Sandy, The Unwelcome Visitorbyjohncarpenter63©
"Sandy, the fireworks are hailin' over Little Eden tonight/
Forcin' a light into all those stony faces left stranded on this warm July."
With those words Bruce Springsteen begins to paint a picture of one aspect of life as he knew it on the Jersey Shore. For better or worse we've also been subjected to MTV's version of life on the "Jersey Shore." Let me give you a better picture of life on the Jersey Shore as I have experienced it.
This is a more realistic story of life at the Jersey Shore and how an unwelcome visitor changed that life for years to come.
The "Jersey Shore" consists of approximately 120 miles of some of the nicest beaches on the East Coast. From the Gateway National Park at Sandy Hook in the north, to the Victorian charm of Cape May at the southern tip of New Jersey, the New Jersey beaches offer a place to unwind and escape from the hectic pace of life in the metropolitan area. I'm a life-long resident of New Jersey. I have cherished memories of spending a week each year on the wide expanse of beach at Wildwood Crest, with its powdery white sand, vacationing with my parents and sister. Walking the five miles of amusement filled boardwalk, being overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of all the rides, the games of chance and the concession stands.
When I grew up, got married and had a daughter of my own, we, too, looked forward to renting a place "down the shore" only a little closer to home, on the barrier island called Island Beach. There are two barrier islands that protect the mainland of central New Jersey; Island Beach and Long Beach Island. Originally they were one island, but a hurricane in the Forties breached the island forming an inlet into the Barnegat Bay. My tale will focus on the island to the north, Island Beach, and to one community in particular: Ocean Beach Unit Three.
Life on Island Beach, from Point Pleasant Beach in the north to Island Beach State Park in the south, varies from small motels, family friendly boardwalks, and day beaches, to the more, young adult life style as portrayed at Seaside on MTV, to the thousands of small summer cottages in between, there's something for everyone. Starting when my daughter was about five, we would rent one of those summer cottages for a week in Ocean Beach Unit One.
The developers of the Ocean Beach communities had bought tracts of vacant land in the late forties between the incorporated towns of Lavallette (1887) and Bay Head (1886). The houses in these well-established communities were larger, many were year round residences, and were considered beyond the means of the average worker. The developers chose a different marketing plan for their community. They would build smaller cottages, designed to be summer residences that the masses could afford. The first development, Ocean Beach Unit One, began in the early fifties. The cottages consisted of two small bedrooms, a kitchen and living room separated by a counter on which meals were served, and a small bathroom with a shower, toilet and sink. The house sat on a small lot, the back yards were approximately three feet deep and there was room on one side of the lot to park one car. The setback on the road side of the house was one foot and the front door faced the parking spot. There was also a covered patio which was situated in the back corner of the footprint of the house. All the houses sat on the left side of the lot. The street was paved with black top, which made footwear necessary during the summer. The bedrooms and the bathroom were enclosed with quarter inch plywood for privacy. The rest of the house was open to the studs and outside sheathing. They were put up for sale for the price of $2,895 and hundreds were sold. Some for vacation homes, some for rentals, and some, with a little work as year round residences.
When those sold out, the developers began Unit Two. The lots were a little bigger and so were the houses. But basically they offered the same no-frills, family-friendly beach experience as Unit One. Hundreds more were sold; and then came Unit Three.
By the time they got to Unit Three, the developers, after hearing feedback from the owners of the first two units, increased the size of the house and the lot; making room for cars to be parked two abreast and if pulled up to the back of the driveway a third car could be parked sideways in the driveway. The house layout was basically the same. If you picture a detached oversized two car garage with the back right hand corner built as a covered porch, you pretty much have a good idea of the house. Once again each house sat on the left side of the lot and you had an eight-foot deep backyard. They built over a thousand of these summer cottages in Unit Three. They also built a three bedroom version of the house on the beach front where, because of land restrictions, they could not fit an extra street so the lots were deeper. Almost all the streets in the Ocean Beach community ran perpendicular to the ocean and ran from the ocean front houses to the bay. In Unit Three all the roads were unpaved, consisting of hard compacted dirt and sand. The beachfront was completely lined with houses, with a road running parallel to the ocean connecting all the streets. On the bayside of the island several streets ran into the bay like fingers, providing the owners of those houses with bulkheads for docking their boat.
