I spend a lot of time shoring myself up, but in different ways. Despite leaving Bayonne at age eighteen, New Jersey will always be home. I grew up on a street filled with identical brick row houses, no front lawns, and where stick-ball was our national sport. During the summers, there was a municipal pool on 53rd Street for some, the P.A.L. activities for others, and Belmar for us. For most of my childhood, we rented a bungalow on Ninth Avenue from Sadie Teitelbaum. It was one block from the ocean. Some memories fade under the load of the many that form after them. But I keep a piece of my life at 216 Ninth Avenue. It’s an address I always go back to.
Whenever I’m home, I bicycle over to Rumson, along Ocean Avenue through Asbury Park, towards Spring Lake, and all around Belmar. No ride is complete without a look down Ninth Avenue where I pause at #216 and become that youngster in the picture, if only for a few seconds. Thoughts of my childhood summers – living in a bathing suit, the sound of Mahjong tiles being shuffled by my Mom and her pals, or seeing a prop plane over the ocean trailed by a local business ad printed on canvas, flapping in the wind – a few moments are all I need to feel fulfilled.
I’m at the shore now often than in recent years because time is precious and family even more so. Every couple of months, I travel from Franklin County, stay a week, take stock of my past, and grab a fresh slice of it to sustain me going forward. Nothing I’ve done since Eisenhower was in office can bury that short period of my life when it was all about fun, the ocean and sand, and receiving enough love in a summer vacation to last all year.
So much time has passed since I was that little boy whose limbs were covered daily with Mercurochrome, each red spot a reminder of where the splinters were – real wood from boardwalks made when all a kid knew about networks were the three found on television. Last February, I pedaled over to Ninth Avenue and saw that Sadie’s property was nothing more than a leveled field. The remains of her house, our bungalow, the fences, the plantings – finally, all of it was gone.
My last summer in Belmar was 1960. I’ve gone back hundreds of times, and again this morning. The Mayfair Hotel still stands. The Traymore is long gone. So is the Penny Arcade. The town could be a backdrop for an old Coppertone advertisement, though the SUVs and cell phones might look out of place. I’m sure kids get fewer splinters now – the boardwalks are now a synthetic material made to look like wood.
The beach, the footprint at #216, and the salt air always call me back. I never need a reason to come here, but lately I’ve had many. My family is still here, and every visit is a chance to return all that love. Some things wait for me, and are exactly as I remember them. Some things change.