I worked at my father’s industrial safety-equipment business on an assembly line manufacturing safety glasses. While the job was as monotonous as you might imagine, particularly for a high school student trying to enjoy summer vacation-try screwing 10,000 eyeglass temples onto half as many frames with an electric screwdriver and you’ll get the idea-it introduced me to a visceral tedium I would later understand to be a foundation of modern life. It also taught me to relate to the other freaks and social misfits my father tended to hire. It was not uncommon for the guys in the shipping department (wearing welding helmets) to launch rubber-band attacks against the assembly-line crew. (I’m not sure why more workplaces don’t have this now: it really breaks up the day!)
This job was also my primary exposure to the aural tedium of album-oriented-rock radio (in Pittsburgh, best represented by the timeless WDVE). To repeatedly hear the same bands — The Who, The Stones, Sabbath, Zep, Rush, Hendrix, Lynyrd Skynyrd — was the aesthetic corollary to the assembly line, and had I not experienced it first-hand, I never would have understood the appeal of such an extreme, much less the desire to destroy it.
But during my first college summer, in 1987, I rented a house for the summer on Long Beach Island (a barrier island about halfway down the New Jersey coast) with a group of buddies from high school. The house, a bungalow in Ship Bottom, cost $5000 for the season, which split eight ways — we had two and sometimes three kids per bedroom, because why not? — meant that we could expect to make more than enough money to pay for the house and have a nice chunk leftover for the ensuing school year.
My first job at the beach was at an upscale deli and restaurant in Harvey Cedars called The Seaport, or, as I later heard my fellow employees refer to it, The Sea Scum. I wore a green apron and spent an eternity each day taking orders from well-heeled vacationers, who I quickly learned were very particular about their lunchmeats and cheeses (and potato salads and coleslaws and pickles). I overcame my terror of the circular slicing machine, despite my sense that losing a finger was inevitable (and possibly desirable). I got yelled at for not knowing that a “regular” coffee included cream, or in any case wasn’t black, which is how I initially served it.
When there were no customers, the boss made us sweep the floor, polish the glass cabinets, and otherwise stay busy, which struck me as only slightly less barbaric than say, breaking rocks in a Siberian gulag. Regrettably, there were no rubber-band wars at this job, and not even a radio, to break up the hours. I started at seven in the morning and got off at four in the afternoon, with a one-hour lunch break, which I spent at the end of the street, wondering what the point of life was if it meant working for so many hours, even if you were at the beach, with the sound of the waves breaking just over the dunes. Was I spoiled? Undoubtedly.
Back at the house things were mostly a lot more fun. As you might expect from a group of 19-year-old kids who straddled the nerd/jock/brain axes (think cross-county running team) and who were living completely on our own for the first time, we amused ourselves in many different ways: we played poker and hearts, we made fun of U2 (“Joshua Tree” was big that summer) by singing “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” in the fake British accents of the Spinal Tap guys faux-harmonizing “Since My Baby Left Me” at Elvis’s gravesite; we hatched business plans involving tie-dyed shirts and a pair of “mountain roller blades” (see photograph); we spent hours recording a message on the answering machine designed to simulate a real person: “Hello?….Oh, I’m not sure, let me check (insert noise of person checking)…I’m sorry, he’s not here can I take a message? BEEEEEEEP.” A bunch of us bought used surfboards and were surprised to learn that surfing is a lot harder than it looks, even for those of us who grew up body surfing. Perhaps more inevitably, some of us started smoking weed ALL THE TIME, we met other kids on the island and went to parties, where drinking and hooking up ensued (as well as more genuine summer romances).
I remained aloof to the prospect of girls that summer-and for the moment, drinking and smoking-because I was deeeeeep in the closet. In retrospect, it was probably possible to maintain this charade because my friends, while all non-homosexuals, tended to be a little gay (in the elementary school sense of the term, as you’ve probably ascertained from the above) or at least quirky, in comparison to those we were meeting, and thus they did not pressure me to commit to anything beyond the usual bloated talk. To put in possibly dated pop-culture terms, it was “’Sixteen Candles’ (specifically the dweebs, although a slightly older and less exaggerated version of Anthony Michael Hall and his friends) meets ‘Jersey Shore.’” Regarding which, confession: I’ve never seen “Jersey Shore.”
I quit the Sea Scum the second I got my first paycheck, because in the meantime my friend Taylor got hired as a short-order cook at a bar about two-thirds of the way toward the southern end of the island. As luck had it, they needed someone else and I was more than available, so Taylor and I ran the kitchen, splitting the shifts, seven nights from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 a.m. Working in a bar, or at least this bar — whose clientele seemed to consist mostly of vacationing, exceedingly drunk, rowdy, white middle-aged cops — was undoubtedly a stretch for me, given that 1) I had never drunk more than a few sips of beer in my life (a high percentage of my family were alcoholics, and I was paranoid about joining their ranks), and 2) thanks to my private boarding school and college education, I exuded the kind of naïve, pampered and judgmental aura of privilege that set off the bullshit meters of many who were fortunate or misfortunate enough to meet me. I remember how the owner, a short, stocky Italian guy, often seemed to regard me with a bemused, skeptical expression, as though wondering exactly what planet I was from, and what possible circumstances had contrived to bring us together.
