We drove to Vermont last Friday, nine hours in the car with the kids, as you do, then turned around and drove home and when we got back the seasons had changed.
There was an unmistakable charge in the air, big waves thumping into the beaches, and the wind blew steadily, crisply, offshore, to the delight of the surfers.
Our rental house filled up with black flies from the salt marshes. They had followed us in the back door when we tried to have dinner on Labor Day outside, and they now take turns attacking my ankles, then copulating on the kitchen table.
But underneath the weather, a more palpable change had taken place. The vacation houses had closed up, and there were fewer cars on the street. In driveways all around South Jersey, kids posed for pictures to commemorate the first day of school. The beach house people had gone home. It was a little depressing without them.
Growing up around here, I never really liked the term Shoobie, the local pejorative for the out-of-towners who descended on South Jersey’s beach towns each summer. Now that I’m a grownup, theoretically, and trying to reintegrate into this community, I think I like the term even less.
Probably every resort town has some variation on the Shoobie concept–a helpful and offensive shorthand that allows locals to easily, and condescendingly, differentiate themselves from the transient masses. In parts of Wisconsin, I’m told, visitors from the south are called “FIBs,” as in, “F—ing Illinois Bastards,” which makes “Shoobie” seem positively welcoming in comparison.
In parts of Michigan apparently there are people called “Fudgies” who venture north each summer in search of chocolate delights that are unavailable, for some reason, south of Ann Arbor.
In Cornwall, in southwest England, the hordes of unwashed summer visitors are called “Emmets” for some reason, while just a few miles away in Devon they’re “Grockles,” for some other reason.
Here in New Jersey, on LBI and points north, summer tourists are called “Bennies” but down in Atlantic County we have Shoobies. And for good or ill we are stuck with them.
The Internets say a Shoobie is someone wearing socks and sandals on the beach, which was probably an accurate definition in 1985 but requires some updating. These days if you see someone dressed like Poindexter from Revenge of the Nerds walking down the Margate sands, you’re probably looking at a Hipster rather than at a genuine Shoobie. Of course it’s possible–even probable–that what you’re looking at is both a Hipster and a Shoobie, but you should be aware of the nuance.
In the good old days, it was possible to identify a Shoobie by his “Shoobie tan”–the distinctive pattern of melanin (elsewhere known as a “farmer’s tan,”) that confined itself to the lower extremities and was set off by a blindingly white torso and belly. In fact any excess of white flesh used to be a reliable Shoobie indicator, as if locals emerged from the womb with a deep, late-summer suntan, but the advent of spray-tan technology, not to mention a growing awareness of the dangers of sun exposure, are making this definition obsolete.
Still, some things don’t change.
Feeding the seagulls down the shore continues to be hallowed Shoobie pastime, as it ever was, so much so that certain municipalities have outlawed the practice on the boardwalk (Ocean City, i.e.) as much for the health and safety of the seagulls (who really must learn to fend for themselves) as for the Shoobies, who would occasionally be dipped against their will into the ocean by irate construction workers.
For that matter, the use of phrases like “down the shore” remains a good way to separate Shoobies from locals, since locals, by definition, already have their headquarters on the coast and therefore don’t need to go “down” anywhere. They simply go to the beach.
Pop etymologists tell us the term Shoobie originated in the nineteenth century, when a certain class of day-tripper from Philadelphia would carry his lunch to the beach in a shoebox, rather than spend his money on an overpriced corndog or boardwalk lemonade, like a decent Christian. A member of the Shoe-Box Lunch Set, therefore, was an object of scorn, not just because he was an uncouth barbarian, which he certainly was, but because he didn’t support the local economy.
But in recent decades, I perceive, this class relationship has been stood on its head. Nowadays you’re as likely to spot a Shoobie driving her Maserati on the sidewalk or pedaling her Babboe City Dutch cargo bike down the middle of Amherst Avenue as you are to see one ordering mayonnaise on an Italian sub or shaking the sand out of a beach towel upwind of a family of six.
On UrbanDictionary.com, that reservoir of low-grade wisdom and popular bigotry, references people who think like or act like they “own the beach” appear in two of the top five definitions of Shoobie.
Maybe it’s the zeitgeist but town-gown relations, as it were, seem to have grown appreciably frostier since the last full summer I spent here (c. 1996). The houses in Longport and Margate have grown taller and wider, for one thing, taller especially, since Hurricane Sandy, when their owners started putting them on stilts. More and more, they look like expensive motels, or weapons’ grade B&B’s, than single-family vacation homes. Meanwhile the local economy continues its death spiral.
Probably no situation encapsulates the current state of Shoobie-local distress like driving on Saturday afternoon down Atlantic Avenue, where the irresponsible pedestrian crosswalk law encourages beachgoers to stroll into traffic without looking up from their telephones. Shoobies, after all, own most of the houses on either side of Atlantic Avenue, while locals must schlep the length of it to get to their precarious jobs in Atlantic City.
Not that I’m against making Absecon Island more pedestrian-friendly. But Shoobies aren’t exactly going car-lite at the shore. The sports car is alive and well downbeach, as are SUVs that look like they were issued by the State Department. Maybe it’s the hypocrisy that people find grating.
Some locals say the best time of year is September after Labor Day, when the blessings of summer are still upon us but without the hassle of the tourists. But I’m not sure I really believe my old schoolmates. The tourists affirm our appreciation for the wonders of the coast and the wisdom of our decision to have chosen this place to be born. Without them, we’d find something else to complain about. It’s not even October, and already I find it too quiet.
One of the neighbors around the corner had a big obnoxious “TRUMP 2016” billboard in the back of his truck parked on the street all summer. Friends who visited from New York City–where such people could never, ever exist–were simply aghast that someone could advertise such an affiliation, but after Labor Day the big sign had vanished mysteriously.
Maybe he put it up just to “wind up the Shoobies,” my spouse wondered. She’s not from around here, but I admired her perception.
Let us take down the walls that divide us.