11/22/63 in Massapequa . . . and 4/27/15 in Baltimore

Parkside Junior High School was a pretty buttoned-up place on November 22, 1963 at about 2:30 that afternoon. Another teacher knocked on our classroom door and motioned for our Social Studies teacher, Miss Foley, to come into the hall. From my seat I could see her. Her eyes went wide and she covered her mouth with her hand. This scared me because Miss Foley was not given to emotional jags of any kind. As far as we knew, she didn’t even have a first name.

I said, “Whatever it is, it’s really bad.”

There was the usual 8th grade speculation, which was never hard to come by. Craig Norton said, “I bet Russia dropped the A-Bomb.”

Then Miss Foley composed herself a little and came back inside. She abruptly handed out a ditto and told us the principal would be making an important announcement. Scary silence took over. She clearly might have begun sobbing at any second, yet no one asked what was wrong. Not one kid.

Our principal was a man of few words, and even this afternoon wasn’t going to change his style. “President Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Texas this afternoon,” he said over the loudspeaker from the office. Miss Foley, already knowing the rest of the story, put her finger to her lips and closed her eyes.

“The bullet was fatal.”

I wasn’t sure what the word fatal meant, until I turned and saw all the crying girls and the boys hitting their desks with closed fists.

By the time that word had filtered down to us in that classroom, the president had been dead for an hour.

At home, my mother was ironing. Today, thanks to You Tube videos that show the news coverage as it was unfolding on November 22, I can see exactly how the word reached her in our living room. CBS was airing As the World Turns, and two characters were talking about their upcoming Thanksgiving dinner. Without warning, the picture changed to a black screen with the word BULLETIN stamped across it in white letters. There was a ruffling of papers and then Walter Cronkite’s unmistakable voice. The first details were in audio only — the shootings of Kennedy and Governor Connally, and that they had been rushed to Parkland Hospital.

Those facts took less than a minute to deliver, and then Cronkite said: “Stay tuned to CBS News for further details.” What followed was a commercial for Nescafé Coffee, a promotion for an upcoming episode of “Route 66,” and then back to the same two soap opera characters, who were still talking about Thanksgiving dinner.

In the next hour, broadcasters rushed to get on the air, some of them out of breath, all of them male and all of them white. Some of the anchormen wore rumpled shirts and crooked ties. They ran their hands through their hair and smoked wildly as they read from sheets of paper and talked on big bulky rotary phones to reporters in Dallas.

Sometimes my knees ache, and that makes me feel old. I just realized my oldest grandson will be 9 in December, and that makes me feel old. But watching this archival film makes me feel like I must have lived in the Dark Ages. Fifty years ago I sat in the middle of a news blackout  — unheard of today — waiting to hear what had gone terribly wrong in the world. And it took the media most of the afternoon to get the word out in any meaningful detail.

Compare that to this week when violence erupted in Baltimore, where I live, and all at once we were enveloped in every detail in real time. We could watch footage live from different locations at the same moment thanks to split screens. We had close-ups of it all, the tension, the anger, the fear. We could listen to debates — almost immediately as the situation unfolded — about whether these people were protestors, thugs, criminals, or high school students. Everything was broken down instantly, even semantics.

It’s good to have more information than less, I tell myself. It’s better to be able to access what I need to know instantly than to wade through those dribs and drabs that came in black and white from Dallas in 1963. We put up with the excruciating slowness of it all not realizing it was frustrating at all. And I can almost smile, even on this horrible day, to think that if anyone in Parkside Junior High School had suggested that someday we’d be watching live feed on our phones, it would have been a fast track for a visit with the School Psychologist.

But that’s not the whole answer. Watch the You Tube video of November 22, of  Walter Cronkite putting his glasses down and letting the words that the president had died get caught in his throat and swallow hard. Watch his eyes well up, just for an instant, before he gets to his next sentence. We may never see a moment like that again. The race to get it first is just too intense.

I sit at my laptop, and with a few clicks I see what has happened in Baltimore and in the world in the last hour. One hour — the same amount of time it took the scared kids in that classroom to find out what had upset their teacher so badly.

