On The Beach
After the freak show, where we’d seen the boy werewolf and the sword swallower and even the light bulb chewer, my wife and I wobbled drunk down the street until we were sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the hot sand. This was Coney Island and the industrial warships just scraping the horizon and the people laying out in the summer sun, some in jeans some in swimsuits, all of them shirtless, getting red.
My wife said, “I want to quit my job and never go back.”
“Do it. Quit. Fuck them. What else would you want to do?”
“I’d work at the beach,” she said.
“No better place to work.”
“I’d work for tips,” she said. “I’d just walk around and warn people when they were first starting to get sunburnt.”
“I don’t think they’d pay you for that.”
She laughed, “They should! But they’d probably just kick my ass.”
“Everybody’s golden until they’re fried.”
The beach at Coney Island is nice because there’s vendors that roam the sand. Some of the vendors have black sacks with ice and glass bottles of beer. We flagged one down and didn’t even complain when all he had was Heineken. Other vendors were selling sandwiches in ziplock bags: ham or chicken salad. Another vendor walked by dragging a cart with what we thought were beach towels.
I pulled my wallet out and bought one of the towels.
When the vendor handed it over I was happy to see it just wasn’t a tie dyed beach towel but really, a giant tie dyed sheet with a Puerto Rican flag.
My wife and I stripped down to out underwear and walked out into the surf.
When we get back out of the warm water, we wrapped ourselves in the tie dyed Puerto Rican flag and the ink bled onto our bodies and we began our transition from beautiful afternoon into stellar evening.
They serve frog legs at the original Nathan’s and you can order them if you don’t mind death.
But mostly, the beach is enough and if you stay there long enough whatever you want or need will come to you if your skin doesn’t melt off. The ferris wheel spun. The rollercoaster shot into motion. Screams of glee over our shoulder. There were bulldozers coming soon. But we’d gotten to see Coney Island when it was still filthy. And that felt like a good victory.
We’ve been going to the beach our whole lives. This beach. or that beach. Some beach. Every weekend in the summer, if it’s not raining, we are there.
The best summer I had (and for hundreds of reasons that I won’t get into here) was the summer when I was working at this great big rich house on the ocean. Route 35 in southern New Jersey. The house has since been destroyed after damage it took on because of hurricane Sandy. But the summer I worked there, the house was being built up, expanded. Six carpenters were working there full time for weeks, and I was pouring concrete and building block walls with another guy who barely showed up to work because he was an alcoholic. A non-functioning alcoholic, old and wheezy. He was always almost dying at work, but I liked him because when he started to almost die, we could leave.
It was a hot July and all of us sub-contractors were forbidden to go through the gate and across the dune, down to the private beach.
“Who said we can’t go down to the private beach?” I asked the head carpenter.
He pointed at a crooked sign with faded paint.
“So the homeowner doesn’t care …”
“Who do you think put up that sign?” he said.
“In 1973,” I said. “It’s 2003, I’m going swimming.”
I went down into the ocean, took off my shirt and jumped in wearing the same shorts I’d have to work all day in. Up on the back deck the carpenters ate their sandwiches and talked about how I was stupid and going to get fired. My old man co-worker drank his vodka in the shade.
But I didn’t get fired for swimming that day or any day after that. I swam every day on my lunch break for two weeks. A few days into my dunks in the ocean, a girl appeared just down the beach. She was a visitor from Spain, an exchange student (I later found out at the deli) and didn’t speak any English. I’d see her and I’d wave and once or twice we swam together. I wanted to ask her out on a date but I didn’t speak Spanish well enough for me to ask and she didn’t speak English well enough to say no. And besides my old man co-worker and I did got kicked off the job … The homeowner developed a deep and sudden hatred for myself and the other guy doing the stone work. Here’s how it happened:
A heat wave hit New Jersey on the same day that a delivery truck showed up with 35 tons of pea gravel.
The carpenters were done with their work. Painters were on their way, but “Not till next week, it’s too hot to paint …”
Meanwhile the driveway was jammed with a mountain of gravel to be moved around with shovel and wheelbarrow. The wind changed, the biting flies circled in. I was 22 and the guy who was working with me was 63.
The heat rose, we sweat like we were dying or on our way to it.
The front door opened and the home owner said, “Come inside the air conditioning for some sandwiches and ice water! Take a break.”
