Monday, August 1, 2011

Down The Shore and the Furnace of Time and Place

I was a college student before I heard anyone refer to “the beach”. Up to that point it was always “the shore”, as in down-the-shore, as in the Jersey Shore (which I say with a measure of defiance toward both the MTV suits who’ve parlayed the phrase into a cynically preposterous reality show and their poleznye idiots, the otherwise sane people who help spread this guano by not only watching it but keeping up with Snooki’s weight loss issues on various social media so we all have to eavesdrop.) 

There was no class distinction in going down-the-shore. I grew up amongst the white ruling class of the Philadelphia Main Line and everybody went there and called it “the shore”. Mind you, once there a rigid taxonomy kicked in. Wildwood was for different people than Cape May. If your family summered on Spring Lake Beach it's pretty certain you rarely set foot on the Asbury Park boardwalk. Our family mixed it up between Ocean City and later, Long Beach Island. You arrived at LBI via the causeway and once to the end the saying went, “The Haves turn left and the Have Nots turn right”. Meaning left was toward the tonier Loveladies and Barnegat Light. Right took you to, ahem, Beach Haven and Brant Beach (In case you’re wondering we turned left, something I took pleasure in as a kid. But now being so contrarian and habitually affectatious I would certainly veer right to bask in the egalitarian vibe, the ever so subtle irony of mixing it with the salt-of-the-earth folk and drink Schlitz on the beach. Which means I’ve made zero social progress since childhood.)

As much as being at the shore I remember driving to the shore. It was barely a two hour trip but in the kid space-time continuum it seemed like a geological age. Given the size of our family we’d take two cars. My Mom’s suburban-regulation station wagon and my Dad’s Volkswagen Beetle. The competition among seven kids to get in Dad’s car was fierce. There were two reasons for this. Once clear of the Ben Franklin Bridge and Philadelphia, Dad would open the sun roof and let us stand on the seats with our heads and arms free in the wind. The exhilaration of that experience is beyond the scope of any language. And for the record, I was in high school before we owned a car that had seat belts even installed. We just didn’t think of things like that. 

The other reason to land in Dad’s car was Mayo’s Halfway House. Located - as the name suggests - halfway between Philadelphia and Long Beach Island, Mayo’s was a Road House/Tavern on Route 72 situated on the fringes of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Chief among the caricatures of New Jersey is that it’s all people and turnpike. It is the most densely populated state in America but there are still enormous swaths that are almost completely uninhabited. This includes over one million acres known as the Pine Barrens in the state’s south central interior. As kids there was a creepy fascination as we drove through it fueled by popular legends that hung over the pine trees and sandy, acidic soil.  Thoughts of the Jersey Devil who lived there, countless dead bodies in shallow graves dispatched by the Philadelphia Mafia and most dreaded of all, “The Pineys” - the few backward, feral and inbred families who lived there in a world cut off from civilization.1 

At the edge of The Pines was a cluster of stores including Mayo’s, which even in the 60’s was Old School. A rustic log cabin structure, the place had several four-top tables, a large rectangular bar in the center and a small stage in the corner. It looked like the kind of place a young Frank Sinatra would have performed in during his post-Hoboken, pre-Big Band singing career. In fact, I’m pretty sure Sinatra did sing there. With Dad, we always stopped at Mayo’s for chili-mac and (for him) Rolling Rock beer in a seven ounce pony bottle. The lunchtime crowd was invariably thin but we aways sat at the bar with him while we ate our chili-mac and drank Cokes in bar glasses dispensed from the (to us wildly exotic) soda gun. Mayo's is still there but alas not the chili-mac.

The appeal for those of us who caught a ride with Dad was not complicated. Swinging our legs from the barstools we were happy to break up the trip, thrilled to be invited into a genrally off-limits adult world and flush with anticipation about our time at the shore. But I'm certain that for my Dad stopping at Mayo's was about something else. If you've ever taken a trip with a carful of kids, unnecessary delays are just that. But what was necessary for Dad was something I could not have understood then but now see all around me. So do others. And there's a name for it - "Foodways", which Mississippi writer Wright Thompson describes as, "just a fancy word for any piece of food culture that sprung from the furnace of a time and a place. Food that tells a story about who we are." 

I wonder what Dad got up to in Mayo's Halfway House back in his post-Army, pre-Mom, Lasalle College days. He was young, handsome and from what I could gather enjoyed a good time. There's no telling and I probably don't want to know, but chili-mac and Rolling Rock beer were part of it. And that furnace of time and place kept luring him back because it was part of the story of who he was.

