My Little Province
by Michael Case
I was born in Manhattan, New York City. I first came to Long Beach, New York in 1957 and lived there until 1972. I truly believe that it is the finest place on the planet. This may be because my formative years were spent there, or because of what I know is the real reason: there is a very spiritual vibe there on that small island of friendliness and safety that is richly enhanced by the smell of the Atlantic Ocean. Before the John F. Kennedy Center was built, that site was the "center of town" where the "Old Clock Tower" resided. It was a tall, slim structure with grandiose Roman Numerals on its dial, the number 4 was of the archaic IIII type rather than IV. The fire station was nearby and the funky old fire horn that proclaimed "snow days" used to bark its ghastly sound that could be heard from 6 miles away. Sometime around 1965 the tower was abandoned and us kids climbed up in it to explore, as we did with most other old buildings that were slated for condemnation. With my heart pounding, I went up there myself on one windy fall day and entered a musty, asbestos filled room to thrillingly discover a tourist's pamphlet from 1933. It had black and white aerial shots of the Incorporated City from Grand to Lincoln Blvd. and I was amazed at how many empty lots there were.
The decaying clock tower was way cool. It was a narrow 3 story climb up the stairway and had a few 9' by 10' offices in there, not much else, but the massive clock mechanism itself was in a huge room that had enormous 6 foot tall gears attached to shafts pointing in 4 directions to manipulate the clock's hands. There were little opaque glass windows between the roman numerals to let the florescent room light out for night visibility. I could see Central School on Magnolia (now condominiums) out of some of the broken glass panes as well as a few 6 story high-rises 6 blocks away at the beach. The room had those awful flesh-colored broken linoleum tiles. There were papers and dusty files strewn all over the place as I realized I was not the first to have snuck up there. Looking out of a 1' X 1' window, I could see over to the roof of City Hall where that loud-ass foghorn was, and I knew I had to get out of there fast before it sounded off and made me permanently deaf. That wicked thing was shaped like a big black box with an actual horn on it like you saw on the RCA record labels of the dog listening to the phonograph. It was the only thing that was still in permanent operation in the old city hall building, and reminded me of the Wicked Witch of the West's hat blown off and lying on its side.
The actual 30 year-old pamphlet treasure trove photos of my beloved town in that time gave me a great feeling of past lives lived and of yearning to have been on that island since the first Reynolds houses were built. My friends and I, at age 9, not knowing how much danger we were in also used to play at the water treatment plant, riding around on the rotating water wheel spillway with our slippery old sneakers. Never guarded or fenced, we were always in danger of being crushed if we slipped onto the mossy rocks below. With soaking wet shoes, we would then run over to Riverside Blvd., and then hop over and walk tightrope-style above the boards that would "protect" (us from) the LIRR's "third rail". We'd then race home just in time for dinner at 6:00 pm every night.
In those early days there also existed a large 6-story observation tower, shaped like an elevator shaft overlooking the ocean on Riverside and the beach. Its decayed cement foundations and various maze-like sea-level barriers are still there to this day. The center of this imposing cement tower held a rusty ladder. We used to climb up the rusty prongs to the narrow claustrophobic confines of the observation slit and look out and yell to those on the beach. The tower, we had heard, was used to locate German submarines off our coast during the WWII blackouts of 1944. I was present on the boardwalk as was half the town when the city fathers/mothers decided to destroy our precious hideout by covering it with a bomb blanket and imploding it, sometime around 1966.
