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By Robert Heide

I grew up in the 1940s in Irvington Township just uphill from Newark, New Jersey’s largest and busiest city. To get to Newark from Irvington I paid a nickel for the bus ride down Springfield Avenue to the center of things including L.Bamberger’s Department Store and the Prudential Insurance Company where I worked part time in high school and I often went to movies downtown and sometimes the jazz clubs. Newark’s Penn Station is a beautiful Art Deco transportation hub with trains going in all directions including south to the Jersey Shore. As a boy with my family we went to Seaside Heights by car—and I, as an adult drove the highways and byways and toured the mountain and garden spots and the famed Jersey Shore in a 1954 Packard Patrician four-door touring sedan (superseded by a 1954 Pink Plymouth Belvedere convertible). Today I take the train with stops in Red Bank, Long Branch, Asbury Park, Ocean Grove, Spring Lake, Manasquan, Point Pleasant, and Bay Head which is the end of NJ Transit’s North Jersey coast line—happily and luckily for me, my niece Carol Tooker has a house in Bay Head within walking distance of the station and she graciously invites me to stay. At other times I check into a small hotel right on the beach called The House by the Sea in Ocean Grove, a Methodist camp town right next door to fun hotspot Asbury Park. Ocean Grove is almost wholly Victorian and is dominated by a 4,000 seat wooden auditorium 129 years old wherein during the summer are held concerts and other events, many focused on the spiritual—in the past Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and Roy Rogers’ wife Dale Evans, a prolific author of inspirational books have been featured as well as organ recitals and band concerts by popular entertainers like the Beach Boys. Raised wooden platforms support 147 seasonal canvas tents—the bathrooms and kitchens are in a small shack at the back and these summer homes surround the paths around the auditorium. For more sophisticated fun a short walk along the boardwalk or across one of the bridges to Asbury Park; you can attend a concert at the Stone Pony where Bruce Springsteen got his start or go to a crazy disco dance at the gay, gay, gay Empress Motel/Hotel which has at least two bars and a kidney shaped swimming pool.

Robert Heide and Betty Boop on the Seaside Heights boardwalk. Photo credit by John Gilman

Crossing over the great Manasquan River on the train and entering the town of Point Pleasant I know I am almost there—Bay Head is the next town just south. I am also a doubly lucky person to have another niece, Gail Coulter, who runs a seasonal summer restaurant called the Food Shack right at the end of the Point Pleasant boardwalk and I never miss the opportunity to visit her there where she and her family cook up delicious meals for breakfast, lunch and brunch. Point Pleasant itself is a wonderful destination—there are plenty of hotels and motels in the town which was once the summer home of Agnes Boulton, the first wife of playwright Eugene O’Neill. In the old days I often saw Shane O’Neill, one of their sons, on the train either drunk or high on drugs. Their daughter Oona later married Charlie Chaplin. On Point Pleasant’s main drag—Arnold Avenue—there is an old Woolworth’s Five and Dime, converted to selling antiques and collectibles where I never fail to find something to take back home. Wandering around the old town I also sometimes get a haircut, shop at the old-fashioned stationery store for practical things, and buy snacks at Joe Leone’s Italian Specialties.

