Some Sunday at the end of August — with no hurricane in sight and no hurricane having recently hit — is the time to spend an afternoon in my hometown. The birth certificate says different, but I’m a native of Long Beach, Long Island, New York. Got myself born in Brooklyn because my Long Beach-resident parents seemed to revere every doctor they ever knew on Flatbush Avenue, but after a few days, I was bundled up and whisked east. That’s where I’m from in every way that counts.
Long Beach is where I started life, where I crawled for a spell, where I learned to walk, to talk, to root for the Mets and whatever else one does from there. I moved away from Long Beach eventually, never living all that far from it but mostly, for the past two decades, in a state of benign obliviousness to it. No family remained there. It wasn’t on my way to or from anything. It took a good reason to lure me be back. It felt fine on my sporadic returns, but then it felt distant once it was in my rearview mirror. It wasn’t who I’d been for a long time. It was a third-person city: they, them, their.
Yet in my 50th summer, I grew determined to go home again. My nominal excuse was Cablevision’s blackout of Channel 11, which deprived me of the sights of the last National League game ever scheduled between the New York Mets and the Houston Astros — saying it that way lends it an air of importance it doesn’t deserve, but it’s a long season. Granted, even I didn’t consider it all that important, but no weekend goes by when I fully shed myself of awareness of what the Mets are up to (even the crappy August 2012 Mets). Thanks to Cablevision, I had no Mets sights to supplement my observations, but there are always sounds, thanks to the radio. It’s one of those objects you can take with you anywhere.
Mets games, every darn one of ’em, are still broadcast over the same radios we’ve been listening to all our lives. Scattered around my current residence are probably half the radios I’ve ever owned. They’re practically piled in clumps. Some run on batteries. Some you can plug in even though they were manufactured in veritable prehistoric times. I have a radio from, I’m guessing, the 1940s that I last listened to in 2004. It crackled when I turned it on and it took a minute to clear its throat, but it did its job. It gave me the Mets game that day (Mike Cameron made a three-run error that came in crystal clear). Old radios will do that for you. Any radio will.
Thus, the smallest radio I own went in my shirt pocket with me to Long Beach and came out as soon as I found a place to park, which is no easy task on a Sunday like the Sunday I returned home. Sundays in summer bring the outlanders to my hometown. That’s what my dad called them as he mock-fretted over their weekly invasions of our beaches and, consequently, our space every summer. We lived not on the beach but close enough to it so the curb that fronted our house was up for grabs if I didn’t make a point of parking in it on Saturday night. Otherwise, it was the driveway for me, which always seemed like admitting defeat.
My instinct in August brought me to my old house to park. I obviously couldn’t use the driveway. Alas, that space in front was taken by somebody else, maybe whoever lived there now. The whole block was taken. Every spot south of Park Street, the double-wide avenue that divides the beach side from the bay side of town, was taken. Good afternoon Long Beach, I asked rhetorically in my best Arlo Guthrie, don’t you know me? I’m your native son…
The City of Long Beach was unmoved by a native son gone outlander. I was just some schmuck who didn’t live around here but expected to pull in wherever I felt like it. I’d seen people like myself as a matter of course growing up and I resented them. Now I was one of them. I parked on relatively deserted Park and hiked the hike of the deservedly thwarted outlander.
That was OK. The more Long Beach I could ogle by foot, the better. The more Long Beach I could cram into the space of the Mets and Astros, the better, too. The Mets and Astros famously played 16 innings for a pennant in 1986 and notoriously dragged on for 24 innings in 1968. The Mets and Astros had made good theater if not always great baseball in their time together, which happened to start in 1962 — same year as me — and was about to end whenever this game, on August 26, 2012, would. Houston was about to move to the American League. They’d be outlanders as well, soon enough. The Mets and I today were ensconced as Long Beach’s home team.
I crossed Park at Roosevelt Blvd. and paid my respects to the site of Congregation Beth Sholom, which itself was no more. That’s where I was Bar Mitzvahed. I didn’t stick around, raise a family and join the temple. Nor did enough other former Bar Mitzvahs. I already knew the building had been sold a couple of years earlier and the land had been cleared for new housing. I’d been staring at a stadium that no longer existed in Flushing since 2009. This was sort of like that.
