You drink, and they drive

Tony shore towns Avalon and Stone Harbor embrace new jitney service.

Posted: July 29, 2013

AVALON, N.J. - Where to begin?

Bar break, 1:23 a.m., jitney at the curb. The air has turned cool. The bridge is flooded. Bud Lights at Jack's have risen from $1 to $2 to $3.

A slow Thursday night is about to bust wide open.

"I'm on a mother-effing jitney," bellows the plaid-shirted, khaki-pantsed man with the Christie-esque physique. Time stands still - the tide pauses, slices of pizza hang an inch from mouths - as he commences a bumpy lap dance on a Penn State senior half his age seated in the front row. "I'm robbing the rich, the poor, and the middle."

He is a banker gone wild, in a town full of them, just trying to make it home on the newest amenity in the affluent vacation paradise of Stone Harbor and Avalon, one straight out of Atlantic City: the jitney.

"Erin go bragh, b-," snarls the Irish guy in capri pants in the back corner of the jitney, manned by the unflappable Frank Becktel of @jitneyguy Twitter fame (followers ride free!). Jitney Guy would later tweet: "Last night in Avalon, an Irish dude in Capri pants was less than gentlemanly to the young ladies on my Jitney. Yes, Capri pants."

Hallelujah, the prayers of the bleached, bronzed, and wedge-shoed partying set have been answered: Leave the Volvos and Land Rovers at the beach house and paint the town as red as your sunburn.

Make those DUIs just a thing in your own personal - reduced to careless driving - rearview mirror.

"So many of my friends could have been saved," mused Harris Schmerling, who is working on the island this summer. "The jitney saved me."

"The jitney is our savior!" echoed his friend Ryan Cipriani, 22.

"Is this 109th yet?" wailed one of the other Penn Staters between hiccups and Pirates-vs.-Phillies trash talk. "I just want offffff the jitney."

Indeed, for $4 a ride, $2 before 11 p.m., not including side deals, DUIs have declined sharply in both towns on Seven Mile Island.

As for the drivers, they get to leave the grim march of the casino worker and what's left of the shrinking day-tripper crowd in Atlantic City - that's who's riding those jitneys - and live it up on tipsy island.

À la Eddie Money

In Atlantic City, the full jitney's not singing "Man-eater" at 2 a.m.

"It's like Disneyland for drunks," said Frank Daley, riding with brother Sam in from Chicago, at the end of their night. Son Derek Daley, 37, had headed home hours before, in time to catch the $2 fee.

Stone Harbor Police Chief Paul Reynolds said DUIs in June and July were down from 13 last year to five so far this year.

"I know the officers were telling me they've seen less traffic during bar break, 1:30 and 3 a.m.," he said. "It's been a long time coming."

Avalon Police Chief William McCormick said DUIs since Memorial Day weekend were down from 15 last year to eight this year.

"Urinating in public is down by 12," McCormick added in an e-mail.

The dudes in their Docksiders have been known to sing, to the tune of Eddie Money's "Take Me Home Tonight": " Jitney home tonight. I don't wanna drink and drive, let's do it right. Be my little jitney."

Smoother

The jitneys - workhorses in Atlantic City since 1915 - made their debut last year in Sea Isle City and agreed to add Avalon and Stone Harbor this year. Jitneys are privately owned and operated but cooperate on schedules through an association.

Jitney association president Tom Woodruff says the party atmosphere has been a welcome change. It has also encouraged tourists to visit more places in one night. They're leaving the Princeton headed for Jack's, or circling round to Fred's.

And as Becktel will point out, Dune Drive is a lot smoother ride than forever-waiting-to-be-paved Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City.

In tony Stone Harbor, there's even the occasional tip. "In Atlantic City," Woodruff said, "if you give a driver a tip, you could have played that in blackjack or a slot machine."

Stone Harbor tried a trolley that never caught on, and the bars tried their own buses that were not cost-effective and required too much effort. They reached out to the jitneys, which are trying to make up for slow business in Atlantic City.

For the epic Jitney Guy, who has ridden his Twitter presence to an "exponential" uptick in private-party hires, not to mention Hurricane Sandy fame by photographing a piece of the Atlantic City Boardwalk that washed up on his front yard, the night had been mostly a bust - until last call, when the marketers, financiers, and Woody Allen-quoting preppy crowd roared aboard.

Becktel equips his jitney with party lights and a Bluetooth sound system popular with his teenage fan base. He assiduously avoids anyone who appears imminently in puke danger, but will circle back to check on them.

For sisters Paige Murtagh, 23, and Brittan, 30, Jitney Guy agreed to a ride to the base of the bridge to Sea Isle City, where police officers OKd their walking over (cars were banned because of the flooding caused by heavy rain).

The jitneys are not allowed to go between islands due to the weight limit of the bridge, much to the dismay of would-be island- and bar-hoppers.

At 12:56 a.m., the sisters met up with Abdul, another jitney driver on the other side. "He was so nice to call another Sea Isle jitney," Paige said by phone. She vowed to travel back to Avalon in time to flag him down again, but, alas, the Dead Dog in Sea Isle gets out later than Jack's in Avalon, and that connection was never made.

Still, it was, in the end, an indelible evening.

As Becktel, manning @jitneyguy, tweeted: "To my everlasting dismay, I never forget a dude in Capri Pants."


Contact Amy S. Rosenberg at 609-823-0453 or arosenberg@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter and Instagram @amysrosenberg.

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