It was just past 8 pm on a Tuesday when I first received word my grandmother was dying. She had been in a coma for several hours at that point, and her vital signs were fading fast. Her breathing was shallow and labored; her defenses frail and weak.
Last Rites had already been administered on at least two occasions.
Close friends and family had abandoned any and all hope of a reprieve.
My grandmother would not make it through the weekend, which is precisely why my father had been dispatched to collect me first thing Wednesday morning. He and I drove back in abject silence, my thoughts and focus facing forward, as we sped north on 55, past a steady stream of cars heading in the opposite direction for Labor Day weekend.
The doctors could not pinpoint exactly what it was that had caused my grandmother to collapse the way she did, but they were relatively sure it had something to do with an undiagnosed case of emphysema which had quickly spread throughout her body. My grandmother was not a smoker, mind you. But my late Uncle Joe most certainly was. For the better part of 30 years, the two of them shared a two-bedroom on the second floor of a red-brick walk-up out by Clifton Heights.
My uncle passed on five years prior, due to similar circumstances. The only thing I can remember about his funeral – above and beyond the fact that I served as an altar boy – was my grandmother shrieking mad as they lowered his body into the ground, begging at the top of her lungs for the good lord to take her out alongside him. It was the most touching display of raw emotion I’d ever seen up to that point, and it remained locked down deep inside of me, occupying both bad dreams and binges, until the moment I stepped foot in my grandmother’s dank hospital room that afternoon, and the door fell shut behind me.
It was at that moment, confronted by the grizzly sight of my grandmother laid out upon her death bed, that the whole damn thing came rushing forth again.
Turns out I’m a bit of a drama queen, you see.
My mother kept insisting it’d be a good idea for me to have a few minutes alone with my grandmother, to say my last goodbyes and what not. But my mother was flat-wrong about that … or at least that’s the very real way it all seemed at the time. Seeing my grandmother laid out there in her gown – all purple veins and tulips – made me feel weak and inconsolable, as if I’d somehow managed to abandon the old gal at the one time in her life when she needed people most.
When I think back upon the bleak episode now, I always remember it as if there was this horrible stench of ammonia in the air, even though I’m sure that wasn’t the case. I remember it being cloudy outside and damp throughout the room. I remember the skin on my grandmother’s hands feeling loose like rough scales. I remember her nails still had this dazzling red polish painted on them, as if she was off to the Wayfarer’s Ball when that unfortunate strain of napalm swept through and swallowed her whole.
I remember someone mentioning my grandmother could very well go at any moment, and how heavily that weighed upon me during those few spare moments I spent sitting alongside her in that room. I remember that I did not believe the doctors when they insisted my grandmother could hear every word I was saying, despite the fact she showed no tangible signs of recognition. I remember that being the only reason I saw fit to start wailing uncontrollably, so loudly – in fact – that I could not hear the sound of my own tears. I remember pleading with my grandmother for three-to-four glacial minutes, repeating the phrase, “Please don’t go. Please don’t go. Please don’t go.” over and over and over again, until a point when I realized my cousin Carolyn had somehow managed to slip into the room behind me, and was now standing in wait for her own opportunity to say goodbye.
I remember that a half hour later, my father drove me back to take a quick shower before returning to the hospital. I remember by the time we pulled up in the driveway at my parents’ house in Swarthmore, the whole damn thing was over.
My grandmother passed away at approximately 5:30 pm on the evening of Wednesday, September 2, 1992.
She did not pass go. She did not collect 200.
She simply took one long, last dying gasp at life, and disappeared into the ether.
What a goddamned downer, right?
In the months immediately following my late uncle’s death, I’d spend entire weekends at my grandmother’s red-brick walk-up out by Clifton Heights – a youthful presence enlisted to lift both her boxes and her spirits. I set up shop in my late uncle’s corner bedroom, where there was an entire library stacked with books by Aldous Huxley and William Blake, Charles Dickens and Conan Doyle. The fridge was always stocked with at least two cases of Pabst, which I drank out on the cast-iron porch long after my grandmother had fallen asleep. There were records by Nat King Cole and three-course dinners a la Stouffer’s. There were month-old crosswords jammed between the sofa cushions, and a cherry wood desk set up in my uncle’s corner bedroom, where I stitched together early poems about love, resentment, anger and fear.
There was a faded page-one headline hanging from the center of my uncle’s bedroom door which read, “ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.”
There was every indication bitter irony had its way with my late uncle when it came time for him to test that theory.