Then it was a few short blocks down to my old block, the one that I’m told is half of my porn name and maybe the answer to one of those devious-behavior prevention questions, so I’d be a certain kind of nut to mention it, but there it was, more or less as I’d left it in 1991 when my father sold our house. Some homes looked exactly as they did when I delivered Newsday to them in the summer of 1977 or sold Passover candy door-to-door, per Beth Sholom Hebrew School fundraising requirements, in the spring of 1974. Others had been noticeably renovated but were as recognizable to me at age 49 as they had been when I was 4 or 9. A couple had been torn down and built back up. The one I grew up in and began to grow stale in when I hung around too long after college was in the recognizable-plus group. It looked like whoever moved in after Dad — and whoever’s moved in since, as I assume it was flipped a couple of times after Long Beach real estate boomed — got whimsical with it. Flowers along the railing. Flowers planted beneath what we called the “sloped room” window on the third floor. Lots of flowers, but not overwhelmingly floral.
The house had morphed into a friendlier English Tudor than the one I knew. I always liked our bricks and what was behind them, but there was an intimidation factor to the place. I don’t think any of us among my parents, my older sister and I really knew what to do with it. Once I finally got my act together and moved out to become something approaching a full-fledged adult, my mom having died not long after, I didn’t blame my father for wanting to sell. It was big and lonely inside, too much house for one man. It’s best not to think what it would have been worth had he held on a little while longer. Sometimes there’s value in getting going while the getting’s good.
I walked west on my block and then turned left at Neptune. After a couple more short blocks, I arrived at the boardwalk. The beach is in Long Beach’s name, but the boardwalk is its identity. I was never a huge beach fan, especially once we got central AC. I always loved the boardwalk, though. Everybody loved the boardwalk, Neptune Blvd. to New York Ave., 14 long blocks in all. The beach attracted the summer swarm of outlanders. The boardwalk was there for the natives 12 months a year. I rode my bike up there rather than sit through a biology regents brushup toward the end of ninth grade. Some would call that cutting class. I’d call it a wise decision. Thirty-four years after barely eking out a passing grade in biology, I remembered the illicit freedom my bike on that boardwalk brought me. I don’t remember a damn thing about the frog I had to cut up and probably wouldn’t even with the extra hour of instruction.
Thick boardwalk crowd this Sunday. It’s hot, it’s bright, it’s probably loud, except I’m still listening to the Mets, leading the Astros, 1-0, on the strength of the home run Ike Davis hit when I was driving through Island Park in the fourth inning. There are people biking and skating and jogging and strolling and generally lollygagging. I amble, at best. What’s the rush? Jeremy Hefner’s shutting down Houston in my earbuds and Long Beach isn’t going anywhere. Now and again, Howie and Josh nab my attention as they try to inject some Mets-Astros lore into the conversation, but I’m at about 20% Mets/80% Long Beach on my amble west. I take a crappy picture now and then to remind myself the boardwalk is eternally fine and the beach…it ain’t so bad, either.
My ostensible destination is an art fair I researched in advance. I stumbled into one a dozen years earlier on a post-Gino’s amble with my high school buddy Larry on a Sunday when I needed a distraction from the Mets. The Mets weren’t playing that afternoon. They were going to play that night, against the Yankees, 24 hours after the unarrested criminal Roger Clemens beaned Mike Piazza. I was fuming all day. Larry called. He was visiting his mother in Long Beach and wanted to know if I wanted to go to Gino’s before he went back to his place in Manhattan. Of course I did. Everybody wants to go to Gino’s if you’re from Long Beach. And I just had to get away from my fume lest it eat me alive in the runup to ESPN permitting resumption of Subway Series hostilities.
In August 2012, I remembered that July 2000 art fair, where I bought a t-shirt and a few old-timey postcards while attempting to take my mind off how much I hated Roger Clemens. The postcards were the key in the here and now. I wanted to find some more for Stephanie, who had recently joined something called Postcrossing, either an affable club or a captivating cult in which members from all over the world send each other postcards, provided they adhere to strict guidelines regarding how many and to whom. Since signing up in spring, Stephanie’s relationship to postcards had become akin to one of those hungry cartoon characters who looks at other cartoon characters but really sees a walking turkey leg, except in my wife’s case, everybody is a postcard waiting to be addressed, stamped and mailed…and we receive more correspondence from the Netherlands than anyone this side of Heineken USA. (The Dutch really love their postcards, I’ve learned.) Finding her some Long Beach postcards became a subsidiary mission of my grand day out.