We are fiercely devoted to our own foodways. That combustion of food, memory and longing create an emotional shrapnel which cuts deep. Wright notes the cottage industry that has emerged to celebrate it:
Websites direct visitors to places that are "authentic." People pay to FedEx pieces of a former life to themselves. Books are devoted to the grease palaces of the American roadside. Television shows visit and beam nostalgia to orbiting satellites. The producers don't expect people watching to actually visit. That's not what they are selling. They expect you to watch and remember longingly a past that perhaps you never had at all. They are selling you a vision of what a simpler life might be.
The occasion for Wright was the recent closing of Pete's Famous in Birmingham where I live (the essay is brilliant and part of my now favorite website Grantland.) Pete's was a tiny downtown dive famous for its Special Dog, a hot dog slathered in special sauce by Gus Koutroulakis who ran the place for 63 years and who died this past April. Pete's Famous died with him. I had visited Pete's Famous a few months before and found Gus a little surly and the Special Dog to be completely average. Mentioning that experience to locals was a mistake. It was like insulting a family member. I was a bit taken aback by their reaction. 

I shouldn't have been.

Just this past month supermarkets in Birmingham began selling TastyKakes, baked snack foods that are a foodways peculiar to and deeply entrenched in the Philadelphia psyche. My sister Connie sends a large box of them to us every Christmas. Seeing them on a Birmingham store shelf for the first time was slightly disorienting. As I gaped at them a teenage boy strolled up wearing an Auburn cap over the Southern-ubiquitous frat shag (aka Hoover Hair, aka Bama Bangs) and he grabbed a box, turned to his mother with a look that said "Can we buy these?" She looked like a former Ole Miss sorority girl who never fully left the Chi-O house. She said "Oh I heard those aren't very good." (For full affect extend the word "good" using two syllables.)

Instantaneously from deep in the left frontal cortex of my brain a simple three word phrase emerged and began its rapid neural path toward my larynx, tongue and full articulation. That I managed to suppress it can be explained in one of only two ways:

1. By the grace of God I have matured. 

I take seriously the admonition in the Epistle of James to be "slow to speak and slow to become angry" and that with an unbridled tongue "we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who have been made in the image of God." 

2. Naked self-preservation.

I am the Senior Pastor of moderately well-known Presbyterian church in downtown Birmingham. It is conceivable that this woman and/or people in earshot know that and I will be exposed publicly as the potty-mouth preacher. Or perhaps Tom the Insult Pastor.

I'll go with a mixture of 1. and 2. and leave it at that. The kid turns to put the box of TastyKakes back. Before he can, I take them from him and say, "These are actually really good." He silently looks through me in a way that is irritated, bemused and condescending. Mrs. Chi-O won't make eye contact with me.

In that moment I'm certain she watches Jersey Shore.

1. The Jersey Devil and the Mafia bodies were legends born ex nihilo and watered by typical human fears and insecurities . The image of The Pineys, sadly, was rooted in the malfeasance of the very real Henry H. Goddard, an American psychologist who in 1912 published The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness . The Kallikak’s being a Pine Barrens family that Goddard claims was genetically disposed to be “feeble-minded morons…lacking self-control, thus making them susceptible to sexual immorality and vulnerable to other individuals who might exploit them for use in criminal activity” in this chapter of The Kallikak Family, Goddard's "field workers" describe the family. It reads like a Stephen King novel. He included what are now considered to be retouched photographs of the “degenerate” family line. Goddard’s work was at the time celebrated as a scientific breakthrough, but was soon exposed as pseudoscience and a shameless argument for forced sterilization and confinement of the "genetically inferior" . Nonetheless the popular image of “The Pineys” was fixed. Later in life, Goddard publicly retracted the claims of the book but by then his work was already widely influential including a German translation that become one of the playbooks for the Nazis and the "Master Race".


  1. Great post Tom. Read it on my iPhone while at the shore! Ocean City. The people we are with love the picture. They can't believe it's from the '60's. Looks like it could have been taken last week.

  2. What 3 word phrase? Good article!

  3. I LOVED "The shore". Went there every summer when I lived in Jersey; Ocean city, baby.
    Tastykakes: I could never figure out how to pronounce it as a kid (goes against all the rules!), but devoured them as though they were essential to living, which they were.

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