I was lucky, thanks to my mother and sister, to spend a few days last week at my favorite place on earth, Ocean City, New Jersey. And I snapped the above photo with my phone (of course with my phone!).
OMGosh, I have been to Paris, Beijing, Tijuana, Los Angeles, NYC, how could my favorite place ever be in Jersey? Which exit is that?
Okay Jersey haters, back down.
Ocean City has a certain magic to it. Now, true, the magic does not entirely still exist. To be fair, they are doing their level-best in OCNJ to develop the magic right-the-heck out of it. Greed, it’s a terrible thing.
But, today, there is yet some magic there. Still I could see some of the old brick or clapboard houses that are not sky high, and do not stop the wind from caressing every structure and every person with the smell of a salty sea. And that, I think, if I’m honest and want to boil it down to the cause, is the magic of Ocean City: its smell. Or at least the smell is where the magic begins. It starts in the nose, as you drive the causeway and over the bridge to the island, if you roll down your windows, you can smell the salt smell. I live on “The Eastern Shore” now, and those beaches, though lovely and enjoyable, do not have that smell. I don’t know why OCNJ has it and they do not, but the smell is evocative like few other smells.
So, in my perfect world, I wake up; I step out on my porch to look out on the ocean or the bay (I would be happy with the bay, though I prefer the long scary swath of the ocean; who knows what tidal waves could be forming just beyond the reach of my progressive lenses?), and my nose is assaulted by the slightly dank salty smell; it’s like your best lover’s sweat. I love strong smells, and strong tastes, and I know, standing on the porch each morning, I would inhale that sea funk like jasmine, and I would still never get enough. And, in my perfect world, it is never summer at the beach, but more Ocean City in the transitions from season to season, when the landscape could be cold and bleak one day, warm and inviting the next. And, in my perfect world, I am alone, and slightly lonely. And I need to find some way to fill my time with purpose. It may be that there are shells I need to collect, or a dog I need to walk, or a bean soup I need to make. Of course there is coffee I need to drink, and maybe a jigsaw puzzle to spend a little time on. The house plants need to be watered. I will meet a friend for lunch, or to write, or to go to Ocean City’s excellent Chinese restaurant for dinner. My friend and I will talk about how we wish Shaftos and Campbells had never closed. We will talk about how we thrilled to see the mast of the Sindia before the dredging buried it forever. We will tell each other family stories. I will tell her how, when I was young, we would clam on the beach, and collect starfish from the jetties, and my grandmother would warn us about the two little boys she swore were sucked under the sand while wandering near the jetties, never to be seen again. She will tell me how her aunt found a Cape May diamond as clear as a real diamond, and the size of a filbert. I will brave the cold wind to get a cut at Mack Mancos almost every day, and though they’ve dropped the Mack from the name, and doubled the Mancos, blessedly the pizza remains the same. And all other pizza is some other thing entirely that is anything but pizza. I will watch the handsome pizza boy toss the crust in the air, and I will make my stupid joke about how I want this pizza to be my last meal on earth, and the server will Kindly chuckle each time. I will buy all my clothes at The Flying Carp on Asbury, and everything I wear will be voluminous and linen, and made for a tall thin woman with a long neck and hair, and yet, like my grandmother, I will most certainly be a short stout woman with little hair. But I will wear it anyway, elevated on my noisy clogs, and teach my back to straighten so I can walk with the long strides of tall women. I will treat myself to cookies from Wards more than I should, and I will not care about my weight. I will live in the mysterious purple house in The Gardens that used to have mannequins dressed up in the sunken living room, by the place where we sent my father’s ashes out to sea, or I will live in one of the big homes in the north end that are festooned with fire escapes because they grew so tall. I will never get in my car. Only jazz bands will play at The Music Pier, and Grappelli and Brubeck and Gordon Guaraldi and Getz will not be dead, ever, and will play there every other month. (Surely Brubeck should have changed his name to Grubeck.) I will be a member of the fishing pier club, whatever that is exactly, and I will finally have access to that long locked pier, and I will fish there with an old man named John, who will also be my friend, and who will take the fish off of my hook for me. In exchange I will flour and pan fry our catch, along with some potatoes, and invite him for dinner. I’ll open the can of peeled tomatoes and thicken them with flour, but no sugar. We will drink strong coffee followed by flavored brandy as we chomp some of the cookies from Wards. We will talk politics and play Stratego, and at least half the time I will win, and he will think I am smart and feisty, but we will not fall all the way in love, lest we lose our lovely lonely feeling. In the summer months I will escape to somewhere cooler or less crowded; I will trade my house with a family in Greece or Guanzhou. I will bring home souvenirs in the fall, and rearrange all the furniture to fit them in.
To be in a windy place is a good thing; the wind is constantly cleaning and sweeping everything. Los Angeles was never windy, unless it was the hot desert wind. City winds do their job well, but too roughly; they slice into you when you try to walk against them. But the sea wind is perfect because it pushes, it sweeps, but it also wraps you up; it twirls your hair and clothing around you. It makes of you a little package and then it holds you in its hand. I am grateful that where I live now is affordable, windy, and has the shrill sound of gulls from time to time to bring my mind to the sea.
Dear OCNJ, as the real estate agents stretch you thinner and thinner, may you find a way to keep your unique scent, your lovely wrapping wind, against the onslaught of the greed of men. I love you.