Returning home to New Jersey, as I imagine is the case just about anywhere you call “home,” is a stark reminder of just how little progress I’ve made growing into a new person in my adult life. It doesn’t matter that, let’s say, I’ve abandoned attempts at trying to be fashionable or buying the newest Billabong clothes over the past eight years, skewing closer instead to a sort of anti-style of whatever discount thrift store clothing is available, because when I walk around Toms River, I still feel like the 16 year old me walking down the hallways of South in the morning and getting mocked by the friends of Charlie Frazier for wearing the same sweater he had on that day. Nor does it matter that I won several journalism awards or was interviewed on Fox News a dozen times in the past year, because in Jersey I still can’t feel cool, because I still run into the same salty Jersey surf guys in Seaside who have little respect for anyone who doesn’t have a super-thick wetsuit and spend most of the winter months in mylar booties chasing the waves off Casino Pier.
And Jersey doesn’t care that I got contact lenses to replace my glasses since I left, because my terminal case of red-eyed, sneezy, sniffly allergies return pretty much as soon as I cross the Jersey border and start breathing that coniferous air again.
It’s weird, this cognitive distance, the feeling of being a tourist in your own past, walking through familiar sights and sounds with a different perspective. Some parts of my past, however, I was certain could not still be following me. Oh New Jersey, why must you prove me so wrong?
Follow me back, won’t you, to those carefree days in the summer of 2001, when I worked at the boardwalk, terrorism was but a distant threat, and W was but a harmless Gerald Ford in training. That summer, I kept a running tally of how many people asked me to buy/find drugs vs. how many people tried to pitch some religion to me. I don’t know why Seaside attracts both kinds of people, but it certainly does, and both tallies were large, but the drug requests were much higher (rimshot!). I have the paper somewhere still I think, but it must have been at least 15 times throughout the summer.
Now granted, this was a bit of dark period in my life, when Phish CDs were a little too common in the disc rotation and I had a slight bit of this kind of look:
So it can be understood why the clueless benny might confuse me for the neighborhood apothecary. I usually directed each inquirer to the nearest police officer, the person I felt was most likely able to answer their question.
But then I went back to school, started listening to God Speed You Black Emperor! and had the rest of any fondness for 24-minute jam session tracks systematically beaten out of my by Barry Schwartz (and for this, I’m grateful). Then I trimmed up the beard to a respectable chin strap and even cut the hair down from Ben and Jerry’s employee length to the moderately less stereotyped season 1 Jim Halpert mop top. Like so:
It’s amazing how much differently people look at you or speak to you once your hair length is shortened (and perhaps shampooed a little more often). But even as hair length changes, Jersey stays the same.
Cut to yesterday afternoon, walking out of the Ocean County Mall on the Applebees side to inspect what was the first attempt at construction since the old theater closed down like 10 years ago. It looked like a PF Changs, which would be a huge upgrade for the OC.
I saw a girl walking my direction out of the corner of my eye.
“Hi, hello there?” she said, though I didn’t realize she was talking to me at first. “Hello? Excuse me?”
Ah here it comes, I thought. Conversations like this never begin well, particularly outside the mall in the waiting-for-mom-to-pick-me-up area. She had the acne-scarred face, oversized winter jacket and white sneakers that somehow became the uniform for white trash girls in Jersey, and looked maybe between 18-21.
“Do you know where to get any marijuana?”
Sigh. I appreciated her directness, at least. “Nope. No I don’t.” Then I walked away quickly, searching my brain for what it was that caused this girl to approach me out of everyone at the mall. I had gotten my hair cut that very morning, so that couldn’t be it. Was it the American Apparel track jacket? The tight jeans? The beat up old chucks? The glasses? Or just that I was the only young person at a mall on a school day afternoon? Am I even all that young anymore? Why is a possibly high-school aged girl approaching a 27 year old guy for drugs?
But most likely she had caught site of the long trailer of history I was pulling behind me that’s somehow becomes visible every time I return here, following me around like a spectral line marching to the bathroom like we used to do at Beachwood Elementary. There she saw it, full of the ghosts I can’t seem to shake of long-haired, barefooted, but ultimately nerdy and frightened Tim Donnellys from dusty, ancient years trapped in New Jersey.
Update: Here’s a link to the Bishop Allen song, as to which titular duties of this post are derived from.