The art fair emerged around Long Beach Blvd., four blocks west of where the boardwalk began. The bikes and the skates have to quit wheeling around and the ambling and strolling slow to a trudge. It’s gridlock at the art fair. One block or so devoted to carny-like refreshments, then the arts, the crafts, the doodads that don’t seem to fit either description. My ad hoc plan develops: use the rest of the westbound walk to make mental notes of who might have postcards, then stop to browse and potentially buy when I turn around to head east.
Upon my 180, Howie and Josh get my full attention with something unrelated to Mets 1 Astros 0. They’re about to wish all the best to a Mets employee and dear friend who is leaving the team early this season. I wonder if I’ll recognize the name. I do: Shannon Forde, from Mets PR, about as innately a nice person as I’ve ever met. I don’t know her well, but Howie’s cryptic if heartfelt shoutout has me concerned over what’s wrong. The Mets are winning, the boardwalk is bustling and I’m about to find my wife some postcards. Nothing should be wrong.
The “postie” pickings are initially slim. The Long Beach Historical Society, the folks who sold me my hardy “GREETINGS FROM…” shirt in 2000 (still in rotation), continue to sell the vintage look via reproduction — stuff like the LIRR station as it stood in the early 20th century — but they seem cheap, not classic. I buy a couple just to make sure I have something with which to surprise Stephanie, who doesn’t know where I went off to today, just that I was going out because Cablevision had screwed me out of my Mets. I find a shirt for myself at another table. That’s not my goal, but I can’t resist a good tee. This one is purple with the City of Long Beach seal, a logo I can’t say I’d ever pledged allegiance to, but it’s authentic, it’s popularly priced and it will fit.
While I pay for it, I am stunned to find myself in conversation over my brand new baseball cap, a gift from a friend on the other side of the world. It’s blue and at its center is an angry sock. It’s for the Blue Sox — the Sydney Blue Sox of the Australian Baseball League. It’s not stunning that someone would ask, “What cap is that?” It’s stunning that the guy who asked nudged his tablemate to have a gander. That guy’s girlfriend, whom he’s in the midst of texting, is Australian. She’s in Australia right now. He asks if he can take a picture of me. Sure, I say. My head winds up on some Aussie lass’s phone in an instant.
From small world to motherlode: a table selling Long Beach postcards. Beautiful Long Beach postcards, made from photographs taken by the seller, who apparently put together a coffee-table book of the prints. I am suitably impressed by her work: it’s all beach and boardwalk, Long Beach as it likes to be known. There are other things to take pictures of in town, but why would you? Nobody else has this beach or this boardwalk. I take two books of postcards, one for Stephanie to send to Postcrossing members across the globe, one kind of just to have.
My purchasing has been successful. I trudge through the gridlock for another block and, satisfied with myself for having chosen this day to go home again, plant myself on one of the benches that faces the mighty Atlantic. My picture-taking will suck again, but I don’t care. I’m content to watch the mellow waves lap at the wettest sand. Off on the horizon are freighters of some sort. That’s a real ocean out there. Real seafaring’s going on. I have no idea how close their action is to this shoreline. Is it international waters that far out? How could that be, when directly south of Long Beach is more of America?
On the beach at my feet are the sun-absorbers and the volleyballers and those who run in circles and those who want to be left alone. They all came to Long Beach today. Some, probably most, are outlanders, sure, but some moved here so they could do this all the time. Some may have come out of the buildings behind me, the ones that border the boardwalk. That sounds like an ideal setup, but the idea never appealed to me fully. Live right here? I thought. Are you kidding? After Irene?
It wasn’t a new thought. In Long Beach, there was always the specter of The Big One and what it might do to anybody who lived too close to that mighty Atlantic. And you didn’t even have to be that close. Now and again you’d hear about Hurricane Donna in 1960 — or was it the hurricane from 1938 from when people-names weren’t applied to savage storms? — when “the bay met the ocean”. That sounds so collegial, like two bodies of water shaking hands after whipping the Axis powers in World War II. In fact, it would be catastrophic. The bay is about a mile from the ocean. You don’t want them to meet. You wouldn’t want to see Park Street if they did.
I abandoned my bench and resumed my amble, about to run out of boardwalk. It was time to go back to my car. The most direct route would be straight up Neptune to Park, but I knew I wouldn’t take it. Had to hang a right onto my old block again. Had to stalk my old house a little more. Had to see if maybe whoever lived there now was hanging out on its porch, maybe puttering in its front yard, maybe even pulling out of its garage. If I had an opening, maybe I could do what a couple of former owners did during my years there and introduce myself.
