The Sweet Shoppe

“Take off this stuff about writing poetry, and add in something about church,” he said, handing me my résumé across his desk.

I had graduated with an English degree and was spiritually curious but decidedly agnostic, despite the president’s popular far-right stances and his wife’s naïve “Just Say No” campaign, both wrapped in an understanding of religion like an assassin in a monk’s habit.

“That doesn’t matter,” he retorted, referring to my spiritual state. “They’ll look for some kind of church involvement.”

ice cream - Peggy CollinsHe was a fellow surfer, whom I’d known for a few years during high school and then college, and now I was turning to him for job-seeking advice. He later suggested to several of us one Saturday afternoon—all much younger than he—that we consider sinking a few old boats offshore from our shared beach community in order to create a reef, which would trap and build up the sand and result in year-round waves. As a 20-something party boy, I didn’t bother to wonder whether this was legal. I cared only if he had enough money to do it.

It never happened.

To my knowledge.

There in his office, floor to ceiling glass behind me but still feeling like a cage, he told me to lie while not one hair of his slicked-back sandy blonde hair moved. His midnight blue shirt had thin white stripes; his yellow tie was fastened tight up to a starched white collar, and a silver collar bar restrained the knot.

Years later, having had a spiritual conversion to Christianity, I and my wife decided we wanted to purchase pew Bibles for the beach community’s quaint church, which had worship services from the last Sunday in June through Labor Day. Visiting ministers would preach one, two or even three Sundays, as in the case of the well-known former Episcopal Bishop of Newark, John Shelby Spong, who always packed the house. Later these ministers might be seen on the cocktail party circuit, or in Bermuda shorts at the club, which perpetually was threatened or washed away in hurricanes and nor’easters over the decades of this century-old community.

One minister would perform baptisms in the ocean; he had a handlebar mustache and an infectious smile. Another looked like Santa Claus. I asked him prior to my senior year of college, “Why don’t you tell everyone what you really believe?”

“Because,” he answered slowly, “if I did, they wouldn’t invite me back, and I want to be able to minister to them over the long haul.”

I sang in the children’s choir at this summer community, and the organist and choir director taught all twenty or so of us kids to have all forty or so eyes trained on her at all times. We sang “Dona Nobis Pacem” and other anthems, and after Friday afternoon rehearsals we’d each get a ticket for a free ice cream at the Candy Store—or the “sweet shoppe,” as my friend’s British nanny would call it. Mary—“Mother Mary,” as those of us who went on to sing in the adult choir would call her—taught us to hear our singing from where the congregation sat. From the pews.

Annunciate the “t” at the end of words. Soften or drop the “s” at the end, so that we don’t have mass hissing. Drop our jaws when singing “slumbers” (“not, nor sleeps”) and gloss over the “l.”

Thursday night rehearsal was worship in itself.

And in those pews there were hymnals but no Bibles. So it seemed fitting that a useful gift to the church would be enough copies of that tool, so that people hearing the sermon, and especially those preached by Mary’s husband, now deceased, but who came closest to telling me those truths I needed to hear but didn’t want to hear, could follow along. These were, after all, highly educated and literate folk. You’d imagine that the corporate attorneys in the room—there were not a few—would want to cross-reference the source if they heard something they might object to.

To discuss the gift, I called the Church Committee Chairperson, who at the time was the wife of the fellow surfer in the slick-backed hair, the man in the glass cage, the man with the restrained yellow tie who wanted to sink ships to get consistent waves and who told me to lie about my salvation. I told her over the phone about the gift, and that we wanted to memorialize the man who told me Truth.

There was a pause on her end.

“Now… ‘pew bibles,’” she started. “Are these associated with some kind of denomination?”

I told her that they were not, and described that they could be any one of a number of modern translations. That they typically sat in shelves behind the pews or could be stacked at the ends of the pews.

She needed time to figure out how this could work.

A week later she called and said that, unfortunately, it would cost too much money to retrofit the shelves to hold the Bibles. As to my alternate suggestion for stowage, neither was there enough room at the end of each pew to stack them.

