Down the Shore, the Lost and the Found
By HELENE STAPINSKI
ASBURY PARK, N.J. — I’m riding down Kingsley, looking for a place to park. With the crowds at Convention Hall, the Stone Pony and the Wonder Bar, there are no spots left on this oceanfront stretch. I’m here to see the roller-derby championship, three weeks after Hurricane Sandy ripped through and devoured the boardwalk. It’s night, and a waxing moon barely lights the culprit — the churning Atlantic, which both gives this place its life and threatens its existence.
Inside Convention Hall it’s almost easy to forget what’s happened. The cast of “Scrooge” is dressed in period costume, handing out fliers. The winter bazaar stalls are doing a swift business. And the cover band playing at the tree-lighting ceremony is loud enough to drown out thoughts of FEMA and insurance agents.
“Everybody’s here tonight, checking in with each other,” said Tom Gilmour, the city’s director of commerce and economic development, gesturing to his exhausted but smiling neighbors. It seems the whole city — including the mayor — is in this one enormous room. Some have even brought their dogs. “People think the whole shore is just washed away,” Mr. Gilmour said. “But we’re here.”
People who’ve spent any time at the Jersey Shore are taking a mental inventory these days of the places they’ve loved, hoping they haven’t lost them. I grew up in Jersey City, but every phase of my life has had its shore moments. And so Asbury, the first place I went with my family each summer weekend, is first on my list.
After Sandy hit, Asbury considered canceling the Jersey Shore Roller Girls Championship, which traditionally follows the tree lighting. There was a foot of sand in Convention Hall, and the track, stored in a building on the boardwalk, was covered in ocean grit.
“But a lot of the girls wanted to do it, even though they lost their homes, their jobs,” said Kim Hartman, a member of the Right Coast Rollers. “The derby, once you do it, kind of gets into your soul. We thought, we’ve lost so much, let’s not lose the derby too.” Before the championship the bruised roller girls — with nicknames like Wicked Kitty and Shermaine Tank — put on hip waders and spent 16 hours power-washing their track. “Sandy took us down,” said Ms. Hartman, a k a Bash N. Onya, “but it didn’t knock us out.”
When you first revisit the Jersey Shore, the damage is shocking. But amid the demolished boardwalks and toppled buildings, including the apocalyptic vision that is oceanfront Belmar, it’s also a shock to see how much is still standing.
Madam Marie’s, the tiny shack made famous in Bruce Springsteen’s song “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” is still here on the boardwalk. The door blew off, but other than that the psychic headquarters of Asbury is fine. The Great Auditorium in Ocean Grove — a gorgeous 118-year-old hulking wooden structure that houses the Hope Jones pipe organ, one of the 20 largest in the world — had some roof damage, but survived. Last weekend the town celebrated its Victorian Holiday weekend, which included the auditorium’s live Nativity made up of local children. The boardwalk there is now like a roller coaster, rising up and then falling gently back down.
My favorite restaurant in Bradley Beach, Vic’s, with its neon lights and snug green booths, is packed and has been since it reopened a week after the storm. The owner, Ed Dollive, whose family has run the place since 1947, has fielded hundreds of calls from concerned customers. “They’re still calling,” Mr. Dollive said.
John Amick Butler, sharing a large pie and Vic’s trademark chopped antipasto with his wife and her cousins, said he and everyone he knew had been Googling their favorite haunts. “But with one eye open,” he said. “You’re afraid of what you’re going to find.”
D’Jais, the Belmar club where I drank Jell-O shots in my early 20s, is one of the few places along that oceanfront strip upright. Though it’ll need to be gutted, the owner plans to open by May and is trying to salvage the dance floor. The Breakers on the Ocean in Spring Lake, which suffered some wind damage, is already open, as is the Porch in nearby Spring Lake Heights, which served only cold beer and deep fried food from its gas-fueled fryer while the electricity was out. In badly damaged Lake Como you can still get a drink at Bar Anticipation — Bar A to regulars — an indoor-outdoor club where in the 1990s I once waited for a rumored drop-in Springsteen performance. (He never showed.)
Heading south, things get worse. Point Pleasant is a strange mix of the destroyed and the amazingly hopeful. Jersey Mike’s Subs — the national chain that got its start here — has been feeding hungry legions of distraught homeowners since the Friday after the storm, when the franchise owner, Jim Van Nostrand, ran out and bought a generator. Nothing else was open yet, so the lines snaked out the door. The corporate office in Manasquan arranged to feed thousands of displaced and ravaged residents from Keansburg to Mantoloking, all free. Though a hoagie is not going to remove the stunned look of loss in everyone’s eyes, it certainly doesn’t hurt.
Nearby, the aquarium at Jenkinson’s Boardwalk, where I’ve taken my kids many times, was battered, but survived. Eight staff members stayed through the storm to take care of the sharks, penguins and fish. They watched the ocean surge under the building and out to the street. The veterinarian’s office, quarantine room and some holding tanks in the basement were lost, but none of the animals — or their keepers — were hurt. Aside from the neon sign out front, which was destroyed and scattered along the boardwalk, the rest of the building was solid. The aquarium is expected to be open sometime in January, around the same time as the Sweet Shop, the Pavilion Arcade and Jenks nightclub.
