A Mainlander’s Beach Homecoming

LBI

Growing up a mainlander, I always felt like an islander outsider. Once living away though, I described Long Beach Island as my hometown, as no one could recognize Manahawkin by name, and I claimed a bit of islander identity. I have spent years recounting my beach town upbringing to jealous urbanites, who dream of their beach house rentals while accruing vacation in a concrete jungle. I always try to describe the paradox of having your small town beach sanctuary invaded by tourists, who create longer lines and traffic jams, but simultaneously sustain the businesses for the long, quiet winter ahead. My parents were among these business owners, with a marina in Brant Beach, where they would need to sell enough boats in three months to last us the next nine. As vibrant as the tourists make the island, we all know how as the crowds trickle out, the speed limits raise, and the lights go off, the locals enjoy the island as much as the tourists did all summer from those early fall weeks through Memorial Day.

When your hometown culture has always had a local versus tourist divide, it feels uncomfortable to return on the tourist team. However, as a former mainlander, my Ship Bottom rental made me an islander of sorts. With my newly minted, albeit temporary, islander status, I quickly fell into character. I bemoaned having to drive “all the way to the mainland” as I had heard so many islanders say in my youth. My children collected clams and snails from the bay and we snuck sand into every item we own. We exclusively showered outdoors. Evenings were for sunset bike rides and glasses of wine on the deck. There was no need for fancy. Being an islander meant enjoying the idle moments.

Yet, knowing the island’s history made me feel more connected to it. I wanted to tell others that I wasn’t really a tourist, I belonged here. It felt empowering to show guests my local knowledge of the landscape and see so many familiar faces and businesses still thriving. High school classmates are now local entrepreneurs. We drove up and down the boulevard admiring its beauty, with childhood memories flashing by with each passing storefront. We ate dinner in the restaurant housed within my dad’s old marina; the new may obscure the old, but with the memories of locals the history is never gone.

Since I left the area eighteen years ago, the way I experience the island is now much different. I remember sitting at the counter at Just Bead It in Surf City, my summer job for most of my adolescence, watching mothers toting toddlers and dragging wagons full of shovels and chairs. Now, I am her. Instead of waiting for the lifeguards to leave to sneak onto the dunes of Barnegat Light for a bonfire with friends, I am hoisting children onto abandoned lifeguard stands. My children, rather than myself, are scooping clams from the bay and collecting shells from the beach. I can only imagine what my adult life on the island would look like through the examples set by my classmates who remained.

Standing in line at The Local, a spot that in name gives the illusion of insider status yet with outsider prices, there was a small disagreement about which way the line should go. In confronting a tourist, the woman in front of me said, “those of us who are locals know that the line always goes this way.” Then, she turned to me and said, “you know, right?” Nearly two decades later and I was mistaken for a local islander while renting a beach house, making this former mainlander’s week on LBI feel complete. Although I have chosen not to make LBI my permanent home, each time I return I regain my fondness for it and know it will always be home.

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