There are advantages to having one foot in each century, and I’m okay with that.

Feeling my Age at Panera

Whenever I eat alone in a restaurant, I bring a little notebook and jot down what I’m thinking. It helps me feel less awkward, as if people might be wondering why I don’t have a lunch partner. Sometimes I write down bits and pieces of what I’m overhearing, conversation I may use later in something I’m writing.

I read an Anne Tyler interview once where she said she takes her notebook everywhere and writes down what she hears around her — dialogue, inflection, words that lead with the famous Baltimore accent. So when I pull out the little notebook, I just pretend to be her. I’m always hoping someone will mistake me for her, too, like they’re thinking: Hmmm, maybe she grew her bangs out. Hmmm, she looks a little heavier than she did on her last book jacket, but — you know — that happens. As far as I can tell, no one has been fooled yet.

I had my notebook out one day last fall when a group of high school kids walked into a sandwich place in my neighborhood. They took three tables and slid them together and, as their first official act, plopped down their phones. Their talk kept getting interrupted by different customized ring tones and scores of texts going back and forth with other kids who weren’t at the table.

It felt exhausting to me, not being able to understand all of what was going on. And I’d had this exact feeling when I was a kid. Instead of technology, though, it was Italian that did me in.

Our neighbors across the street were first generation immigrants from Milan. Their niece, who was my age and bilingual, would come to visit from Brooklyn with her Italian-speaking parents. One summer she and I got to be friends and I was invited across the street often, where she acted as my interpreter.

In my mind, her extended family ate a lot, more often than my family did, it seemed. Maybe the dinners were just longer and louder. Conversations constantly switched from English to Italian and back again without warning, sometimes in the same sentence. My friend never lost a word of whatever the topic was, and I was jealous of that. I found getting half of any story frustrating.

One day I said to her, as if this would be no big deal, “I want you to teach me Italian.”

“Oh, it’s easy,” she said. “If you just try really hard, you’ll be able to understand everything my parents say. Just listen to e-v-e-r-y word.That’s what I do.”I know she wasn’t purposely steering me wrong, that in her mind that’s what she’d done since she learned to talk.

I, of course, continued to be exasperated that I’d get to the end of a story and suddenly the medium would change on me and I’d be lost. I must say that what these high school students were doing at the next table wasn’t exactly a walk in the park for old people like me either. A lot of questions seemed to go unanswered as their heads bobbed up and down from their phones, and their thumbs were in constant motion. They wore earbuds and went from listening to talking to reading without warning.

What really caught my attention, though, was when they started talking about the John F. Kennedy assassination. The 50th anniversary was coming up, and I’m sure there were hashtags involved, whatever the hell that means. For all their advanced technology, though, their facts were sketchy, and one of them — who kept showing his hand with words like Los Angeles and killed in the hotel kitchen — was talking about the other Kennedy assassination.

For a minute, I thought about gently leaning over into their space and setting the record straight, perhaps the old school teacher in me. I realized, though, that if I started talking in an I was there tone, they would look at me as if I’d been front row at Ford’s Theatre, too.Because when I did the math, I realized that, chronologically, they’re about as far from Kennedy’s death as I was from the McKinley assassination (about which I know nothing). I wisely stayed silent.

It’s easy to keep quiet when you realize that you came of age watching a black and white TV, and the kids at the next table have a good chance of somehow confusing that with Morse Code. Or Mamie Eisenhower with Mary Todd Lincoln. Or any number of mix-ups that would make you feel #old.

[Up on Thursday: “11/22/63 at Parkside Junior High School”]

“Plus You Have a Really Bad Accent”

As a college freshman in 1968, I landed in the middle of New York State and couldn’t believe there wasn’t a decent bagel anywhere. I was homesick for Long Island, the center of my universe. I’d never seen so many pickup trucks or people chewing (and spitting) tobacco as I did on Main Street in Cortland. It snowed on Halloween. I felt like I’d moved to Jupiter.