Ocean front house on stilts in Bay Head. Photo credit by John Gilman

After my parents, Olga and Ludwig (he was called Lou or Louis by his co-workers at the Singer Sewing Machine Company in Elizabeth) moved from Irvington to Point Pleasant, my sister Evelyn and her husband Pete Cammarano also moved there where they had four daughters. My brother Walter moved to California with his wife and they had six children. If my math is right it sounds like I have ten nephews and nieces. Pete and Evelyn bought a 100 year old, 80-room hotel in Bay Head called the Ocean View. The family ran the hotel for a few years—it had a large kitchen and dining room for the guests as well as a coffee shop. After the family ran the place for a few years, it turned out that it had to be completely renovated; Pete decided the best thing to do was to tear the old place down and sell the lots – desirably located on a two block wide spit of land between the ocean and Twilight Lake, actually the beginning of the Great Barnegat Bay. Fortunately for his daughters buyers for the lots did not materialize and Pete then decided to deed the lots to the girls on which each one built their own dream house. Gail and Carol, previously mentioned, both still live there – the other two sold and moved elsewhere, Priscilla Sierra over on Osborne Avenue – still in Bay Head but several blocks inland from the beach, and Susan Hansen, all the way down to Salem, South Carolina. Carol’s twin daughters, Kaitlyn and Kelly, moved away and have several children, all of whom love to visit with grandma Carol. Since he was a kid Carol’s handsome surfer son Jesse has worked at the Point Lobster Company and Restaurant and famously shows up for meals armed with fantastic lobster corn chowders and crabs and mussels and clams and every variety of fish. Michelle, a family cousin who visits regularly, likes to drives us south down past the other seaside towns, Mantoloking—a very narrow strip where the mansions are right on the beach—during superstorm Sandy the ocean breached the land, creating a new channel to the bay; somehow the Army Corps of Engineers filled it in, and giant mansions, high up on stilts, are sprouting up on the beach today—and Lavalette where we always sing the old 1920s song “They love a lot in Lavalette New Jersey” as we pass through and continue on right into the shore town that beats all others—Seaside Heights which is hailed as ‘Fun town USA.’ Seaside is linked to the mainland at Tom’s River by a bridge that crosses the six-mile wide Barnegat Bay and it attracts vacationers from all over New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. The mile long boardwalk, next to the wide white-sand beach is the place for unbelievable people watching and is lined with games of chance, Kohr’s Custard stands, restaurants, bars, beach clothing stores, and pizza, pizza, pizza. Our favorite has always been Maruca’s Pizza which is owned and managed by twin brothers Dominic and Joe Maruca, and we always have a pie or slice even if we’ve already eaten a giant seafood dinner. The often quite raucous town has motels, hotels, and bungalows galore for daily, weekly, and all-summer-long rentals.

Summer tent houses in Ocean Grove. Photo credit by John Gilman

My parents bought three bungalows in Seaside Heights for rental income and every summer at different times they hosted extended family get-togethers in Seaside. I stayed at these bungalows on Franklin Avenue, just a block from the boardwalk and the beach many times as an adult, and for me it was the jumping off point for a visit to the greatest spot on the 127 mile long Jersey shore—Island Beach State Park – just a few miles down the road from Seaside Heights. This ten-mile-long barrier beach between the ocean and the bay is a truly wondrous environmental showcase for the state of New Jersey. To visit Island Beach with its snow white sand, its natural grassy dunes, its thick shrubbery, its holly trees, and its swamp grass and many varieties of wild plant life is to confront the elements at the shore as they have been since the very beginnings. Wild rabbits, red fox, turtles and other creatures inhabit the thick brush and there are many varieties of birds that make this spot a bird-watchers delight. In late summer you can pick the tiny, tart beach plums—in early summer we plunge into the cold water after trekking over the dunes. A day at Island Beach, watching the Peregrine falcons, Pelicans, gulls and roaming the sparsely populated beaches is the reward I look forward to all the long winter up in New York City. The North Jersey shore train of New Jersey Transit leaves Penn Station in New York every day practically every hour on the hour and day trippers to Asbury Park and other fun spots will find trains back to the city as late as midnight. On its way to the end-of-the-line at Bay Head the train crosses over many rivers and estuaries—I always see Egrets and other big birds along the way. Driving to any of these locations is easy, and takes much less time to get to from New York than the Long Island beaches of the Hamptons.

Robert Heide (right), his nephew Jesse Tooker – the man to see at the Point Lobster Bar and Grill: seafood restaurant and fish market (center)and John Gilman (left) on the boardwalk at the Food Shack in Point Pleasant. Photo credit by John Gilman

For detailed information—not to mention some hair raising stories of the Jersey Devil who it is said hangs out in Jersey’s vast Pine Barrens—on traveling the great State of New Jersey as well as where to go, how to get there, and what to do get the new third edition of my book O’New Jersey—Eateries-Daytripping-Back Roads-Funky Adventures—with maps and photos in color and black and white co-authored with John Gilman and published by St. Martin’s Press. In addition to a recently published collection of my plays entitled Robert Heide 25 Plays published by Fast Books—fastbookspress.com—I have co-authored with John many books on American popular culture including two other ‘Garden State’ books; those are New Jersey Art of the State—published by Harry N. Abrams Inc., and Backroads of New Jersey published by Voyageur Press. Everything is available online. Look at our blogspot—robertheideandjohngilman.blogspot.com.

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