A Summer Place

At this Avalon rental house, civility rules, champagne sparkles and secrets remain secret.

Among those sharing the house on 21st Street in Avalon last summer were, from left, Kyle Brennecke, Annette Walsh, Elizabeth Renn, Erika Piriano, Christian Rawden, Erin Lavelle, Lindsay Weindel, Janet Guthart and Michele Barrett. “You come down here and everybody loves you,” says Lavelle. “Everybody’s got your back.”
Photo by Colin Archer/Agency New Jersey.

There’s a story about a missing tooth that I’m not supposed to tell.

“Well, I guess you can tell it,” says the attractive blonde standing on the second-story deck of a large, six-bedroom house on 21st Street in Avalon. “Just don’t mention my name.”

As the sun sets over her shoulder, she nurses a bottle of domestic beer and leans against the pale-blue vinyl siding. Inside, music is pulsing and champagne is being poured. It’s the Sunday night before Labor Day, and the housemates are preparing to close the book on another summer down the Shore.

At least half the group—there are 14 in all—is already out for the evening. Some are hanging out with friends at the Princeton, a bar on Dune Drive. Others are having dinner at Sylvester’s on Fifth Avenue. The rest are taking advantage of one last happy hour in Sea Isle City at the OD—that’s Ocean Drive to the uninitiated. Later, all will drop in at one of the countless house parties taking place throughout Avalon’s five square miles. 

For the past six weeks, the ordinary-looking two-story house a few blocks from the beach on 21st Street has been their weekend home away from home; a communal retreat for these 30- and 40-something men and women living successful but harried lives in South Jersey and Philadelphia. Some are lawyers. Some are in the pharmaceutical industry. One is an engineer, one an executive assistant at a university. Several own small businesses. All are single. They look forward to their annual house-sharing tradition like children waiting for the final school bell to ring. They’ve been doing it for years at various houses—some of them since high school—and on this final night, they know they’ve got 10 long months ahead of them before their little piece of paradise rolls around again.

They also share a trove of stories, and for almost three hours I’ve been pressing each of them to tell me a few. I want to get inside their shared experiences: the joys, the challenges, the social dynamics. I want to understand why they hold on so tightly to this giddy tradition. And I wouldn’t mind discovering a little dirt.
Which brings us back to the tale of the missing tooth.

It happened just two weeks ago, the woman tells me, on the morning after her birthday. (I’m guessing her 40th, but she’s sketchy with details.) When she awoke and lazily rolled her tongue across her gleaming white teeth, she discovered a startling hole where a molar should have been. 

“It was just this enormous gap,” she says, laughing at the memory.

A second woman joins us on the deck. She quickly interrupts. “You can’t tell him that story,” she says. And it ends there.

This is how it’s been all day. Every time one of the housemates launches into a tale that seems worth telling, it’s interrupted by a caveat that goes something like this: “Woah! Sorry, you can’t write about that!”
None of the stories are very naughty or salacious. By most standards they are rather tame. Beer-hazy shuffling home at two in the morning. Late-night runs to Circle Pizza on the corner of 21st and Dune Drive. An occasional visit from the local police for a noise violation. Random, forgettable hookups. You know— Shore stuff.

Clearly, this is not Avalon’s version of the MTV reality show that shall not be named. There apparently has been no casual canoodling among the housemates. No humiliating or otherwise regrettable hookups. It isn’t that they are hiding stories of drunkenness and debauchery. Rather, it’s about discretion. What happens down the Shore, it seems, is somewhat sacred.

“It doesn’t matter if there are 14 people here or 4 people. We all feel the same way,” says Erin Lavelle, an attorney from Philadelphia and a regular in the house for the past several years. “It’s not just a getaway from the city. It’s really about the peacefulness the Shore offers. It’s not, Oh my god, I can’t wait to get to Avalon and get wasted. It’s about our comfort with one another. You come down here and everybody loves you. Everybody’s got your back. Everybody airs their dirty laundry. Everybody helps each other.”

In other words, she says, “It’s not just 14 people who come down looking for a room. We’re a family.”

If this makeshift family has a surrogate father, it’s Christian Rawden. At 42, Rawden is the eldest housemate, a tan, compact, semi-serious man who has been orchestrating the rental for more than a decade. From the earliest days of post-college revelry to the mellowed scene of recent years, Rawden has learned a thing or two about how to plan the perfect group house.

For instance, in 2010 someone backed out at the last minute, leaving the house with two vacant beds. One of the housemates suggested two friends as replacements. Rawden had never met the guys and knew nothing about their temperaments. But he trusted the recommendation and decided to bring them into the fold.

“That was a mistake,” Rawden admits, as one of the current housemates loads up a bubble gun and starts filling the living room with floating orbs that rise and fall to the music. “These guys were awful. They ruined my summer.”

Every morning, he says, they got up and started drinking. They played their music too loud. They didn’t get along with the rest of the group. And they constantly invited their own friends over to crash. Rawden had to play enforcer.

“I suddenly had these idiot guys trying to relive their senior year of college in a house of people who just aren’t like that anymore,” he says. “This isn’t some fraternity house. We’re not interested in getting wasted and kicking holes in the walls. So now the rule is, no more unknowns.”