Hi, I’d say, this may sound strange, but I lived here from the early 1960s to the dawn of the 1990s. I haven’t been inside since May 8, 1991, just two days before my father made the sale official. I came over to retrieve his old office chair that I asked him to save me because the one in my office in Great Neck was falling apart and I didn’t trust the publishing company I worked for to order me a good one. The house was so empty that Wednesday morning, the day after Darryl Strawberry returned to Shea with the Dodgers. He was booed and he was cheered and he was pelted with strawberries and he homered off Viola and he struck out against Franco and the Mets held on to win, 6-5. We needed a Phillips screwdriver to take the chair apart so it would fit in a car, but the house was so empty that all the tools had been packed up and moved out or discarded or maybe went in the tag sale. So my dad and I went around the corner to O’Rourke’s to buy a new one. I hardly ever went in there, but it fills my nostrils just at the thought of the word “hardware”. Then we stopped for breakfast at Belle’s — it wasn’t called Belle’s anymore by then. I think it was called Sandy’s, which was my mother’s name. We had two perfectly good luncheonettes on that block between Roosevelt and Neptune: Belle’s and the Cozy Nook, yet after I was 7 or 8, we never ate in either of those places. It was where we went to buy newspapers or I’d pick up Baseball Digest or season preview magazines or pack after pack of cards every March and April. But we had breakfast that day when I was 28 and Dad was, what by then…62, I guess. We had our eggs and walked back and took apart the chair. I took one last look around throughout the house, but it wasn’t a long last look. I was at a stage in life where looking back seemed passé and looking ahead seemed overdue. Still, it was just weird how empty my room was. It wasn’t my room anymore by then. None of the rooms were ours. They were all in escrow. My room had this shade of carpet. “Popcorn blue,” I once heard my mother, who suffered from delusions of interior decorating, among other delusions, call it. The room was so small once nothing was left in it, hence all I noticed was the carpet. No chance that carpet’s still there 21 years later, I suppose. Across from the doorway to my room was a dent in the wall I hope didn’t cause a problem to whoever moved in next. It was put there by me with a shoe on September 11, 1987. Terry Pendleton hit a home run that night for the Cardinals. I really should’ve brought an old report card or something to prove I lived here so you’re not afraid I’m some crazy person trying to take you hostage or rob you blind. I wouldn’t blame you if you don’t let me in. I’m not even sure why I want to come in. The house looks like my house in my mind. It won’t look anything like it today. Still, I’m here, and the people who lived here before us dropped by unannounced and we let them visit, so it seems like the thing to do. You know, those people remembered something about every room in the house except mine.
Except I didn’t see anybody, so I just kept walking. Turned the corner at Roosevelt and walked up toward Park again. At this stage of my trip, the Mets and Astros regained my attention. Jeremy Hefner had really hung tough all day, clinging to that 1-0 lead Ike gave him in the fourth. It was the ninth and Terry Collins was letting him go for the complete game. He might’ve gotten it, too, except Hefner pitched for the Mets, who had just let Lucas Duda back into the outfield at his pitching staff’s own risk. After Jeremy gave up a single and a stolen base to Jose Altuve, Marwin Gonzalez lined a ball a left fielder might have caught, but Duda couldn’t, and the game was tied. Two relievers, one redemptive throw from Duda and one tight block of home plate by Kelly Shoppach later, Gonzalez was out (because the Astros were the Astros like the Mets were the Mets). Houston’s rally flickered out imminently but the score was tied.
I should’ve been pissed, but I was actually pleased. The Mets and Astros were knotted in the ninth. Clearly the Mets wouldn’t score in their half and this game would go on like the sixth game of the 1986 NLCS or the 1968 marathon in the Astrodome or maybe break all records. It would be perfect, our lousy team versus their dreadful team just going at it inning after mind-numbing inning, never ending their expansion-brethren rivalry. The three of us were now in this together, each of at or near 50. The Mets and Astros could keep playing ball and I’d keep walking until it was decided. I’d be the living embodiment of what Ellen DeGeneres once said of her grandmother:
“My grandmother started to walk five miles a day when she was seventy years old — she is ninety-seven today, but we don’t know where the hell she is.”
