This essay is adapted from a talk I gave at "Philadelphia Loves the Jersey Shore," a fundraiser held on Tuesday, Dec. 5 at the Pen & Pencil Club.

I wrote my first Jersey Shore book in the summer of 2007. It wasn't exactly the most fun experience ever. I spent three months in the downstairs of a musty rental in Avalon, N.J. with 11 other people.

The house was jammed on weekends with those 11 and their friends and their hook ups, the kitchen counters and refrigerator crowded by liquor bottles and beer cans and wine. But no one was there during the week, so I was almost entirely alone. I did my research alone, too, walking shore towns block by block during the day, typing furiously at night.

One Sunday night, I set out to hit all the bars in Avalon I hadn't already seen before. My last stop was the Windrift. They went through a fancy pants renovation last winter, but at its heart, it's an old shore hotel and restaurant with what they claim is the largest bar at the shore (though they'll have to talk to the folks at the Rusty Nail in Cape May about that one).

For a Sunday night, the bar was packed with people listening to some schmaltzy cover band playing Hall & Oats and the Bee Gees and KC and the Sunshine band. I got my water and parked myself near a corner of the bar.

Up come two cougars sipping martinis. This wouldn't look weird in the buffed out Windrift today, but when it was still all old bar and old tile and old glass, it sure did. They were leathery tan with boobs up to their necks and sequins on their tops and mule sandals that clacked clacked clacked when they shifted their 90 pounds of weight from foot to foot and white capris so tight I wondered where their lady bits went.

"Think they'll be interested?" the beyond blond said to the heavily highlighted brunette. I followed their eyes across the bar to where two bronzed Adonis's were doing shots with chasers of beer. They were your former Mainline lacrosse players slash Villanova frat guys with pale blue button downs, button downed just far enough to show that, yes, they had pecs, and no, they didn't have chest hair.

"I doubt it," Heavily Highlighted said to Beyond Blond.

I was in a weird mood, and a weird spot - not just that night, but that summer. A few months before, my grandfather died, and I went through an awful breakup. I spent most of the Saturday nights that summer with the 11 other people from the musty rental crushed into the Whitebrier and the Princeton for six dollar Miller Lites, and I'd walk up to guys and just say hello just because was so sad and so broken that I knew I had nothing else to lose.

So I went over.

"Hey," I said to Thing One. His response was what I expected: a bland stare. That was usually what I got at the Whitebrier and Princeton, too. I was not one to inspire winks and sly grins, definitely not that night: Short, stumpy, wearing a green cotton skirt and a blocky blue American Apparel tank top with Chuck Taylors.

"Hey what's up?" he said back as he raised a drink to his lips.

"Do you like cougars?" the drink stopped midway.

"I'm sorry?" he replied.

"Do you like cougars? Because those two were talking about you guys."

Thing Two, almost an exact copy of Thing One except his white baseball hat had faded to a pale, salty beige, popped his head next to my shoulder.

"We love cougars," Thing Two said.

Then Thing One's blank look turned to braces-perfect sly smile. "This. Girl. Is. AWESOME!!!" he called and high fived his buddy. "Bartender! Buy her a drink!"

Before I could say no, Thing One and Thing Two made their way to Beyond Blond and Heavily Highlighted. I got another water, though by this time I'd had so much water at so many bars that I desperately had to pee.

So I went to the bathroom, then up to the rooftop deck to watch the end of the night slide by. Could I have tried to pick up Thing One or Thing Two, making them look past the stumpy and the blocky with my charming stories and wit? Perhaps, but what was the point? Of any of it. I was so swallowed by grief that I didn't see it back then.

Though I see it now, as I write this story for you.

It's these kinds of moments that make writing about the Jersey Shore so great. You never know what you're going to find, whether it's the cougars at the old bar before it splashes new, or trying to explain to someone that the Carousel bar in Sea Isle does not have an actual carousel, nor does the bar it's part of - the Springfield Inn - include an actual inn. There are hundreds of these places, thousands of these moments.

So thanks for stopping by to read. And stick with me this winter as I explore how this great, weird, and wonderful Jersey Shore brings itself back to life.

Jen A. Miller writes the Down the Shore with Jen blog for NewsWorks.org. Jen is author of The Jersey Shore: Atlantic City to Cape May, which is now in its second edition.