Every fall Jenkinson’s puts its amusement park rides in storage, so by the time Sandy hit most of the attractions were safely ensconced — the Tilt-a-Whirl cars, the Dizzy Dragons, the Himalaya. When people first saw pictures of Jenkinson’s, there were no rides, so they assumed they were demolished. That’s not the case.
The tracks for the rides were left outside on the boardwalk, now waiting for inspectors to come and give them the green light for their usual Easter opening.
Piles of ruined stuffed animals from the game booths lay abandoned, the Putt-Putt mini-golf building was toppled, and the tiki bar was scattered along the coast, but the sound of hammers and power tools is starting to drown out the eerie silence. The giant lemon from the lemonade stand is unscathed, as is the bathhouse and the Tornado roller coaster.
The same family that runs Jenkinson’s owns the Casino Pier in Seaside Heights. They offered to take me for a ride. The carousel, just off the street end of the boardwalk, looks perfectly normal and could be operating by Easter. The Kohr’s ice cream stand is boarded up, but O.K. As you make your way to the end of the ragged boardwalk, however, you realize what’s missing.
Down below sits the Jet Star roller coaster, whose sister coaster I rode repeatedly in the summer of 1978. As is well known, it’s in the ocean now, along with several other rides. Though I’ve seen the news coverage, seeing the Jet Star three stories beneath me made me feel ill. Stillwalk Manor, the haunted mansion ride, is just gone. One of its cars washed up 10 miles north in Point Pleasant. The Musik Express, a Himalaya-like ride, is a tangled mess of metal on the beach. But right across from it all the Aztec Ocean Resort, where I stayed that whole magical August when I was 13 years old, rises up, its bottom windows boarded, its slanted upper windows and balcony staring defiantly out at the sea.
On Long Beach Island, where my husband and I courted 20 years ago, just a handful of places are open. It’s off-season, so not many places would be operating anyway. All along Bay Avenue piles of furniture and drywall sit, a scene that repeats itself from town to town, over and over, like a chorus to some unbearably sad song. But the Fantasy Island Ferris wheel stands guard, with a sign outside that reads, “Sandy, you’ll never stop our summer.”
In Harvey Cedars there’s a white sign in front of Neptune Market, home of the Nooney burger: “We’re cooking. Open!” Seated at the counter inside is a mix of locals and workers here to fix the island. An elevator repairman is dining at the market for the first time because he’s heard how great it is. And the sand-removal guy, who grew up around the corner and still lives there, jumps up while eating his sandwich when the fire alarm sounds. He’s part of the fire department, and says he rescued dozens of people during Sandy.
Albert Holl, the deli’s owner, was one of the first islanders to reopen after the storm. He and his wife, Teri, figured they would offer free coffee and cake. “But people came in and wanted sandwiches right away,” he said, laughing at the memory, so he used a portable grill to feed the town. “We were lucky. Our only problem has been getting enough meat to make enough sandwiches.” Mr. Holl usually closes from January to March, but this year he’s decided to stay open, to help the locals, feed the workers and keep his staff employed.
It’s a Wednesday night, a month after the storm, so the moon is full again, like it was when Sandy hit. I’m out with my best friend from elementary school, Marybeth McGovern, who watched the waters rise from her second-floor bedroom in Port Monmouth, a raft and oars at her side. The $75,000 damage to her home has her a bit depressed, but she’s ready for a night out.
We go to one of her favorite places in nearby Highlands, Bahrs Landing, the seafood shrine that marks the beginning of the Jersey Shore for many people. Frank Sinatra and the cast of “The Sopranos” have all passed under its famous giant lobster sign, which miraculously survived the storm.
Bahrs, built from a beached houseboat, got its start in 1917, feeding stranded sailors after a severe northeaster. Over the years the houseboat was expanded and raised up higher and higher, which helped save it from Sandy. Though the bottom floor was flooded, the rest of the place looks as wonderfully nautical as ever. When he answers the phone, Jay Cosgrove, the owner — great-grandson of the founders — does not say hello. He says: “Bahrs Landing. We’re still standing.”
After a dinner of steamers and shrimp scampi Marybeth and I rush over to Red Bank to the Count Basie Theater. Red Bank is jumping, its bars and restaurants overflowing. The Molly Pitcher Inn rises sturdy and majestic a few blocks down.
Kenny and Suzanne Sherman, displaced residents from Staten Island, have driven here from their temporary home in Marine Park in Brooklyn. They’ve come all this way — as we have — to see the Brian Setzer Orchestra.
“I said we have to go and forget about all our worries,” Mr. Sherman explained, a look of reluctant hope on his troubled face. “I’ve seen this band before, and if anything’s going to bring people out of their funk, it’s this.”
As soon as the 18-piece band hits the stage, led by Mr. Setzer with his glittering red guitar, the sheer power of the brass knocks any residual gloom right out of the room. There is no mention of Sandy, only joyful, rapturous music. That awful glaze in everyone’s eyes is replaced with a temporary — but palpable — light. Marybeth, who up until now couldn’t even think about putting Christmas lights up in her battered house, has suddenly reconsidered.
By the time the band gets to “Rock This Town,” the crowd is in an absolute frenzy, screaming, clapping and forgetting the carnage — at least for tonight.