VENTNOR, N.J. - With the kind of Memorial Day weekend we had, there really is no turning back on this Jersey Shore summer.
The run-up to the first big weekend reminded me of an episode of the Food Network's Chopped, with chef contestants going down to the wire on a ridiculous 20-minute deadline, flinging food onto plates for the judges as Ted Allen calls out, "Time's up. Please step back."
Or, in the Jersey Shore version, "Step away from the geraniums! Your visitors have arrived!"
And so they have, all at once, out of nowhere, to herald a summer that already feels epic. Memorial Day 2011 will surely go down in the books as the most sudden dive into the deep end of summer in memory.
Personally, I was glad to see everyone. After an off season of feeling occasionally out of position, driving to Philly, walking the unraked beach, passing the same people at the same time and place on the beach each day, their dogs tangling with my dogs, it was good to see all of Philly showing up at my door.
It was, too, shocking to see the once-ripped-up beach near Newport Avenue in Ventnor where my puppy and I nearly drowned, trapped between the high tide and the eroded sand cliff, suddenly and innocuously filled with sunbathers (at least at low tide). Sand cliff, I knew you when.
Or that house on the corner that's been empty and neglected all winter, suddenly landscaped, rented out and populated by beer-drinking dudes sitting on the front steps, acting like it's where they've been every weekend.
For merchants, especially intrepid ones who bravely and forlornly opened over the winter, like the SoHo-chic Scout boutique clothing store in Ventnor, the weekend was like a blast of oxygen - stylish people with second homes, come on down; your coveted Wildfox American flag T's (featured in Glamour UK) are waiting. Or a time for new frontiers, as with ace sandwich guy Tony Boloney, who, in a very promising Jersey Shore development, parked a food truck on a beach block in Chelsea to great acclaim. Paging Honest Tom's Tacos. Your Shore address is waiting.
As usual, the homeowners responded to the daily invasion with kindness and empathy, immediately moving their cars from their driveways to the streets. Why do we feel the need to create this car buffer by taking good parking spaces? Why can we not be content to park in our driveways? It's complicated.
Alas, on my block, this backfired for one of my neighbors, who forgot to move the car back into the driveway on Tuesday morning, when the streets are cleaned and parking is not permitted, and wound up with a parking ticket on the windshield.
Aw, man. Do you not know this neighbor has lived on this block for like half a century (see, it wasn't me)? Do not ticket the locals, man. It bums us out.
This year, as ever, there was inventory to be taken as the Shore filled up with summer residents. After 16 years living here year round, the ritual of taking stock each Memorial Day is as riveting as ever, and starting to take on a fuller meaning, the pieces of everyone's puzzle filling in, dramatically in some cases, mundanely in others, the ocean echoing with its daily ebb and flow.
This year, there was one new grandson on the block, one new (aforementioned) chocolate Lab puppy, one person feeling better compared with last summer, another one looking at the arrival of an extended-family summer with new urgency, the prognosis worrying.
The little local boys and girls who loved the beach as kids, rejected it a bit during some tween years, now were embracing it with the gusto of Jersey Shore teenagers raised on a diet of Snooki and Jerseylicious. All over the island, local kids negotiated with their parents: how much time with the out-of-town relatives, how much time embracing summer with their own kind.
Meanwhile, back on the hot sand, it was like your kid's Facebook had sprung to life, the coupling and uncoupling, the approving and disapproving. Seriously, kids, take it back online. This is a family beach.
For some, it's all about the joy ride, the tan, the food, the drinks, the sheer bliss of it. As Ben Garvey of Collingswood tweeted on Monday: "If the whole summer is like this weekend I expect to be 250 lbs, totally sunburned, and hungover for all of September."
For others, it's about temporary geological alteration, the I-was-here ethos, carving out huge formations that take all day and yield their fullest pleasure at high tide, when they flood with water. The trick is to get the kids back to the suburbs before it washes away.
For me, especially with my daughters old enough to fend for themselves on the beach, though not necessarily to apply enough sunscreen, it's become about not looking past the obvious and simple pleasures, familiar as they've become: ocean, beach, boardwalk, so many recognizable faces, people back who are happy to see you and giddy to be in the place where you live, a niece deciding to spend the summer with Aunt Amy, the afternoon Chipwich from Guy the ice cream man. Oh, and this year I will learn to surf.
I still cross-identify with the Philly people and the locals. As the guy in the surf shop said to me, "You're not like a heavy local, but I've seen you around." Guilty.
My kids, well, they're a different story. They're as local as the fiberglass surf boats that now hang from wooden frames on the beach.
On Friday, as my daughter and I sat in a line of cars near the Margate bridge after running an innocuous little errand, I said to her, "This is beach traffic we're in." "I love it," she said. Well, all right then.