Wild Thing . . . You Make My Heart Sing

My friend, Jill, and I found out about the 17/18 Sign at Jones Beach as we were eating ice cream called Mello-Rolls. It was the ice cream of our youth but not without its hazards.

ice cream cone jb

You knew you weren’t a kid anymore when you could peel the paper away from the cylinder of ice cream without having it land in the sand. When you were young, this happened all the time. Then you cried. Then your dad trudged back to the concession stand to get you another one.

We were 16 now, and we wouldn’t think of being seen at the beach with our parents. And we never dropped our Mello-Rolls any more.

We were just back at our towels when a boy named B.J. Farley sauntered over and plopped himself down on the sand by Jill’s feet.

“So, I don’t think we’ve been introduced,” he said.

We were flattered because this kind of thing wasn’t happening much yet. We also laughed a little because we thought his opening line sounded like something Dean Martin would say.

“Where are you girls from? I know you’re not from Seaford or I would have seen you around.” Apparently, B.J. had an entire repertoire of lines the Rat Pack had tired of, and they were now public domain.

B.J. Farley was from the next town over. He was one of the St. William the Abbot boys we’d spied at Mass the week before. He called his church “St. Willie’s,” all at once adorable and blasphemous. We sat up straighter and listened intently. I concentrated on not dropping my Mello-Roll.

“Why are you all the way down here?” he said after a while. “Come on over and meet my friends at the 17/18 Sign.”

Jones Beach’s creators thought of everything. A theater, a band shell, a little golf course, paddle tennis. There were even numbered signs to help you negotiate the acres of white sand. The signs helped old people who might get lost looking for their umbrella. They helped little kids from getting separated from their parents. All good ideas. But now the 17/18 Sign gave us a geographical focus for making our summer memorable. To the self-absorbed teenage girls we were, that was much more important than dehydrated old people or lost children. So thank you to the sign inventor.

 

jones beach 3

We arrived at the 17/18 Sign like it was base camp for the last good-looking boys in the universe. We recognized many of the boys from Mass the week before. I’d had the good fortune to tag along as a non-Catholic girl. Apparently, I was just in it for the boys in blue blazers and madras ties because I remembered their faces vividly.

We stayed there all afternoon. The Seaford boys played a card game called Hearts and sang along to the radio. They jumped in the ocean when it got too hot, and they thwacked their towels at each other. In other words, they were exactly like boys their age from any town on Long Island. Just not to us. There was something exotic about this bunch of (mostly) Irish Catholic boys who lived two miles away and had been forced to take Latin in school.

“Are you going to the dance at St. Willie’s tonight?”

That was one of the Fitzpatrick brothers, the group that had stolen my heart simply by walking down the aisle at church the week before. It would take some sorting out of names to know which one was talking — John, Joe, Kevin, or Brian — since they all looked like the same boy, just an inch shorter or taller.

Jill and I leaped at our chance for summer romance. We promised ourselves that once we got back to school in September, we would pay attention to Massapequa boys again. We had this discussion on the bus going home. We were perfectly serious about it, too.

The Beach Boys were our moral barometer, and they had been telling us for years to “be true to your school.” And we would. In September. Until then a few summer dances in another town wouldn’t hurt. Had we been given the chance to let the Massapequa boys know our decision, their response would have probably been, “Who are you?” Jill and I were working on our brand back then, still operating pretty much in obscurity.

The Nun at the door said, “Welcome to St. William the Abbot School.” She was smiling, but it seemed forced.

I felt at any second she would ask me for my card that proved I was Catholic. Then she shot a glance at my skirt hem, and I realized what she really cared about. Her face relaxed a little. I knew I had passed her short-skirt criteria for not tempting boys into a life of sin.

The Nuns were doing their best as the dance progressed, but let’s face it. These were not The Sound of Music Nuns, just waiting it out until a rich Colonel came and scooped them up. They were sensible-shoed, wide-faced women of God. I think they were wishing they were back at the Convent House watching The Man from U.N.C.L.E. instead of being called on to supervise teenage lust.

Summer took on a sort of Lewis and Clark charm. By day we camped out at the 17/18 Sign, being charmed and doing our best to be charming. In the evenings, Jill and I walked around for miles, in the dark, in a sometimes complicated route — often barefoot because I thought my feet looked smaller that way. There was a lot of roaming involved.

My friends and I might get to the corner of Park Boulevard and Franklin Avenue after a half hour’s walk. And then as if we were in some sort of hormonal relay race, three girls we knew would give us the metaphorical hand off: “Gary Sullivan and Mark Doyle were just here and they were asking about you!” Heading off in that direction, we might or might not ever find them. And even if we found them, it didn’t mean we would necessarily talk to them.

Sometimes there was a final destination. It was called Hubies, a hamburger stand on Sunrise Highway. For reasons unknown, it attracted hordes of teenagers who swarmed the parking lot night after night. We acted like it was one giant coincidence that we all ended up standing under that neon. I don’t ever remember eating anything.

These summer nights got replayed a lot when I became the mother of teenagers myself many years later. I wondered how, in 1966, our parents ever trusted us to stand on the side of a 4-lane highway, flirting so vigorously that our heads were probably spinning, and then top it all off by walking home in the dark. They had no way of contacting us, which now seems unbearable. I wondered if they worried. That’s not true. I wondered how much.