This was gonna be great! But it lasted only as long as it took for me to get across Park, over to Neptune and a couple of short blocks to East School, which is where I attended third grade (we were bused all over town, so it was basically one year and out at any given building, even the one within walking distance of my house). It was there, a few steps shy of the playground where I honed my miserable stickball skills in the late ’70s, that I heard Ike Davis take Wilton Lopez as deep as he had to. Ike hit one of those shortened-fences Citi Field home runs, barely clearing the wall in right. But it counted. The game was over. The Mets had won, 2-1.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed for a minute or two. The sentimental journey had to end now. There was no point to its continuation. I took it only as far as the Mets would let me. Deprived of my imagined 97-inning game, I drifted briefly to the playground gate, where I hoped the granite dolphin we used as a ground rule was still there. If you poked a ball under its tail, you had a single. Line a ball over its snout, you were out. But the playground was being renovated and the gate was locked. No dolphin in sight.
Oh well. At least the Mets won. Jeremy Hefner didn’t, technically, but you couldn’t tell from the interview with Ed Coleman. His daughter, Jaylee, was just born that week and this was a perfect topper for him. Someday pretty soon, I thought, Jaylee Hefner will go to an elementary school like this one, except probably a nicer one since she’s the offspring of a major league baseball player…though there wasn’t a damn thing wrong with East School by my reckoning. East School was where I took a biography of Mel Ott out of the library, which sparked a lifelong fascination with the New York Giants. It was where I submitted for a class project a poster on which I essentially reprinted, in pencil, the 1972 Mets roster (including heights, weights and anything else of which Baseball Digest cared to inform me); it was already hanging on Mrs. Katz’s classroom wall when I stood on a chair to revise it with data pertaining to the newly acquired Willie Mays. East School was where, several years after third grade, I stroked a few singles under the dolphin and whacked a couple of tennis balls that bounced onto the street and into the yard across Neptune for doubles. And many years after that, I listened to my baseball siblings from 1962 finish playing each other for the last time as a matter of course.
East School did all right by me. So had the good old Lido Deli back on Park, where I stopped in to grab a hot dog with sauerkraut and mustard, the kind of youthful indulgence I’d lately avoided but, unlike that dolphin, I’m not made of granite. You don’t go home and not have a little nosh. After making quick work of it, I returned to my car, pulled out, circled back to my old block once more — nope, still nobody at the house — and then drove to the center of town to bring a few slices from Gino’s home with those postcards so Stephanie could share a taste of Long Beach, too. Gino’s, in keeping with the afternoon’s theme, also happened to have opened for business in 1962. Fifty years later, it may have been going stronger than the Mets (59-69), the Astros (40-88) or me (record pending), but the important thing was we were all still going.
Some Wednesday at the end of November — in the surprisingly fresh aftermath of an October hurricane so strong that it had to be labeled a “superstorm” just to delineate how much more powerful it was relative to its comparatively weak sisters — is not the time to spend an afternoon in my hometown.
But as of November 28, 2012, it’s the only choice you have.
I would’ve liked to have let Gino’s and the Lido Deli and East School and the boardwalk and my old house linger on as my contemporary sun-kissed images of Long Beach. I would’ve liked my last journey for a while to have remained the sentimental one I took in August. It felt so good that day. I came home with the pizza and the postcards (both of which were big hits), just babbling in that way I have when I’m excited and satisfied with what I’ve been doing. The feeling lasted in a way none of the other trips I’d taken into Long Beach through the ’90s and the ’00s had. This was a time and place of my choosing. I had no obligations on August 26, just the one to myself.
It was different three months later. I was obligated to return. I had to see up close what the superstorm did to my hometown.
The impetus to make me take a look at what I’d been putting off for weeks was, to my surprise, the Mets. A media advisory arrived in my e-mail the Monday after Thanksgiving:
Mets pitcher Jonathon Niese will hand out cleaning supplies, including mops, buckets with wringer pressure, bleach and rubber gloves, work with volunteers and greet residents affected by Hurricane Sandy on Wednesday, November 28 at 12:30 p.m. at the Ice Arena in Long Beach, NY. The Ice Arena is serving as one of FEMA’s donation centers.
It was the Mets doing the right thing or at least the thing that sounds right. They do community-minded stuff frequently, usually in the five boroughs. As a blogger on whatever list they keep, I get media advisories about those, too. They tend to take place in some exotic precinct of Brooklyn or Queens on some weekday morning and I pass. But here they were coming to Long Beach of all places. How could I not go?
