me. We settled in a region we didn’t know to be a part of a blue ribbon school district and close to good jobs. During my 6 1/2 years in this snobby suburb, and my 13 years total in Bergen County, New Jersey, I have grown to detest this state the way I detest Donald Trump, who built up his name in the sandy cesspool that is Atlantic City. Both share a phoniness and materialism. I now try to arrange my days so I interact with New Jersey as little as possible: the traffic, the accents, the entitlement. Yes, those things exist outside of New Jersey, too, but here, those things are an inescapable rash, and I’ve tried every imaginable balm I could think of: getting involved, not getting involved, yoga, meditation, taking trips, staycationing, reading books, making friends, distancing myself from people. Living here is a constant state of coping.

If you read any of my earlier posts, like the ones written during my first year or two here when I thought New Jersey would just be another pit stop, I sound more like an anthropological observer than a resident. Six years in, we bought a house in a leafy burb (yes, they are always leafy—such towns take great pride in their trees) thinking quiet suburban living and great schools were simply the next phase of life, like getting your period or your losing your virginity, a milestone to get through. Honestly, we weren’t thinking of what we wanted in a community, but the education opportunities for our daughter. I had never lived in a suburb before—only farm towns and big cities prior—and genuinely thought “How bad can it be?”

I learned. Quickly.

There’s a discipline called environmental psychology, and as of late, I have felt like a subject in an environmental psychology experiment. Some grad student thinking he or she has a meaty research project is looking down on me thinking “How long will my mouse last in this maze? What if I build another Whole Foods? Will that distract her from her goal of getting out?” The term environmental psychology is self-explanatory—naturally, we are all shaped by our environments. But what happens when you try to fight against your environment? Or try to shut it out? Or try to pretend it’s not as bad as you think? Or try to find different environments to escape to periodically so you can enjoy a reprieve? And how long can you keep this up?

New Jersey is a soft place for soft people who don’t want their views challenged and who love to discuss retail opportunities. Consumerism is a competitive sport here, so I see where the New Netherland name comes from. When I first moved here, I thought jokes about New Jersey were unfair, just Manhattan elitism that people echoed to sound smart and otherize others. Now, I say joke all you want about New Jersey, for it’s likely true. There is judgmentalism everywhere in the world, but if there were a Judgmentalism Olympics, I would put my meager freelance writer’s earnings on the suburban moms who are my neighbors. They would kick ass, and walk away with all the gold medals. These women have an opinion on *everyone* especially people they don’t know very well. These opinions tend to come out after a few glasses of wine, or sometimes they are bandied about in school parking lots. Apparently, if you have a master’s degree, a house worth at least $600,000 (and that’s on the cheaper end), and drive a Honda Odyssey or Sienna, then you know things, the kind of things you can’t dig up at the town library. And these things tend to spill out when the booze flows. (I’m a lightweight, and actually not really all that interested in alcohol. I’ve learned I don’t need it to be interesting.)

Which is why as we were heading south on Interstate 17, with the Tonto National Forest on my left, and hints of the Prescott National Forest to my right, where rocks are so big that they have names, where stars—even the Milky Way—are actually visible in the night sky, I felt jealous of the white settlers who came this way. Yes, they faced infection, illness, starvation, wild animals, American Indians, or simply being lost in a place that was too vast, too lacking in borders to be real. I envied the singularity of their journeys, the uncertainty of their possibilities. For here, back in the Northeast, amidst all this 21st century affluenza, when you have everything, there’s apparently nothing left to do but to strive to keep everything and pass judgment on those who don’t have what you have. Maybe this is what Scottsdale, Arizona, is like today, I do not know. But I would have loved to have walked around one of those Arizona ghost towns with the unfortunate names, listen to the breeze move through dilapidated buildings, think about what people were trying to forge then, what they were risking, and why.

Places With a Sense of Place

I’ll confess here to my 2.5 blog readers that when it comes to choosing a hotel, I don’t always go budget even though I should. I am willing to pay for a sense of place and a good story. I’ve stayed in yurts, tents, hostels, 19th century farmhouses, cabins, a Jersey Shore hotel that was neither clean nor quiet, converted monasteries, European brownstones, and a five-star urban oasis in downtown Tokyo that left me breathless and amnesiac about the expense. I have yet to stay at a castle, though I will someday. Topping my list of places to stay is America’s (so far) only human nest, which means I’ll get to go back to Big Sur, California, a possibility in summer 2015.