The main thorough fare on the island is State Route 35, which runs North and South for the entire length of the residential portion of the island. It is a concrete road, one lane in each direction on the northern third of the island. When a railroad right of way became available, the State shifted the south-bound lane to the right of way and made it two lanes south-bound and converted the original road to two lanes north-bound. Thousands of cars travel these routes every day during the summer.
It was in Unit Three, during the summer of 1984, that we signed a contract to purchase our beach house. It was the first time that we rented a house for two weeks. My daughter was ten years old. We had such a great vacation that we decided that we really wanted to buy a house at the beach someday. We stopped at the Ocean Beach Realty Office to drop off our rental house key, with the intent that I would drop off my business card informing them that I was looking for a "handy man special" to buy.
"Here are the keys to a house that might just be what you're looking for, the broker said. I don't have permission to sell it yet, but take a look; it's only a few blocks from here. See what you think."
The three of us piled into my car and drove to the house. We pulled into the vacant driveway and stood in front of one of a thousand similar houses, assessing its worthiness. It looked OK on the outside; needed some paint and some caulking, but not too bad. We opened the door and stepped inside what once was a covered porch. At some point in the past the owner had enclosed the porch and, from the looks of it, had made it a third bedroom. OK, you enter the house through a bedroom; that can be fixed. We opened the door to the rest of the house and entered the living area. The rest of the house was exactly as they must have bought it, a shell. We were shocked to see the studding and sheathing on the outside walls; the plywood around the bedrooms, the concrete floors with small area rugs; the back door, with its single round port hole; in the bathroom, to the right, the toilet and sink, to left a small shower with a shower curtain. It was dark and dingy, over cluttered with furniture that was old and too big for the space. It was just perfect. After a little discussion of all its potential; we headed back to the realtors office.
"Well, what do you think of it?"
"It's just what we are looking for."
Now we asked the 64 dollar question. "How much do they want?"
"They are thinking about listing it for $65,000, but if you offer $62,000 I'm sure they will take it. Now I just have to get their OK to sell it."
He got on the phone, and after a few minutes he called us back into his office and informed us that they had agreed to our offer. He explained that if we put a binder of $500 as a deposit; he would have the paperwork drawn up. We had to get a lawyer and he would forward the paper work to him. We all shook hands and my wife and daughter got into her car and I got into mine and we headed for home. All the way home the thought kept going through my head, 'Can I really afford this? What the hell have I done?'
Being a CPA, as soon as I got home, I went to my office and cranked out the numbers. We'd have to clean out our savings and eat at our folks a lot, but it was doable. What troubled me worst of all was that the current mortgage interest rate on a twenty-five year mortgage was 14 7/8ths percent. Ouch, it was like purchasing a house with a credit card. 'Well,' I thought, 'I'll have to combine this mortgage with my primary residential mortgage as soon as the rates drop.' We didn't close on the house until late November due to some legal issues. We also had to be approved by the home-owners association. During our meeting with president of the association he told us something that I never thought of, or experienced.
"You know, in the early sixties you would never have been allowed into the association. This was a very WASP-orientated area; no Italians allowed. Times have changed of course; now several of the board members are Italian."