My cousin Dave lived with his mother in the two-bedroom downstairs, and he was kind enough to let me tag along whenever he went out drinking with his friends. Dave had an entire suitcase full of cassettes by some of the marquee artists of the 60s and 70s. Every now and again, when my grandmother would slide me a few extra bucks, I’d high-tail it over to the Bazaar, where I’d pick out something odd and wonderful by The Who, The Doors, The Lovin Spoonful or Pink Floyd. This is how I first came into contact with great LPs like Quadrophenia and The River, Blood on the Tracks and Harvest Moon. This is how I first came to realize there was more to the modern FM dial than the Hot Eight at Eight and Terry “The Motormouth” Young.
This was a time of great discovery, when I felt uninhibited by the usual set of checks and balances that kept me grounded back at home.
Somehow, it felt like that time of great discovery was officially coming to an end now. There would be no more weekend trips to my grandmother’s red-brick walk-up out by Clifton Heights. There would be no more late-night beers on her cast-iron porch, no more Nat King Cole wafting in from the living room, no more writing by the desktop light.
There would only be a three-day mourning period, capped off with beads and flowers, in some dimly-lit slumber room where we were all lined up like lemmings, made to exchange phatic pleasantries with 300 or more of our closest friends and relatives, before driving single-file to a church, where some know-nothing preacher would stand high atop a pulpit and butcher my grandmother’s first name repeatedly, all the while trying to convince us this was not so much a day of mourning as it was a celebration of Bea Golden’s life and times.
Then we’d all line up once more, and bawl ourselves into the sunlight, as the organ played us out to the strains of “Eagle’s Wings”. Then we’d load the old gal into the rear cab of a 300-horse wagon, meant to cart her off to the unknown. And we’d look on in tinted silence as they lowered her into the ground, wrapped snug inside a hardwood box which has been locked down, clamped tight, hermetically sealed to keep the creepy crawlers at bay.
Then we’d all head off to lunch at some swanky black-tie joint, where we’d spend the remainder of the afternoon reassuring one another what an altogether fitting send-off the whole thing really was.
Yep, that’s what we’d do, alright.
Why? Because that … THAT is what true heartfelt mourning is really all about.
Well, that and a high-five-figure funeral bill, of course.
Anyone who tells you different is either a Buddhist or a blasphemer. Perhaps even both.
“That which you cannot take out of this world alongside you will almost certainly wind up lining the tail-end of some rich asshole’s pocket.” – Proverbs 21:6.
No shit. Look it up.
I do not remember exactly when or how I got back down to Wildwood that Labor Day weekend.
What I do remember is that I had two bags worth of groceries under each arm upon my arrival, and there was a medieval-sized padlock clamped down on the front door of my apartment, with a hand-written note attached to it which read: “See Sam at Shore Plaza for key to open door.”
I stood and stared at the vague note for several seconds, completely taken aback by how much it read like some hidden clue from a Nintendo game.
Then I set my groceries down upon the landing, and headed out across the Mushroom Kingdom to do battle with King Koopa.
Sam was my landlord.
Sam was also the founding owner of both Sam’s Pizza and the Shore Plaza Hotel.
Sam was 5’3 at best with a shiny little head and a closet full of breeze wear. Sam consistently assumed I was up to no good, and he was usually spot-on in that regard. But Sam was also far more intrusive than a law-abiding landlord had any legitimate right to be, considering we paid our rent on time and our apartment was far too small for any considerable scale of skulduggery.
Sam spent most afternoons holding court in the front lobby of the Shore Plaza, monitoring who came in and out of his four-story complex across the way. Whenever Sam saw me shuffling down the ramp at 26th Street, he’d immediately hop to and wander out onto the sidewalk, much like the sheriff of some wild-west outpost come to size up the lonesome drifter who just breezed into town.
If I was walking toward the apartment alone, Sam would simply stare at me with those droopy, mastiff eyes of his without uttering a word. If, however, I came shuffling down that ramp with a girl by my side, Sam would immediately call out “She’s not living there, is she?” from clear across 26th Street.
“No, Sam,” I’d call back, as the two of us made a quick right into the breezeway. “She’s not living here. She’s just a friend.”
“She’s not sleeping there?” Sam would call out again, as he hurried across the street, lingering only a few short steps behind.
Sam was intrusive in an old-country way I had no real grounds to dispute. The simple fact was my name did not appear on any binding lease, and I was now the only tenant left occupying the fourth-floor rear apartment. My lone roommate, Jen, had set out for school the previous weekend, having hit me up for extra cash to pay off the remaining balance before she left.
As a result, Sam could conceivably double his take by kicking me out and taking on another tenant for the entire month of September.
I kept all of this in mind as I wandered across the way to confront Sam about the padlock.
Sam, in turn, played stupid as a stove pipe, looking anywhere but at me throughout the course of our exchange.
“You livin’ over there?” Sam asked, as he glanced around the Shore Plaza lobby.
“Umm, yes,” I said, all the while attempting to gauge whether Sam was just trying to keep me off-balance. “I’ve been living over there for the better part of two months now … You know me.”
