This is a compilation of a 4-part series I just ran on my blog this week to share with my friends on Facebook as a one-shot. It just makes it easier to read. Enjoy!
Philadelphia, PA – July 2021
My old friend Wolfie texted me that he was going down to Wildwood to attend a family event. He asked me if I wanted a ride down there. He said He’d swing by Philly and pick me up and then we’d head down. He wasn’t coming back home to where he lives until Tuesday so I figured that could work. I texted my sister who was already down there at her house to check with her.
She said the upstairs was free from other guests and that I was welcome. I figured I hadn’t been on vacation in years so I told her I’d be down for a few days. I had been writing my butt off for two months straight on commercial gigs and needed a break.
Wolfie said he’d be down late Thursday after he visited with his daughter who was leaving to join the Navy. So I figured I had time to pack that afternoon. But he texted me around 2 pm that he was done seeing her and that he was headed to me. I leaped up from my desk and grabbed a bag. I stuffed it with as many items as I could think of for a 4-day vacation. I hadn’t been away in a long time and kept a checklist on my phone just in case, but it suddenly became crunch time.
He showed up in no time and within less than 20 minutes he was in front of my house. I tossed my stuff on the backseat of his car and off we went. I was stupid happy to see my friend and former bandmate of 40 years.
It was a sunny warm day and lately, it’s been a pretty hot summer so far. We decided once we got over the bridge we were going to take the back way to the shore. Most people take the Atlantic City Expressway to the Garden State Parkway to get down there. I prefer the back way. It’s a more scenic route and you can stop off anytime you like to do whatever.
The first stop was to grab some lunch. We pulled off the road to a little roadside burger joint called the Purple Penguin. I love places like this because it reminds me of my times back in the early 80s when I’d take road trips in my old van. And of course on the road to California back in ’82. I love the road. Just that endless black ribbon under that massive blue sky. There’s something liberating about being in a car on a warm day and traveling to places unknown.
Wolfie tells me that he’s been on a healthy diet so he goes with a wrap and of course, I go with a big ol’ cheeseburger and fries.
It’s a hot day and the only place to escape the July sun is at a picnic table under an umbrella, which is just fine. After about 20 minutes we’re back on the road again. I wanted to do something for my sister as a little thank you for letting me come down and hang out for a few days at the shore, so I ask Wolfie if we can stop again if we see a roadside nursery.
We do in a short while and he grinds the car into the dirt lot out front. There’s an array of plants and flowers everywhere, and I’m sure I’ll find something to bring my sister. I figured a plant was better than flowers because flowers die. But Wold pointed out that maybe it’s good that flowers die because it’s a nice gesture, but then they die. A plant sort of forces the recipient with a new responsibility to care for the living thing you just gifted them. Point taken, but I’m sticking with the plant for now as a present.
I found this lovely plant with pink flowers. I’m sure she’ll like it. We hop back in the car and make our way towards Wildwood.
We did get a little turned around for a moment but I told him, if we just keep heading south we can’t get lost. Because New Jersey just keeps getting slimmer the further south you go. No matter what happens, if we head south we’ll hit the shore!
We end up on route 9, and we’re right on track. It doesn’t take us to get to the shore after that. It was a great moment for me to be riding in a car with one of my oldest friends as we drove over the bridge and onto the island. It was like… we’re back!
We get to the house and pull up on the carport. My sister comes out to greet us and I’m really happy to see her. I whip out the flowery plant, but then notice she has not one, but two of the exact type of plants hanging from the porch. (You can see those beauties in the photo at the top of this post!) They are so much bigger and more beautiful than my little “Charlie Brown Christmas Tree” plant! We get a good laugh about it and she likes the plant anyway.
Wolfie comes into the house and is amazed at how my sister has remodeled the old shore house. She took what was once lovely in the ’70s to a clean, white modern version of what a shore house should look like. Truly elegant! She did an amazing job bringing the property into the21st century.
They chat a bit and I stay quiet because I’ve been chatting with Wolfie for the last two and half hours. My sister hasn’t seen him since our parent’s funeral and I wanted to give them a chance to catch up.
Wolfie always liked my dad. Everybody did. He was a cool guy to all of my friends. They all thought he was an amazing dude.
