Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

May 28, 2004 On the Jersey Shore.

When I lived in New Jersey, I never did the shore thing. Im not much of a beach person, and I was never tempted to go down to da shaw the way everyone else did on summer weekends. But as a gypsy I decided to check out a few of the places Id never seen before. So I planted my van at a Belleplain State Park, a quite delightful place, and spent a few days exploring Cape May, Wildwood, and the Delaware Bay beaches.

Its really quite nice down there! Its flat as a pancake, so my bike seemed the right way to get around. The weather was iffy, though, so Matilda and I drove down to Cape May the first morning to find a cup of coffee and see if the sun would come out. The coffee situation, Ill admit, isnt too good, no roasters in town, no good local hangouts, not even a Starbucks. The town is nice, though, in a style that was highlighted by the comparison with Wildwood later on. Cape May is pretty, cute, tidy, full of nice restaurants and fancy shops. Most of all, its full of grand houses with elaborate decoration and wrap-around porches, vying with each other to attract the well-to-to bed and breakfast crowd. Surrounding the downtown with its bustling B&Bs are block after block of new homes designed to look like the old ones, enormous mansions with porches and bric-a-brac decoration and soaring windows.

I went into a big old hotel, and it was lovely. I wanted to settle in with my computer in one of their cool, quiet sitting rooms, at a big wooden table with a vase of flowers. Order a pot of coffee and work quietly through the morning in the calm atmosphere. It seemed like a friendly place, not too busy with decoration or noise or people rushing through. I was tempted to have lunch in their dining room, sit at a small table by the window with a white tablecloth and a linen napkin, drink water in out of a sparkling crystal glass, eat one of those elegant salads that would never taste as good if I made it myself, be served by a pretty young woman with a long dark pony tail like someone out of a Rosamund Pilcher novel.

Of course I didn't do that. Instead, I rode my bike to Wildwood, where I walked up and down the boardwalk to catch the local color. No quiet elegance here. It was packed with people of all sizes, shapes, ages, colors, and get-ups. Teen-aged girls in skimpy shorts and skimpier tank-tops. Groups of acne-covered boys in falling-down shorts and baggy t-shirts. Young Hispanic couples, with big stuffed animals won at the shooting gallery. A middle-aged couple pushing a stroller past a stall filled with Shreks and Kermits and Pinocchios, his hair grey, hers died yellow. A family checking out the shops, teen-aged children still willing to walk the boardwalk with their parents. A girl in hiphuggers and a bikini top holding hands with her boyfriend. A middle-aged man in long pants and a button-down-shirt, walking by himself, seeming a bit lost. A young man calling to the crowds to play the game at his stall, pointing me out to his friend as I took his picture, zooming the camera in on him from the other side of the boardwalk. An older woman who looked like a friendly grandma, cleaning tables at a hot dogs stand. Is this the only job she could get?

And food! People eating cotton candy, pizza, corn on the cob, ice cream, curly French fries, big swirled lollipops, caramel apples, hamburgers, lemonade. People carrying plastic ducks, huge stuffed animals, beach bags, kites, t-shirts purchased at the boardwalk shops, soccer balls, babies. People wearing sun hats, cowboy hats, mirror shades, elaborate tattoos, embroidered leather jackets, tank-tops, no tops, Mohawks, green hair, blue hair, no hair, splendid thick black braids down past their hips. People who looked happy, bored, excited, sun-burnt, sad, in love, sick to their stomachs from too much boardwalk food.

Wildwood has amusement parks, too not just one, as Id thought from the photos Id seen, but several. By current standards I suppose they are old-fashioned, with modest rides, ordinary thrills instead of the high-tech modern ones, that rely on sophisticated understanding of how the brain responds to stimuli to make the most frightening experiences possible.

The roller coasters were lovely, though. Old wooden ones, their cars rattling comfortingly on the rails as they inched up the hills and swept down again. The boarding platform spanned the walkway down the pier where the amusement park stood, so I could watch the cars from below and hear their wheels clatter along. The loops and curves of the track formed graceful shapes, silhouetted against the sky, a touch of class in the boardwalk scene.

Where, you might have noticed, the one thing I didn't see was the shore.

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