LONG BEACH ON MY MIND
By Suzanne Willis
Long Beach and my immediate family, the Lichtensteins, go back to the early 1920's when Mother Hannah (her closest friends called her Bobbie) and Father William were coaxed by Uncle Sidney and Aunt Dorothy Helsinger to depart the Bronx and take the Long Beach plunge as they themselves had done earlier. The Helsinger family of four siblings included two daughters that later each became schoolteachers at the then Long Beach Junior/Senior High School on Lindell Boulevard. Daughter Florence a gym instructor and Selma (later Stutchbury) a home economics teacher. We still see Selma about once a year when she comes down to "thaw out" in South Florida where I now call home. Those get togethers allow us to enjoy our reminiscence of (what else) the good old Long Beach days of our youth. If memory serves me I do believe that Aunt Dotti had the distinction of having been Long Beach's first PTA president.
My parents were convinced that this enchanting narrow strip of land seemingly torn off of Long Island to float on its own (but not too far) into the Atlantic would provide a safe and comfortable family retreat for us Lichtensteins. Dad could easily handle the daily train commute (he never owned an automobile) to the New York City furrier shop he and his two brothers owned on West 29th street in the shadows of the huge Macy's department store. So Mom and Dad toted my three year old brother Donald (it would be another nine years before I would be born) and all of their worldly belongings across the bay to set up housekeeping at a comfortable rented apartment on West Park Avenue in then rather sparsely developed Long Beach. I think they were persuaded to take that plunge by Uncle Marvin and Aunt Seal who had earlier made the transition themselves.
The Family Tree was rapidly sprouting Long Beach branches with next the Davidson's Uncle Max and Aunt Rose who settled in with their boys Marty, Seymour and Freddie to their comfortable house on East Pine Street. Sadly the only member of that group still with us is lovable Seymour who my husband and I get together with every now and then for dinner often accompanied by my brother Donald and his wife Jackie.
Growing up in Long Beach has provided me with a storybook of enchanted memories, with my earliest although somewhat less vivid still remarkably in tact. Admittedly I'd have to strain to go back to those very earliest of memories when we all lived at 415 National Boulevard. With a bit less effort and a great deal more clarity however, I can envision our next apartment on the corner of Riverside and Park and, in so doing, can easily bring into sharp focus the old Long Beach Post Office directly across the street.
As a youngster I remember eagerly awaiting the onset of summer and the soothing thaw of the winters harshness. I would shell out a dime for a whole days admission to the old Long Beach Municipal Pool on the corner of Lafayette and Broadway. Often my Cousins Florence and Jay would come along.
Certain rather mundane things have a way of latching onto your memory receptors and can be called upon throughout life to soften the occasional pangs of melancholy. One such visual tool is the memory of my childhood visits to the old Woolworth store on East Park Avenue. When I conjure up this image I can almost hear the creaking of the original wooden floors underfoot. Look over there that's my best friend Pear Ebright. . We're twirling around on the red vinyl counter stools until we're giddy with dizzyness. I'm fortunate I still have Pearl in my life and visit her every once in a while out at her home in Las Vegas.
If I jostle my old memory bank from yet another angle I can retrieve "The Tastes of Long Beach". That is, I should say, "The Tastes of the Park Street Food Emporiums". How about Jan's Ice Cream shop or Bornstein's Bakery (think their daughters name was Iris) with the best damn baked bread on earth. My favorite Pincus Deli and those juicy nickel each pickles that I loved so much. The tang would pucker your lips and bring near tears to your eyes.
Even the somewhat sorrowful happenings that I recall seem to have their brighter side in retrospect. I remember, for instance, the tearful demolition of the stately old city hall building and our scooping up its scattered bricks to transplant to a corner piece of the new backyard patio at our house in hopes of capturing and holding onto a bit of Long Beach nostalgia and you know it did just that. A little solace from a bucket of faded old bricks.
A few years ago I revisited my old haunts now as a newlywed with my husband Don. At the outset I was resigned to the belief that the familiar landmarks I had grown up with would have long ago faded from my memory and would bear, at best, only a faint familiarity. Not so! To my elation as we toured the areas I had grown up in block-by-block and neighborhood-by-neighborhood the memories leaped out individually and collectively like thunderbolts to awaken a long dormant visual scrapbook of My Old Long Beach. Suddenly I was young Suzie again full of thunder and eager to explore all that life has to offer as I skated down the sidewalks of Riverside Boulevard with not a care in the world. I watch my imaginary self disappear around a corner and reappear now older and dressed in what I recognize as my white nurses outfit on my way to a new dental assistant job with Dr. Jess Nagler in his Granada Towers office. My mental time frame marches on as I tilt my head and further scan the city panorama. My eyes strain towards the old city hall and the little park there to see me, now a few years older walking side-by-side with my girlfriend Lillie each of us pushing our newborns in similar strollers me with Victor on board and she with baby Howard. The freshness of motherhood is evident by the sparkle in my young eyes and the spring of my gate still adjusting to life as Mrs. Randazzo and the contentment of knowing that husband Bart was but a few doors away busy working in his T.V. repair shop
For a brief second I am brought back to reality as Don asks me, "Didn't you tell me one time that you had a boat and docked it somewhere nearby?" I responded yes that is right and, with that, we headed over to Reynolds Channel at Island Park where my and my son's had often struggled for dock space for our boat the Me-Ma, a pretty substantial cabin cruiser of sorts. Many, many pleasant outings were launched from that harbor but, as is often the case, the ongoing maintenance headaches and general upkeep elicited a collective family sigh of relief when we eventually sold it.
