Peter Perea wasn’t thinking about turning resentment into a grassroots movement that hot July day in 2004. All he was trying to do was drive with his buddies to their favorite daytime hangout and order his customary pork roll, egg, and cheese sandwich.
Perea, then eighteen, and his friends—high school classmates Justin Danner, Dane Voeltz, and Patrick Guaschino—climbed into his black 2000 Mercury Marquis, lowered the windows, and blasted Bon Jovi on the stereo. The boys headed for Mariner’s Cove, a popular restaurant in Brielle, where the menu offers more than 200 kinds of omelets and classic diner fare.
The only problem was that the Grand Marquis wasn’t moving. For most of the year, the eight-mile drive from Brick, where most of the group lived, to the Cove took twenty minutes. On this typical summer day, however, Route 35 had become a parking lot, clogged with cars with New Jersey and New York plates. After two maddening hours, the group finally arrived at the Cove to learn there would be a 45-minute wait for a table.
To make matters worse, the mob ahead of them were not, in their minds, Shore lovers like themselves. They were, rather, an invading alien species, to whose seasonal presence the boys had developed an acute sensitivity. They were surrounded by the day-trippers and weekenders from north of the Raritan River that denizens of the northern Shore often disparagingly call Bennys.
Perea says this final insult came after two weeks of annoying Benny run-ins, such as being late to work because of horrendous traffic and fielding impatient questions from curt strangers who had lost their way. “Usually they just shout the name of the beach from a passing car instead of asking us where it is,” he says.
Now 21, Perea lives at home in Brick with his mother, older brother, and younger sister. In May, he graduated from Monmouth University with a bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern history. He says he wants to continue his education and become a history professor. For the last four months, he has been working part-time at a Cold Stone Creamery.
That day at Mariner’s Cove, as he and his friends finally tucked into their food, they grumbled about the interloping masses. They agreed they needed to stand up for locals like themselves who were fed up with tourists. That night Perea used his computer to order a personalized bumper sticker for seven dollars. When it arrived two days later, he slapped it on his back bumper. It was small and black, and its three white-lettered words spelled out a clear message: benny go home.
In the nearly three years since then, more than 1,500 such stickers have been sold and another 1,500 or so given away. Perea and his friends say the stickers are plastered on signs and cars from Atlantic Highlands to Little Egg Harbor. Another 1,200 T-shirts ($12–$14) and sweatshirts ($25–$27) have been sold, bearing similar messages, including defend jersey and local born & bred.
The idea for a business took shape after people kept asking Perea where they could get a sticker like his. The boys wanted to hire a plane to tow a benny go home banner above the beach, but they couldn’t afford it. Voeltz suggested they launch a website, bennygohome.com.
So far, customers aren’t just the young. The group estimates that about twenty percent of purchasers are older than 40. One of their first sales, they say, was to a granny from Point Pleasant who told them she had a large dog she liked to sic on Bennys. A MySpace page dedicated to “the cause” has more than 900 members.
Benny Go Home (BGH) has clearly touched a nerve—the same sore point, Perea says, that inspired a man who owns a snowplow to paint the words benny plow on the blade and drive his truck around Brielle all summer showing it off.
All BGHers have stories to tell. Brick resident Andrea West, 22, has worked at Point Pleasant Beach boardwalk every summer since she was fourteen, running the leapfrog game at Lucky’s. West says one of her most memorable Benny run-ins happened when she was fifteen. One afternoon while she was working at Lucky’s, a flashily dressed woman spilled her strawberry milkshake all over the game counter. “She said to me, ‘Well honey, you’re already waiting on me, why don’t you just clean it up, too?’” West recalls, her voice still tight with outrage.
That woman, of course, could have hailed from anywhere—no region has a monopoly on rude people. On the BGH website, you can buy a T-shirt emblazoned with a broken bottle over the words benny repellent. But it’s sometimes hard to tell whether the belligerence is tongue-in-cheek. Perea’s online manifesto speaks without apparent irony of the “selfless valor and stubborn pride” of the group’s founders, and warns in conclusion, “The Jersey Shore is our home, our battlefield, and the very essence of what we fight for, and if a Benny chooses to challenge that, we’ll show ’em what local pride is all about.”
Locals might resent tourists less if they weren’t so dependent on them. Last year, visitors to the Jersey Shore pumped more than $19 billion into the state’s economy. Some ambivalence is probably inescapable. “I think the area would be a lot worse off without the Bennys than with them. It’s something we’ve got to put up with,” says Carl Craft, a disc jockey at a local radio station, 95.9 The Rat, who interviewed co-founder Dane Voeltz when BGH was formed. “If you’re in a business that’s not hospitality related, it’s easy to say ‘Bennys get out of here.’”
During the summer, Craft and his co-host, “Mr. Marty,” often pepper their Thursday-morning show with reminders that Bennys are about to descend locust-like for the weekend. “It’s a way to be local,” Craft says. “At the same time we realize that the business they [visitors] create affects some of our advertisers, and we’d rather not see that go away.”
When Ken Pringle, the 49-year-old mayor of Belmar, was growing up there, he used to see plywood boards spray-painted benny go home along what is now Route 138. “The concept of Benny Go Home is ancient,” he says, adding glibly, “I think the Indians were the first to coin the term. These [BGH] guys have taken it to a whole new level, but it’s a story as old as the Jersey Shore itself.”