After a bit, Wolf had to get to where he needed to go. The reason for his trip to the shore was to meet up with his family for a social event. Someone was having a baby and there was to be a shower. He wouldn’t be attending that in particular but there would be many relatives there so he wanted to see them all. We hoped we could meet up over the weekend and hang out a bit if possible.
Wildwood, New Jersey – July 2021
The next morning I woke up upstairs in the apartment on the second floor of the shore house. This used to be where my father lived. This may be the bed he slept in for all I know. The apartment still has the 70s vibe and the walls are covered in wood paneling. I kind of like that it reminds me of a time in the past when life was simpler.
I looked at my phone at it was 5:30 am. Early. I looked at the weather app and it said sunrise was at 5:45. I knew I had 15 minutes to walk the block and a half to the beach to see the sunrise. I hadn’t seen a sunrise in I don’t know how long. It may have been the late 70s or early 80s but it was probably after I’d stayed out all night with some woman.
It’s always cooler at the shore. The heat was unbearable in Philly in July, but even when it’s blazing outside, there’s always a breeze at the shore. I threw on some clothes and quietly headed out. My sister’s husband had already left because he was going out on a fishing boat for the day with his brother or a friend.
I walked down the street towards the beach. Some of the properties have remained the same. The old-time, small clapboard shore houses. But many of the properties on the island have been torn down and transformed into massive condo complexes. It’s kind of sad because the architecture is part of the essence of a town. Being all built up like this sort of ruins the aesthetic of the community.
What was once a landscape dotted with little shore homes has now been mostly replaced by buildings that take up the entire property. Case in point: next door to the shore house was once a little one-story home. It was cute and perfect for the block like the other homes. But it’s been torn down and a massive three-story building is going up on that property. This completely blocks the air and the view of the sea from my sister’s place. So that’s another thing ruined. When you look out any window in the house now on that side all you’ll see is someone else’s gigantic house right in your face.
Where there were once motels all designed in the classic doo-wop design, are now massive properties and condos. Gone are all of the tourists that would stay at those motels each summer. The sound of people coming and going, and kids laughing and splashing around in the pools and music playing… all gone. It’s very quiet down there now. It looks nice and clean, but a huge part of the look and feel of the place is long gone.
I get to the beach and there are a few people around ready to see what I’m about to witness. I live in Philly. There are no sunrises to see. I’m surrounded by huge towers of steel and glass. It’s a city. They all look the same. It’s the neighborhoods and local businesses that make a city. They give it a personality. Wildwood has lost a lot of its personality.
The beach has retained its natural beauty. That timeless place for millions of years has done the same thing. The moon’s gravitational pull makes the waves lap the beach turning rock into sand over time.
I approach the lifeguard chair here on the 8th street beach. The chair is a timeless symbol of the seashore. The guards sit in the summer sun and go from tan to brown through the season. The protectors who sit and watch that no one drowns on their watch. The lifeguard persona is like a fireman. A protector, and yet, fit and admired by the women and girls who would flock to the beach each summer.
As I get closer to the chair, I notice a little plaque on the back of one of the horizontal stabilizing beams on this one. I take a closer look to read the inscription.
I don’t have any idea who John Steiger is, but the plaque on the right is a memorial to my father.
My dad loved the beach and being at the seashore. He’d been coming here during his childhood and then in the 60s with mom and the kids, and then bought the house in the 70s. He was never a lifeguard but always made friends with the guards and liked swimming in the sea. He was a social guy and I suppose he enjoyed the whole vibe of the beach scene. If they gave him a plaque I’m assuming he was an annual contributor to the Wildwood Beach Patrol over the years.
Whatever happened, it was nice to be standing here at almost 60 years old on the beach that held so many fond memories from my youth. I hadn’t stood on this beach in many decades. At least this was unchanged. You can’t move or build on the Atlantic Ocean, so it remains the same. That’s comforting. It made me smile to see my father’s name on that chair. It put him there with me for a few moments.
There’s an orange glow in the sky and upon the sea where the Earth will turn towards its nearest star to welcome a new day.
I’m happy to be here today to witness this daily event that we all take for granted. Life is good right now. I’m at the shore. There’s no stress in my life, I have my health and I really can’t complain about anything right now.