“We’re kind of the polar opposite of Jersey Shore,” says Lavelle, one of the group’s most gregarious members, chiming in between sips of pink champagne. “We’re all pretty responsible. Do we have fun and go out? Of course. But there’s no drama, no chaos. We’re older. And it’s funny, because you see the characters on that show, and do you know what the number one difference is between them and us?”
Here she pauses and takes a deep breath for dramatic effect.

“IQ.”

When it comes to filling the house each year, Rawden—who owns and operates several franchises in the Philadelphia suburbs—has a system. Every November he sends an e-mail to those who might be interested in renting a room between the last weekend in July and Labor Day. (The group formerly rented for the entire summer, but these days all are too busy.) Some of the housemates are longtime friends. Others are relative newcomers who have been invited back.

Rawden uses a spreadsheet to maintain contact information on the housemates and to keep track of their financial commitments. In the end everyone shells out about $1,200, which guarantees them a bed in one of the house’s six rooms, as well as shared essentials like paper towels, toilet paper and cleaning supplies. Everyone brings food and alcohol, puts it on the counter or in the fridge, and shares without prejudice. No one, says Rawden, writes their names on stuff.

“Some of my closest friends are the people I’ve met down here over the years,” says Lindsay Weindel, a 35-year-old pharmaceutical sales rep and first timer at 21st Street. She used to spend her summers in another house with friends from childhood, “but it didn’t work out.” Through a friend of a friend of Rawden’s, Weindel worked her way onto his spreadsheet.

“I started out in the house only knowing one or two people, and by the end of the summer I’ve made a whole new group of friends,” she says. “I absolutely love communal living. Once you drive over the bridge [into Avalon], all your problems just go away. They really do.”

By now, the rest of the group is almost in gear to head out for the evening’s parties. Rawden feels the need to make an announcement. The volume—of the music and the conversation—needs to be toned down. The cops in Avalon, he reminds, won’t tolerate excessive noise and have been known to write citations for violating their no-nonsense policy—which includes a noise curfew at 10 pm—without first issuing a warning.

“I’m not running this like some crazy Shore-house thing anymore,” he says. “We’re going to have a civilized Shore house. As much as possible. I’m just too old for that stuff.”

An hour later, the evening is revving up. Rawden, Weindel, Lavelle and Michele Barrett—a New Jersey native and a veteran of six summers at the house—make their way through the darkened streets to a house party they’ve been talking about since I arrived in early afternoon. We’re still a few blocks away, but I can hear the growing din of outdoor partygoers and a steel-drum band.

Trailing about a block behind us are two more women from the house who were so timid about their summer exploits that they didn’t want to be mentioned in the article. Again, I can’t help but wonder: What’s the big deal?

“Really, most of it’s a blur,” says Rawden. “You go to the Princeton. You go to Circle Pizza. The weekends just start to blend together.”

Occasionally a bit of tumult will ruffle the house. Lavelle tells me about an incident that went down five years ago.

The group had invited a few guys back to the house. After a while the housemates were ready for bed, but the newfound friends wouldn’t leave. Finally, one of them insulted a female housemate—calling her a name not fit to print—and that’s when one of the male housemates grabbed the stranger and tossed him out, screaming, “You do not talk to any of the women in this house that way!”

“Every year we get some new people who wander in and out, and if they bring drama to our little abode, Christian promptly finds a way to get them out,” says Lavelle. “But I think we’ve pretty much weeded out all the drama by now.”

The housemates’ days unfold more or less as one might expect. A few arrange to spend weeklong vacations in the house. On weekends the house is almost always filled to capacity. The group typically divides its time between the beach, the bay and tennis—lots of tennis.

Barrett, who works in medical publishing and lives in Philadelphia, says the shared experience reflects society’s larger changes: “People are getting married later in life. Not having children. And we get to be together like this every summer, cooking breakfast for each other, supporting each other.” 

When we finally arrive at the party, it’s an overflowing affair like something out of The Great Gatsby. The house, which feels more Nantucket than Jersey Shore, sits on an impressive piece of property that backs up to the bay. At least 100 people mill about outside; many more are partying inside. Everyone mingles in the soft light of the bayside home, sipping from red plastic cups and venturing in waves to the backyard, where they commence dancing to whatever covers the live band happens to be churning out. Cheap Trick. Bon Jovi. Bruce—lots of Bruce.

At a small tiki bar, two young women pour shots into adorable little cups that rest on rubber duck feet. “How cute is that!” says Barrett, handing me one filled to the brim with some indeterminate concoction. “Here, you have to drink this.”

There is a lot of hugging and kissing and dancing. The summer is ending; these are moments to be savored. 

“What I’m trying to do is bring back the old-school Avalon, the Avalon of house parties like this one,” says the evening’s host. “Here you can meet people, have a drink without worrying about spending money, have fun and just enjoy life.”

As the evening ticks away, the party builds to a climax. Standing on the deck with Barrett, I watch the crowd go nuts over the band’s finale, an uncensored version of Cee Lo’s “Forget You.” Then a fireworks display lights up the clear night sky and paints the inky bay waters with rippled streaks of blue, red, green and yellow. I overhear my new friends making a toast to the house on 21st Street.

As the partygoers begin filtering back onto the darkened streets, I ask Barrett how long she sees herself spending summers this way.

“Forever,” she says with a chuckle. “Well, at least until I can afford to buy my own. Down here everyone is friendly. Everything is safe. The central connection for all of us is this beach house.”

Nick DiUlio is South Jersey bureau chief for New Jersey Monthly.


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