In December, we began the renovation of our summer cottage. The first thing we did was throw out most of the furniture. We wanted to make it as airy as possible, so first we tore down the door and low ceiling that covered the porch, opening it up to the roofline above. We wanted to be able to use it most of the year, to make it a three season house, so we insulated the outer walls, during which time I discovered that the house was studded with 2X3's, none of which were sixteen on center. I had to rerun some of the electrical wires because we found that most of the house's outlets were on one 15 amp circuit. The electrical service in the house was the original 60 amp service, with screw-in fuses, which looked to be in good working order so I left it because I was running out of money and had to cut corners where I could. I installed an air conditioner through the wall that faced the street about eight feet off the ground. This unit would have to cool the entire house. Because I had never done a lot of sheet-rocking and spackling, we decided to panel the entire house in a light color wood, which my wife said would give the illusion of more space. We had a commercial grade carpet installed in the living room and bedrooms, tiled the kitchen and bathroom with vinyl tile and sealed the slate floor in the porch area where we put a convertible couch for overnight guests. I put a pocket door on the bathroom and moved the bedroom entrances so they were two feet apart. I installed bi-fold doors in the entrances and put two four-foot wide closets between them, one in each room, with bi-fold doors on each. I replaced the back door with a modern aluminum screen door with a jalousie window to allow for air flow and privacy. It also matched the existing jalousie windows that were original to the house and which were still in good shape.
We completed our renovations just before the June 15th deadline imposed by the Home Owners Association Bylaws. We soon found out there were a lot of restrictions imposed by the bylaws. In Unit Three all the houses had to be one story, storage boxes had to be placed in one location only, clothes lines were limited to a certain area as well. Most of the rules dated back to a time before most of the houses were air conditioned and the free flow of cool night air was essential for sleeping. All outside improvements had to be approved by the building committee and the representative of the developers. Outside shower enclosures were prohibited.
Outside showers? Yes, each house had an outside shower. The plumbing ran up the outside of the house, exposed to the winter weather. We found this out the hard way. During the renovations we were so preoccupied with getting the work done that we never gave the outside shower a thought. Or, for that matter, any of the plumbing inside the house. So, on the first warm sunny day, after a long cold winter, I suddenly heard water running. After searching around the inside of the house, I realized that the water was running outside. I opened up the back door and, much to my dismay, found a stream of water shooting out of the shower pipes. 'Crap, we burst a pipe.' No sooner did I get back into the house than I heard more water flowing. This time it was inside; water was cascading down the inside of the bathroom wall from somewhere above in the area of the small 30-gallon hot water heater located above the shower. I ran to the shut-off valve under the sink and was able to shut the supply of water before any real damage could be done.
I looked up the number of a plumber who happened to live in the area. Within a half an hour he arrived and was able to easily replace the burst sections of pipe.
"It's a good thing you were here when it happened. You wouldn't believe how much damage a leak like that can cause to the inside of the house. Didn't anyone tell you that these houses have to be winterized? You have to shut off the water, preferably at the street or at least at the main shut off under the sink and you have to drain all the pipes each year before the first freeze. It's a good idea to pour alcohol into the toilet bowl and all the drains to prevent them from freezing."
The sellers forgot to mention that. Oh well, live and learn.
So there you have it, a pretty good idea of the house and the living conditions of the average home owner in our area of the Jersey Shore.
Life at the Jersey Shore
If you don't actually live at the shore and you either are renting for a week or the season-- or, like me, had to commute to the shore every weekend-- life is not only a beach, it can be a bitch. Every Friday after work, I would drive home, change clothes, cut the grass -- which I would normally do on weekends -- and then get in the car and join the thousands of other cars, all heading south on the Garden State Parkway, which is the only major highway that runs north and south the entire length of New Jersey. It's a toll road and every twenty miles or so you had to stop and pay a toll. When I was growing up the toll was 25 cents; today its 75 cents; which can really add up if you're heading into Southern Jersey. But the most frustrating part of the toll was that in several of the areas you paid the toll, and then crawled in bumper to bumper stop and go traffic to the next toll. The seventy-five mile drive to our little slice of heaven at the shore could take an hour and a half or it could take three hours or more depending on the traffic. It forced you to find more imaginative ways to circumvent the traffic. On holiday weekends, the best alternative was to leave very late at night or very early the following morning. The return trip could be just as bad. I found what worked best for me was to set my alarm at five to five Monday morning, throw on a tee shirt and shorts, get in the car and get on the road by five AM. I still ended up driving in bumper to bumper traffic, but at least we were traveling at 65 MPH. I'd get home by 6:20 and jump in the shower to start my day like any other workday.