The man who told me the truth that crushed me to life had died, and others who had sprinkled it on my tongue to make me thirsty had retired, but others—including Bishop Spong for at least a few more years—continued to come and offer their messages, which were ravenously consumed week after week. Hurricanes and nor’easters continued to ravage the beach and reclaim the dunes and toy with the houses as though they were made of Lego, and the men continued to come and preach their messages to the smiling women and men who packed the pews.

The service would end promptly at eleven.

Many would shake hands quickly on their way out, because they were due at the courts and needed time to bike home first and change into tennis whites.

photo: Peggy Collins

Leaving Herald Square

“Hey! Is that a pearl snap shirt?”

 

“No,” my coworker answered after coming to a stop in the hallway.  We blocked the entrance to his office.  Moments before, I ostensibly had something to do that was more important than admire what I thought was a pearl snap shirt.

052309.ellecer“Oh.” I said.

“But I used to have one. I lost it.”

“I’m sorry.” Awkward pause. “Was it white, like that one?”

“No, blue.”

The conversation went on, in this tantalizing fashion, until he referred me to H&M Clothing, on 34th Street and Broadway, steps away from the office.  Ostensibly, he had something to do that was more important than discuss pearl snap shirts.

I exited 1359 Broadway and walked the two blocks south, my mind anticipating finding pearl snap shirts in New York that were not the $100+ kind sold by Billy Martin’s Western Wear. At said establishment, on Third Avenue at around 62nd Street where — I can attest from having grown up just a mile north — there are no cowboys loitering or yodeling, the purveyors have outfitted with “upscale…Western-inspired” clothing the likes of Madonna and Mikhail Gorbachev. Need I tell you the horror of picturing in my mind Gorbachev riding along the prairie in pearl snap shirts, a tree branch catches the material, the shirt breaks open at the snaps the way the cowboys intended it to (so that they wouldn’t have to sew the button back on), and out pops… Mikhail. This is a scene that Remington did not envision, nor shall I.

And yet, my search for pearl snap shirts in NYC has been as fruitless as has been the search for authentic Tex-Mex cuisine, the most recent outing (twice) to Tequila Chito’s on West 23rd producing somewhat favorable results for me and my dining partners, but I anticipate would not be up to snuff for my wife, whose loving contempt for my last choice has not yet been lived down.

Having ascended the escalator to the third floor Menswear department at H&M, my suspicions were stirred when there was more chrome and black lacquer on the fixtures and racks than oak and pine. In Kerrville, Texas, where I buy all my snap shirts (at the Cowboy Store, where Jason Aldean shops), the guy at the front has a Jesse James-like pointed beard and dons a Stetson. He says, “Howdy!” which is in fact my childhood nickname, and so I feel right at home. Here, in NYC, sales tax is 8.375% and increasing to something like 8.625% (as if they need the five-thousands’ worth); in Texas, while there is sales tax, there is no income tax. I plan — in the future, sometime after retirement, maybe when I’m 90 — to show the statistical correlation between taxation and authentic pearl snap shirt offerings. I know it’s not scientific to come to a study with a conclusion in mind — I am supposed to follow the data — but in this case, there seems to be a preponderance of evidence proving that the overhead for stores like Billy Martin must certainly require the sale of shirts so outlandishly priced that only a rock star or former Soviet leader can afford them. (After all, we know that ommunist leaders are absolutely loaded, because everyone else in their countries is dirt poor.)

I did two laps around the floor, spying only some flat-fronted khakis that the Lovely K would have approved of (but which I didn’t need…I needed a pearl snap shirt) and a couple of dress shirts that were suitable for a meeting of which I have yet to conceive. No snap shirts. On one rack, partially blocked by two large 20-something males whose pants some stranger obviously had rudely and just moments before yanked down to within inches of their knees, I saw a short-sleeved collared shirt made of grey brushed cotton that had a matching thin tie around it. I recalled how my mother made my father a tie of green and white checkered gingham to match a sport coat he had bought at the St. George thrift store on Second Avenue. Yet he wore this set to cocktail parties at Point O’ Woods, Fire Island, where the object was to get drunk while discussing Woody Allen movies and stumble down sidewalks with no fear of powered vehicles running you over. What H&M was selling was clothes that you would have to wear sober enough not to fall onto subway tracks coming home from a rave.  This seemed an inordinate expectation.