When it comes to choosing a hotel, I probably have too few biases; the place has to be clean, not run down, in a neighborhood where I don’t feel the need to sleep with one eye open, and preferably have a pool (I have chosen hotels based solely on their pools). Other than that, I don’t care if it’s family-owned, boutique, a corporate chain with a loyalty program (I’ve never been brand-driven anyway), 2-star, 5-star, or not even within the galaxy. If breakfast is included, great. If not, chances are there’s a Starbucks somewhere or a mom-and-pop counter with flapjacks and coffee. We have friends who won’t stay in hotels that cost more than $200 per night or that lack a rewards program. We’re not so picky.


After years of sleeping in monochromatic budget joints, now that I’ve come up in the world a bit, the one area where I don’t like to compromise anymore is whether the hotel gives me a sense of the place. Does it blend in with local color? Don’t think that just because a hotel chain is owned by some white-collared investors living far away that it can’t do local color. Yes, some stick to vanilla playbooks no matter where you stay, but some are smart enough to capitalize on what drew folks to the region in the first place. I found this to be particularly true with InterContinental’s The Clement Monterey, an $80 million redo of prime waterfront space that once housed the old Del Mar Canning Company in the heart of Cannery Row–Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. You can feel it when you walk around the place. Opened in 2008, The Clement Monterey had studied the history of its location and pulled inspiration from the bay, such as the giant, glass sculpturesque jellyfish chandelier-like object in the hallway or the tins of chocolate sardines left in our room. And of course, this being California, there were outdoor fire pits so you could sit outside and think or not think, but stay warm watching sea otters frolic in the bay. Yes, it’s owned by a West Coast management company, but there was a full embrace of the neighborhood’s gritty, early 20th century history that I appreciated.

Another hotel that gave me a strong sense of place is Mirror Lake Inn, where we stayed this past weekend. There’s no point in getting a hotel in the Adirondacks if you can’t see the Adirondacks. Mirror Lake Inn in Lake Placid is not easy on the wallet, but wow, this place IS Adirondacks history. We woke up to blue peaks staring us down through the balcony doors, looking at us like “Yeah, you, the tiny thing curled up in 500-count Egyptian cotton…just a reminder who’s boss here.” The property began as a lakefront estate hosting wealthy visitors from New York City–a story common throughout the Northeast–but then in 1932, it was invaded by Norway. Or, I should say the Norwegian team rented the entire inn when it arrived for the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid (the town hosted the Winter Olympics again in 1980). The hotel’s ties to the Olympics continues in the 21st century; when you check in at the front desk, a silver medal from the 2014 Sochi games and a bronze medal from the 2010 Vancouver games are prominently displayed. The medals were won by alpine skier Andrew Weibrecht, who was born in Lake Placid, grew up racing down nearby Whiteface Mountain, and whose parents own Mirror Lake Inn.

Tokyo will host the summer 2020 Olympic Games, and there, hotels will create new stories. Tokyo is not cheap, but it is best enjoyed high above where you can watch the city sparkle at night and the sun rise over Mount Fuji every morning. I spent three nights at the Tokyo Park Hyatt, where I swam across a pristine indoor pool under the gaze of that Buddha of a mountain, and where we had such an amazing time that when we were handed the bill, we didn’t even blink because we knew we would take the bliss that we felt at that hotel to the grave. I’m not joking. I was blissed out at that place. I *get* what the fifth star in a five-star hotel stands for. Yes, this may have been where Lost in Translation was filmed, but that’s not why I picked this hotel. I chose it for the pool and view of Fuji; just remembering how it felt to step out of that pool and see the snow on Fuji turn pink under the morning sun is the best mental image for meditation class, ever. Next time I grip the armrest during airplane turbulence, that image will be my happy place.

In my rambling way (still sipping morning coffee), what I’m trying to say is the hotel is a way to experience a destination. A Best Western in downtown Tokyo with no view at all would not have given me the same memories of Japan. I’m not saying spend stupidly, but if you can swing it, do a bit more research on your lodging options to find a place that has a sense of place. Spend meaningfully. I knew when I was twenty years old and just starting to travel on my own that I would rather lose coin going, doing, and being than losing it on low-grade goods made in China. Looking back on that, I’m going to pat myself on the back for being wise beyond my years even though I was still too young to legally drink alcohol and properly toast my maturity.

Sometimes I wonder if perhaps we’ve given the false impression to friends and neighbors that we’re well-off because we cocoon in a spectacular, lakefront inn facing the Adirondacks or we overcome our jetlag at a five-star hotel in downtown Tokyo, but we’re also not spending our weekends dropping a few hundred dollars at the mall or Target or Home Depot. I don’t shop, which, let me tell you, is an extremely popular pastime in the Garden State where there is no sales tax on clothing. Where I live, shopping is a competitive event and the school parking lot is typically buzzing with conversations on who bought what where. Our house is pretty bare and spare compared with the cycles of stuff I see elsewhere. Yet I’m sitting here typing, looking around our lack of possessions (which in a non-shopaholic nation would appear utterly normal; we’re not monks, we’re just not the typical American consumer), remembering hotels in Tokyo, the Adirondacks, California, and all the other places where I briefly hung my hat, and I feel completely, totally content right now. Everyone talks about happiness. This morning, sharing some of my favorite hotels with you, knowing I have to pay the credit card bill charges from Mirror Lake Inn, I feel it. I feel very, very happy.

