Once in a while you need to go back to your roots
I’m traveling westbound on a West End bus through Long Beach, NY, wedged in a seat between a weekend’s worth of groceries in white plastic bags and a deeply tanned local who looks to be about 60 and smells of gin, cigarettes and surf, with a healthy dose human filth thrown in to the aromatic cocktail as well.
We’re moving down Beech Street, past shirtless kids on skateboards and old ladies in big sunglasses, past streets named for states and sidewalks named for months that cut through the city blocks and have houses on either side. I’m traveling through time, as well ‘— at least in my mind, which has been amped up with coffee and then blasted with sense memory until I start thinking like the teenager I used to be when I ran around these streets in the summers of my youth.
Here’s the asphalt baseball diamond, where sliding into third base was a risky proposition, to say the least. There’s the site of the surf shop where I bought my first wetsuit. And that’s the place that used to be Angelo’s, at least I think it is, where Angelo himself used to mix egg creams behind the soda counter. He called them ‘salubrious egg creams.’
‘“You know what salubrious means?’” he’d ask. ‘“It means horious. You know what horious means? Salubrious.’” I have since learned what salubrious means, and that egg creams ‘— which contain no eggs at all but are drinks made from milk, chocolate syrup, seltzer and whipped cream ‘— are anything but. I also now know that ‘horious’ is a word that Angelo made up.
Today on the bus I sit across from a Long Beach brother, a crazy one with headphones around his neck and a black cowboy hat that has seen better days. Around the brim he’s affixed tiny cowboy figurines on horseback and also a large silver cutout of what looks to be a Colt .45. He’s talking to the driver about guns.
‘“When you can pick off a squirrel running,’” he says, ‘“you know you’re good with a pistol.’”
‘“I heard that,’” the driver says.
Then they start talking about knives, particularly the blade wielded by Sylvester Stallone in the First Blood series of action films, the one with the serrated edge and a compass screwed into the handle.
At the end of the line I dismount and make for the Atlantic Beach Club. I smoke a cigarette on the way, a habit I picked up at an inappropriately young age in the tiny video game parlor at the front of Angelo’s and perfected in the grassy dunes on either side of the club.
There are no crazy brothers at ABC ‘— no brothers at all, in fact, though there are plenty of deep, dark skin tones courtesy of baby oil and cocoa butter, lots of sun-bleached hair and kids with freckles and sun-burnt shoulders, lots of pricey bathing suits, women with personal trainers and guys who make seven figures who spend their summers in cabanas smaller than my first apartment.
It’s a New York stronghold of the privileged and elite against the unpleasantries of the real world, where they can enjoy the sand and sea without being reminded that there are people in this town that don’t earn as much in a year as their seasonal bar tabs, tennis fees and bathing suit allowances.
I’ve been coming here since I was 5 years old ‘— for 30 summers ‘— and I owe as much to this place as I do the cracked sidewalks and crowded streets of Long Beach. I swam and surfed in the ocean, skinned my knees on the concrete pool deck and got splinters in my feet from the wooden boardwalks. I played manhunt and ringolevio in the dunes and did can-openers off the high dive (which, for insurance reasons, no longer exists). I learned a two-handed backhand on the tennis courts and, when I got a bit older, became schooled in the ways of the drink.
Jeff the bartender makes bloody Marys with clam juice and a reasonable dose of horseradish and even though I am a once-a-year customer he fixes me one when he sees me walk through the door. The bar is empty on this Saturday afternoon, save for me and Jeff, and out the big windows I can see a stretch of fine, clean sand dotted with umbrellas and furniture that folds, and also the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean which stretches to the horizon and never fails to bring me peace, if only for a moment.
Tonight there’ll be fireworks, which will dazzle my own children as they once did me, exploding in the New York sky as we watch on the sand below. I’ll hold my children close and point to the sky as they light up the night. And then I’ll smoke and I’ll drink as my roots sink back into the ground and pull spiritual nourishment from the place where I grew up.
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