On the bay side, we used to find little weather-beaten dingy-boats on the bay at National Blvd. after school and courageously paddle north across the channel to the marshes until dusk, when invariably the south onshore winds would kick up, keeping us there and threaten to not let us row back. Sometimes we'd see 2 foot long black water rats dart in and out of the rocky shore. Despite all these dangerous things we did as kids, the most threats to our existence were groups of "hitters" or street thugs roaming around in large gangs between 1962 and 1966 who created street brawls in the middle of Broadway at the Boardwalk. That mischief all stopped abruptly when maimed Vietnam vets started coming back to our town very jaded and vehemently against all types of bravado and violence. This new period of "peace and love" and surfing in 1967 also ushered in drugs, and everyone my age was threatened by the insidious use of cigarettes, alcohol and LSD. We get drunk at Shines in the West End and pedal our bikes over to Nolan's near Lincoln for more drinks. There was the Laurel Luncheonette that we all invaded at 1:30 am for the 2:00 pancake special when the bars closed. To get around town in winter we would "skitch" on the back of cars during snowstorms at night, and the innocent driver of a Volkswagen bug never new 3 drunken louts were holding him in place skidding on one icy spot.
In 1970, the Beatles had broken up and "the dream was over". The Long Beach we knew seemed smaller then, and after a few years as a teenager you just weren't cool if you didn't expand your horizons and aspire to see the rest of the world ("going to California") in on way or another. I look back today at fond memories as a child, displacing a board at the side of the long condemned cathedral-like establishment that was once actress Billie Burke's house at Laurelton and the Bay when she filmed The Wizard of Oz. I was in musty paradise, rummaging through the many splintered wood floors of this once very fine and regal Victorian mansion. Now, across that street, yachts are moored on the bay, secured to structural improvement on the once broken down, leaky seawall. I was also extremely proud of the fact that "Detective Arborgast" from PSYCHO, Martin Balsam, was born and raised in Long Beach.
Here's some more 411 on the 11561. Before there even were Area/Zip codes in common use, there weren't even whole telephone numbers. The 432 telephone prefix was then called General-2. This was about 1957. There were still a few old heavy black phones around without any circular rotating dial. Picking up the receiver, you'd here a scary 'Lily Tomlin' type voice say "Operator" or, weirder still, you'd hear someone's intimate conversation on a "Party Line" conference call. There was a yellow disclaimer sticker on the phone that said "In The Event Of An Emergency, All Other Parties Must Hang Up When An Emergency Call Is Being Made!" But in 1958 those teenagers who were James Dean and Marlon Brando wannabe's never did - there was no such thing yet as 911 and they'd only get off the line when they were good and ready.
Going to the beach in summer was eagerly looked forward to, that is if you could struggle across the early morning cold dank sand underneath the boardwalk, and then brave it over the oven-like fry pan to the shore. The Atlantic Ocean OWNED Long Beach and the salty whitewater paid respect to it always. To a 6-year old like me, smelling the salt and seaweed was bigger than all other experiences. It caused me to fix on ancient primordial imaginary longings of trying to escape the Irish potato famine as my great-grandparents had done decades before. Even at that early age, while splashing around in huge holes that the riptide had made, I knew that my long genetic line had made it across to the New World, yet kept the swirling Atlantic with us.
When my brother and I got hungry in mid-morning we could always get a potato knish and cherry soda on the boardwalk. The Arcade had Ski-Ball for a nickel a game. There was the Grip-O-Meter, and Souvenir Coin Stamper; it was fun to see someone's extra-long last name over stamped at the beginning of the circle again. Best of all was the Old Witch in the Glass Booth who stood 6 feet tall with green skin. She looked so scary and real! Drop a nickel in and she would hint at waving her plastic hand and move that waxy Exorcist face and slowly LOOK RIGHT AT YOU as her eyelids rose and smirk her Mona Lisa smile as if to say "Now sucker, dump another coin in!" A little rolled-up fortune came down the chute. I was Cancer the Crab. She looked cancerous! I got bit on the toes by a crab today in the surf. Who was the witch's husband, the crabby guy who traded quarters for 2-foot long strips of tickets? I was SO sunburnt red and the witch was SO deathly green. No matter, it was time for more pink cotton candy. The other old crab who worked the cotton spinner machine looked so bored - I couldn't understand that because I was having so much fun!
