Making memories down the shore without going to the beach

     A barrel of blue crabs. It's whats for dinner. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    A barrel of blue crabs. It's whats for dinner. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Summer doesn’t officially start until I visit the Jersey Shore, bicycle on the boardwalk, eat my weight in fudge, and let seagulls dive-bomb my ice cream cone. The fact that I don’t own a beach house has never stood in my way. However, here we are in August and no one has invited me! Except my cousin Miriam.

    Summer doesn’t officially start until I visit the Jersey Shore, bicycle on the boardwalk, eat my weight in fudge, and let seagulls dive-bomb my ice cream cone. The fact that I don’t own a beach house has never stood in my way. Since childhood, I’ve had the good fortune to be the courteous, mid-week guest of friends who maintain summer homes in Ventnor, Ocean City and Brigantine.

    However, here we are in August and no one has invited me! Except my cousin Miriam, a lovely woman with a gravel voice who swears she’s going to stop chain-smoking. As soon as they pry the carton of Parliaments out of her cold, dead hands. I need to bring a tank of oxygen if I want to breathe. The visibility inside her house is less than three feet.

    When I arrive, thrilled to be off the AC Expressway, I am eager to go to the beach and expose my pale skin (“Eggshell White” on the Sherwin Williams chart) to the sun. Miriam, who is the color of dark-roast coffee with artificial creamer, is in no rush.

    “What’s your hurry?” she chides. “Sit. I made chicken salad.”

    It’s 10 a.m. I don’t want chicken salad. I want to frolic in the surf, smell the salt air and inhale the intoxicating ozone stirred up by the Atlantic Ocean. If I’m going to eat anything, it’s going to be a “fudgie wudgie” sold by a leathery-skinned guy, schlepping an ice box on his back from Wildwood to Atlantic City.

    Now it’s noon. Miriam says it’s too hot to go outside. “Look at you. You’re so white. You’ll burn if you go out before two o’clock.”

    So instead, Miriam burns down a dozen cigarettes in her parlor and catches me up on her health issues. “It’s not emphysema,” she says, bringing up enough phlegm to start her own ICU. “It’s bronchitis.”

    We move on to the most important topic of any shore visit: Where to eat dinner. The options are limited to a half-dozen restaurants with diabolically similar names: Crab Shack, Crab House, Crab Basket, etc. (I have always suspected they are owned by the same crab-faced guy who has a monopoly on shellfish and cole slaw along the entire Eastern Seaboard.) This leads to a discussion of when to eat, because the one thing we don’t want to do is stand in line. We need to avoid the Early Birds. And don’t even think about anything after 7 p.m.

    So, it’s decided. We will go to Crab Castle when the lunch crowd empties out at 2 p.m.

    “Wait a minute,” I protest. “I thought we’re going to the beach at two.”

    Miriam waves away a cloud of smoke. “Stacia, what’s more important? A good shore dinner or baking on the beach?”

    She has a point. My Russian-Polish ancestors spent so many generations indoors (hiding from Cossacks) that, for me, getting a tan is a painful, futile process. When we get to the restaurant, we discover an endless line of families who, judging from their blond hair, third-degree sunburned skin, and number of children, appear to have arrived via wagon train from Utah. I am ready to bolt.

    “Calm down,” says Miriam. “We can sit at the bar.”

    Even there, we are lucky to find two seats. Waitresses are serving up hubcap-size platters of Alaskan crab legs, lobster and fried shrimp. Patrons are guzzling pitchers of beer. You would think there had been a famine in Summer’s Point. The noise level is deafening. I gaze at the plastic-coated menu, which is as vast as the Magna Carta.

    “We’ll both have crab cakes,” Miriam tells the waitress, then steps outside to smoke a quickie.

    The crab cakes arrive, and it’s quickly apparent why the red-faced hoards are here. This is the best meal I’ve ever had. The icy beer tastes as divine as Moët Champagne.

    Afterward, as we walk on the Ocean City boardwalk, breathing in the aromatic elixir of cotton candy, caramel corn and sea weed. I feel a wild surge of happiness. Miriam was right. The shore isn’t just about lying on the beach, slathering oneself with SPF 50. It’s about tapping into a lifetime of summer memories with a Bruce Springsteen calliope soundtrack. It’s about being a terminal adolescent. Even if only for one night.

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