To counterbalance, I talked about Massapequa incessantly — how you could find anything you needed on Sunrise Highway, and how my high school had a championship football team. One day in the dining hall, I was in the middle of explaining to some girls why my hometown was known as “Matzo-Pizza” because it occurred to me that near-strangers were mesmerized by stories of my youth. (And here you’re thinking, she hasn’t changed much. You’re on to me.) Anyway, I was taking way too long in my explanation, figuring I had to go slowly because they’d probably never heard of matzo or stepped inside a real pizzeria.

Finally, a girl from Utica had enough.

She stopped me and said, “You know,” The City doesn’t always mean New York City, and The Island doesn’t always mean Long Island.”

I think I paused here, maybe with my mouth open a tiny bit, because she felt the need to simplify. “There are other cities and other islands in this state.”

Somehow, this was big news to me.

She wasn’t finished. “Plus you have a really bad accent.”

The first part amazed me, but as I began to look around I could see she was right. Who knew there were girls in the United States who had never stepped foot in a mall? Or that a town might have only one supermarket? Who knew that you could spend kindergarten through 12th grade in one building? For that matter, I don’t think I realized that people actually lived on farms. I thought they just hired people.

The second part stung. I didn’t know I had an accent, much less a bad one. Until I got to college and met people from Syracuse and Buffalo, I’d never heard a “flat a” sound in my life.

So I took a breath, and later that afternoon — being the deep thinker I was back then — I began to reinvent myself. I decided I kind of liked the way upstate people spoke. They sounded buoyant and hopeful. That’s what I wanted to be. I started with the word “cawfee” and went from there.

I also changed my handwriting because suddenly all the complicated capital letters in the ornate Palmer Method no longer suited me. I went instead with a print-like conglomeration that I hoped would say Linda is a simple, generous young woman, who does not overwhelm people with her large, loopy letters. If you didn’t know she was from Long Island, you might think she came from a quaint little hamlet on a lake with a population of 150.

After a few months, I stopped mentioning Massapequa every ten minutes like it was the cradle of civilization. By second semester, my accent — bad or otherwise — was completely gone, and my mother was complaining that my handwriting looked like a second-grader’s. When I graduated, I stayed in Central New York.

The first time I reopened my high school yearbook probably took five years. When I did, I read lots of this: “Never forget all the fun we had in French.” Or the laughs we had trying to conquer the uneven parallel bars. Or the day the lunch lady dropped that tray on John.

When the 10-year reunion happened, a time when I could have refreshed my memory about that gym class or poor John and the lunch tray, I couldn’t make it. I’d just had a baby, and if I’d considered traveling 300 miles to stand in a hotel ballroom with anyone, it wasn’t going to be when I hadn’t slept in four weeks and my breasts leaked milk every time I looked down at them.

The 20th reunion took place the year I was in a bad mood. We had moved to Baltimore. I couldn’t understand anything people said because they spoke in a thick dialect meant to throw Yankees off course. We had bought a split-level house — the type of home I swore I’d never live in. And my kids were a sloppy mess about how much they missed their friends.

Now our 50th reunion approaches, so clearly it’s been a while for me and the Class of ’68. I wonder how much I’ve changed, or I wonder if I’ve changed as much as I think I have. The older I get, the more I think that you pretty much are what you were when. Except for changing a few vowel sounds. And now we come with more stories to tell.

I think by 2018, our class will have long forgotten those singular, sweet and silly memories of high school that we inscribed in each others’ yearbooks. But we’ll be filled with the only bond that really matters. Massapequa will always be our “when.”

Maybe the day after the big party, we’ll have “cawfee.” And maybe I’ll even say it the right way.

My Neighborhood “Uncles”

She is wearing a fluorescent green bathing suit. She is 10 maybe. I can see from her body language that the ocean is just not her thing.

The man she calls Uncle Nick is gently coaxing her into the surf, to her ankles, then her knees, where they let the waves break over them, and she begins to laugh. Before long, the girl has mastered the art of riding waves and coming to a sandy halt. Then, as if on repeat, she jumps up and she leads him back in so they catch the next one.

I’ve seen  her go from “I don’t want to,” to “Watch me, Uncle Nick!” in the space of an hour. And I’m remembering my 10-year-old self. And thinking about my uncles.