Their house was like a freezer compared to the humidity and the sun. The man’s wife brought sandwiches out into the marble and stainless steel kitchen and explained why each ingredient was special, “My sister grew those tomatoes, the meat is from the deli we used to own, the bread was baked fresh by magical bread elves, the vinegar came from grapes that I crushed with these very toes, last year when I was in Florence.”
I drank a glass of ice water but didn’t have an appetite because of the heat. My coworker was still huffing and puffing but he ate half a sandwich to be polite.
The homeowner said, “Tomorrow to show out appreciation my wife is going to bake you guys a special chocolate cake …”
“And I’m going to get organic milk fresh from the diary where our cows are kept.”
I smiled and drank another glass of ice water.
My old man co-worker finished his sandwich.
Back outside, just fifteen minutes later we were pushing the wheelbarrow across the muddy yard. The temperature hit 103 and all the insects on the surface of the earth had dug themselves little caves into the soil, said bye bye till the night fell.
I dumped the wheelbarrow and looked back at my coworker, who was back at the pile of gravel, leaning on his shovel I thought, but no, he was lying face down on the driveway. Dead.
Well he wasn’t really dead. But it took cooling him down with the hose and giving him like five gallons of ice water and finally he was in the passenger side of the work truck and I was driving him across town to where his wife was. She could make the decision whether or not to take him to the emergency room. I wasn’t paying the bill so it wasn’t my call to make.
The next day we didn’t make out to the jobsite. My coworker stayed in the air conditioning of his house and rested. And from his own reports, even took a day off from the vodka.
I went to the beach and swam.
The public beach. Not the private beach.
At the public beach I saw sights, beautiful sights:
- Here was a family with a blow up mattress rushing out against the tide and getting smashed with waves every time they tried to ride the air mattress.
- Here was a child with a bag of potato chips, throwing potato chips up in the air, creating a storm of seagulls to circle above him in the sky.
- Here was an umbrella caught by the wind and flying out of the sand, becoming a spear that strikes a sleeping man’s face and causes blood to erupt out.
- Here was a lifeguard taking a piss in the dunes on ten kinds of endangered dune grass.
- Here was the family trying again with the air mattress and getting tossed through the air, individually the family members are yanked under the water and pulled out by the riptide. They are never seen from or heard from again. The air mattress winds up back on the edge of the shoreline but no one touches it because no one else is that foolish.
- Here was the child with the potato chip in is hand and he is surrounded by a never ending wall of seagulls with flapping wings and shrieks of hunger, the birds collectively latch onto the boy’s arm and carry him off the beach, over the scub pine to the east, up into the clouds. Bye bye forever. This all happens before the life guard can even say “DON’T FEED THE BIRDS!” once.
- The man with the umbrella impaled in his skulls dies momentarily, but then his eyes open and they are total black holes. He is undead now. He rises from his sandy shallow grave and lurches up the beach after the owner of the umbrella. He devours the owner of the umbrella, eating her slowly while she screams and no one on the beach does anything to help her because we are all locals here and we all have proper beach etiquette. We all know to secure our umbrellas. Especially if they are rented umbrellas, just visitors here benefiting.
Two days later when we finally got back to the mountain of pea gravel, we were greeted by two very angry homeowners.
It was true the heat had broken and the painters were coming the following day but we didn’t have jobs there any longer at the house.
“MY WIFE MADE THAT CHOCOLATE CAKE AND YOU NEVER SHOWED UP!”
I began to apologize but stopped myself.
“AND WE HAD ICE COLD MILK!!”
Turns out we’d ruined her 65th birthday party (all that stone in the driveway and no place for anybody to park on that Saturday night).
An apology was necessary but we just left instead.
We got back in the work truck and we drove away, away from the rich house on Route 35.
Away from the private beach.
Away from the torture of the day we didn’t want anyways.
Happy Birthday, lady!
I was out of work for a little while, spending my days swimming in the ocean at Seaside, NJ. One night in July, I left the beach and drove over to the movies, where I had a date. A girl who became my wife.
The first night I met her, she was wearing t-shirt with a panther that was made to look like it was ripping the shirt apart.
I liked that shirt. And I liked her.
She knew all about the beach, and didn’t care that I needed a haircut and to clean out from under all my nails. The surf did that anyways.