Getting Dirty in Atlantic City

There’s a lot of old, fading construction along Atlantic City’s famed boardwalk, and the newest construction is extremely vulnerable to the elements. The World Championship of Sand Sculpting happens every June quietly on the beach right by the raucousness that is Cesar’s Palace. To me, it was the most interesting activity happening in Atlantic City that day. During the drive up, the billboards boasted shows performed by stars who had their 15 minutes when I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, like Tim Allen and the Doobie Brothers. After nearly a decade of living in New Jersey, after years of driving by community center signs promoting bus trips to Atlantic City, we finally drove the two hours to see what there was to see.

Ambitious sand castle building was the best part.

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The rest of Atlantic City looked like a typical American shopping mall next to an ocean. Parallel to the waves, wiry, short men, many who looked Asian or Hispanic, pushed adult-sized strollers down the boardwalk without any visible huffing or puffing for their cargo was usually two large, pale people who obviously didn’t want to or couldn’t walk the long boardwalk. As my husband noted, Atlantic City is peeling away after all these years; door frames were chipped, glass was taped over, the giant statue of Cesar by the gelato stand looked ready to call it a night. The flickering, colored lights of the casino floor and all the counting and flashing numbers reminded me of Sesame Street skits.

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The sand sculpting contest drew artists from Singapore, Canada, Europe, and of course, coastal Texas and California, which have the biggest sandboxes for practice. There were about a dozen, larger-than-life sculptures and walking through the works took less than a half hour. But it was worth the two-hour drive. The sand sculptures were the dreamiest, most thoughtful part about Atlantic City, and these masterpieces have already been disassembled and the area cleaned and swept up, while chunky folks sunburn and seek the shade of a giant stroller pushed by a tiny guy.

Like other casino towns, Atlantic City is a safe house for dreamers. And Atlantic City inspires creativity. The Monopoly game board street names were adopted from this beach resort. And the whole concept behind the Miss America Pageant was to keep tourists enjoying the Atlantic City boardwalk after Labor Day. Judging women posing in bathing suits seemed like an idea that would stick and keep the money flowing. It worked. Nearly a century after the first Miss America Pageant, Atlantic City appears tired and trying, still focused on polishing up the tiara every year. Besides the yellowing decay of aging buildings facing the sea, and a two-week long sand sculpting show, there’s not much more to see. The Jersey Shore has never been our speed or style; you’re more likely to find us in the Catskills or the Adirondacks or Vermont, and we save our beach time for the west coast. We arrived by 11 am and cancelled our dinner reservations to get back on the road at 3 pm. I’ve been spoiled by the beaches on the west coast, which are such a different experience than the Jersey Shore. Visiting Atlantic City reminded me of visiting a great aunt who still wears the colors and makeup reminiscent of 1975, and you love her for it, you cheer her on, you eat what she spent hours in the kitchen making even though it makes you gassy, and you keep the visits brief.

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The Littlest Mermaid Poses By the Other Littlest Mermaid

Like a lonely sailor, Anna is obsessed with mermaids. She already knows that she wants to be a mermaid for Halloween and a new mermaid costume is already in her room, draped across her toy-buried bed.

While hunting for decent coffee (sorry Dunkin Donuts–I can’t run on your joe), we found a charming coffee shop in Point Pleasant where the furniture was ripped, the plates chipped, and the coffee disarmingly strong. Across the street from this coffee shop, called the Green Planet, was a lovely, hand-painted, signed mural featuring a voluptuous red-haired mermaid (why are they always red heads?). The mural was an ad for eyewear. And seriously–who wouldn’t want to drop a few hundred bucks on some sharp shades with this kind of enticement beckoning?

Beach Bumming–Jersey Style

I moved to New Jersey on January 10, 2004, one of the coldest days of that winter, and five and a half years later, I still feel like a stranger in a strange land, especially when summer circles around. That’s the time of year when people go to the “shore” to enjoy some “pie,” a thought that conjures up an image of shipwrecked sailors breathlessly reaching land to enjoy crusted tarts filled with fruit.