The search continues, as it does also for Tex-Mex in New York. But don’t tell Karen.

photo:  ellecer

Floating next to Dad

Trust has been on my mind lately.  I had to trust Dad once during a segment of my sailing test out at Point O’ Woods, Fire Island.  To avoid wearing a life preserver during sailing class – and wearing one of these during the summer when you are 12 and around girls in bikinis is essentially like wearing an adult diaper…same result and social-life-ending event – part of the swim test was to tread water for 30 minutes.

 

I failed the first time.

 

Then Dad, who must have spoken with the Yacht Club captain, offered to do the test alongside me – nay, coaxed me, goading me perhaps in my adolescent vanity, but achieving the desired effect.

 

We jumped off the end of the berm inside the boat basin, a rectangle that jutted north about one hundred yards into the Great South Bay and about 75 wide, with a 12-foot opening for the blue and white ferry that left from Bay Shore to bring us to this idyllic Atlantic setting.

 

Dad had always been a good floater, which was somewhat extraordinary for his body type:  essentially a thin man in the arms and legs, neck and chest, with a pot belly borne of years of hors d’oeuvres and no formal exercise regimen.  He told me more than once that as a child he often dreamed of being locked not in a candy store at night, but a delicatessen.  Simply loved pickles from a barrel.  Odd guy.

 

He reminded me to do the dead man float – on your stomach, lifting your head to the side for breath at regular intervals – and tried to get me to float on my back.  Alas, I had not had the stuffed mushroom caps he had had over the years, and I was quite the wrestler, skateboarder and ocean lover, so floating on my back was a bit like placing a paperclip on the surface of the water.

 

You weren’t allowed to swim, as I recall, just float.  But we talked, or rather he talked and I mainly listened and, I’m sure, complained, if I remember being a 12-year-old at all.  Through it, he encouraged me, didn’t let me quit.  He checked his watch for me every five minutes.  I wanted to quit constantly.  He didn’t let me.

 

It was not the biggest test or grandest victory I have had in my life.  But it was one of the few that my father actually participated in that I still recall today.  It was one of the longest activities that we did together.  Other than walking me to pre-school when I was five, when I remember mainly taking two steps to his one, down the 12 blocks from 96th and Madison to 84th and Park, family dinners, and his lectures, which seemed to extend into a measurement of hours or perhaps weeks, I cannot recall any activities – any one-on-one events – that took 30 minutes or longer.

 

What stands out in my memory is not so much that I passed the test – for I ultimately did not marry any of the girls I was trying not to let see me in an adult diaper, and I am still friends to this day with the guys among my group who might have laughed at a life preserver – but rather that Dad was with me.

 

He went through exactly what I did, though it was probably not all fun for him, and though as a self-conscious and self-absorbed boy I probably did not heap praise and thanks on him that day or in any day to come.  No, he did it out of love, expecting nothing in return from me.  He did it for me and with me.

 

He gained little to nothing.

 

 

photo:  (nz)dave

Down with it

This tattoo is making my arm awfully itchy.  Karen reminds me that it’s a sign of healing – cuz getting it is like having a skin irritation or bad sunburn; it first stings and then peels – though it feels right now like having mild poison ivy.

 

Speaking of which, in the lore of spending my summers at Point O’ Woods on Fire Island was one day when I was biking with my buddy Dave along this rail-less wood walk elevated 3-feet over swamp and which ran between the main path and the path that ended at the yacht club.  It was an arc of about 90 degrees and 100 yards long, with only two walkways jutting off to the right leading to houses, so it was a fairly safe place to bomb along, if you were feeling particularly risky and if you were feeling particularly 14.

