“Did you know that the president of Estonia is from New Jersey?”
My mom’s breathless, excited state was uncharacteristic of her. So was her having any knowledge of Estonia.
“He grew up in Bergen county, an hour up the turnpike!”
She had apparently fallen down the Wikipedia rabbit hole and landed on THI’s page, whereupon she discovered that the current and fourth president of the Republic of Estonia is a Jersey Boy. My mom, being a Jersey Girl, was fascinated: perhaps it made Estonia, where her son is living, seem a little less far away. She immediately picked up the phone and frantically dialed my Skype-In number – paying no mind to the time difference – and woke me up at 3am to deliver this bit of trivia.
I’ve never been to Leonia, New Jersey – the city in which THI grew up – but from looking at it on Google Maps, I can say that it suffers from a significant flaw: it’s quite far from Seaside Heights, the epicenter of summer activity in New Jersey. Seaside Heights can be thought of as the Pärnu of New Jersey – or, arguably, of the entire east coast of the United States. Seaside Heights is where you go in the summertime. Seaside Heights is the Jersey Shore.
Which begs the question: what kind of a Jersey Boy was THI? I’d estimate the journey from Leonia to Seaside Heights to be nearly two hours by car; much more on a warm summer day, when the entire state descends upon the city to relax at the beach and play games on the boardwalk. Leonia, however, is essentially a suburb of New York City: it is located a mere 30 minutes by car — across the George Washington bridge and down the Henry Hudson parkway — from Morningside Heights, the home of Columbia University, where THI earned his undergraduate degree. Given his proximity to Manhattan and his educational choices, one wonders if THI didn’t eschew the Jersey Shore for something more “New York” during his years in the US. The Hamptons, perhaps?
But let’s give THI the benefit of the doubt and assume that he didn’t identify with the Manhattan set; he was a guido, loud and proud, and the best two months of his life were those he spent at Seaside Heights in the summer of 1972 before matriculating to Columbia University. He rented a sharehouse there with seven friends and worked as a lifeguard for 20 hours each week.
Shirtless and impeccably sculpted, THI strolled the boardwalk of Seaside Heights every day during that summer in pursuit of good times. His name being difficult to pronounce, his friends simply called him T. And given his inherent leadership qualities, his group of friends congregated under the moniker of T’s Boys, which they had printed on the t-shirts they wore to nightclubs and bars. For T, the days of the summer of 1972 consisted of sun and sand; the nights, of cocktails and easy conversation. T never drank to excess, never let a confrontation escalate to the point of violence, and was quick to lend a helping hand to a friend in need. A preeminent wingman and a never-ending source of quick jokes and lighthearted quips, T naturally became the center of gravity of any social situation in which he found himself.
One night, toward the end of the summer, as the nightclub he and T’s Boys had occupied for the previous span of hours that passed like minutes was closing, T invited the girl he had flirted with all summer to watch the sun rise. Carrying their shoes – his were a thick-soled platform set, the latest fashion – they trekked through the sand to the most isolated stretch of beach they could find. And as the sun rose and painted the water with fantastic hues of pink and goldenrod, T ran a hand over the thick sideburns that decorated the side of his face, down to the shag carpet coating the entirety of his upper lip, and finally rested it on his chest – exposed unapologetically to the world down to the fourth button of the wide-lapel, polka-dotted disco shirt he bought after seeing Fleetwood Mac in concert. He felt his neck; something was missing.
“Someday,” he announced matter-of-factly, ostensibly to his muse but more likely to no one in particular, “I’m going to be the president of a country called Estonia.”