I was 29 years old then, well on my way to the then-dreaded “30,” when I started going to
the New Jersey Shore.
Thanks to my college roommate (who knew people in the small shore town), the plan was to hop the train from New York City and celebrate Memorial Day weekend, the “unofficial” opening of the summer season.
The train was pretty much packed to the gills, my old buddy and I practically sitting in the lap of some big dude who clutched a wheel that looked like it went with a ten-speed bicycle.
Despite the cramped conditions on board, the ride was easy enough. When we arrived at our destination, the lion’s share of passengers poured out onto the platform of the tiny train depot.
Helped along by a few beers (keeping in mind that I am arguably the biggest lightweight ever born!), I stumbled along, taking in the late-May splendor, warm temps – mid-80s, as I recall – and not a cloud anywhere.
We followed my roomie’s friends to a local bar (the small burg’s one and only bar, really) called
The rickety old place had two floors, the top one of which seemed certain to cave into the lower at any moment. And there was a band – that clearly had never even heard of a sound check – attempting to play some semblance of
The lead singer/guitarist, who looked like he was afflicted with some sort of thyroid issue (yeah, think Marty Feldman as Igor in “Young Frankenstein,” this poor guy even had the bulging eyes), was accompanied by a stereotypically overweight base player.
The saxophonist, in contrast to his porky base-playing buddy, was so skinny, he sort of looked like a javelin
And the kicker? Shortly after we arrived, they broke into a rendition of Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street.” (If you’re into hits of yore, you may recall that the well-regarded pop song had climbed the charts all the way to number #2 back in 1979.) And if you know the song, you surely remember that its fame stemmed largely from its iconic sax solo.
The cover these guys did, though (highlighted by the screeching sax and complemented by the shrilly voice of the guy with the Marty Feldman eyes), didn’t much resemble music. In fact, it sounded a whole lot more like a pet shop burning down.
(And if my recall of that event seems next to impossible to believe, I assure you that it was so epically bad that if you spoke with anyone who was there that day into night, they probably haven’t been able to erase it either.)
That said (and despite the nearly unbearable cacophony and the realization that the unstable fire trap that temporarily housed us all could come crashing down any moment), it didn’t stop anybody from having a good time. The louder it got, and the more the building shook, somehow, it just got to be more fun.
As we’ve discussed over the last few weeks together, when memories from several decades ago are this vivid, it just doesn’t seem right not to share them.
Well, needless to say (and I can’t believe I’m even saying/writing this now), it just got even weirder after that.
We left the Ark (yes, it was still standing ) and headed for a party on the other side of the small town.
We lost part of our makeshift entourage at that point (as various subgroups headed elsewhere), but one of the girls we were talking to at the Ark – she and one of her friends – decided to hang out with us.
And soon, we were up on the roof of the small shore house, hollering, laughing, and playing a game one of the girls simply called “Store.” (You know, everyone chooses a store, and you have to name things that could be purchased there faster than the other players. And if you were too slow on the uptake, you had to drink. In retrospect, I’d say a rooftop probably isn’t the best venue for any drinking game, but we made it work.)
Like it always is, I guess, and to lean on a platitude, time more than flew. We were having so much fun (basically doing nothing), no one bothered to look at a watch.
And suddenly, it was 230am.
I’ve always been a morning person, all my life really, as both man and boy. (I guess I take after my dad, who probably hasn’t used an alarm to wake him up in more than 50 years.) So, as you can imagine, my skills as night owl were virtually non-existent.
As much fun as I was having, I had hit the wall; and I hit it hard.
I said a few hasty goodbyes to my roomie and my new friends and headed towards the place where we were supposed to be staying.
(Tell you why I use the phrase “supposed to be” in a moment.)
It was about a 15-minute walk, and I was so tired when I arrived that I made a beeline for the second floor, desperate to find a place to sleep. The room at the very top of the stairs had three beds, all of which were occupied. And the two rooms on that same floor told the same story: No room at the inn.
By this time, it was just about 3am, and I still hadn’t found a place to sleep. (I’ve told both of my daughters this story a few different times in the years since, much to their collective glee. I guess they both find a lot of humor in their drunken, completely exhausted ‘ol dad stumbling around some random Jersey Shore house.)
And oh yeah, I forgot to mention that late May, as glorious as it is during the day, can still be pretty damn cold at night. And I was thinking that very same thing, as I wandered from room to room, with no beds nor any sleeping accessories in sight. Pretty soon I was shivering and decided that maybe taking the covers off a few random people I might never see again wasn’t such a bad idea.
Truth be told, I collected two blankets (to be fair, both of which could be more accurately described as “cheesecloths”) and a pillow I took from a guy who was wearing a sweatshirt from Jimmy Swaggart Bible College.
(I’ve always felt like I have a pretty solid imagination and an ability to spin a yarn or two, but I couldn’t concoct that one on my best day. If I’d had a phone camera back then, that pic would have gone viral before sunup!)
I later learned that this guy, nicknamed “Sheets,” (because he almost never had any money on him) had purchased the sweatshirt at a Champion Outlet somewhere near Plattsburgh, NY. (And yes, Jimmy Swaggart Bible College, Baton Rouge, LA, still exists today, enrollment approximately 1,100 undergraduates.)
I’m not sure why I felt compelled to put the covers back on those other two. But I think the thought of having to live with the fact that I had swiped a pillow off of a guy wearing a sweat top from a school named for a guy who was a once-famous TV evangelist, just carried way too much bad karma.
Just as I was about to give up the ghost and take my chances finding a bed in a nearby house, I lucked out and found an unoccupied couch. No big deal that it reeked of what smelled like paint thinner.
And the closest thing I could find to a blanket was a bean bag, with part of the zipper torn away, allowing a liberal amount of white Styrofoam to come tumbling out of the hole in the cloth where the zipper had been. (And you wonder why just a few minutes prior, I nearly decided that breaking and entering into a nearby house was looking like my best option??)
It was now several minutes after 3am, and of all things, I started to think of a favorite movie of mine. (Hence the artwork that accompanies this post, featuring a then-very-young Richard Dreyfuss.)
At this point in that story, recent high school graduate Curt Henderson (Dreyfuss) rushes out to a radio station in the wee hours of the morning, desperate to get a dedication on the air.
Scheduled to go off to college the next day, and unsure of his future plans, he ends up talking with an avuncular disc jockey (who, unbeknownst to the lovestruck Curt, is actually mysterious radio personality Wolfman Jack) who encourages him to discover what life might be like outside the confines of his small Northern California town. (And hey, before I forget, if you have not seen American Graffiti , also starring Ron Howard and a then-completely-unknown Harrison Ford, you should treat yourself.)
With that image in mind, I managed to drift off for maybe two hours, until the sun began to rise. I went to a nearby Quick Stop (just think of it as New Jersey’s 7-11) to grab some aspirin and a cup of coffee.
I had survived the night.
The best part of that night was that my roommate, the girl who introduced us to the “Store” drinking game, and yours truly became some incarnation of the Mod Squad that summer. I was surely the proverbial “third wheel” everywhere we went, but neither of them ever made me feel like that.
And oh, by the way, they were married less than two years later.
And after that night, and that weekend, and in the decades since, I have been doubly blessed. Just as the knight has his lady love, I emerged as something of their faithful squire, a badge of honor I wear proudly to this day.
Sorry it took me so long to tell this story, you two. But better later than never.
Love you both more than you know.