Pringle, who doesn’t use the word Benny, diplomatically divides visitors into just two categories: “those who are respectful of my community and those who are not.”
In recent years, Belmar has cracked down on quality-of-life offenses such as public drunkenness, lewdness, rowdiness, litter, cars parked on the lawn, and so on. Fines typically start at $350 and steepen for second and third offenses. “Animal House” laws require landlords to post a bond of up to $5,000 if their rental properties rack up two quality-of-life violations in a twelve-month period. Another violation in the next five years will result in what Pringle calls “repression efforts.”
He explained in an e-mail, “Typically… that means we hire County Sheriff’s officers and post them outside the house each weekend night and charge the cost ($60 per hour) against the bond….More than 80 of our current 300-odd summer rental premises are currently classified as ‘Animal Houses,’ for which bonds have been posted.”
Over the years, Pringle has often observed rowdy groups being reprimanded. Though it isn’t always clear where everyone is from, Pringle says their indignant attitude hasn’t escaped him. “They do think the towns are dependent on their money and [should] tolerate behavior that they would never get away with at home,” he says.
No one knows for certain the origin of the term Benny. The founders of BGH lean toward the popular theory that the name is an acronym for Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark, and New York—home to multitudes of city dwellers yearning to breathe the rejuvenating salt air. Another theory is that long ago a man named Benny in Seaside Heights rented beach umbrellas bearing his name. When Benny umbrellas clogged the beach, weekenders had taken over. Another idea is that the word symbolizes the almighty tourist dollar, in that the face on the $100 bill belongs to Ben Franklin.
Perea and his cronies don’t consider every visitor a Benny—only those who act crassly or exhibit a certain citified snobbery. “They believe that their status of being metropolitan to some extent makes them superior to us,” he says. “From everything I’ve seen they generally adhere to the ‘dirty Jersey’ stereotype, that it’s a crappy place to live and all that. I like the way we live here.”
Humor can seem scarce on the BGH website, but it’s there, as in the division of offenders into four subgroups: “Wealthy Urbanites,” who own fancy second homes or primary residences in posh enclaves such as Deal and favor privatizing local beaches; “Seaside Tonies,” frat-like party boys who flock to Seaside Heights, Belmar, and other hot spots in search of cheap booze and easy women; “Brooklyn Bennys,” who may or may not come from Brooklyn but are identifiable by their velour tracksuits, gold chains, and raucous voices; and the herds of “Benny Families,” weighed down with folding chairs, towels, beach toys, and enough supplies for a transatlantic crossing.
Although Perea dislikes being stereotyped, he has a hard time seeing the irony of BGH stereotyping others. “They see us as some sort of rural hicks. Their stereotype of us is not based on anything at all,” he says. “I believe our stereotypes of them are based on real-world realities.”
For some, the word Benny smacks of xenophobia. “Frankly, when I hear it I cringe,” says Randall Gabrielan, 64, a Middletown historian, author, and the executive director of the Monmouth County Historical Commission. “It seems to be a term of resentment based on individual prejudices against outsiders.” Nevertheless, Gabrielan understands the resentment. “It’s completely evident that tourism drives the Shore economy,” he says, “and noise, traffic, and pollution have always accompanied large influxes of tourism.”
Recently, BGH received a number of e-mails which it labeled “hatemail” and posted without attribution. One read:
“im a girl who was called a benny once and i have to tell u i dont appreciate it. Not to sound bitchy but yes, i live in a very rich community. We live all together and are very close-knit families…We drive nice cars and have nice houses but the biggest reason we shouldn’t be called bennys is because we own summer houses in NJ. Yes, we OWN them so don’t go telling us what to do or how to act because it’s our home too. Just because we dont live there all year doesn’t give you the right to call people Bennys and recruit people to hate them. I live in New York all year and it is the BIGGEST tourist attraction, bigger than the shore in the summer, but do i hate them or call them names?? Noooo. So give it up we’re not leaving.”
In response, a BGH blogger wrote, “maybe if you spent some time in the house you OWN you would know how we feel.”
BGH does try to do more than rant. Sales of stickers and T-shirts bring in about $100 a week. Most of the money is put back into the business. The rest, more than $1,000 so far, is donated to groups such as the Marine Terrace Ocean Terrace Seaview Avenue Alliance (not a misprint; see www.mtotsa.com). The Long Branch group is fighting the use of eminent domain to condemn homes to make way for private development.
Perea imagines someday handing over BGH to the next generation of Shore locals. In the meantime, however, ideas for expanding their line just keep coming.
Inside the Boardwalk Bar & Grill at Point Pleasant Beach, Perea, Danner, and sisters Andrea and Kari West share an order of fried chicken strips and their favorite Benny stories. Recently, Andrea says, a young man sloshed his sticky drink on her flip-flopped feet at a local club and didn’t apologize or offer her something to help clean up. Later, when she was smoking a cigarette outside, he asked her if she liked his drink and began to laugh. She looked at him and asked if he was a Benny. “No, I’m from New York,” he replied. “What’s a Benny?”
“I was thinking, ‘If you don’t know what a Benny is, you probably are one.’”
Perea and Danner turn to each other excitedly. “Hey, that could be another T-shirt,” Perea says. “‘If you don’t know what a Benny is, you probably are one.’”