Welcome to Flashback Friday: I Saw The Decade End, a milestone-anniversary salute to the New York Mets of 1969, 1979, 1989 and 1999. Each week, we immerse ourselves in or at least touch upon something that transpired within the Metsian realm 40, 30, 20 or 10 years ago. Amazin’ or not, here it comes.
Rarely have I exhibited the self-awareness I generated on the final Friday of May twenty years ago. It was the beginning of Memorial Day weekend 1989, the quote-unquote unofficial start of summer. I’m sure that fun fact was pounded into my head by radio as I drove home from work that evening. This was the era of Z-100 and the Five O’Clock Whistle when they’d encourage you to bang on the drum all day because you had Friday on your mind and were thus going to Partytown (yeah, yeah). Add to that a holiday weekend that ushered in summer…well, who could resist getting caught up in summer gladness?
Once I stopped being a student, summer’s awesome impact began to lose some of its luster. When school’s end dovetailed with the official beginning of summer, as it did almost exactly from the age of five through the age of eighteen, that was significant. That was worthy of Alice Cooper. College ran on a different schedule, but finishing finals and the like, whether at the end of April or in the middle of July one year, still brought with it the instinctual sensation of having neither class nor principles.
Then came graduation and its phantom sensation. Sure, school was out for summer, but come 1985 school was out forever. No more pencils or books or stable underpinnings to my existence. Yippee, I’m…confused.
There were the Mets, of course. At 22, there were the 1985 Mets to ease the transition from student to who knows what. As Apu would suggest to Homer in the ’90s, I took a relaxed attitude toward work and instead concentrated on the baseball match, the Nye Mets being my favorite squadron. All I was really interested in upon graduation was the ’85 Mets. I came home to Long Beach partly from professional inertia, party because it had pretty good access to Doc Gooden and partly because my mother menacingly threatened to “burn a Mets pennant on your lawn” should I decide to remain in Tampa (what a kidder).
From a baseball standpoint, it was a good call. The ’85 Mets were a once-per-generation drama. They begat the ’86 Mets, not as gripping an act as ’85 but surely most pleasing in terms of grand finale. That I didn’t figure out what to do with myself on a going basis between baseball seasons didn’t really register with me in the interceding winter. It also kind of missed my radar in the world championship aftermath of ’86-’87; I was too busy floating on a cloud constructed of felt pennants to think of anything that wasn’t Metsie, Metsie, Metsie. This unproductive pattern held in the summers of ’87 and ’88 as well. There were new factors on the horizon then — meeting Stephanie, then still in college, in ’87, and my mother’s foreboding diagnosis of cancer in ’88. I continued to live at home, continued to eke out a freelancer’s existence, continued to keep more than one eye on the Mets. But I knew those sorts of summers couldn’t hold water for long.
That’s where the self-awareness came in, on the brink of the summer of ’89. By then I had swapped freelancing for a steady job as an associate editor on a beverage trade magazine because I knew my time in Long Beach was running out. Nobody said anything. Nobody had to. It had been four years since I graduated college, one year until Stephanie was going to do the same. She was due in New York by the end of April 1990. The future wouldn’t wait much longer. My talent for postponing a sense of urgency was being rendered inoperative. To this day I won’t do anything that nobody makes me. In 1989, the least likely person to force me to do something — me — was getting on my case.
Instead of school ending and indicating a gateway to summer, I was in an office all day every day this late May. The Mets were playing per usual, and not particularly well (they were in the middle of a California swing in which they’d lose six of nine and struggle to stay above .500). The Mets were the staple of summer every summer, even in this transition summer of 1989. I knew without even thinking about it that they’d be there. But whatever else was familiar was going, going, almost gone.
I came home that Friday night before Memorial Day to where I’d always come home, to the East End of Long Beach. My mother was in one of her remission periods, praise be. Since the previous fall, she was doing more or less OK. She wore a wig from the radiation and she was required to take a course of killer chemotherapy approximately every couple of months, but this was one of the months when she wasn’t going into Roosevelt for the necessary punishment. Mom and Dad were home, I was home, it was a Friday night. Consensus, as it often did, led to picking up Chinese food for dinner. It was second nature in our house. I called the order in and I went out to collect it.
I’d done this countless times since I learned to drive. Go to Panda Garden. Go to Park Jen. Go to Wing Loo. It was all basically the same: a nice box of Chinese food that always included some variation on won ton soup, a couple of dishes that involved chicken, a ton of white rice maybe an egg roll. Good dinner, plentiful leftovers. We didn’t have it delivered out of general mistrust that the order would somehow get screwed up and that would hence lead to interminable waiting for it to be returned properly. Better to call it in, inspect the box on-site and bring it up the stairs with confidence.
On the Friday night of Memorial Day weekend, it was Wing Loo. I went out, I drove the short distance, I parked, I got out of the car…and it hit me.
This is my last summer doing this.