My wife and daughter almost never had to worry about the traffic. In the beginning, they spent the entire summer at the beach. As she grew up, my daughter wanted to spend more time at home and finally, when she was a junior in high school, she announced that the upcoming summer would be her last at the beach. Which worked out great for us, because my wife went back to work full time, with all the benefits that a major corporation could offer. They even had half day Fridays during the summer. So she could work four nine-hour days during the week and leave work by 12:30, driving directly to the beach, ahead of the work traffic. I would find her sitting in the back yard reading a book, or napping on the sofa when I finally made it on Friday night.
Our weekends were what weekends were for; unwinding after a rough week at work. We would go to the beach when the weather was nice, put up a couple of umbrellas, read or walk along the beach, jump in the surf to cool off, or ride the waves with my daughter. Some mornings we would take a leisurely bike ride, most of the time down to the bay coast road and out onto West Point Island, a small chunk of land just off the main island connected by a short bridge. Here, there was little traffic, there were many large expensive mini mansions located around the perimeter of the island and it was fun to day dream about winning the lottery and buying one. A pretty famous Jersey Boy actor had bought his mother a place on the island. They even had a sign on the privacy fence in front asking people not to bother him or his family.
At night we would either go out to dinner, usually off the island to avoid all the tourists (the local places on the island can get very crowded during the summer) or we would just eat in and spend a relaxing night at home. When it got dark we would walk up and down the streets, glancing into open windows to get ideas for additional improvements or just to see how others lived.
We also had plenty of company. You get used to that when you owned a place "down the shore." It was mostly my sister-in-law and her husband and son, who are our closest friends as well, or my wife's parents. There were a few times when they both came down on the same weekend, which would have been a problem if we weren't such a close family. Six adults and two kids were just about the limit that the house could hold. The biggest problem was always the bathroom and the shower. Coming off the beach in the afternoon, trying to get ready, all at the same time, with only one bathroom and two showers, can be challenging. Most of us showered outside; it was quicker, with less clean up, the breeze and sunshine would help you dry off. Getting dressed in such a small house can also be a problem. With only two bedrooms, everyone dressed in shifts, especially as the kids got older. Somehow we always made it; we would pile into my wife's minivan and head either out to dinner or to the boardwalk in either Point Pleasant or, as the kids got older, to Seaside. There were a lot more rides, bigger and better rides, in Seaside. The people watching was a lot better too.
Speaking of people watching, there's nothing better than going into the bathroom, standing there answering nature's call and glancing out the window at the house behind you and seeing a well-endowed teenager -- or woman for that matter -- wearing what appears to be two eye patches and a sling-shot, standing under the shower, washing the shampoo out of her hair. Oh, to be young again. I'll bet many an adolescent boy had his first sexual experience staring out at such a sight. Remember that in the other communities the houses were even closer together. At the shore, privacy is hard to come by and comes at a premium.
That's how life was at the Jersey Shore.
Sandy changes everything.
As I have previously stated, the Jersey Shore is no stranger to hurricanes and Nor'easters, as we refer to them. Those are storms that head north along the eastern seaboard, usually coming with strong winds, and heavy rains, and tend to be slow-moving forcing massive amounts of water as a tidal surge into the bays and rivers along the coast causing flooding along the low lying areas. Most hurricanes along the east coast move up the coast then hook out to sea. Picture a left hander's bowling ball, skimming along the edge of the ally, then at the last minute gripping the lane and hooking into the pocket. This has spared the Jersey Shore from major damage in the past. Sandy was an exception to the rule; this bowler was right handed and the ball hooked directly into South Jersey.