In 1959, a quart of milk was 16 cents in the new cardboard containers. It was still 21 cents a bottle that was delivered by the Milkman dressed in white at 5 AM every day. The Knife Grinder would be clanging his bell up and down National Blvd. by the train station once a month in his green truck. All the moms would meet him and gossip. Sarrett's hardware store was there next to the Long Beach Public Library and sold school supplies to us in September. At the library us "latch key kids" (before there was such a term) would hang out after school pretending to do homework while really catching up on the latest Dr. Suess masterpiece. Or limited choices were either that activity after school, or going home (key under mat) to catch Officer Joe Bolton on TV, warning us not to be violent with our brothers and sisters while checking out the crazy antics of Moe, Larry and Curly.
In 1960, at the Central School playground on Magnolia, the black kids used to segregate and swing on the rear set of swings singing doo-wop while us white kids would dig their strong, four-part harmonies as we swung in the front. Sometimes they would jump us and beat the crap out of us, daring us to hit them back. On more than a few occasions in the playground after school, some over-friendly black guy would pressure me to "just for a minute" put on boxing gloves he was holding, and when I reluctantly did, proceed to pummel my face until I was dazed, take his gloves back and move on to the next sucker. I asked my mom why the black kids hated us so. She said that they were just resentful of hearing their fathers talk of how much the white man was always screwing them.
In 1960, Hurricane Donna hit us like a ton of bricks. Literally. I looked out from my 2nd story window at the Landshore Apts. at 158 East Shore Road after 3 days of ocean fury pounding and wind whistling like 1000 teakettles to see a ton of red bricks laying all over the street like red ants. After a 3 day power outage, TV was welcome again, but all that was on were reruns of I Love Lucy. Manhattan must have had bigger problems because "Please Stand By" was on every other station (4, 7, 9 & 11.) The raging surf had actually come up to Park Avenue in places as evidenced by a beach ticket booth later lying near that center thoroughfare. We weren't allowed to go near a window during the violent storm. Soggy driftwood and big sheet metal traffic signs were strewn all over the place. Donna was talked about with awe for the next 6 months and it took that long to bolster Long Beach's sandy beachfront barriers up again. I just knew that the Witch at the Arcade had something to do with all of it.
In 1962, Tilben's Music Store on Park and National did incredible business selling 45 RPM records for 75 cents apiece. Gino's Pizza nearby was the place to hang out after school for 25 cents a slice. During the dead of winter we kept our swimming skills up at Long Beach Municipal Pool. The amount of chlorine added to the water in those days dried you out 3 minutes after climbing out of the deep pool. At school, I couldn't keep my mind on my schoolwork, what with being in love with every pretty Irish, Italian and Jewish girl in my classes at one time or another. My buddies and I each imagined ourselves as a character from the hit movie West Side Story. I got in yelled at by the teacher for singing "Maria" to the pretty Puerto Rican girl I adored named Maria in the front row in math class. I collected all of the 55 Mars Attacks! trading cards, as well as the Civil War ones which depicted so many gruesome bloody battles, they would be banned outright today. I was into music and drawing and pretty good at an elementary form of gambling that involved "flipping" baseball cards. One fall day, while lined up in the playground with other students to await various school buses, I stupidly left a shoebox full of classic cards there that would be worth a fortune today all gone. I was pretty good at softball, and you hadn't lived until you'd skinned your bony knees on the rough pebbly asphalt that served as the school's playground. Cyrus O. Levinson was the principal at Central School then and to me seemed as old as his plaque in the cornerstone granite at the schools entranceway. I saw him in the halls once, a silent, jaded figure that had seen it all. You know that double-exposed shot of the big round head of the Wizard of Oz with the flames all around it when Dorothy finally enters the castle? That was Cyrus O.
Later, Billy Crystal's older brother was a math teacher at Long Beach Junior High at Lindell, and was tall stoic and reserved, very unlike his "City Slicker" brother who later got famous. I remember Mr. Crystal as a nice guy and looked like a very tall Tom Cruise. All the girls always said hi to him in the hallways, he was very popular.