Not so in New Jersey. The “shore” is the beach and “pie” is pizza–usually pretty good pizza too (Garden State pizza rocks from Fort Lee to Camden!). Since Anna was born here and I’m raising a Jersey girl, I felt it was important to give her the Jersey Shore experience we had heard and read so much about. I approached the trip with an anthropological curiosity–exactly what was the Jersey Shore experience and what kept people coming back summer after summer? To answer my own question, we spent three days in Point Pleasant and now I can officially say to my kid “Remember that summer we took you to the Shore?” and she’ll immediately know what I’m talking about and won’t confuse it with the other “shores” that we have visited, which include Jamaica’s, Galapagos Islands’, Maine’s, and Santa Monica’s.

The White Sands oceanfront hotel is the classic Jersey Shore family getaway. I would have readily booked a room at anyplace called Clean Sands Hotel, but no such facility was to be found. White Sands had a private beach and a pool and quite frankly, when it is 90 degrees out everyday, that’s really all you need.

One look at the swimming pool at 2 pm and you knew this is where people came to forget about their angst and agony for it was far more packed than the Garden State Parkway on a Sunday night. Competition for the perfect poolside lounging spot was ferocious–people staked their claims early and remained very territorial throughout the day. I questioned the strength of the chlorine used in this pool, but that’s another blog for another day. It might simply have been that there were too many people bobbing around this pool for the chlorine to have been effective.

The pool was also filled with more Anthonys and AJs than I cared to count–rambunctious boys who constantly swam into me and were frequently yelled at from beneath a cabana umbrella by irate-looking women with fierce French manicures. Mike and I concluded after this trip that Anna is not allowed to date anyone named Anthony or AJ (Anthony Junior for you out-of-towners) if he is born in New Jersey. I have a feeling boys named Anthony or AJ who come from say, Ohio, or perhaps Nebraska, are far more low-key.

I’m sure the Boardwalk in Point Pleasant is full of Anthonys and AJs, too, but they weren’t plowing into us, which made the Boardwalk a much more charming experience. Jenkinson’s Boardwalk is where it’s at every Tuesday because it’s all the rides your stomach can handle between noon and 6 pm for only $15. My stomach can’t handle much of anything, so Mike boarded every tugboat, swing, tilt-a-whirl, and rollercoaster that made our kid’s eyes light up. I watched from the sidelines and worked on my tan, which is now a burn. I loved that Anna referred to the Boardwalk as “the carnival” and pie as “pizza.” I pointed to the sand and surf and asked her what it was. She replied, “the beach” and I knew she was mine.

When the sun gets to be too much–and it will–the best place to enjoy air-conditioning is inside Jenkinson’s Aquarium, which for $26 for the three of us, was exceptionally delightful. I’ll admit there’s something unusual about admiring the beauty and grace of creatures you enjoy fried with a side of french fries, but that’s the luxury of sitting at the top of the food chain–you get to look down.

On the subject of food, Boardwalk food is good when you’re in the mood for it, but after two days of chili dogs, cotton candy, pizza slices, and lemonade, I desperately needed a salad and some fresh fish not coated in yesterday’s lard. So we ventured beyond the Boardwalk’s borders to Belmar, Spring Lake, and Neptune to see what else the Jersey Shore had to offer. Mike was disappointed by the local cuisine, but this isn’t gastronomy country. This is where people work up an appetite boogie boarding by day so they can nosh on pie by night. I have never seen so many pizzerias in my life and I’ve been to Italy. Unlike Mike, I enjoyed the lack of surprise in my food. I wanted to unwind and didn’t want to bite into anything experimental. Point Pleasant’s Red’s Lobster Pot served up fantastic plates of fish -n- chips and coconut shrimp. Yes, it’s been done, but it was done well at Red’s and I inhaled every morsel and managed to not dribble any tartar sauce on my favorite orange dress.

All in all, the Jersey Shore was a colorful family vacation. I may not be as tatooed as everyone else on the beach, but I can still wear a bikini without shame–and, really, that’s all the motivation I need to stop me from gorging on Oreos through the winter until the next bathing suit season. Mike enjoyed Boardwalk food without getting an upset stomach. Anna collected seashells, rode rides, and consumed a vacation’s worth of junk food and also managed to avoid an upset stomach.

So what exactly is the Jersey Shore experience? I’m still not entirely sure and may need to return to do more research. I do know it involves a lot of sugar, sunscreen with an SPF of 50, French manicures, tatoos, and kids named Anthony causing trouble. Will we come back someday? Absolutely.

Epilogue: Anna developed gastritis from what we suspect was the hotel pool water. It did feel, um, unclean. I blame Anthony and AJ. She threw up all night and then managed to start the first day of the kindergarten hours later without issue. We think she’ll do fine in college.