I was accorded several real uncles, who appeared automatically in my life the day I was born. But like most of the kids in my Long Island neighborhood in the 1950s, I was also entitled to other “uncles,” not related to our family but connected in a way that was just as real. They were my parents’ oldest friends or neighbors who knew me my whole life, like Uncle Herb, who lived around the corner from us.

I was a cautious child who liked lots of practice in private before I did anything publicly. Riding waves with scores of people standing in the surf at Jones Beach carried too many risks for the child I was. Wading would have been forever fine with me, had Uncle Herb and I not stood together that day in the shallow surf, ankle deep. He was getting his toes wet, chatting with me about the school year that had just finished. His children, a slew of blond hearty kids who were never afraid of anything, had already taken their positions out past the breaking surf, and were yelling for their father to come out and join them.

I’m pretty sure I was an afterthought. “Come on, Linda,” he said, “Let’s ride some waves.”

He held out his hand. Hoping he wouldn’t make fun of me when he saw how inept I knew I’d be, I went, but just barely. He talked me through my nerves as the waves bounced me around.

“Put your arms like this,” he said. “Try to keep your head down,” and I remember how different he looked wet and without his eyeglasses. He held on to me when a big wave overpowered my skinny body and I was tossed under.

Uncle Herb stayed with me until I caught on, and I continued riding waves (with a certain panache, I’ve always thought) for a few more summers, before watching lifeguards eat their lunches became more worthy of my time at the beach.

Labor Day that year, it was barbeque time. In a houseful of company, most of whom were relatives, my mother decided to pass around some of my poetry. I was never sure about this. I was proud that she thought I had talent, but she seemed oblivious to public opinion. Most of the adults would glance at a page  and then mumble a few kind, vague words, having not really read any of it. Then they’d go back to talking about more important issues, like maybe the sale on pork chops at Bohack’s.

“Herb,” my mother said, “Have you seen these poems?”

I would say “poems” was a kind way to put it. I would say that I was blessed with a mother who thought I was pretty when I wasn’t, had a flair for the artistic when I didn’t, and who believed that she had given birth to the next Emily Dickinson. Hence a continual thread of conversation in the living room that began, “Have you seen these?”

Now it was Uncle Herb’s turn, and frankly I thought he had already put in more than his share of time with the whole ocean thing. But he smiled and took the handful of notebook pages. Peeking in from the kitchen, I watched his eyes moving over every word. After he finished the last piece, he found me and pressed them into my hand. And as if he had unearthed a great secret between us, he said, “You’re a writer. A real writer.”

My “uncles” told us when it was time to go in on summer nights when we didn’t want to stop playing tag. They sat on our back patio and popped open a can of Budweiser as they discussed the Mets. They toasted my college graduation. They danced at my wedding. They held my babies in their arms and pronounced each of them beautiful whether they were or not. Even now when he answers the phone with a soft, barely audible “hello,” I wouldn’t think of starting any other way: “Hi Uncle Herb, it’s Linda.”

If we’re lucky, we have an adult in our lives who, even for one summer afternoon, teaches us how to negotiate the surf — when to jump, when to dive, and how to ride the waves all the way to shore.

“You did great,” Uncle Nick is telling the girl in the green bathing suit now, as they shake the water from their hair and jog toward their blanket on the beach. I watch her face.

Same ocean. Different uncle. I hope she remembers, too.

Years of No Lobster

EK_0003 For part of 1932, my grandmother served oatmeal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the only food they could afford. When the Great Depression ended and life got more comfortable, she had a hard time relaxing. That’s the sweet way to say it. Really, she ran herself into the ground for the next 30 years making sure she’d always be ready, just in case the universe crashed in on her twice in one lifetime.

She sewed all her own clothes, including suits. She stretched pea soup with just the promise of a ham bone, and used every scrap of paper on both sides. She and my grandfather walked to the bank at the end of every month to see how much interest they’d earned. Even as the numbers grew, nothing more than a cautious sigh ever slipped out of either of them.