Now my kids are parents themselves. I’m one generation removed from the nail-biting years. My memories of the summer at the 17/18 Sign and Hubies are all carefree now. And I remember the sweetest moments.

Like the evening someone turned up his car radio as “Wild Thing” was playing. We started dancing in the parking lot. Tommy Henshaw was my partner. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt that was much too big for him, and he sang along as we danced.

Jill and I walked home. In the dark. Giggling and chatting. No cell phones. No Sacajewea. I was home by 10. And I was sure I’d be young forever.

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.

Oh, Jones Beach, You Were So Worth It

After eight months of thinking I should get this pesky spot on my face checked out, one morning I woke up and started to panic. I might have been watching too much Discovery Channel, but I went from thinking, I’ll get around to it one of these days, to calling a dermatologist as if my chin had just melted off.

“Is this an emergency?” the receptionist wanted to know.

It may have been my tone. I took a breath and told her my symptoms.

“I have an opening a week from Thursday,” she said. It always soothes me when the person answering the phone hears my story and still sounds as bored as she did when she first said, “Dr. Goldfarb’s office. May I help you?”

This spot near my temple — whatever it’s called — is all my fault. It’s not the kind of disease that lands on innocent people’s pancreases while they sleep, or attaches itself to one of your lymph nodes even though you’ve eaten kale and gotten eight hours of sleep your entire life.

If my skin is about to crust over and slide off my face, I did it to myself, starting when I was 16 and began spending my summers in the sun, lathering on the baby oil and cursing the clouds. Memorial Day would begin with a marathon bake that served as a base coat. My goal was to overcome the Anglo Saxon genes in my DNA and stay the color of medium toast through September. Tanning was my only sport, and though I didn’t have a prayer of beating out Greek or Italian girls, I gave it my all.

1966 had been good to me. The extra room in my bra was finally being called into action. Almost overnight, it seemed, my bony hips were gone, and fat deposits became my friend in a way they would never be my friend again. My mother gave me permission to use Summer Blonde on my mousy brown hair. It morphed into the shiny blonde of my childhood, hair I only knew in pictures. And — as if that weren’t enough — I lived in a place where Jones Beach, ten miles of pristine sand on the Atlantic Ocean, was all mine for a 35¢ bus ride. Now the only thing left to do was wreck my skin forever.

Dr. Goldfarb, whose waiting room is full of mauve chairs and concerned folks in their 80s, walks into the exam room as he is reading my chart.

“So what brings you in today?”

I explain the situation as if nothing about it is my fault, and — oddly — I think I can fool him. The first question he asks is about sun exposure when I was young. Apparently, he’s on to me.

“How long has this spot been there?”

I cut the time by two-thirds so neither of us will become alarmed. He stares at it. He pokes it with an instrument. He picks up my newly created file and jots something down.

“We can take care of that for you,” he says in my direction over his reading glasses.

Before he fixes me, though, he lectures me about the error of my youthful ways. And I’m thinking that unless he’s storing his time machine in the next room, this is rather a waste of our ten minutes together and a copay.

He says, “basal cell blah blah blah” and “dermis something something,” but since all immediate danger has passed, I’m now noticing that he doesn’t have a single wrinkle on his forehead. This probably comes in handy when you don’t want to look horrified in front of a patient whose skin might be full of pustules. His cuffs are monogrammed. And he has $1,000 worth of pens in his pocket. There is money in old people’s skin, and it looks like I’ve arrived squarely in the middle of his demographic although I don’t feel at all ready to be here.

I wince as he freezes the dry spot on my face. We have a discussion about SPF products. I make promises. He turns to write a prescription for salve, and I know he’ll soon be on his way to another post-menopausal former bikini-beauty who is waiting in the next room.

But he turns, and — for the first time — looks directly into my eyes.

“Do you have someone who regularly sees your back?”

Such a simple question. But it takes me by surprise.

“No.”

“Would you like me to take a quick look?”

“Sure!” I say, reaching for an upbeat tone. I’m trying to sound like I’m not embarrassed that I have no one to look at my back.

Then I pray that there’s not some painless carcinoma galloping across my shoulder blade that’s about to be discovered. If I had a person who slept with me every night, he’d have had ample opportunity to view me from all angles and — if necessary — shout out, “Holy mother of God, what is that purple thing hanging off your back?” But that hasn’t happened, so I don’t know if there is anything purple there or not, honestly.

I yank my sweater up in the back so he can get a full view. The sweater rides up in the front, too, and gentle rolls spread out in front of me even though I’m sucking in and holding my breath. I can’t remember if my bra is the black lacy one, which would seem so . . . unnecessary, and I have no idea why I bought it anyway.

“Looks fine,” he says, and reaches for one of his Mont Blanc pens to write (probably) “Back looks fine.”

I am relieved about my back, but I feel a little sorry for the rest of my skin because I know where it’s probably heading. I’m slated for veiny hands and more wrinkles and liver spots and probably a few more spins around the Ferris wheel with Dr. Goldfarb.

Would I have rather stayed in the shade? Ha.

Oh, Jones Beach, you were so worth it.