Today, I am going to tell you the story about why New Jersey holds a special place in my heart, (aside from the obvious: Mary is from New Jersey, indeed was in the 1995 Miss New Jersey pageant, and was 1995s Miss Vineland, NJ)
See, when I was a kid I loved going places. I’d go to Boston a lot to visit my dad’s family, and had been to Ireland a few times to visit my mom’s family. Every now and then my dad would go away on a conference and sometimes we could come along to exotic places like Utica, NY and Williamsport, PA, where we’d drive a few hours and stay overnight. Not only that, but when relatives would visit different places they would send me postcards.
(I think of how conscientious they were: I don’t think I have ever sent an extended family member a postcard. From anywhere! But these were the idyllic late 70s/early 80s)
When I was five or six, I got a postcard from a relative who went to the Jersey Shore. It looked like a great place: a lot of fun and really far away. So I announced I wanted to go to New Jersey. It was on my five year old’s bucket list of places I really wanted to go. If somebody at that time had asked me where I wanted to go more than anywhere else, my answer would have been “New Jersey”. All because of that postcard.
Well, something serendipitous happened. New Jersey had legalized gambling in 1978, but only in Atlantic City. But there was serious talk about bringing gambling to the Catskill Mountains in upstate NY. My dad taught at a community college at the foot of the Catskills, just south of Albany. Were gambling to be legalized in New York, and were casinos to open in the Catskills, it was highly likely the community college where my dad taught would begin to offer programs related to the operating of said casinos.
In the summer of 1981, just a few months after I got that postcard, the community college decided to send my dad on essentially a scouting mission to Atlantic City to observe the casinos and their management. Perhaps there was a conference there as well, I’m not sure. All I remember, at age five, is learning my dreams of going to New Jersey were about to be realized. And I was over the moon.
So, we all got into the car: my parents, my sister and my brother (who was only two) and drove the 5-6 hours down to Atlantic City. I am not sure how much the community college was going to pay to put my dad (and fam) up, but it obviously wasn’t much, because we didn’t stay on the boardwalk. We stayed in one of those little one-level motels on the road leading into Atlantic City, which had a kidney shaped pool right in the parking lot. The kind of motel Mary would refer to as a “No-tell motel”. The kind of motel that, today, if it would pop-up on my search for accommodation on hotels.com, I would say “Noooope!”.
But to six year old me, it was absolutely perfect. Two double beds: one for my parents, one for us three kids (my brother was small enough he could easily fit in), a COLOR TV, and a pool! Later that evening after a dinner (no doubt inexpensive), we went out to walk on the boardwalk which really was made of boards! We went on the Steel Pier, where we got to ride the Ferris Wheel, and we got to see the ocean and the jellyfish, which was no little thing to a kid who lived 120 miles inland.
The next day, however my dad went to his project, leaving my mom alone to entertain three kids. We weren’t far from the boardwalk, we had the motel pool, and my mother had the car. I remember the Playboy Club had just opened, and my mother pointed it out.
“Oh look! There’s the Playboy Club! All the ladies who work there have to dress up as bunnies! They’re called Playboy Bunnies”
On the first level, there were plate glass windows that offered a view directly into the club, and true to my mother word: there were buxom cocktail waitresses with short skirts, bunny ears and tails, carrying trays full of drinks. I was amazed and fascinated.
“That’s enough, Robert. Time to see something else”
I wasn’t ready to leave…….
Later in the afternoon we swam in the tiny pool in the motel parking lot, where the lifeguard let me play with the life ring, and later when my dad came back and asked how we spent the day, I answered “We saw the Playboy Bunnies!”
We went home the next day, six hour drive home, but it really was the best trip ever, and for some time after that I thought New Jersey was one of the best places. In fact, when I became aware of “New Jersey” jokes, I wondered if they were talking about the same place.
And, short of a few flights out of Newark Airport, and a job interview for a teaching position in South Brunswick, and going through it on a train on the way to Philly, I wasn’t back to New Jersey.
Until I met Mary. Who not only was from New Jersey, but was from South Jersey. South of Atlantic City.
Eventually, it came time to visit her mother for the very first time, who had retired and bought a house in Sea Isle City, a small city on a barrier island between Atlantic City and Wildwood. Mary is frugal, and figured out long ago, the most economical way to get to South Jersey was to take “The Casino Bus” down there.
Here’s how it works: Bus companies (Greyhoud, Academy etc) operate in collaboration with the casinos. The bus goes directly to a given casino, you get a portion of the fare you paid back in a voucher, which must be played in a slot machine. Used to be, they’d simply give it back to you in rolled coin. But old people would go down to A/C for the day, not gamble, pocket the rolled coin, so the casinos got smart to that.
After riding this bus a few years, and seeing some of the characters who ride the bus, I have referred to it as the “Compulsive Gambler Bus”
But the first time, I got on the bus with Mary, and as we approached Atlantic City, I remembered the trip when I was six. I looked at the row of crappy motels along the road into the city (many of which are out of business, boarded up, and ready to fall down) and wondered which of them we stayed at. I’ve made this trip many times since then, and still wonder which motel it was.
I should mention I don’t gamble. But for somebody who doesn’t gamble, I have been in Atlantic City a lot the past thirteen years, simply because it is enroute to visit family. Because it is a requirement you play your bus ticket refund, I have obligingly done that, and on my first trip to A/C, I won back $80. Last time that ever happened.
Atlantic City has fallen on hard times. The Playboy Club is long gone (demolished in 1999). It is impossible to see Atlantic City through the idyllic lens I had as a six year old. It’s in rough shape. Mary & I have often found better means of getting to South Jersey than the “Compulsive Gambler Bus”, although almost all our trips there route through Atlantic City in some form or another. And every time, I remember the joy I had at age six of getting to go to exotic New Jersey.
And every time I go to South Jersey with Mary, I always feel like I am going somewhere special. Because I am. Because family is there now. So it should only be apropos our marriage certificate is a New Jersey certificate.
Say what you will about New Jersey. I have no complaints. Mary: the love of my life came from there.
PS: Our cat is named Jersey, too.
This was because when Mary & I were getting ready to adopt a cat, the New York ASPCA had such crazy stipulations and restrictions (such as not adopting out single kittens, and requiring your employer’s phone #, and leave to inspect your home), we decided just to go across the bridge to NJ and adopt him, where the red tape wasn’t as stiff.
So we called him Jersey.