 

What made the path even more risky to the Rapidly Moving Teenager was that the swamp over which the path raced along was covered in reeds and poison ivy.  Mainly poison ivy, and where there wasn’t poison ivy, lots of reeds.

 

I was bombing along behind Dave and of course when you bomb as a teenager, you usually stand up to get Extra Pumping Power.  He was equally committed to making our way along the path in about seven seconds, yet all of a sudden his chain caught and his back wheel went into an uncontrollable skid.  I, being 14 and committed to racing, was about three feet behind him, pumping while standing up and thinking probably more about either the Pop Tarts we just ate or the bikinis that our female friends were wearing that day, and did not have time to react to this skid.  My bike glanced off his back wheel, careened left and I went over the side into the swamp…and reeds…and poison ivy.  Lots of poison ivy.  With my bike landing on top.  I looked up, and Dave was examining his calf, which I must have hit on my way into the swamp.

 

I sought help.

 

He offered none.

 

I sought some kind of acknowledgement that I was lying in a pile of vegetation that God must have created just to remind us that we are depraved sinners and need to be humbled at times.  At the very least, He must have created it when He was in a bad mood.

 

Either hours later or maybe after twenty seconds, he reached down and pulled me up to the path.  I biked home, not bruised but interested to know whether showering with soap and water would actually stave off the impending poison ivy the way “they say” it does.

 

Perhaps this is what the medical textbooks tell you that you must do to neutralize the rash-inducing urushiol that poison ivy contains.  Perhaps I thought that – surely – just because I had fallen in the swamp with my arms and neck and backs of my legs soaking up that urushiol like water to a dry sponge didn’t condemn me to two weeks-plus of scratching and Calamine Lotion-ing and at times lying in bed wishing that my legs – covered practically from thigh to ankle with the rash – would simply fall off even if it meant that I would never surf again or walk or be able to kiss a girl who was over two feet tall.

 

But heal I did.  And my wife is 5’2”.  And she is down with my tattoo.

 

 

photo:  loupiote

wind-swept hair

Two women.

 

One was like a pillar, her lean, erect frame topped with a bun of dyed-by-sun blond hair arranged so that the wind from riding the ferry across the bay wouldn’t blow it free.  It was steadied and secure.  Her lips were tightly set, and her mouth and cheeks showed no creases.  Her skin was fine china.

 

She wore a black top over khaki capri’s.  Her arms folded, she looked ahead and didn’t engage anyone around her.  She was a shrine to the vitality of youth, a temple whose visitors paid a token to enter, admire, take photos, and leave unchanged, walking on to the next site on their color-coded maps.

 

The other woman was a holy site, a meeting room where those seeking rebirth and those whose lives had been changed came and congregated, broke bread, sang, prayed and worshiped.  Her clothes were off-the-rack and loose.  Her hair was tangled by the wind blowing from behind her head as she spoke in animated terms.  Her hair blew around to the front of her face and into her mouth, where she would sweep it out with a hand, amused, and continue her story, her eyes pinched with wrinkles from years spent with friends and those she loved.

 

She glanced at her lover, her husband, and held her 2-year-old son as he nibbled on a cracker, the crumbs falling on her lap.

“Such a river”

It sounded almost like a wedding march and, in a sense, it was.  The organ in church this past Sunday at Point O’ Woods piped the first notes of “Glorious things of thee are spoken,” and in your mind you could see a bride walking down the aisle, smiling, her life-mate before her, beaming back.  Two of them in a Chagall painting eye-lock.  It was a wedding march, of sorts, yet it was years late, and misplaced, for me.

 

And as the congregation started to sing the opening line – Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion, city of our God! my throat constricted, my eyes watered, my voice weakened and ultimately failed.  I could not sing.  I was being beckoned to wed a place, this place, this community, in which I had effectively grown up, though it was just during summers, yet summers where life is lived and hopes are created and young romances are kindled and then replaced by other young romances like freshly pressed doilies on a dresser.  Life, where friendships are forged and never forgotten, where parents are seen in their relaxed state, away from the din of New York and the press of subway-sweaty flesh, now clad in seersucker and sporting bronze skin from white sand beach laughter.  I was being asked to spiritually locate my soul in this place, this place where I have more memories than I do of the City – the City where I spent 11 of 12 months each year, and to which God continually calls me back from wherever I have moved, as He has done recently.