So it was no surprise that she elicited a collective gasp at Sunday dinner when, at 59, she made an announcement that began, “I’ve decided to live a little.”

“A little” meant that she would continue to run her home as she always had, shopping at sales and never buying rib eye when flank would do just fine. But there would be one big change. She’d made a list of every swanky restaurant in New York City and intended to eat in every one, starting with the Four Seasons because she’d read that movie stars were often spotted there, so it seemed the logical place to begin.

“And I may even order a martini!” she added. Again, gasps.

My grandfather didn’t think life got much better than a frozen dinner in front of whatever western was on TV that night, so he was quickly out of the running as her dinner partner. She chose me. I was 12.

Two weeks later, my mother took me to the Massapequa Railroad Station for my first solo trip into the city. I would travel in the second car on the train, which my grandmother had calculated meant the fewest number of steps for her at Penn Station, which, in turn, gave us the greatest chance that I wouldn’t end up walking aimlessly and alone through the largest city in the world.

As the train rolled into the station, I said, “Please don’t,” to my mother, trying to look as mature as possible, hoping that she wouldn’t implore the conductor to keep an eye on me.

“Please keep an eye on my daughter,” she said to him anyway. “She’s never traveled alone before. Her grandmother will meet her at Penn Station.” I know in the days before cell phones, this was not crazy behavior on her part.

But it meant that after every stop, the fatherly conductor would pause at my seat and in a voice not nearly quiet enough, say, “Still doin’ okay, Sweetie?” and rattling every embarrassment bone in my body. And for anyone who has never traveled on the LIRR, I believe there were 109 station stops between Massapequa and my destination that afternoon.

My grandmother was right about the Four Seasons being a big deal. There were trees inside, and everything seemed angular and modern. There was a coat room because at this place you didn’t just hang your stuff over your chair. There was a maître d’, who did nothing to hide his disdain for children in the restaurant (he probably would have called it his restaurant) even though it was barely 5PM and no one who really mattered would have been there at that hour.

My grandmother brightened at the waiter’s suggestion of a cocktail, as if she’d just then thought of it, and ordered the martini she told us she would. My Shirley Temple arrived in a heavy etched goblet. She held her glass to mine in the air and said, “Here’s to living it up!” We clinked them together. I might as well have been Eloise.

“Anything you want,” she said as we opened the menus. Then in a Hollywood whisper she added, “Except the lobster.” She pointed to the words Market Price on the menu. “They don’t tell you how much it costs because then they can just make it up when you get the bill, and by then it’s too late. That’s why we’ll never order the lobster.”

The waiter treated us royally. I’m sure he hoped for a hefty tip, and I wished I could have told him that this woman who didn’t trust Market Price also thought tipping was invented to gouge diners out of their hard-earned cash. She complied, but just barely and always using her little pad and pencil to get it to the penny. Had he known, he might have paced himself and saved his fawning for the movie stars who were coming later.

At dessert, I whispered that I was pretty sure Cary Grant was sitting at the very next table. My grandmother turned and stared at the man for what seemed minutes.

“Nope,” she said, turning back, “but keep looking. He’s bound to show up in one of these places!”

My grandmother had grown up poor and without a mother, taking up space in a childhood that never rose from dreary. She then raised her own children in tough times, with only her tenacity to lean on. But here she was, at one of the best restaurants in New York City, and, for all we knew, she might be sitting next to a bank president or a movie star. And though it may have taken her many years to get to high tea at the Plaza, or a steak dinner at Delmonico’s, once seated, she didn’t waste a moment. She reviewed the food right down to the garnish. She’d point out art on the walls or remark on the freshness of the roses. Whether we had to go or not, she’d insist on a trip to the ladies’ room just to admire the wallpaper or rate the quality of the hand towels.

At the Brasserie, I learned that escargots were nothing to be afraid of, though they were also nothing to brag about. I tasted caviar for the first (and last) time at the 21 Club. I learned that no one, not even my grandmother, expected me to clean my plate at Leone’s. I ordered Baked Alaska as often as it showed up on a menu. In the seven years we ate dinner together, we never did see Cary Grant.

