It is the mornings I remember most, those mid-May sessions drinking coffee in the kitchen; windows open, curtains flagging, the salt-air breeze mingling softly with caffeine. There was no work, or very little of it during the week. The weather called for sweatshirts, the lack of humidity for extra sleep. A lot of businesses were opening, just as Joanna, Lori and I went settling into our apartment by the sea.
I was reluctant about being included. There remained long-lingering wounds from the last time someone had taken me on as a summer roommate back in 1993. In the three summers since, I had become accustomed to living on my own, uncharacteristically at home with leaving the housekeeping to squalor. Only Joanna kept at it, offering to forward my third of the rent, allowing me to pay her back one month at a time. There would be an outdoor deck, Joanna insisted, a spacious kitchen leading to a corridor from which a pair of bedrooms opened off. The larger bedroom would be mine; Joanna and Lori would share a coach room down the hall. The living room and kitchen would represent our common areas. A phone line would be activated along the northwest kitchen wall.
Our apartment would be located on the second floor, above a main house with a four-car driveway. The wooden deck looked out across several tar-patched roofs toward the bay. We would have a coffee maker and a newly-renovated bathroom; a self-cleaning oven that did not reek of gas. All of this after I’d spent three straight summers living in the single rooms of boarding houses – cooking on a hot plate, carting my toiletries to a communal bathroom down the hall. And so I accepted the offer. I felt extremely grateful for its terms.
Throughout the first two weeks of May, Stacey Loke would either wake up or unceremoniously appear at our apartment. Stacey was loud and smart and she liked to remind people that she had graduated from the University of Penn. Certain mornings Stacey would arrive carrying two copies of The Daily News, which she and I would use to compete via the crossword or the cryptogram, perhaps the word jumble toward the end of every cycle. Stacey had recently moved in with her boyfriend, a development which eventually led to me assuming her place upon our lease. During the summer of 1996, Joanna, Lori and Stacey had all been living in an apartment less than 10 feet from The Fairview. One summer prior, they had all shared an apartment one block north of The Poplar Café. Their relationship was indivisible, sororitorically opposed to any breach along stiff ranks.
Of the three, I felt the closest to Joanna, perhaps because we had spent two summers working side by side on Surfside Pier. Lori was the cute one – petite and well-mannered, yet deceivingly headstrong. I had the most in common with Stacey, and it was this, combined with the sense I might be angling in upon her territory, that caused the two of us to row. Whatever tension arose, it was the result of insecurity; prepubescently catalyzed by some real, or perhaps even imagined,
All of us read, exchanged novels; took advantage of the brimming shelves at Hooked on Books. The store’s proprietor – and perhaps its sole employee – maintained a daily stock count via Dictaphone. He would ignore patrons up to the point of purchase, acknowledging their selections as he whispered book titles into a device. I purchased works by Vonnegut for $2.50; The Stories of John Cheever for $4.75. Joanna, Lori and Stacey veered toward used Horror, particularly The Stand – a bloated epic I held little interest in beyond the fact it opened with several quotes, including the final stanza from Springsteen’s Jungleland. Joanna and Lori were also fans of Michael Crichton, and they took me with them to see The Lost World upon its release the final week in May.
We saw that movie at The Strand, a multiplex theater which had fallen into disrepair. The theater was still popular, mostly due to its central-boardwalk location and the fact its competition had failed. Hunt’s Casino, once the Taj Mahal of Wildwood movie houses, had suffered through several embarrassing iterations, including two seasons during which it had been converted into a Laser Tag arena. The building had become a vacant warehouse, and the Hunts – historically recognized as the preeminent theater owners throughout Wildwood – had auctioned off their mainstream holdings, including a beloved amusement pier that had once been home to The Golden Nugget and The Iron Horse. Over the years, Hunt’s Theaters acquired a habit of spontaneously combusting, then being reconstructed in a slightly more diminutive fashion. These theaters felt traditional, consumed with the communal formality that had previously accompanied an evening out at the cinema. The most romantic of south shore’s movie houses was probably the Beach Theatre in Cape May, a palatial development with an elliptical marquee, located smack-dab in the center of the strip. As a child, I remembered seeing midnight movies at the Beach along with my brother, my two sisters and my cousins. We saw Return of the Jedi at that theater back in 1983; we saw Footloose at that theater, as well. We’d stay up late, wander east toward the promenade just when all the shops were closing. We’d shape our day around it, buying tickets several hours in advance. It was the only activity we took part in as a unit. Years later, that ritual represented an apt metaphor for living at the Jersey shore during the first three weeks of May.
May was a time for kicking back, for splurging on snacks while someone else provided the entertainment. September at the shore meant respite; a gradual wind-down accompanied by the bittersweet sentiment one experiences three-quarters of the way through a movie (i.e., “This is really good, but I’m actually looking forward to it being over.”). September represented the late-night diner, the eggs-over-easy; a wholly satisfying discussion of what was only minutes after filing through an exit along the dark side of a wall.
Gerry Vessels lived up the block now, and I would visit him during these afternoons. Gerry was making $40,000-a-year, driving a delivery truck for Stroehmann. He had a girlfriend, and he had assumed control of his family’s pied-a-terre on Glenwood Avenue. Gerry was heading to bed around 7 PM every evening. He was waking up for work around four o’clock in the morning.
Short of twilight, I’d wander east toward the boardwalk, completing a loop to Surfside Pier and back. These were auburn nocturnes when one could see the far-off silhouettes of working men upon their ladders – independent owners streaming banners, door-to-door. There were 10, maybe 15, pedestrians meandering the promenade at any given moment, and I would watch them from the railings at Magnolia.
I’d purchase dinner on the way home – a cheese steak and cheese fries, perhaps a 12-pack from Green’s. Joanna and I would begin drinking around nine, sifting through CDs over Rold Golds in the kitchen. We’d engage in contests, flicking pennies at a designer set of plates hung on the wall. Whenever a piece of ceramic would shatter, Lori Lane would yell, “Clean it up,” from her bedroom down the hall. Lori was given to moderation, whereas Joanna and I were intent on getting soused every night of the week. The corner bars were mostly empty throughout the preseason, which meant we’d bounce from place to place, essentially chasing our good time.
One night toward the end of May Joanna and I accepted a ride to the Anchor Inn, where we were two of four patrons ordering shots before last call. There was an older man sitting across from us, and I provoked him by asking a series of questions, then talking over him whenever he’d make an effort to respond. Eventually, this man grew so frustrated he slammed his fist down on the bar, screaming, “FUCK YOU!” with justifiable contempt.
Twenty minutes later Joanna and I were waiting for our friend inside the car when the old man appeared and opened the passenger-side door. He yanked me out by the lapels and threw me down into the street. The old man exhausted 30 seconds failing to connect with any punches, at which point someone ran outside and tore him off me.
The following morning, Joanna made little mention of the incident. She and Lori were awake before 11; I ambled out into the kitchen around noon. We were smoking on the deck when Stacey Loke arrived. The temperature had risen to 75. We were listening to Jewel.
(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB.)