The people who walk through here are not just browsing anymore. They're not here to necessarily drink their way through the cold air, numbing their nearly bare bodies as they dip themselves into 40-degree water.
Now they're here to see the car wreck, a free tour through a boardwalk museum that looks like it's gone out of business.
They're here with cameras, iPhones and otherwise, walking up to the top of the bulldozer sand piles (they're not dunes anymore) until the police chase them away.
If they can make it from the south side, they can walk all the way up to until the boardwalk goes away, and see the broken police tape dangle in the wind.
This is Seaside Heights now. A roller-coaster ride is in the water. Piers are in pieces, washed away. Plywood is slapped across the same businesses that were open a year ago, serving the throngs that packed this place when the Polar Bear Plunge came and went a year ago.
This time, the Polar Bear Plunge, perhaps the most popular of the off-season Seaside Heights events, was in Long Branch. The Special Olympics fund-raiser couldn't come anywhere near here this time.
This weekend, it was moved to the beach that didn't get rocked anywhere near the way Seaside Heights did. Now the people come to Seaside Heights not to drink, or carouse. They come here to watch, to photograph, to browse, and to lament about a Hurricane Sandy tore through here, ripping out piece after piece as the waters rushed up, and made the Jersey Shore attraction buckle under.
Somehow, they'll have to tolerate being here, and somehow put the memories of last year, the crowds that bunched up on the beaches, in perspective.
A year ago, the bare-chested locals and tourists were learning against the rail beams, chanting like it was a football game, as the other bare-chested locals and tourists screamed their way into the ocean. After just a few minutes, just as many were running out, it looked like, as were running in.
Cars were parked all the way back to the Route 37 bridges that were the escape route for those few who hate seeing this happen every year. They jammed up the parking lot in 7-Eleven, even though there's a sign that non-customers will be towed.
They parked there anyway, and nobody seemed to care. Say what you want about Seadide Heights and Seaside Park; you won't find a more welcoming place on Earth, whether you're from here or not.
The bars were packed, but they nearly always are, anyway, whether there's a Polar Bear Plunge or a five-mile run or any other off-season event the Borough Council has to keep people here year-round.
Even when there's been a run there, going back to the 1990s and before, the runners seem to always make a detour into EJs or some other place, getting a beer before they finish in the back of the pack. The minute you drive or run into Seaside Heights, you just stop taking yourself too seriously.
Now EJs is like so many pther places around here, with tape pasted acrossed the windows or doors. People still run here, but very few of them still do, sticking mainly to the streets that still have sand covering them half-way.
That same place where the bare-chested people were cheering, screaming, like they were at a Giants game, leaning against the already-fragile railings that were ready to snap? The railings, the boardwalk, even the dunes are gone there now. An occasional truck passes by, as well as a police car, making sure nobody gets anywhere close.
My lasting memory is going to the Polar Bear Plunge a year ago, in 2012, and being in that same exact place, and thinking about those railings that seem to bend like rubber.
I remember seeing the frown on my 11-year-old son's place as he worried, incessantly, that I'd die in those waters that I myself -- bare-chested and all -- dipped into.
He thought everybody was nuts. He couldn't imagine, this son with the high-IQ and straight As and the advanced classes and everything, why anybody would do anything that doesn't make sense. People go swimming in the summer for fun, he thinks; not to get frostbite in the thick, cold winter air.
Now, a year later, he looks at me, after all that he and I went through this past year and last, and says:
"Dad, can we do the Polar Bear Plunge this year?"
He says this, even after he's seen the many pictures of that same ravaged coastline, some of which he's seen with his own eyes.
That's the hope we need.
This article originally appeared on Patch.
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