Tavern on the Green in Central Park was our last dinner together, though we didn’t know it that night. I was home from college, on winter break. It had snowed. The trees bathed in their twinkly lights were just behind her, the dark wood beams just above.

“Isn’t this just the life?” she smiled, as she sat down and took it all in. Then she looked over my shoulder, lost in thought. I was going to ask her what she was thinking just as her eyes came back to me. And then with a wink, always the inside joke, “Remember now, anything . . . except the lobster.”

My cautious and often worn-out grandmother decided to live a little and took me with her on the adventure. Only now that I’m a grandmother can I really understand how she felt. At the tables of New York’s finest restaurants, every time I discovered something that amazed me — like a napkin folded into the shape of a flower or the fact that I really did like steak tartare — I watched her joy being multiplied. I learned to trust the world from the woman who distrusted Market Price as much as she adored her granddaughter. So no lobster. Just lucky, lucky me.

I Survived the Boardwalk Restaurant

“I need to talk to you, in private,” she says. I hate that sentence.

“Have a seat,” I say, trying my best to pretend she hasn’t been crying. “So what’s going on?”

She is my daughter’s age and the best editor in the department. At the moment, though, she’s been blindsided by how hard it is to work here. Maybe hearing “good job!” too often when she was little set her up for feeling defeated this morning after a conference call that didn’t go our way. I think my generation forgot to tell our kids that jobs are hard. And there are no trophies.

After laying out everything that’s wrong with our company and throwing in a few suggestions about how I could improve things, she goes to the ladies’ room to splash some cold water on her face. Knowing the resilience of these young people I’ve hired, ten minutes will probably do it. I get my pep talk in place. I’ll compliment her terrific work ethic. I’ll talk about dealing with the pressures of our industry, which seem to mount with every merger. But it’s not what I really want to say.

What I really want to say is: “You think this job is hard? Try being a waitress for a week.”

I spent two summers as a waitress at the Boardwalk Restaurant at Jones Beach in the late sixties. All these years later, I still have the same response every time a server says, “Hi, I’m ____, and I’ll be taking care of you.” I picture the 19-year-old me, poured into my snug-fitting uniform, smiling anxiously, hoping customers would be kind, and petrified that I’d spill coffee on small children.

As soon as summer began, Josie, our boss, had only a few days to get the new crop of college girls up to speed on everything from clearing dishes to up-selling, and she didn’t waste a minute. She dressed only in black — blouse, skirt, stockings, shoes. She walked/ran at a pace that made me think the building was on fire every time she passed. And then to fully overwhelm me, Josie gave directions in a German accent so Germanic that I could understand only half of her terrifying messages. The rest I got from her body language, equally terrifying.

Let’s face it. The only thing the Boardwalk Restaurant had going for it was its location. Most times, if the fish was cold or the drink watered down, reminding people to take in the white sand and mighty surf right outside the wall of windows did the trick. It worked best with people who hadn’t been out of Queens or Brooklyn in a very long time.

In early August one of the dishwashers showed us a newspaper ad for a music festival upstate. For lots of Long Island kids, upstate was a place about as far north as Nova Scotia, but I went to college at Cortland, so I knew that New York state actually extended beyond Westchester. Bethel was only about 2½ hours away. The buzz increased as days went on, and my waitress friends and I began making plans. We knew if we didn’t, we’d be the only people alive under 21 who hadn’t made it to Woodstock.

We would call in sick on the morning we were leaving, but all with different symptoms so Josie wouldn’t catch on. I chose a mysterious, perhaps deadly, high fever. Then once we got to Woodstock — if it was any good — we’d find a pay phone and keep calling in sick for as many days as we needed to. Justine’s car held five people. We’d chip in for gas. We’d stop at the 7-Eleven for snacks on the way. As far as plans hatched in 1969 went, this one was ironclad.

Though it was true Josie had left her sense of humor back in Stuttgart, she did read the newspaper every morning. And she’d recently been rumored to be hiding in a stall in the women’s room with her feet up, picking up word of impending mutinies where she could.