Superstorm Sandy, whose name vis-à-vis its spot-on match with my late mother’s seemed like a cosmic jab from the great beyond, had raised Long Beach’s profile in the local media. When I grew up, you never heard about us unless there was a hurricane, and when the hurricanes didn’t turn out to be much, we receded from view. It’s a terrible reason for a town to be in the news — what isn’t, really? — but on some level, Long Beach was almost fortunate that it wasn’t completely ignored. Every day as October became November and LIPA failed to reconnect so much of its catchment area, Stephanie and I watched News 12 Long Island do some version of the same report over and over again. They’d send a reporter to a village or town that was still largely dark and find some poor soul who complained bitterly that they’d been “forgotten”. News 12 never ran out of those towns. So much damage, so many places around here, not nearly enough being done in anything approaching a timely fashion, even if you could understand why, given how much needed to be done and the superstorm’s status as something nobody had ever seen the likes of. Towns I traveled through regularly got it. Towns I’d been to once got it. Towns that loitered in my subconscious got it.
And my hometown was at the head of that pack of misery, except it wasn’t exactly among the totally forgotten, because Long Beach was Nassau County’s first defense against storm surges. It was, as we learned in seventh grade, a barrier beach island. It would have to be covered during a storm and it would have to be covered right after. It probably didn’t hurt that it made for great optics. It had a boardwalk that looked good on TV in a storm. No, Long Beach wasn’t, at the extended moment when the news was nothing but Sandy, the forgotten city of the South Shore of Long Island.
But that didn’t mean it was getting anywhere sooner than Island Park or Oceanside or Baldwin or East Rockaway or you name where. Everything’s been a mess in these parts since Sandy hit. Some messes were smaller than others. My mess was basically nothing. One day and change without lights, then they were on again. We threw out some food. Trees and signs fell around us but not on us. We were good to go. My sister and her husband, who live in the same unincorporated village as us but closer to water, were not so lucky. They rode out the storm with us only to go home the next morning and discover flooding they never dreamed of and electricity that didn’t function for nearly two weeks. And they don’t live that close to water. They experienced severe damage…and it wasn’t quite on a par with what their neighbors absorbed…and what their neighbors got hit with wasn’t close to as bad as it was a few blocks over. And when we dared venture a little farther south, we saw it got even worse, whether it was from branches or water or wind or wires or fire or you name it.
The day I took the Mets up on their invitation to watch Jon Niese hand out buckets with wringer pressure, I saw the worst yet. I saw Long Beach.
Usually I dread any kind of lengthy drive, even 10 or 15 minutes, because I dread driving in general. Stephanie, who joined me as my photographer, has to calm me down, tell me I’m doing fine as other cars pass me. But the dread this time came from what Oceanside looked like and then what Island Park looked like. A month had passed since Sandy but you wouldn’t have known it wasn’t days. You strained to understand that a storm talked up as unprecedented in strength would require an indefinite recovery period, but still. Lights were working again but it still felt like the heart of darkness in broad daylight.
And that was just Oceanside and Island Park. I took a deep breath, crossed the bridge into Long Beach, turned right onto Park and…
Didja ever see Red Dawn? The original one? That scene where Patrick Swayze and his Wolverines come down from their hiding spot in the mountains to seek supplies in town? Everything looks the same from the beginning of the movie, from before the godless communists moved in, but you and the Wolverines know something has gone terribly awry in the interim.
That was Long Beach as I turned onto Park. It was still standing, but it wasn’t the same. It had been through nature’s version of hell. You could’ve missed News 12 for the last month and you would’ve inferred that much in about five seconds. Some stores were open. Some weren’t. Some were boarded up. Traffic wasn’t jammed but it was slow. An inordinate number of pickup trucks dotted Park. License plates from Georgia and Michigan and not New York. These were the contractors who either came out of humanitarian impulse or because this was where the work was going to be for quite a while. A light coating of sand speckled Park Street here and there. Park Street is, within the parameters of Long Beach geography, nowhere near the beach. But the beach found its way to Park Street during the storm and wasn’t easily swept away. The bay had indeed met the ocean.
Stephanie asked me a question about some building or another, and I immediately explained what we have here in Long Beach. Not had, but “have”; not they, but “we”. I hadn’t lived here since 1990, but today I wasn’t the outlander any longer. I was the native son in full, even if my skin in the game was nothing more than the spiritual kind. I was in Long Beach when Long Beach was in no shape to greet visitors who didn’t have a good reason to drop by. First-person plural came out to play so fast that it made my head spin.
