A sense of place

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I was horrified that an American city had been allowed to drown, disgusted that our government didn’t give a damn about the hundreds of thousands in the city itself, and the millions in the area. When the tsunami hit Indonesia, I was horrified by the loss of life. When the earthquake hit Haiti, I was saddened for what happened to all the people there. When the tsunami hit Fukushima, I was worried for my friends there (who got out okay), horrified by what I saw, scared about how it would affect the entire world (still am, actually).

But when Sandy hit the Jersey Shore, it was a completely different experience.

Before I get to that, though, let me say that everyone I know — and that’s a lot of people, because I grew up there, because I went to college in NJ, because I lived in Manhattan for a couple of years — is okay.  (I know this thanks to the magic of Facebook.) Many are inconvenienced by lack of electricity and in some cases, gas, but they’re coping. Two friends, a couple who live in Highlands by the ferry terminal, had to evacuate. Their house is still standing, but it’s gutted. Other than that, it’s a tree down here and there. Yes, it’s sad; yes, it’s difficult in the short run, but for everyone I know, except my Highlands friends, there’s no real life-changing damage.

The thing is — Sandy hit me in the gut. And it’s kind of in my consciousness all the time.

I grew up at the Jersey Shore, 5 miles from the beach. I was at the beach every day of every summer, often all day, every day, all summer. I learned to swim there, learned to ride waves there, felt one with the entire universe in the ocean there for the very first time. I learned to go to the beach to clear my head, even in winter.

I learned gymnastics from friends on the hard-packed sand at low tide. I learned life-saving there, and worked briefly as a life guard (the pool, not the ocean, but still).

I went to beach dances there. I heard Springsteen before he got famous, when his band, the ‘hot’ band, was the Steel Mill.  The Asbury Park boardwalk was my idea of fun — roller coasters, the Tilt-a-Whirl, and the Fun House, not to mention cotton candy and candy apples.

Mostly I hung out in Sea Bright and West Long Branch, but every summer, one of my grandmothers would rent a studio in Asbury Park or Bradley Beach or Belmar or Deal. I’d go stay with her for a week, then I’d go home and my sister would stay with her for a week.  It was always so much fun. It meant I got to know more beaches in more towns.

I remember when the Long Branch pier burned down. I had one very memorable date at Seaside, where we walked the beach after the boardwalk closed, talking till 2AM. (Yeah, Dad was angry, even though I had no curfew.) When I was in college, a friend and I rented a house on Long Beach Island for a week off-season, when we could afford it. And I remember meeting a Long Branch firefighter in Wildwood, who told me they’d been instructed not to put out the Long Branch pier fire.

Reading that the many of the train bridges are out upsets me terribly (one of them goes through the Raritan Bay marsh, and it’s amazing). Seeing photos of the destroyed Seaside rollercoaster saddens me. Seeing photos of Asbury Park, and Sea Bright and Highlands under layers of sand, the water having retreated, churns my gut. The photo of the missing wall of the Asbury Park Convention Center horrifies me.

None of my close friends in northern California is having the gut wrenching experience I am. But then, none of them grew up there, either.

Here’s what I’ve learned: places really do become part of you. I don’t know if it’s just the memories, or something deeper. We exchange molecules with the air around us with every breath, and we use what we take in to build our bones and muscles and organs and skin. But every single atom in us supposedly changes every 7 years. So how is it that these places are so much a part of me?

I know now that what they say is true — you can take the girl out of New Jersey, but you can’t take New Jersey out of the girl.