Like a shiny new penny, the sun begins to rise from the sea. It’s really beautiful. I see a couple off in the distance by the shoreline. They are but silhouettes and embrace each other as the golden disc rises before them. I smile and think back to when I fell in love every week back in the 70s in Wildwood.
Wildwood, New Jersey – 2021
After witnessing the sunrise, which was glorious and elegant in its simplicity, I went to Russo’s market for breakfast. The business has been there since 1972. Having a little market/deli/sundries shop a block from our shore house was great. It’s one of the few things left in this town that still looks and feels like it did 50 years ago.
I walked to the back to the deli section and ordered my usual, (bacon egg and cheese on a bagel) from one of the girls working there and waited for my order. I decided to wander around the store to see if it still held the seashore magic it once did. I soon realized that it did.
All kinds of goodies.
A whole aisle for flip-flops.
Monogrammed hats and shirts!
A palm tree full of cool sunglasses.
Little toys and stuff for kids!
Paperback books and magazines to read at the beach? I’m in heaven!
More fun beach toys!
I don’t know if the owners are still present much anymore, but whatever deal they made with whoever runs it now must have included that the store had to look a certain way and carry certain products. My nostalgia meter is going off the charts standing in this store right now!
For the first time since I’ve arrived here, I felt like I was back in the old Wildwood. I’m so glad this store still exists. Sadly, at this point, it’s nearly one of a kind. Just beautiful. This store has always been a class act and a treasure to this island.
I walk back to the deli to wait for my sandwich. I was looking at some of the stuff hanging on the walls back there. One of the photos caught my eye.
This giant memory collage of photos of many of the past employees. But two of the photos caught my eye…
That’s my older sister with her friend Susan from back in the 1970s! She worked there for years and was one of their most beloved employees.
Just below their photo is an old picture of Michelle and Rich Russo, the original owners!
I got my sandwich and headed outside. Next to the building, they have a little area where you can sit and eat at a few tables in the shade. I enjoyed my breakfast and although I was surprised at how quiet it was, I contemplated my next move.
I decided to walk up the boardwalk and see what was going on up there. It was still early, so it wasn’t blazing hot out yet. Even if we’re dying from the heat up in Philly, it’s always cooler at the seashore.
I headed up there and there were lots of people around. Many of them were on bikes. I assumed you could ride your bike on the boardwalk until noon. I stuck to the right near the shops and began my journey south on the boardwalk.
It’s still got the original 5 piers full of amusement rides, but they’re all now owned by the Morey family. They used to only own one pier back in the 70s but always invested their earnings back into the pier and later acquired Marine pier which became Mariner’s Landing and then they grabbed the rest of them over the years.
It’s expensive to go on the rides now. Gone are the days when you could buy 5 tickets for a buck and take a ride. Now it’s all about day passes and wristbands and amusement ride/water park passes. I guess they followed the Disney model. I don’t know. Now if a family goes to the boardwalk and wants to play on the amusements they’re going to drop at least $200 before the night is out. I’m not thrilled by this premise, but I’ve never been a huge fan anyway. It’s now just a massive money generator.
I got down as far as the old Fun Pier which used to be trash in the 70s but is now built up and has a classic wooden rollercoaster called The Great White. I kind of wanted to ride that this weekend, but couldn’t figure out how much it would cost for one ride, or when the pier opened.
Now that it’s mid-day, the heat is killing me. July has been brutal this year, even at the shore. So I turn around and head back.
Living in a city you become accustomed to seeing people dress a certain way all year round. But it’s always a little shocking to see women walking around in bikinis in broad daylight. I know it’s the shore and I’ve seen this every summer back in the day, but it just seems odd to see it now. Someone walking around in the equivalent of underwear in public. But I’m sure if I lived down here, I’d become accustomed to it. As jaded as I am, it still feels a little weird to me from living so long in a city. (Put a shirt on, Miss!)
The heat is killing me and my sister had said if I got tired she’d get in the car and come get me, but I want to press on and get my exercise today. I come upon Sam’s Pizza and I’m instantly pulled in by their tractor beam. (Star Wars reference) I’ve been walking for 3 hours and it’s time to consume some nostalgic slices.
Although Sam’s had legendary pizza back in the day, when I get my order, it seems hollow. I don’t care what anyone says, it’s just not the same. I don’t want to sound like a bitter old man who wants everything exactly like it was back in 1978, but it’s not the same. It doesn’t look or taste the same as it did back in the 70s. I don’t know what they did, but it’s changed. It was also really expensive. New York has the God pies and Philly has a few spots that make slamming pizza that I love. Sadly, Sam’s has become a disappointment as well. I want to love it, but I’m more in love with the memory of what it was and the fun we had there than the taste at this point. I’m trying to find the Wildwood I once loved but most of it’s gone.
At some point, I went to a place that’s up at 8th and New Jersey Aves for food. It was some sort of dog-themed burger joint. It was a little crowded and they only had outdoor seating. At least I was in the shade so I didn’t mind too much. But here’s the thing… I ordered a bacon cheeseburger, fries, and a drink. The burger and the fries were served in dog dishes. Yea… what? The burger was blah and the bacon was bacon bits spread on it. It was awful.
I finally trudged out to Anglesea to the Wawa to buy Juul pods. It was the only place I could find that had them. At least they were cheap, $15 for a pack of 4. Better than Philly even with my local hook-up.
But overall it just doesn’t feel like Wildwood by the Sea anymore.
There are tiny pockets of Wildwood left on this island and don’t get me wrong, it’s nice down here, but it’s changed so much I feel like it’s more like Avalon and Stone Harbor now.
I’m going to continue my quest to see what’s left of my beloved seashore resort.
Wildwood, New Jersey, 2021
I went to Russo’s again for my breakfast and then came back home to chill. My sister and I decided to walk down to JFK blvd down by the beach. We followed it down to 2nd street and then followed it out along the walkway that heads west along the shoreline.
We followed it out to the historic lighthouse and decided to take a look around.
There were a couple of benches donated by my family to the lighthouse. One has our family name on it and the other is a memorial bench to my grandmother and her husband.
It was nice to hang out with my sister and chat and look at all of the historic stuff. Especially since it was on my late father’s birthday. I think he’d be 90 years old now had he lived!
We later returned to the house and hopped in the car and went to Douglass Fudge. It’s a famous landmark candy store on the boardwalk. I think the best part was when I started chatting with this 92-year-old woman who worked at the counter. She was part of the original Douglass family and formerly worked in this very store when she was 9 years old. I thought this was amazing. Good for her, still working in this sweet-smelling store.
After that, we thought we’d go check out the Wildwood Historic Society on Pacific Avenue. What was once the strip that was lined with bars and clubs that made up the whole Wildwood summer nightlife scene has now been reduced to a handful of sorry-looking stores.
Another grinding disappointment.
The Historic society is a refurbished store space that is a disorganized gallimaufry of old bits of history and artifacts from Wildwood’s once glorious past. They have tons of volumes of books with all sorts of memorabilia inside them. Of course, I went straight for the nightlife ones from the 70s. To put it simply, there was almost nothing from the rock n roll glory days of the 70s in any of these books, so that was sad.
But it was another great day to hang with my sister so I didn’t mind any of it. It was all good to see. My phone rang at some point and it was my buddy, Wolfie. I hadn’t heard from him in 3 days so I wondered what was up.
He said he was riding bikes on the boardwalk and asked where I was. I told him and asked if he wanted to stop down. He stated he wasn’t sure where that was and that there was no lock on the bike so that was a no-go. I know he was staying down until Tuesday and I was going home Monday, so any chance of us hanging was another bust.
None of it made any sense to me.
Early that evening my sister and I walked out to the northern part of the island and wanted to check out a rock band we had heard about. But they played at 4 pm so we missed them. There was some nostalgic band playing at an open-air bar. I was non-plussed. They’ve blocked off a few streets out there and it’s a bunch of open-air bars and some live music. To me, it was just a bunch of people drinking and eating and I can see that anywhere but care not to.
I suppose the best part of coming down the shore was to hang out with my sister and see my other sisters as well. Family is always the best part of anything. It makes everything better. I also loved that my sister and her husband cooked me dinner every night I was there. The food was delicious and I was just happy to be with them in their lovely home.
My sister was nice enough to drive me home the next day, and on the way, we stopped to see my little sister at her house and my middle sister joined as well. So that was a fun riot.
I was happy to be back in Philly in my own space after a busy few days, but overall it was a nice few days at the shore.
But as I’ve been saying lately…
Everything that I love about Wildwood is long gone.
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