Back To Belmar: A 30-Year Journey
This past August I spent a week in a rented two-family house in Belmar, NJ with members of my family. It was a beautiful house with a large wrap-around porch in a very quiet neighborhood. As I sat in one of the fatly-stuffed cushioned chairs that ringed the porch I couldn’t help but think how different my first Belmar summer house experience was nearly three decades earlier.
To begin with, do you know they have a beach in Belmar? Sure, the obvious answer is ‘yes’ but my ‘84 counterpart probably could not have answered with such certainty. The reason? Because that drunken version never woke up before 11 a.m. and then only to shower, eat a hearty breakfast of pizza, and then went off to Mary’s Husband’s Pub, the greatest bar in the world (yes, we had a vote — you other bars lost — get over it) to drink beer while the sun was still high in the sky. I never went to the beach during the day, never had a tan, and my only interactions with the ocean were some drunken swims late at night where the only thing that drowned was common sense.
But now I know there is a beach that requires me to add layers of sunscreen to my skin, drag a half dozen chairs and blankets and towels the few blocks to the ocean, and then pay someone so I could sit and sun myself like a cat on a window sill.
Between the two, it’s a toss-up as to who would die first: ‘84 Al from cirrhosis of the liver or ‘13 Al from skin cancer.
There is no way to actually compare the two houses: my ‘84 shore “house” and the large, luxurious house from this year. In ‘84 we lived in the upstairs of a two-family that had two small bedrooms, one bathroom, and a kitchen that doubled as a dining room which tripled as a living room. It could comfortably accommodate four people if you doubled up on the bedrooms. We crammed so many people into those two bedrooms, Japanese commuters stuffed into subway cars during rush hour would have laughed at us.
In this year’s house, I had my own bedroom. That was a dream that ‘84 Al wouldn’t even had dared to dream. This house had two kitchens (we didn’t even use one of them) and bathrooms that did not look like crime scenes where a variety of hairs, sand, seaweed, and seashells gathered together at the shower drain to chat about the day’s events.
This year’s house was in the residential section of town, the single-digit avenues, and a place we never would have lived in the eighties. In fact, in ‘84 we contained ourselves between 14th and 18th avenues. That’s where the bars were, the liquor stores, the food places, and where the other like-minded lunatics who roamed, like free-range drunks, from beach-to-bar-to-bed.
This year’s house was on a quiet street where couples walked, parents pushed their children in baby carriages, and at night it was so quiet that you could just about hear the ocean waves from three blocks away.
‘84 Al would have hated it but this old man wouldn’t have traded that serenity for the world.
Then there’s the food.
In ‘84 I lived on pizza (well, some things never change). I had two favorite places: Mike’s Pizza and ZiZi Anne’s. Mike’s Pizza is still there but in a vastly upgraded building. ZiZi Ann’s sadly is gone, closed down years ago. It was right across the street from Mary’s Husband’s Pub and with that steady stream of drunks walking passed it day and night I thought it would go on forever. One night after drinking for six hours I stumbled into ZiZi Ann’s and ordered two slices of pizza. When I finished them I ordered two more followed by two more and then finally finished off with two more slices. In the course of fifteen minutes I finished an entire pie. You can’t say I didn’t do my best to keep that place in business.
In ‘84 my friends and I always ate fast food; we never cooked at home. The reason? There was no place to put groceries. It wasn’t that we didn’t have a refrigerator, it was just that ours was always stocked, top shelf to bottom draw, with beer. That is not an exaggeration — at any given moment, if you opened the refrigerator door, it was packed with beer. It was the U.N. of beers in there — cans and bottle of every brand lived harmoniously on those shelves. If only we had learned from them this world could have been a better place.
This year’s house we had real food. Food that had to be purchased, stored so that it wouldn’t spoil, then prepared and cooked on the stove or in the oven. We ate at the dining room table, used real silverware, and ate off of real plates and not paper ones that would buckle under of the weight of the food. Imagine that.
Don’t get me wrong, we still had beer (and wine and scotch) because I’m not that far removed from ‘84 Al, but it was now stored in coolers placed strategically around the house. I’m sure they didn’t mind their new home.
There are many differences between my time in Belmar in ‘84 and this year. For instance, this year I didn’t wake up each morning and ask, “What the f*ck did I do last night?”. Even with all those differences there is one constant that has not changed in almost three decades.
All those bikini-clad beatifies that sunned themselves on the beach or walked together along the boardwalk — all of them wanted nothing to do with me.