She called an impromptu waitress meeting and said to the 30 of us who were by now all practicing our sick telephone voices, “Anyone who calls in sick tomorrow, I know you’re going to Woodcock, and you will be fired. No Woodcock! That is it.”

When we all showed up for our shift the next day, Josie refused to trust the time card machine. Holding a clipboard at the door, she checked off each name with a triumphant little snort. She was 30-for-30 at keeping her staff at work that weekend, which was, I believe, the North American record. We found solace where we could, getting a lot of mileage out of passing each other and saying under our breath, “No Woodcock!”

Being a waitress meant there were nights, half an hour before closing, when I was so tired I wanted to cry. And then a party of eight might come in and be seated in my section. They would already be drunk, but it wouldn’t keep them from ordering a round of complicated cocktails. And the bartender would be in a bad mood because his girlfriend had just broken up with him and tell me to garnish them myself. And that would lead me to put a maraschino cherry, a lemon slice, and some orange rind in a gin and tonic because I didn’t know any better. I thought a more colorful drink would be a nice touch. And even the drunk person knew that wasn’t right and would call me on it, loudly.

In bed at midnight, with my feet still throbbing, I’d be unable to stop replaying all the ridiculous conversations of my day.

“Are you sure this is decaf?” and the stupid little response we all gave with a forced smile, “I promise. Tell you what? I’ll give you my phone number, just in case it’s not.”

Or “These shrimp were caught today, right?” In my almost dreamy state I always answered, “These shrimp are probably older than you are,” and that would make me smile and get some rest.

I was sad to hear that the Boardwalk Restaurant was demolished in 2004 and that in the decade since, only an empty space marks the spot where it once stood at the Central Mall. It bothers me that it met such an ignoble end, I guess because I learned a few life lessons there.

I learned I had a knack for making grumpy diners less grumpy with a clever turn of phrase. I learned the customer is always right. And your first job is always hard. I learned how to stay on Josie’s good side and hoped she would never stop mentioning “Woodcock” because it helped me feel less tormented about not making it to the greatest cultural event of my generation.

The young editor is back now, slowly regaining some composure. She asks, “How would you feel if I just took the rest of the day off to regroup?” She gives me her reasons. She’s embarrassed. She’s tired. She just doesn’t see how she can keep up this pace.

Part of me thinks I should let her go home early. But I tell her, “No,” and I have my reasons, too. The dinner rush is just starting. I want her to learn to collect herself after she’s dropped a tray of drinks. I want her to know how great it feels to avoid spilling coffee on toddlers.

And, hey, I missed Woodstock.

St. William the Abbot, the Seaford Boys, and a Change of Heart

I was jealous of my friend, Brenda, and I can admit it now. We were sophomores at Massapequa High School, a year that was neither fish nor fowl for all of us, except her. She was athletic, could sing harmony and play guitar, and proved herself to be absolutely fearless in social situations. And on top of it all, she was Catholic.

I had been shuttled to Presbyterian Sunday School until my confirmation, and after that my parents seemed pretty much done with anything organized on Sundays. I must have been a fiction-writer kind of child — that’s all I can come up with — to explain how I loved to make up stories that supplanted everyday life. Maybe I loved mystery, too. I sort of fell into my love of a religion I knew practically nothing about thanks to weekend sleepovers at Brenda’s house.

Brenda’s mother seemed okay with my tagging along to Mass, but I sometimes got the feeling I was making her bend a rule.

She’d say, “Remember, Linda, you have to stay in the pew when Brenda takes Communion.” She’d remind me not to touch the Holy Water. And she insisted I wear a white borrowed mantilla, when I would have far preferred the more dramatic black.

I longed for all the have-to’s the Church required of Brenda. She had to go to Confession. There were things called Holy Days of Obligation, a phrase that let you know right off the bat that Catholics didn’t fool around. Before we could go to the movies, her mother had to look up the title in the Legion of Decency. She couldn’t eat meat on Fridays. She fasted on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. In our house we had the Golden Rule, which was a disappointing second place to everything Brenda got to do.