We traveled back around other parts of the old neighborhood now and it all poured back to me in torrents and I became transfixed not unlike watching an absorbing movie drama. The memories bolted from all angles. I realized, more emphatically than ever before that, as children of the early 40's and even, to a lesser degree, the 50's, our fun could be of such humble and innocent origins. I remember that lacking any formal outdoor play area at school the police department would close off Park Street in front of Central School each warm spring day so us kids could run and jump rambunctiously without the risk of automobile traffic. The boys played stickball and the girl's jump rope.
We traveled a mile or so from Central School, rounded a corner and there stood the old Long Beach Junior/Senior High School on Lindell Boulevard as ominously as ever catching the sprays of water misting off of the vast cannel way at the end of the street which afforded the faint outline of New York City looming in the far distance.
Our journey of exploration continued as we twisted and turned through the streets, the communities a little smaller and closely knit than I remembered, the reflection of mental images flashed rapidly in my minds eyes. Turning inward a few blocks and we pause for a while to enable me to reflect as I gaze over at a slender two story home of modest stature and spill out the story to my husband of how I once drew the raft of it's Oriental owner many years ago with my (apparently) insultingly meager offer to purchase his home and can still hear him shouting to me in his broken English "You clazy lady?!". Still looks good guess it was worth his asking price after all!
We wander through yet another neighborhood whose faint familiarity rolls me back to 1939 when I had the dubious distinction of having been the first (and, as far as I know, the only) kid in the city to have contracted scarlet fever. The highly contagious and fearful disease precipitated the quarantining of our entire apartment building. Oh the humility! But, oh- the attention! My parents nurtured me back to health from that episode as they had from many others before and, I must admit, a few since. Mom & Dad were each memorable characters. Mom worked the cosmetic counter representing the Helena Rubinstein cosmetic line as its top sales representative at the Macy's store at Roosevelt Field in Garden City for twenty-nine years. Dad was a lovable kindhearted sole willing to help whenever and wherever he could. During the war years my father, ever the patriot, was anxious to help "the effort". Direct military service was out of the question however his age prohibited that but, bless his red, white and blue heart, he was determined to participate on some level through whatever avenue available. As it turned out Dad became an Air Raid Warden. He doffed the white Wardens armband with its official triangular insignia and dispatched his watchman duties every bit as intently as if he were right on the front lines of combat service! Brother Donald however, was by now actually in training preparation in anticipation of being shipped out for overseas service through his eager enlistment in the United State's armed forces. Of course, Long Beach had more than it's share of armed service volunteers it's collective spirit of citizenry, I've always felt, was typical of the country at large. The Long Beach folks were loyal patriots with warm and compassionate hearts to boot. Their collective good-heartedness was on display annually for the local Orphans Day Parade that had evolved, over the years, into an ever more grandiose event of charitable outpouring.
Our visit to New York was in late December and the gripping chill of winter with the added mystique of a light snow that peppered the familiar landscapes of Long Beach set the whole scenario in stark contrast to the balmy shirtsleeve weather we left behind in South Florida only a few short hours before. But I must say that contrast only added to the surealness of the visit.
We stayed with my very hospitable Cousin Selma in her multi-level home on a Freeport waterway. From that home base it was only a short hop in most any direction for daily jaunts and my opportunity to play tour guide to my husband. A side trip through haughty West Hampton and on out to Montauk to see the lighthouse one particularly bitter afternoon yielded a few classic video's in spite of the bone chilling freeze. Another journey one untypical mild day took us past the maze of houses in Levittown and over the serpentine country roads twisting our way to Oyster Bay and the serenity of the old Theodore Roosevelt estate of Sagamore Hill. My husband thought that I was getting a little extreme when I dragged him all the way out to Smithtown one day to see "The Bull" statue. I had to explain to him that it, and all of the nearby sites for that matter, were each a part of my childhood and they were through the eyes of my youth, once wonderments each and every.
All too soon or trip approached its conclusion and we packed our bags for the next days flight home. As the sun rose in the morning we thanked the ever-gracious Selma for her warm cordiality and headed on out to nearby Islip Airport for our return home. My head still abuzz with the tiddlewave of memories our brief stay had awoken I reflected one last time on the flow of my life's events from childhood to womanhood. The youthful marriage to Bart Randazzo the father of my sons Victor and Bart Jr. (now of Nevada and California respectively) and our parting years later. I reflected too on the difficult task of holding down a meaningful job while tending to my ailing mother and maintaining a rigorous college curriculum in evening classes. The bittersweet mission of closing down my Long Beach life and mentally cataloging the accumulation of memories of years as I stepped through my front door for the last time, to move lock, stock and barrel in the footsteps of Brother Donald to the more seasonably tender climate that would be less harsh on these now senior bones.
We live, dare I jinx it, a blissful life of balmy days and tranquil evenings in Sunny South Florida (Plantation out in western Fort Lauderdale to be exact). I was introduced to my husband Don eight years ago by ex-Long Beach acquaintance and also South Florida transplant Lora Mercado and her husband Frank (Gi Gi). Laura had opened a successful talent agency here in South Florida in nearby Tamarac but, sadly, passed away a couple of years ago. Gi Gi has since remarried.
I love the subtropical lifestyle my husband and I are privileged to enjoy and have grown comfortable in my niche. Yet this Long Beach born and raised gal will forever cherish a warm and deeply affectionate fondness for my hometown with not a passing day that I don't have Long Beach On My Mind.
Suzanne and Donald Willis can be reached by email at SANCTION123@AOL.COM