I’m crafting this text on a snowy November afternoon, looking out my office window in Teaneck, NJ watching the big wet flakes swoop down. I look at the falling snow, and I know that our Honda Civic needs tires. But Beatrice St. is starting to get white, and I don’t think today’s the day to go get them. Inside for a while, and I put up the thermostat from its normal daytime of 62 degrees to a much more toe-warming 68 (maybe I’ll even go higher). Gov’t Mule has a six CD box set that I heard a cut of this morning, so I’m streaming that, which is warming me up as well, their cover of Blind Faith’s “Presence of the Lord.” A six CD set of shows from April 11-13, 1996. They are completists aren’t they? Snow falling, new yet familiar music playing, and a trip down memory lane courtesy of the Atlantic City trip that Dale, Robin and I took two months ago, at the end of the September when we were enjoying a warm weekend, knowing full well – thanks to the calendar – that summer was over. But it felt so good to be back there, to spending time at places that we haven’t spent time in or by in at least 34 years.
We have known for years that our house at 8206 Atlantic Avenue was no longer. After Mom Mom Liz died in the summer of 1978, dad kept the house, and rented it out for years. In all those years I never ventured back. He then, sometime in the late 80s, decided to sell it. He put some money into the project, putting in new windows, fixing up the plumbing (I have memories of him crawling in the tiny crawl space underneath the house to do God-knows-what with pipes and stuff). But he sunk some money into the place to make it sellable, and what did the buyers do? Tear the beloved house down.
Not that it was a place that anyone would ever say “wow” to. It was a simple house. Big eat-in kitchen (big selling point, I imagine, to my grandmother). Served as both the kitchen and the dining room. The room where everyone gathered. Meals were served. Much poker was played (I have vivid memories of Mom Mom’s friends gathering there, playing cards, smoking, filling up the room with chatter, chips and smoke. One of my “jobs” as a kid was going to the 5&10 to buy her four brand new packs of playing cards for each night she would host the game. She told me that the oils and food from everyone’s fingers stained the cards, which is why she always needed new ones. The old ones were kept in paper shopping bags in the closet, and they all looked great to us; they were plastic coated, so they didn’t really need to get replaced every night – or so I thought. But I was always happy to get new supplies because I always got to keep the change. I always thought of it as normal to have hundreds of decks of playing cards sitting in one’s hall closet. We used to build mammoth castles and one-story structures out of all the cards. And the rest of the house? Two bedrooms downstairs, one for my grandmother and one I shared with my grandfather facing Atlantic Avenue. Upstairs my folks’ bedroom with a balcony facing the backyard and a bedroom for my sisters.
I used to love the bedroom facing Atlantic Avenue. There was a rocker that I used to rock in for what seemed like hours at night, listening to ball games on the radio, listening to music on the radio or records on my cheap plastic portable “stereo.” sometimes staring out at the traffic quickly moving by on the street and slowing down at the traffic light on the corner. As a young kid, I thought I was so lucky to have a window facing a busy street with a traffic light. These were all simple pleasures; Mom Mom would be up all night watching tv in the living room with her sister, our Aunt Dora, who lived in the pink apartments right next door (she had moved in with her husband, our Uncle Harris, who to us always looked over a hundred years old – I don’t remember when he died but he seemed that one day he was just no longer there).
Not only did the “new” buyers have the audacity to tear down our house, but they changed the house number as well. We were 8206 Atlantic Avenue; the replacement house is 8228 (if you’re able to close in at the house number in the above shot you can see it). So not only is the house gone, but the house number as well. It’s as if it never was. But the new folks left the garage, which is the same. And the long cement driveway (I seem to remember a grass island originally there as well, but dad cementing it all over at some point). And the pink apartments to the left of the house? They’ve been remodeled and sided with white vinyl. But for us, and forever, they’ll always be the pink apartments.
The front of the house faced the avenue, but it was beach block, which was a huge selling point for dad. When we moved into the house there were big holes in the backyard. Dad sent the three of us on multiple trips to the beach with our buckets, shovels, and wagons to bring him back sand for the filling of such holes. It wasn’t a big backyard, but it was a backyard. A garage with an outdoor shower. A small backyard that led to a narrow side yard, then to a front yard. I remember setting up croquet courses throughout the tight yard, making it all happen. I hadn’t thought of that in a long time.
I could understand some of the problems my students have – there is so much to write about with a project like this. I look at these recent pictures, or consider the family snapshots that I can include with this post, and I am overwhelmed with thoughts and stories. The house in Margate, the shore life during my adolescent and teenage years, are filled with memories. It’s not my job here to write about all of them or most of them, but to, for now, focus on some triggers, to let things come back. To think of things I hadn’t thought of in a long time. But a bigger point I would make to myself and to my students is to start small. You can’t write of a ten year experience in a short essay, but you can find gems and truths that can be expanded much further. Focusing in.
Each paragraph could serve as its own version of “focusing in.” I have a lot of information – too much information – but the pictures help me focus in. I could craft a tryptic and focus an essay on morning, afternoon and night – at 15 or 16 in Margate and Atlantic City. The ghosts of all that have gone, the ghosts of all who have gone.
Mornings and afternoons: the beach. I knew how lucky I was then to be able to live a short walk away from the beach, to have the beach be your proverbial back yard. Of course everyone loves the beach in the summer, but I loved it year round. There has always been something magical about the sea shore in the off-season, after all the tourists and shoebies have gone. There was nothing to do and yet so much to do. The beach always beckoned. It might be cold and windy, but walking on the wide empty beach could clear your mind. And then it felt so good to come inside where there was always something cooking (literally). Being that dad had us on weekends, and lived for a while in a studio apartment, his parents house was a natural destination on some weekends. I felt easily amused: I could stay anywhere, but I loved being where I knew I was loved. It gave me room to think, a foundational place to ponder all thoughts. The beach still does that for me.