Renting a 15-person van and kidnapping a friend to the Jersey Shore is not so simple. For starters, where do you acquire said van? It was Wednesday, three days before we were to whisk Emily’s boyfriend to the land of Snooki and The Situation. It was time to turn to New Yorkers’ first choice—and last resort.
“Let’s put up a Craigslist ad,” I told Emily. She did. We received one response: “Van for rent $220 cash for 24 hours free miles,” wrote Jose, whose price was as cheap as his punctuation was pitiful. We requested more details, and Jose’s reply came quick: “in queens NY just pay $220 plus $180 deposit and fotocopy of you license done u deposit will be returned when van is back to place.”
Well, that cleared things up. Burgled goods be damned, we accepted.
The van was squired to Emily’s house, where our driver informed us of the vehicle’s idiosyncrasy: “It’s...a little damp,” he said. I climbed inside. The seats were sponge-wet. “We were picking the van up, and then Jose said, ‘I have to clean it,’” the driver explained. “When he returned, half an hour later, the van was soaking wet. I didn’t ask why he washed it.”
I considered our options, of which we had none. “On with the kidnapping,” I said. When Matt ventured outside, a hood was thrust over his head and ropes were wrapped round his arms, as if he were on his way to Guantanamo Bay.
“Oh, oh, oh, I’m being kidnapped!” he shouted, like a damsel tied to railroad tracks. I punched his stomach to let him know we meant business. “Ow!” That was more like it.
We threw him in the van, and then squealed off around the corner and back to the house. We took off Matt’s hood—“It was tough to breathe through that hole”—and piled into the vehicle. We passed around bloody Marys and greyhounds (gin and grapefruit juice, with a seltzer jolt), then aimed our steed south to the Jersey Shore.
Why? Because Coney Island is as watered-down as an Upper East Side dive’s liquor. Look, I’m among Coney’s biggest boosters, but the boardwalk is pretty threadbare. Flashy new rides, Shoot the Freak and the neck-rattling Cyclone notwithstanding, the amusement district has been largely stripped of its grimy allure. Developers may call this progress; I call this a call to arms to visit Seaside Heights, a land where tanned creatures perform elaborate mating rituals with beer bongs and body shots.
Onward, ho. Jersey’s roads were smooth sailing, leading us to our first stop: lunch at Runners (3101 Route 35 North, Lavallette, N.J.; 732-830-3900), a combo seafood shop and BYOB restaurant run by an elementary schoolteacher. We sipped new Jersey’s Flying Fish beers. We sucked shucked oysters and clams. We devoured briny, crunchy silver-dollar scallops fried sunset-gold and lobster bisque as creamy as gelato.
“Is there more?” Matt asked, his mouth full of buttery shrimp.
“Oh, yes,” I said, as we settled up (less than $20 a person!) and steered to Seaside Heights. You’re likely cringing. I was too. I expected ironic guido hell. But seaside Heights shocked me with its clean, cool crashing waves; Midway Steak House’s tasty namesake topped with tomato sauce; slices of snappy, thin-crust Maruca’s Pizza; and the Italian dog, a monstrosity concocted with dual deep-fried hot dogs, fried potatoes and peppers and ketchup and mustard, shoved into a fat wad of pizza bread.
“This is my kind of heart attack,” I said, licking my oily fingers. With my belly proudly distended, I wandered the boardwalk, which was so trashy as to be terrific—the raison d’être of every beach town. There were loudmouths touting games of chance, off-color T-shirts (“Fist Bump This”), packs of teens in bikinis and baggy shorts—and fudge, fudge, fudge. Fudge! The neon burned lurid and bright. Beers at nearby dive Riggers (shuffleboard, ping-pong, salty old-timers) were $7 a pitcher. Not even the cameras filming Jersey Shore—as if on cue Snooki appeared, looking like a troll born in a brothel’s tanning bed—harshed my buzz. In fact, I finally understood why the show’s stars had so much fun in Seaside Heights.
“I’m coming back next year,” Matt said, speaking for everyone as we piled into the van that night, too tired and tipsy to notice the dank mildew stank.