“That place is a mess,” Sam said, refusing to dignify the rub with a response. “You need to clean it up.”
Sam was clearly riding me at this point.
I mean, sure, the apartment was most certainly a mess by average military standards. You could not bounce a quarter off the mattress any more than you could steam the stench out of our carpets. But the apartment was also much cleaner than a frat house, and there wasn’t a single dirty dish left wading in the sink, for the simple reason we didn’t own any dishes fit for dirtying. The only utensils we ever used were all marked disposable, right down to the plastic sporks I stole to slurp my Cup-a-Soup.
Regardless, I saw no point in arguing, so I simply fell back on the funeral card, and assured Sam I’d swab the joint from head-to-toe the moment I gained access.
“What about the rent?” Sam said, just before he handed me the key.
“What about the rent?” I said. “We paid that off a week ago.”
“No, no, no,” Sam said, snapping his fingers. “That was the rent for August. That girl who always live with you … What’s her name?”
“Jen,” I said, growing more impatient by the second. “Jen set out for Pittsburgh last weekend.”
“Jen,” Sam said. “Right. Jen told me you pay off the rest of the rent for September when she drop her key off here last Sunday.”
Funny. Jen told me the exact opposite. In fact, Jen assured me all the excess payments I was handing over throughout the month of August were meant to square our balance for the month of September, so the apartment would be paid in full by the time she headed back to school.
The only problem: Jen was long-gone down the road now … and I had neither the method nor the means to get in touch with her. There were no online directories fit for searching back in those days, and there sure as hell wasn’t any Facebook fit for stalking.
There was only a slightly inept kid from the green streets of Swarthmore, left to figure out whether he’d just been held up, shook down, busted out, or all three.
“How much?” I said.
“How much what?” Sam said.
“How much for September?” I said.
“280,” Sam said, flatly.
I dug into my pocket, which also functioned as my own personal cash-n-carry, and counted out seven 20s, assuring Sam I’d pay off the remainder come next Thursday.
Sam handed over the key, gave me a pat on the back, insisted he always knew I was a good boy.
Isn’t that just like those old-school Sicilians, to give a kid one last chance to square his debt, before the two of them shake hands and call the whole thing even?
September was – and is – just about the most beautiful thing to ever step foot in Wildwood, New Jersey.
September was the Stonehenge solstice, the magnetic fields of Finland, the bittersweet pride before the fall, when thinning crowds meant fewer hours, and the island blazed in pristine shades of auburn. September was the engine cooling down, the Sunday paper over easy, the sublime sound of ebb tides rolling in outside your window.
September was cold beers and citronella, deep-sea fishing on the fly. September was the month when summer suntans slowly faded, when a million grains of sand began to migrate off the jetties. September was drunk firemen and Harley hogs, classic cars and kite conventions. September was the month when hardcore flotsam washed ashore, and motel decks, they set to buckling.
September was the month when beatnik locals hawked their wares at a flea market down by Sunset Lake. September was the month that culminated with an end-of-season fire sale all along the boardwalk proper.
That end-of-season fire sale was known as Super Sunday.
Super Sunday was a six-hour standing auction during which seaside merchants sold off as much surplus stock as possible, rather than box it up and take their chances trying to pass it off next May.
For those of us who spent all summer sweating it out along the strand, that final Sunday in September provided one last opportunity to exchange heart-felt goodbyes, before bagging up what little plush was still left standing, and lowering it down into a basement stock room, where it was crammed on top of hardwood palates, in the hopes of minimizing the damaging effects of sea and sand.
As for me, it had finally come time to face up to the fact that the summer of 1992 – a summer that had changed my life unfathomably – had unofficially come to an end. When 6 pm rolled around that final Sunday, I found myself draped across the front lip of Tin Can Alley, watching boardwalk shadows as they slowly faded west to east.
I leaned my shoulder up against a pillar, put the headset mic aside, looked on as the night watchman fastened a steel chain across the central gateway to the pier, with a wooden sign hanging down that read, “PRIVATE PROPERTY. NO TRESPASSING.”
A few minutes later, I waved to all the maintenance boys, as they hopped that chain in unison before heading off toward the bar.
“C’mon, man,” one of them said, as he turned tail in stride and tossed me a softball. “We’re headed to the Tiki. You comin’ or what?”
“I’ll be down there in a bit,” I said, as I caught the ball and tossed it back. “I just have a few more things to bag up before I go.”
With that, I took to my feet again, and set to breaking down what little still remained of
Tin Can Alley. Tomorrow would begin the long, slow descent into winter, and it was crucial every steel shutter along the boardwalk be locked down, clamped tight, hermetically sealed to keep the creepy crawlers at bay.
That is until the following summer, of course.
“Saratoga Summer Song” originally written by Kate McGarrigle.
(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB)