Friday, August 9, 2013

Vignettes from New Jersey's Other Disaster Zone

By Christopher Lotito

I've never been mugged, thank God.  Not really.  Shaken down for my lunch money maybe, but even then nothing that I couldn't chalk up to a typical suburban childhood.  Still I like to watch people, especially celebrities, when they give speeches and try to analyze what they're really thinking and feeling.  It helps me to communicate more clearly when I speak publicly and I'd recommend it for anyone.  ...so that's how I had a pretty good idea of what was going on as soon I saw 2 Asian men surround a blonde man on the sidewalk near where my family was eating lunch in Seaside Heights.

It was the middle of a bright sunlit day and if we'd passed a number of houses still damaged and unrestored courtesy of Hurricane Sandy, the neighborhood of the Hershey Motel still didn't give off a particularly malevolent "vibe" of any sort.

No one else at the picnic table in front of that little deli noticed as the men crossed the street, making eye contact with the victim.  Did he try to run?  No... there was something else there... recognition perhaps?  These were people this man knew.  So I hesitated, sure, I didn't want to make a big deal out of nothing and I sure didn't want this to be a crime going on in front of me.  What if these men were dangerous, armed, and perhaps didn't appreciate any interference in what they were about to do?  On the other hand, the victim, whoever he was, must have been someone's kid, someone's brother... heck, in another life maybe I could have been standing there, positions reversed.

When they started to push him, I still hoped that they were just play fighting, familiar, like siblings, but I knew somewhere in the back of mind that this wasn't the case.  The blonde man was too scared, his eyes wide and darting.  My father chewed his sandwich, thoughtfully, facing the wrong direction, towards me.  My mother sought salt packets in the bottom of her purse, unaware, hungry from a long drive and time stuck in traffic.  Really though, it happened so fast, not like an action shot in the movies, not with a scuffle or raised voices or some loudly dubbed comic book punching noise.  It was quiet, like drowning, and the blonde man was on the ground and they were kicking him.

My voice sounded strange in my ears when I stood up and yelled, "I see you, I have my camera, get out of here, I'm calling the cops!" waving my phone at them, as though any usable video would have come out of that maneuver even had I been recording, which I hadn't had time to do.  I didn't even know when I'd gotten my phone out, there wasn't a lot of conscious thought, though I guess I was thinking whatever happened, my next move wouldn't be to get closer to the attackers, but to put myself between them and my kid sister.  I did think that and as fast as I thought it, the one Asian man grabbed his buddy's elbow and they both ran, back, past our table.  The blonde kid took one look at the situation and bolted in the opposite direction.  If I blinked I almost could have missed the whole exchange.  Hyped up on adrenaline, it almost felt like I had in fact blinked, like I couldn't process all that had happened so quickly.

We finished our meals.  There was no police report, what could we report?  We circled the block before we went back to the motel.  In twenty minutes I was on the beach, past streets of rotting empty houses, over sidewalks still covered with sand, and across a brand new boardwalk built with State and Federal disaster funds, out of green weatherproof board and with a decorate herringbone pattern that would be the envy of Wildwood.  Workers hammered away at a handicapped accessible ramp to the boards, their truck parked in the driveway of a home with no back wall, the yard covered in debris and furniture.

We paid our $6 to get onto the beach, at 3:30pm when the lifeguards go home at half-past 5, and were one of only a few families on the beach, despite the sun.  Newspaper says rentals there are down this year, but they give the numbers of renters, not percentages of vacant habitable structures.

We go for pizza on the boardwalk, I don't eat pizza because it has dairy, that's okay I'm used this sort of thing.  My mother wants to know why the boardwalk stops 8 feet out from the side of a few of the storm damaged shopfronts.  I know, or I guess: that's the part the building owner owned.  Selection is poor, prices are outrageous, and everything is a bar with a restaurant in the back as an afterthought, but honestly it might have been that way beforehand.

We see yellowed signs on closed business advertising connections to MTV's "Jersey Shore."  We see "Stronger Than the Storm" everywhere, but those are not yellowed quite yet.  My dad read an article that said every dollar from "Stronger Than the Storm" t-shirt sales goes to recovery.  I wonder if the tiny pushcart selling them for cash only knows that?

We walk home, it's dark, but many of the streetlights are on.  The sand on the sidewalks is soft, but sometimes there are rust nails and parts of old boards in it.  We are not mugged.  The hotel is clean, but the beds are ancient.  The bathroom, newly renovated needs a diffuser for the florescent light.  You know it's all new because you can see the wires and the insulation in the ceiling.  The door is new, the hinges are coated in a heavy rust.

Breakfast at the hotel's cafe is included.  The food is decent, the staff pleasant, the coffee an offensive flavor of brown.  Another day.

Christopher Lotito is a member of the Pequannock Historic District, Open Space, and Flood Control Advisory Commissions as well as the author of  "Torrent," a book about flooding in the region.  Lotito's personal mission is to reduce new taxes, drastically reduce flooding, and preserve more green spaces for our children.  Christopher Lotito Profile

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