This is the last summer I spend in Long Beach.
This is, essentially, my last summer.
I hadn’t been much of a beach person since I was a kid. We got central air conditioning installed in the house the summer I was eight and good luck getting me outside after that. But I grew up practically around the corner from the beach. Everybody from Long Beach grew up practically around the corner from the beach. In the early ’80s, there was a bumper sticker produced by the chamber of commerce: There’s Long Beach Sand In My Shoes. People actually stuck it to their bumpers. I don’t doubt summer is a big deal everywhere, but it was clearly Long Beach’s time to shine. My family moved there in 1962 after renting a summer house two years earlier. Long Beach attracted people with its summers.
This would be my last one there. It had to be. I had to get out of the house where I grew up, obviously. There was no reason I couldn’t have found a place to live in the City by the Sea, but I knew I wouldn’t. I’d just spent, except for college, my whole life there. Before the next summer came, I was sure I’d want to try something different, even if it would wind up being no more than a geographic stone’s throw away. It wouldn’t be summer in Long Beach again after this one, after 1989.
That was my big self-awareness as I went to pick up the Chinese food. I can’t say it moved me to any great actions, save for the Friday night in July when I enthusiastically greeted Joel’s suggestion we go out drinking in the West End. As an East Ender, the West End, its close-in bungalows and its decidedly different demographics (primarily Irish and Italian) always intimidated me. But I was 26. I had as much right to either end of town as I pleased. On the night of July 14, just after Sid Fernandez struck out sixteen Braves in Atlanta but lost when Lonnie Smith homered off him to break a ninth-inning tie, I went out with Joel and Fred. Long Beach was still home base to each of us. Since college ended, I’d see them as many weekends as not. We’d drive around, we might wind up at a bar in Rockville Centre. I generally enjoyed the company more than the drinking which was never really my thing. But on the night of July 14, 1989, I was determined to enjoy the drinking. This, I decided with more of that uncommon self-awareness, will be the last time I have a night like this.
I don’t know that it was. There’d be a business trip to New Orleans in December 2000 whose final night in town involved a few potent potables — specifically, three Hurricanes in three very tall glasses. That was pretty unbridled behavior for me. But that was business. This was home. This was Long Beach. This was the last time I’d go out and really drink with my friends. As most of my drinking stories go, it doesn’t get any more exciting than the decision to partake. Like I said, I’m not much of a drinker. But I definitely drank. I was definitely in another zone, and I don’t mean the West End. Yet I wasn’t totally far gone. In fact, I have a very vivid memory of the saloon where we wound up. More than once somebody selected “Sweet Caroline” on the jukebox and more than once the place went nuts. That — not Shea Stadium and not Fenway Park — is where I first heard the “so good, so good” refrain. Maybe that’s why I’m less prone to anger at hearing the Mets lamely co-opt it. I had fun singing along to “Sweet Caroline” in the West End of Long Beach on July 14, 1989. For all I know, the Red Sox stole it from us.
In my early days of my beverage magazine job, I had a knack for carving out niches that suited my interests and made me feel less like a trade magazine hack. Because it tangentially brought me into contact with government and politics, I took up the recycling/environmental beat. A study of municipal solid waste came to my attention that summer, specifically that beverages were being blamed for a proliferation of trash on beaches. It wasn’t earth-shattering, but it was an excuse to get some of that Long Beach sand in my shoes. One morning I let it be known I’d be coming in later (I was always looking for excuses to legitimize my nocturnal tendencies) because this report required some first-hand research.
I went to the beach — our beautiful nearly deserted on a weekday morning beach. Ostensibly I was taking notes and pictures of stray foam cups and potentially dangerous six-pack rings, but mostly I wanted one more visit to our city’s most famous natural resource. Sure, I could’ve gone on a weekend, but I didn’t really like crowds when it came to the beach. I liked solitude. Since moving home after college, my token visits had generally been when almost nobody was around. At the end of the tortuous summer of ’88, when my mother got out of South Nassau after her cancer was discovered and initially treated, I made my only appearance of the year at our beach on Roosevelt Boulevard. It was September and it represented splendid isolation. I guess I wanted one more taste of that sort of beachgoing before I kissed Long Beach’s summers goodbye for good. Since then, summer remains preferable to winter, given its lack of snow and surfeit of Mets, but it doesn’t really feel overwhelmingly different from any other time of year. That’ll happen once you’ve stopped postponing definitively growing up.
Long Beach remains nearby. I’ve never really strayed from what is known as the South Shore of Long Island, but I almost never get down there anymore. I indeed moved out in April of ’90. Mom died two months later and Dad sold the house within a year. He took an apartment on the boardwalk for a while but eventually moved to the North Shore. There is nothing particularly pulling me toward Long Beach anymore, not this summer, not any summer since my last summer.
Flash back to a whole lot of Amazin’ days with Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets, available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or a bookstore near you. Keep in touch and join the discussion on Facebook.