By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
It was summer at the New Jersey Seaside Heights boardwalk, and everything was in its right place. Videos of the Boss flickered on the TVs up for grabs at a game booth. A little boynot more than four years oldcruised the planks wearing a thick gold chain around his neck. And yours truly donned a bright pink T-shirt embossed with the word "Italian" tricked out in glittery fake crystals.
I was going back to my Joisey guido roots (Amy Sacco, holla!), so my hair was properly puffed up to early-'90s perfection. Except I was horrified to learn that Jersey girls don't do their hair big anymorethe boys do. In the vein of Gotti, a typical teenage guido's hair resembles the crispy spikes of a porcupine, puffed out in a flawlessly spherical arc. With their perfectly manicured eyebrows, orange tans, waxed chests, and glossy lips, they more closely resembled the buffed boys of Chelsea than the mafioso, though I didn't have the heart to tell them. I'd probably get whacked for saying that.
I was there with my family, all 600 of them (as they've taken to breeding lately), and trying in vain to experience authentic New Jersey nightlife. We were staying in Mantoloking, one town over from Bayhead, itself a stone's throw from Point Pleasant Beach. I was advised to try the bigger, "crazier" Seaside Heights Boardwalk. It would be more happening. After going to both, I can only report that Seaside (a) is bigger, (b) has more cops trolling the grounds, and (c) also has more teenagers. Crazy!
There at Seaside, I met a security guard, some teenagers, and Danny Riamerand his family, who were getting matching henna tattoos. They were from the city, sort ofOrange County, about 60 miles north. Riamer had grown up going to the boardwalk. "Um, it was a little bit more family-orientated when I was a kid, 25 to 30 years ago," he said, a little embarrassed. "Now, it's a bit more . . . I don't know . . . " I finished the sentence"Cheesy?"
Later, I met Nikolina ("Everybody calls me Nikki,") a 23-year-old Bulgarian girl who had only been in the country a month. She came on a student visa, filled out her paperwork at a job fair to work at the Jersey Shore in the summer, and like many other foreignersincluding Russians, Colombians, Poles, and other Bulgarianslanded a six-day-a-week, 12-hour-a-day minimum-wage job convincing strangers to shoot water in a clown's open mouth so they could win a stuffed teddy bear wearing a Steelers uniform.
"I was born on the Black Sea so I wanted to be near the ocean, but I still miss the Black Sea," she said with a little laugh.
An aspiring modern dancer and performer, Nikki hadn't seen a performance yet in the city, though she'd made it to the Big Apple for requisite tourist duty. "I like it," she said of the boardwalk, "but some people told me this is not really New Jersey, this is not really America, I have to go and visit other places to learn more about the culture and what the people are, really. This weekend I went to Philadelphia, and the people there were, I'm sorry, more beautiful than the people I meet here."
Besides being astute, Nikki was lovely, but I still needed to find the party. Any party. A true New Yorker or a complete idiotyou decideI've let my driver's license lapse and am thus converted into a helpless baby when traveling outside NYC ("Auntie, will you drive me to get a latte, please?"). This meant convincing Das German, my cousin Denise's hubby, to drive me home after the DelSordo clan and their two million very cute spawn had gone home at a more reasonable hour. There was one problem: It seemed that the rest of the Jersey population on a summer Thursday night at Seaside Heights Boardwalk had also gone home at a more reasonable hourthat hour not having yet reached midnight. Except for smashingly drunk French Canadian volleyball player Jessie Cooper, who had lost her match at the boardwalk's AVP tournament that weekend, no one else seemed much up for it at E.J.'s, the place we settled in after a long stroll peeking into various "hot spots"including one Aztec Sand Bar advertising the skills of the not very uniquely named DJ Uniqueand leaving unfulfilled.
I had done my research. My Aunt Patti told me to look at njguido.com, which precedes lastnightsparty.com by a few years (it started in 2002), posting party pics of drunken clubgoers long before Merlin got his wig on. The main difference is that instead of everyone showing off their pale tits, black eyeliner, and hipster-retarded outfits, the Jersey counterparts show off their healthy, glowing physiquesoblivious that their fashions are not very fashionable.
It was there I learned that Merge was the place to be, but it was in Seaside proper, off the boardwalk. Also, the big party was on Sunday (we were kicked out of the summer rental on Saturday) and would require a car and/or bribing of Das German to get there. Das German said "Nein."
I also learned that njguido.com's message board can be a little scary, and not in the fun way. Typical postings include a girl lamenting her boyfriend's "ghey" voice, or another poster who declared, in an otherwise uncontroversial DJ set-list thread, that "orlando is nothing but spics and shifty niggers, might as well just hang out on delancy (sic) st."
Those posts were almost as scary as the two dudes at Seaside manning the paintball booth called "Shoot Osama bin Laden," who saw me taking pictures and urged me to come over. They were strangely disturbing, especially the guy in paint-splattered military gear. "I can get the mask," he said in a creepy monotone, producing an oversize Osama bin Laden mask, slipping it on, and helpfully standing still while I shot at him. (Pictures!) I left just as Osama's partner was shouting "Shoot Osama! It's the only place you can shoot his ass!" to passersby.
Crazy! But I was still looking for a different kind of crazy at the Jersey Shore, and eventually found it. For my driver's license-less self, it was a liquored-up New Yorker's dream: walking distance from the house. It was called Used-To-Be's, because, yes, as a bartender explained, it used to be several other places before it was Used-To-Be's.
I knew upon enteringand paying the $5 coverthat my cousin Jeff and I had struck Fly Lifegoes-to-theJersey Shore gold. How did I know this? Because there was a man playing guitar, accompanied by a blonde, presumably drunk woman singing an off-key version of "Living on a Prayer," a tune by my teenage self's very favorite band, Bon Jovi. This was quickly followed by a truly awful, unlistenable, but awesomely fantastic version of "Wanted (Dead or Alive)."
The man playing the guitar turned out to be a guy named Rich Meyer. He passed out bumper stickers bearing his slogan: "One Man, One Guitar, One Good Time." A quick hop to richmeyer.com revealed that Rich has mapped out the perfect life: He summers at the Jersey Shore, and winters at the ski lodges in Vermont. One can only imagine he's a professional guitar-playing surf-and-ski bum. Rich Meyer, I salute you.
He serenaded the crowda mix of barely-21 frat-and-sorority types buzzing on their big night out and ladies of a certain age from the 'hood getting their own swerve onwith vintage bar favorites, some of them a little too vintage. One of the ladies helpfully explained why the crowd couldn't sing along to the relatively simple chorus of Mentor Williams's "Drift Away": "They're too young to know this song!" We were also serenaded with renditions of (someone please take the mic away from the blonde woman already!) "Centerfold," "Summer of 69," and "Sweet Home Alabama." However, points were docked for not playing any Springsteen while we were there. No Springsteen in a Jersey bar? Now that's really crazy!