Niese and the Mets and the buckets were at the ice rink. I knew the ice rink from the inside out, literally. I was a Long Beach Recreation Pee Wee League tee-ball player when they were building the rink. When my team, the Aces, was at bat, our best player would take me into the shell of the rink construction site and have a catch with me. The idea was to turn me into a better fielder. I never got much beyond the Lucas Duda level, but it was a solid team-captain kind of thing to do on his part (when I next encountered him, in junior high, I’m pretty sure he was calling me a “faggot” and demanding my lunch money). The rink went up adjacent to the Rec League fields. Once it was completed, the Rangers practiced there until they decided Long Island was best left for the Islanders. We took a field trip there in sixth grade. It was just a few blocks from Lindell School. The Rangers staged a fight for our amusement.
The Mets sent directions to the ice rink, which I didn’t need, yet once we parked, I didn’t know exactly where the Mets were. At first glance, they’d been swallowed up by need. Thirty days after the storm, the ice rink was still doing a massive business as a relief center. You walked in and there was a table for FEMA, another table for New York State Employment, other tables for other things I didn’t quite catch before somebody asked us what we needed help with. I mumbled something about being media, here for the Mets, which all at once sounded more superfluous than I’d initially suspected.
The guy directed us to an unobtrusive corner of the rink’s lobby. In better times, it was where you’d rent your skates (which I never knew how to lace…or stand in) or buy your fries. It had been transformed into what looked like a permanent rummage sale, except everything being offered was free because everybody who came in needed something. They didn’t need clothes in nearly the proportion they were donated — tons of Hefty bags of clothes lined the rink’s bleachers as if they were unpaid extras in a hockey movie — but people were going through the racks. They definitely needed the kinds of cleaning supplies the Mets came bearing as gifts. House after house had been flooded. Basement after basement had been ruined. It was all water and mildew. The streets that weren’t coated in sand felt like they could use a good wringing.
The Mets brought the right stuff with them, for sure. Jon Niese and his fiancée, Leah Eckman, stood behind a card table and sheepishly dispensed the goods, trying not to create too much fuss or obstacle amid the recovery efforts that buzzed relentlessly around them. Jon, despite his 13 wins, wasn’t much of a celebrity in here. He was asked for a pair of autographs and to pose for a single picture. Otherwise he was the guy handing out paper towels by the case, which I’m pretty sure he preferred to budding star lefty. I heard one random “Let’s Go Mets!” emanate from the milling crowd, but I heard “more paper towels!” called out in a louder voice. If there weren’t a half-dozen camera crews recording their participation — let alone the presence of four Mets beat reporters I recognized in proximity to the hardest-working man in public relations, Jay Horwitz — you wouldn’t have distinguished plaid-clad Jon and Leah from anybody else. They were helping people who needed help, but so were dozens of volunteers who will never pitch in the big leagues.
When Jon Niese, practically anonymous cleaning-supply distributor, passed over the paper towels to a Long Beacher who needed them more than he needed an autograph or a strikeout, the recipient shook the pitcher’s hand and told him, “Good man.”
All of Niese’s outings should be so effective.
The Mets left behind their largesse and announced we were taking this show on the road, one block east and a couple of short blocks south to a church. To get there, we exited through the back of the rink and down an alleyway I hadn’t spent quality time along since July of 1971. I had just been assigned to the Aces and told our manager I was a third baseman. I’m not sure where I got that idea, but he stuck me at third. A ball came my way…and out into the alley it went, amid the light industry that was transpiring during our game. I chased the ball while the batter (this was tee-ball, mind you) circled the bases. I had turned a grounder into an unearned run, probably four unearned runs, and myself from a starting third baseman into that lowest form of Pee Wee League life, a sub…a substitute catcher who played every other day…in tee ball, where catching carries with it rather limited responsibilities.
It all came back to me in a block’s walk, but it didn’t bother me. It wasn’t even a disappointment to notice my Elysian Fields had now been converted into a series of soccer pitches. Just as the temple where I was Bar Mitzvahed was no longer a demographic staple of Long Beach, I took it that there wasn’t enough interest among the kids of our city today to maintain municipal baseball facilities.
