The Jersey Shore

You never know who might be lying on the sand beside you at places like Point Pleasant Beach.
You never know who might be lying on the sand beside you at places like Point Pleasant Beach. (By Bob Bielk -- Associated Press)

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By Roger Piantadosi
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 24, 2007

For me, okay: It is home. But for everyone who chooses to spend a bit of summertime at the Jersey Shore, I'm thinking the reasons are similar: It's like home.

As a 50-something who grew up here and returns several times a summer, in fact, I am prone to think of the Jersey Shore as one giant family room -- large enough that you can see it from outer space, and loud enough that you can hear it from Delaware. Come in, it says. Eat something. Want to play cards? Watch the game? Take the kids up the boards? (It's important to imagine all these things being said to you at the same time, by different relatives.) Not to say that being "down the shore" is some kind of exclusively ethnic, big-family thing. State tourism officials, in fact, like to point out that more and more visitors to New Jersey -- visitors who spent more than $37 billion in the state in 2006, by the way -- are coming from places other than the traditional New York and Philadelphia markets, including Baltimore, Washington, Boston. Canada, even.

From wherever you're coming to the Jersey Shore, however, it helps to be comfortable around large numbers of people who a) do a lot of talking, often simultaneously; b) are demonstratively thankful that it's Friday (or Saturday, or Sunday) and c) may be wearing flip-flops.

Everybody's family is, of course, different.

"Hey." We say it simultaneously, your typical low-key, noncommittal Jersey greeting, me and the stocky guy in a baseball cap getting out of his black Lexus SUV on a late-morning Saturday last July, as I head back into the Green Planet coffee shop in downtown Point Pleasant Beach. I had run out quickly to buy an Asbury Park Press to go with my coffee, and I'm thinking, jeez, this guy looks so familiar -- did I go to high school with him? Or did I know him from . . . oh, my God. I'm back inside at the front window watching him, in flip-flops, shorts and T-shirt, straightening up stuff in the back of his car, when I realize to whom I just said hey.

It's Tony freakin' Soprano.

Okay, no, it's really James Gandolfini, the actor who plays the world's most famous fictional mob boss on TV, but still. Tony freakin' Soprano. I try to focus on the fact that I, like Gandolfini, grew up in New Jersey, so a certain amount of watchful and respectful distance is called for. Nonchalance, many believe, was invented in New Jersey -- not far from Thomas Edison's laboratory.

When he finally hurries toward the coffee shop door, Gandolfini glances at me again and smiles affably through the glass. I smile back; I do not wave. I read somewhere that he's an unusually private guy, has only given a handful of interviews throughout his career. I read somewhere that he and his family have a summer place near here. I figure I'll just drink my coffee and hope no one else makes any false moves. All the whacking and stuff he has to deal with at work, guy deserves a break.

Inside, he heads straight for the counter, nearly unnoticed, wherein the manager, clearly expecting him, has readied at least a dozen huge coffees to go in three trays. He pays her, stacks and carries the trays out, places them carefully in the back of the car, and is pulling away from the curb in less than a couple of minutes. A young guy inside who'd been staring open-mouthed, nudging and whispering to his girlfriend, realizes too late that he has missed his chance, and as his hero drives off, he leaps up and runs out to the sidewalk, where he can only shoot a two-handed thumbs-up and walk back inside, looking awed and dejected.

What have we learned from this?

That's easy: At the Jersey Shore, even Tony freakin' Soprano is just a guy in flip-flops who has to go get everyone coffee. When it's his turn, I mean.

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