The November 1965 blackout hit Long Beach suddenly, as it did much of the eastern seaboard. We got away easy however because there was a full moon that night. And I'm here to tell ya, Long Beach in full moon with no electricity is quite something to see with the crashing surf as its soundtrack. In early 1967, an eerily bright fireball flew very low and slow from the beach to the bay which we were all quite amazed at. We thought it was a seaplane in a burning dive. It later turned out to be a meteor which was seen from North Carolina to Canada. I knew better it was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.
In 1969, there was a big deal, an intrusion in a way, when Building One of The World Trade Center was erected in Manhattan. That structure was taller than the Empire State Building and for that fact alone it started out with a mark against it. It was rigidly square, modern and ominous, not unlike the Giant Stomping Alien Robot Box that marched across everything in the 1958 science fiction film "Kronos". The WTC was here to stay- It was the new Jetson's landing pad. Building 2 came up alongside it a couple of years later. I used to ride up to Washington Blvd. and the Bay and stare northwest at the Trade Center sticking up out of the brightly glowing dome that was the horizon of southern Manhattan at summer dusk 17 miles away.
In 1991, after 19 years away from my Monopoly Board town and after "seeing the world" with the US Navy, I decided to make a trip back. I had a week there and found myself walking from Grand and the Bay to Franklin and the Boardwalk and back again, feeling incredible nostalgia that welled up tears and made me silently pray to God for such a clean and beautiful New York town to grow up in. I miss Catherine Leigy, my favorite teacher at Lindell Junior High who befriended me and asked me to try harder to awake the potential within me. I miss all my friends who perhaps feel the way I do about this geographical location and turbulent times we lived in. My favorite place of solitude on planet earth is still the jetty at Magnolia. Or, is it Saint Ignatius at Grand or the Bay at Laurelton? Whatever, Long Beach was, and still is a magic place for many more inexplicable reasons than I'm attempting to convey here. Although around 1957, the new faster jet air travel to other exotic vacation spots relegated Long Beach to its "dying resort" status, that town will always live on in my heart as a place where certain angels as well as Saint James Episcopal Church at Magnolia and Penn protected me. Father Thor R. Sirch instructed and guided me there and I knew I had to reserve every Saturday to clean the church for 4 hours and 2 dollars to make it ready to serve as an acolyte on Sunday. God Bless Long Beach.
Now, every once in a while, what at minimum turns out to be 10 years at best, I'll return to Long Beach. I guess I'm forever blessed with a nagging sense of nostalgia that makes me think that just by returning to this particular physical place on the planet, I'll somehow revisit and hang with the same folks I knew when I lived there, which is most always never the case. I wastefully yearn for the same political upheaval of the 1960's as enhanced by the same howling at the moon, influenced by the salty night air, as exaggerated by rice-hops filtered through Budweizer's patented aged brewing process. I long for running with the pack again, the throwing off of responsibility and the slow nursing of a hangover while I fall back to regroup, go sun-bleached high-noon bodysurfing, and due to the fragrantly salty ambient wafting essence of the last week of June, join up with the gang at the Boardwalk as night falls to do the same party all over.
Of course, the ominous nagging fear is felt of being permanently trapped inside the dead end cul-de-sac of Long Island's popular beach town, and it's the same feeling of wanderlust that made me leave after high school some 30 years ago. The good news is that this questing sense stays with you wherever you go and is not just all inclusive to Long Beach. Here is a town that is that is now at once more peaceful with its Dutch gables that stand against all Atlantic winds. Its white cotton dunes of sand are the only disruptions of a plain flatness of land that is not real land at all, but rather a sand bar mercifully left aside the currents of the southern mouth of the Hudson River, 17 miles to the west.