 

Yet, I couldn’t do it.

 

He, whose Word cannot be broken,
Formed thee for His own abode.

 

As we sang the second line I – wanting to sing in parts, which I so love and which the organist Mary had trained me to do from my youth up through the adult choir – I had to sing the melody.  I couldn’t let my voice go free with the tune or the lyric.  It was Sunday morning, 36 hours after I had arrived on Friday night, my first visit to Fire Island and to POW since 2002, six years ago, our last summer in the house, the summer after Mom died, the summer when Karen spruced up the downstairs and made it airy and delightful and fun, which ultimately helped it sell in the fall.  My in-laws came for a visit that summer and later, after the house sold, my father-in-law spoke for us all when he said that he never would have left if he knew he wasn’t going to return.

 

I didn’t return.  Not that I didn’t want to.

 

That fall, 2002, I went back to pick up personal items from the house and take the Bunger longboard over to Dave K’s.  My plan had been to stay over a Friday night and then drive back to New England Saturday morning.  My stay was in fact less than three hours.  I walked into the house and felt that the life had been sucked out like from a halved grapefruit whose juice is all gone and what is left is the rind and the sad, drying pulp.  I couldn’t see myself sleeping in my – the new owners’ – bed and then rising on the weekend morning, when Mom and Dad would be dancing around each other in the kitchen, he letting his tea steep with the leaves perched in an aluminum strainer over a chipped plain white cup in a non-matching saucer, she busy like a bee with too many flowers and not enough time, smiling at you when you came around the corner of the staircase that descended between the kitchen and the living room, crying out, “Morning, lovey!”  Her voice, always greeting, yet now silent, not even echoing through these rooms which belonged to another.  The living room floor, deep with the stain that Mom applied after hours of removing linoleum tiles in the off-season and throughout a summer, now was a silent mourner, waiting for new feet and new voices.

 

I couldn’t stay.

 

So I left on the late evening boat and probably cried behind dark glasses or something like that.  I drove the five hours home, probably cried some more.  I don’t remember.  All I know is that after that visit to the owners’ new home that fall, I didn’t go back to Point O’ Woods until this past weekend, at the invitation of my childhood friend Jon and his wife.

 

I arrived, and there were Jon and Nancy, and Dave B., and Kinsey, and others, looking as young and vivacious as ever.  They, and the place, had not changed.  This is a cliché that runs throughout our narrative:  the unchanging nature of Point O’ Woods.

 

“There’s surf,” Jon said.  “I think we’re going to get an evening session in.”  It was 7:45 p.m., and by the time we got in, we’d have another 45 minutes or so of surfable skylight.  Which we did.  And there were waves all weekend; I surfed four times for a total of almost seven hours.  (Karen and boys were in Texas.)

 

Saturday night was the Lobster Party, with Dave K’s dad leading the Dixieland Band that has played there since I was a kid and perhaps before that.

 

On the Rock of Ages founded,
What can shake thy sure repose?
With salvation’s walls surrounded,
Thou may’st smile at all thy foes.

 

I still couldn’t sing, my mind reviewing the events of the weekend behind me:  seeing Al and Sandy and Jenny, learning of Jen’s daughter’s diagnosis of Type-1 diabetes – I had missed this in their lives.  Missed it because I wasn’t around.  Lexie wasn’t out this weekend, but I had also missed being near her when her father passed away from a sudden heart attack.  There were other life events that I had heard about through email or a call one night from Dave K – “Dave C has committed suicide” he said through heaving sobs.  Where was I?  Where was Dave C’s brother Al?  How was Al – I wasn’t there for him.

See! the streams of living waters,
Springing from eternal love;
Well supply thy sons and daughters,
And all fear of want remove:
Who can faint while such a river
Ever flows their thirst t’assuage?
Grace, which like the Lord, the Giver,
Never fails from age to age.