I wangled an invitation to Mass whenever I could. I learned the Hail Mary and Apostles Creed, never saying it aloud, of course, but watching Brenda recite it with a confidence I envied. And then there were the occasional young priests or seminarians up in front, for whom I’d invent an elaborate back-story. My favorite was that they’d suffered a heartbreak for which there was no other cure. They had given their lives to the Church in an act that was noble and final, but always caused them to look pensive and wistful during the Our Father.

Earlier in my childhood, I’d gone through a period where I’d been in love with the Nun side of Catholicism, too. My mother had a cousin who had taken her final vows in her early 20s, and we would visit her a few times a year at the Convent. Her name had gone from Bonnie to Sister Mary Benedict in what was something of a jolt for me, as if overnight she had reinvented herself. She dressed in full habit with only her face and hands showing. I was enamored. She was graceful and paid attention to me. She seemed perfectly serene. She wore a slim gold band on her left hand, which she told me meant she was married to Jesus.

True to my bent for fiction and drama, when Vatican II came along and raised Sister Mary Benedict’s hemline and let us see her hair for the first time, these visits seemed to have less of an emotional pull on me. A few years later, when she left the Order entirely, her father blamed her decision on the changes that John XXIII had brought about — mostly her shrinking habit and the fact that she could now drive a car.

“Well, you know, you can’t keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree,” my uncle said at Sunday dinner. I nodded solemnly though I had no idea what he was talking about.

After she became Bonnie again, I would still see her at family gatherings, and she was still lovely to me, but it would never be the same. I wonder if Maria von Trapp noticed people treating her differently after she made the big move.

One weekend when I was sleeping over at Brenda’s, logistics demanded that we go to Mass on a Saturday night, so her mom said she would drop us off at St. William the Abbot Church, in Seaford. On the drive over, I tried to think of something Catholic to say because that always put Brenda’s mother in a good mood. I mentioned that I’d seen the Pietà at the World’s Fair two years before. It was pretty dated content, I agree, but it was all the Catholic I had.

“Wasn’t it magnificent?” she asked.

I said, “Yes,” but the truth was that the experience had left me confused. I had gone with my grandmother, a woman who loved art but was suspicious of all religion. It started out well, with Mary and Jesus lit up in front of the blue velvet curtain, and you got to pass the statue on a moving walkway, something I’d never seen before. But I started watching a group of old Italian widows in front of us, all dressed in black. They began making the sign of the cross and praying aloud. Overcome with the moment, I crossed myself, too. My grandmother’s purse grazed the side of my head.

“We don’t do that!” she said in my ear.

It was true. We didn’t. But I couldn’t see any reason why we shouldn’t.

On the way to St. William the Abbot with Brenda and her mom, I was relieved that my grandmother was at home in Queens and had no idea I was on my way to Mass, where I fully intended to make the sign of the cross as many times as possible.

Brenda opened the big wooden door of the stucco church, and the smell of candles and incense and the old wood swept me up. St. William’s was smaller, older, and somehow more Catholic than her regular parish church. We sat toward the back. The kneeling bench was sticky, and I had some trouble getting it down so I could talk to God about how much I wanted to be Catholic and getting to the logistics of how we could make that happen.

My eyes must have been open because I knew the moment the McNamara brothers strolled in. They were followed a moment later by the Fitzpatrick boys — all four of them like perfect Irish nesting dolls — in navy blue blazers, madras ties, and khakis. They knelt and crossed themselves in one fluid motion and then sat down a few pews in front of us. Then they nudged each other about something hilarious in the row in front of them. It was my first inkling that I had a “type,” and apparently most of them lived in Seaford and went to St. William the Abbot Church.

Just a few minutes before, I’d been thinking that maybe I’d given up prematurely on following in Bonnie’s footsteps. Though becoming a Nun hadn’t exactly dovetailed with my way of thinking lately as I practiced kissing boys in the mirror in my bedroom, perhaps it deserved a second look.

Two minutes after pondering a life of sacrifice and piety and chastity, the Seaford boys walked in. And by the time the Priest said, “Go in peace,” the door on that career had slammed shut forever.