This pearl-like strand of an island was purchased from the Indians in 1635, made a Province of New York in 1888 and became an Incorporated Village sometime around 1922. I first felt the clean coldwater salt between my toes in 1957, got sand kicked in my face by bullies in 1961 and puked up too much red wine in 1968. In 1970 I went surfing for a month in Puerto Rico, where I partied with other surfers from Massachusetts, New Jersey, Delaware, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, California, Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand, all of whom had known about or had enjoyed riding the high quality waves off New York's famous south facing beach.
Years later, while living in San Diego, California in 1980 I quit the drinking habit for good. I've since wondered if my drinking buddies and girlfriends from Long Beach had had as much luck at sobriety as I subsequently did and I often thought about them.
So in June 2001 it was time to go back again upon a gracious invitation by my Navy buddy Kevin, who has a summer house near the world famous Azores surfing spot 2 blocks from the beach. Would I come? Hell yes! For me, nostalgia is quite overwhelming and there is never any closure. I just can't let this town go. Boy would it be cool to be 18 again and see the same suntanned youthful smiles! In those early days, spending 5 hours in the surf and sun produced a windswept sunburn that was just a little uncomfortable but very sensually rewarding: there existed then a real ozone layer in the upper atmosphere that toned and warmed your skin rather than destroyed it. Anyhow, life is short, and once it's gone - it's gone. Some friends I used to party with have been dead 20 years now.
But Kevin is very much alive. He runs 3 miles on the boardwalk every day. I had his mountain bike riding alongside with him, alternating jogging and riding with it. I'd stare at the sea for a minute and Kevin would be half a city block ahead of me.
So what's the big deal? It's only a strip of land. You can walk from on end to the other in under 2 hours. Slamming your 10 speed bike into high gear, you can coast for 2 blocks. But every once in awhile, you've got to stop and smell the salt air, witness the glassy waves peeling off in a straight line held high from strong Canadian offshore winds, almost a rarity as compared to the churning soupy California beaches.
I rode past June's house, the one that held 80 people on a typical Friday night party in the 60's. It's still there, regal as ever. My old church, Saint James of Jerusalem Episcopal Church by the Sea, replete with paint job in Hunter Green, highlighting the exquisite stonework first built in 1935. I also saw the finely detailed brickwork of that oddly designed building on Edwards and Park Avenue, architecture I've not seen the likes of anywhere before or since. Echo's Stationers, Tilben's Music, Gino's Pizza.
Of course the songs playing on the oldies radio were unmercifully right. "So Many Memories" by the Marvelettes; Bobby Vinton's "Blue Velvet"; Dionne Warwick's "Walk On By"; "I'll Be Around" by The Spinners. It was almost like God Himself was providing the soundtrack for this trip, some simple good fortune I had no reason why I'd earned.
On the third day of my trip, my other hometown Navy buddy, Chuck magically appeared, summoned by Kevin as a surprise. The good vibes clicked in upon mutual recognition and the resultant fast paced walk on the beach by this sunglasses, towel and T-shirt flying trio was like we'd just seen each other yesterday. It was good to toss around names. There was never enough time to do the "whatever happened to" them all.
On my later bike rides through town, I passed by all the old houses my past friends lived in and quietly wished them well wherever they now were.
Flying back to my hometown is much easier now. Before I arrived, I purchased my round-trip ticket on the Internet a trip that used to cost twice as much making it as easy to fly as clicking my heels 3 times. I'm glad that state funds are finally flowing into town to improve things. Upon noticing the piecemeal cement and asphalt quilt that serves for roads and sidewalks however, you'd never know it: it's almost as if an asphalt worker drives across town, fills in one shovel full of blacktop then drives off. Only I know it's a conspiracy to keep the mosaic feel to the speckled colors that are representative of the shoreline shells on the beach: Robin's Egg Blue, Mint Green, Beige, London Fog Gray, Bone White.
This is New York's finest resort town, close enough to the city to remind you it can never be anything else, yet far enough away to beckon you to yet again to return to its Wuthering Heights. It is my little province. I hope I always remain wistfully provincial.
San Diego, California, June 2002