Bennies* are not made, but born. I, for example, am a Bennie. I come from a long line of Bennies, in particular my Italian grandpa, whose idea of beachwear consisted of a Banlon shirt, khaki shorts, black socks and dress shoes. No kidding. I have pictures. Popular wisdom holds that the word originated as an acronym for the cities from which the tourists arrived: Bayonne-Elizabeth-Newark-New York. (Well, that about covers my family.) We live “up North.” We go “down the shore.” We arrive in overloaded cars and trudge up to the beach hut or the gate or the boardwalk stand to buy our daily badges laden with chairs, bags, food and sunscreen. We are the always either the palest or the most sunburned bathers by the sea. We spend a lot of money on food, house rentals, beach chairs, toys, souvenirs and boardwalk rides. And the locals pretty much count the days until we leave. I’m not sure why we are reviled so much. There is a certain Star-Ledger columnist for example, who has made a career of sneering at Bennies. My nieces, who have thrown off
their Bennie status by dint of living in Ocean County for most of their young lives, use the word as an adjective in its most pejorative sense—as in: “Did you see that ugly shirt he was wearing? It was so Bennie.” I was horrified one day last fall when I opened a local paper in Avon to see that the winner of their town Halloween contest was dressed as. . .me. Not me, in particular, but a Bennie. The picture was grainy, but I could make out a kid dressed in yes—an ugly shirt, his hair slicked back and wearing a penciled mustache that suggested perhaps he was meant to look Italian. Hmm. The best of us act like respectful guests. The worst of us are exemplified in a certain reality TV show That Shall Not Be Mentioned, as it besmirches the very name of my beloved coastline. But here’s what all Bennies have in common: we are outsiders. We are seasonal renters and day trippers who can only dream about living in the towns we visit each summer. I think maybe that's why I set my novels at the Shore. I will always be a Bennie. But through my characters, at least, I can finally belong.
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*Derogatory term for those who visit the Jersey shore as tourists