Slowly, I got my voice.  I stood there, next to Jon and his 6-year-old son Evan.  Jon: who might have been thinking about the words to the hymn or might have been thinking about his tennis doubles final in about 90 minutes, a match that he had played and replayed with his brother as partner for the last five years, which all of my friends were aware of and perhaps had seen.  Except for me.

 

I sang parts for the second verse.  It came, and I sang about the streams of living waters, the supply they gave the Lord’s sons and daughters, the thirst that was assuaged.  This thirst of mine – the thirst for connection, this thirst for memory, for reunion, for fellowship of a human and divine nature – this thirst for something more than a shell of a house which will turn to dust one day, the thirst for something imperishable and immutable, this thirst was being assuaged as I sang.

 

Blest inhabitants of Zion,
Washed in the Redeemer’s blood!
Jesus, whom their souls rely on,
Makes them kings and priests to God.

 

I realized that I was no longer an owner at Point O’ Woods.  I was not an owner in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, nor even a citizen of New York.  My citizenship, my inhabitation, was elsewhere.  These people around me that Sunday morning were my friends.  They would always be my friends.

Savior, if of Zion’s city,
I through grace a member am,
Let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in Thy Name.
Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
All his boasted pomp and show;
Solid joys and lasting treasure
None but Zion’s children know.

photo:  clikchick

A special place

Carter remembers Point O’ Woods and how he used to ask me to pull him and his brother Bennett (Teak wasn’t born yet) in the wagon to the “special place,” as he called it.

The “special place” was the northern tip of the berm that ran along the bay side of the community.  The berm was a wooden retaining wall between the water – about three feet deep at mid-tide and about four feet below the top of the wall – and a sand strip about four feet wide that was bordered by a wood plank riding path.  I say “riding path,” because one can 012008asifthebes.jpgonly walk, ride a bike or pull a wagon along it.  There are no cars or trucks in the community, or on Fire Island, save for emergency, government, and utility/service vehicles.  (Robert Moses had once wanted a highway to go its length, but thankfully this was one of the few projects on which he was defeated.  The poor of New York City were no match for him, but the well-heeled who owned property on Fire Island knew how to fight.)

Carter and Bennett would stand at the L-shaped crux of the berm and throw broken clam shells and rocks into the water.  Even dried dune grass.  They were 2-1/2 and 1, and this was great fun for them for a good 30 minutes.  Pulling them in our family’s aging wagon, which had been painted over multiple times until its paint was more a solid surface than its original wood frame, and had had its wheels fixed by my Uncle Bob because Dad would have him work when he and Aunt Lou-Lou came to visit (a fact illumined for me by our family friend Ted, who holds an enigmatic opinion of my father, now deceased), became somewhat a magical journey for me.  I, the boy who had grown up there in the summers since I was three and had traveled a life journey at one point that seemed headed more for disaster and oblivion now pulling two lively and beautiful human beings who issued in part from my DNA and body.  It was almost other-worldly.  But such are the self-indulgent thoughts of a sentient horse pulling a kid carriage.

That same summer we took the boys there, when Grandaddy and Memaw joined us, and after which Grandaddy said he enjoyed himself so much that he wouldn’t have left had he known we all would not return (for we sold the house that fall), there were fireworks on July 4.  Funded principally by one family and supported by others in the community, it was the first time POW had had them since I was a boy.

We woke up Carter at dark, which of course was late, around 8:30, told him he was going to see fireworks (which he had never seen), and Karen and I strolled him down to the yacht club, Carter sucking his thumb and grasping his blue-and-white striped blanket all the way, eyes wide at the rare occasion despite the relatively late hour for him.  Once settled in a good spot, we waited.

Then, to the west, in the Great South Bay, perhaps 300 yards off the dock, a small boat could be spotted coming toward us, green light on starboard side, red on port.  Color specks against a navy blue backdrop.  Carter’s eyes widened, and he took his thumb from his mouth.

“I see it!” he exclaimed, thinking this was the fireworks. “I see it COMING!!!”

Little did he know.

photo:  asifthebes