You know why it didn’t bother me? Because a frigging hurricane hit town a month earlier and people had to keep coming to a relief center and be grateful that there was plenty of bleach to go around. Because as much as I assumed “our Katrina” was politicians’ hyperbole in the immediate aftermath of Sandy (we didn’t have citizens stranded on roofs, I reasoned), when I looked around the ice rink — where the people of my hometown had to pick through donations as part of an endless process of getting their storm-battered lives back together — I had one thought: this might as well be Katrina.
The Mets’ subpar performance at baseball didn’t bother me at this moment. My subpar performance at baseball didn’t bother me at this moment. I think the last time I was this mature about not letting baseball bother me was the week that followed 9/11.
The church was the Evangel Revival Community Church, which I puzzled out despite a few letters missing from its exterior signage. That wasn’t all that was missing. The inside had been gutted, the whole place was dark and a crew of Good Samaritans known as All Hands Volunteers were rescuing it from oblivion. I wished I had thought to bring the surgical masks we wore when we helped clear out my sister’s crawl space. Everybody working was wearing them and with good reason. I’m not sure what shape the church was in before Sandy. All Hands wanted to make it better than ever. They had a long way to go. The Mets rolled in more supplies and Niese offered some handshakes to men and women I’m convinced had little idea who he was but seemed to appreciate it anyway. “I wish I could stay and help,” Jon told the on-site coordinator. I believed he did, too.
There was a brief media availability outside the church. The beat reporters asked one question about the day and then moved on to the Mets’ ongoing negotiations with David Wright and R.A. Dickey. Niese said he was all for them coming back, or words to that effect. Honestly, who cared? We were in the middle of Long Beach, so stubbornly damp that paper toweling was an extraordinarily valued commodity. Wright would get his money. Dickey would get his money. Jon and Leah would attend “Murphy’s wedding” over the weekend and find a nice place to live near Jon’s work after they got hitched in January and started the season in April (Leah mentioned to Stephanie and me some personal anxiety given that she and Jon are really small-town types…and she didn’t seem comforted by my suggestion that hurricane-ravaged Long Island is filled with otherwise nice small towns not terribly far from Citi Field). I was, technically, the only Mets fan covering this Mets event, yet I didn’t care what the Mets’ Niese had to say about being ready for Spring Training.
That was only baseball. This was my hometown.
I got the last question of the day in, something about what it means to be a ballplayer at a time like this when maybe you can make the slightest difference in the outlook of people who are having an awful time just by showing up and being a ballplayer. Niese is no Dickey when it comes to filling notebooks, but I thought his answer was a decent one:
“It means a lot. Coming from a small town in Ohio, you appreciate what you have. Especially when a disaster like this happens, it kind of makes everybody step back and makes them appreciate what they have, and how valuable and important their lives are and their valuables are. It’s just great to be here to help support them in a troubled time. I’m just glad to be here.”
R.A. would have had a more apt set of words, but nobody was keeping score on vocabulary and usage. I got what he meant. Good on him for doing this.
I thanked Jon and Leah for their time and Jay — who told me Shannon Forde was doing “great” on the eve of her fundraising dinner, which I sincerely hoped he meant — for extending us the courtesy of the invite. Stephanie and I then walked back to our car by the rink. We got in and drove around some, observing more evidence of why everybody needed those cleaning supplies. Wreckage was still piled up on curbs: lifetime of memories after lifetime of memories — and major electrical appliances — that couldn’t sustain Sandy’s surge. Automobiles not used since at least October 29 awaited rescue. Contractor signs had been pounded into lawns. My old house had apparently needed a new boiler but didn’t look worse for wear from the outside; its signature tree hadn’t budged. The boardwalk’s 14 blocks were no longer contiguous. The entrance on Lincoln Blvd., for example, had been absolutely crushed. There were no dunes under what was left of the boardwalk to block your view of the ocean…or the ocean itself. That sand had not stood still during Sandy. We didn’t inspect every nook and cranny of Long Beach, but we saw plenty. We saw enough.
Others would need a stiff drink after seeing what their hometown was enduring and scuffling back from. Me, I turned to a bowl of kreplach soup at the blessedly open Lido Deli and half of a daunting sandwich that I ordered without fully digesting its details when I picked it off the menu. My mind was back at the rink, at the church, strewn all over Park Street, splintered all over the boardwalk. I asked that the uneaten half be wrapped up so I could take it home.
Home to where I live now, that is. The self-appointed native son had to get going.