In fairness to my younger self, I worked hard to learn the ropes and was not completely without skill. My job, after the (scantily clad) cocktail waitresses or (beefy) bartenders (and in some cases, woofy, although that’s something I couldn’t even begin to acknowledge at the time) took the order and handed me the slip, was to cook and then serve the food. This meant getting the all-important tip, to the cumulative tune of $100-$120 on a good night. The menu was alarmingly diverse for a one-man operation: we had pizza, subs, grilled sandwiches (the house specialty was a Reuben), fried shrimp, raw oysters on the half shell, and French fries. As we all know from watching “Top Chef,” all dishes take different amounts of time to prepare, but should ideally be served at the same time, so the trick was to stagger everything accordingly, which could get complicated once you were dealing with three or four orders at once. Especially at the beginning, I often turned around and saw smoke billowing out of the pizza oven or flipped over a Reuben to find it coated in something resembling asphalt, which meant starting over after discreetly burying the burned evidence deep in the garbage can, lest the owner get wind of what had happened and take you out back to the parking lot and strangle you with one of his thick gold chains.
Most of my encounters with the patrons were pleasant and efficient, but occasionally there were mishaps. Sometimes there were delays and I would not be able to serve the food all at once, and so I brought it out in stages (with a free side of profuse apologies). Once I set down a pizza on a table so that it caught the edge of a cigarette ashtray, which to everyone’s horror slowly flipped through the air and landed upside-down on the pie. Occasionally I ran into real assholes. “You know what I like about you?” said one as I brought an order to his table-not even late, if I remember correctly.
I shook my head. “No, what?”
“Nothing!” he said, to laughs all around.
I just shrugged and put down the food. I didn’t care, because I knew that odds were his girlfriend would slide me an extra-large tip, even if it meant coming back to the kitchen to give it to me. This happened enough so that it was a rule.
As the weeks wore on, I developed a sense of loyalty toward not only my boss, but the rest of the staff; after closing, we almost always sat around comparing notes about the shittiest and best moments of the night, along with various escapades of the bartenders, who sometimes slipped away for a few minutes to the empty apartment upstairs to get a blowjob from one of the lady customers, or the cocktail waitresses, who could occasionally be prodded to climb up on the bar and shake it for the drooling men below. There was a camaraderie to these nights that for me was enhanced by my first experiences getting a little (or a lot) wasted, a pleasure I no longer wanted to deny myself, given that the beers were free and, frankly, tasted great at the end of a long shift. I also wanted to belong.
On weekends, there was a house cover band featuring a 6′ 3″ 350-pound singer-guitar player who snorted impressive amounts of coke between sets in the kitchen and who always threatened to kill me if I didn’t cook something for him FAST. (I believed him.) Mostly they played a lot of “oldies” — “Under the Boardwalk,” “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and other such shit — along with some classic rock. They always ended the night with “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” This quickly lost any appeal for me, particularly since the guitarist was such a mountainous ogre, although the audience loved ever second. The drummer was much nicer to me, and his signature number (he only sang a few) was a version of “Can’t Find My Home,” a song from the classic-rock pantheon I still kind of love (with apologies to the indie-rock snob I would later become), mostly for the sweet, effortless yearning of Stevie Winwood’s young falsetto.
Some nights (or by the time we got out, wee hours of the morning), we went up to the beach and sat in the dunes, where I learned to drink even more, most often from a shared bottle, and to smoke joints that were passed around. Under the stars, we divulged our dreams about a future that did involve working at a bar (even the “old” bartenders, in their mid-twenties, shared this ideal) and the uncertainty about how to get there. Or maybe I didn’t really divulge much of anything beyond the vaguest aspirations, given that I was already on a path that made working at a bar highly improbable, at least as a career, and thankfully by this point I had developed enough tact not to mention this. I don’t think I was smug — or at least I hope I wasn’t — knowing what I know now, that my fate, of course, was to join the ranks of the white-collar world who stare at a computer screen eight-plus hours a day. Not that I’m complaining.
I remember driving home, tired, drunk and high, with the car stereo on full blast. For me, it was the summer of “New Day Rising” by HÃ¼sker DÃ¼. A college friend had introduced me to the band earlier that year, and I was making my way back through their records. The first few times I heard “New Day Rising,” I wasn’t even sure I liked it: the music seemed too harsh and chaotic, more punk and dissonant than the fuzzed-out pop of “Flip Your Wig” and “Candy Apple Grey,” which I already loved. But now that I was working in the “real world,” even for just a summer, the bleak intensity of Bob Mould, punctuated by the more jangly, sporadic joy of Grant Hart (e.g., “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” and “Books about UFOs”) started to make sense. There was something about driving up the empty highway in the black morning with the words “new day rising” screaming through my head that perfectly captured the ambiguous quality of making money in such a beautiful, desolate place. In a few hours, depending on the tides, I would get up to go surfing with my friends, notwithstanding that the waves were not very good in July and August and the certainty that the salt water would brutally sting my bloodshot, sleep-deprived eyes as I straddled the board, facing the rising sun.
Probably the most famous song on “New Day Rising” is “Celebrated Summer,” which perfectly encapsulates the transition the band made from thrashing hardcore to a more melodic style. In the lyrics, Bob Mould describes “getting drunk out on the beach or playing in a band/getting out of school [and] getting out of hand” and asks (perhaps rhetorically, perhaps not) if this was “your celebrated summer.” At the time, I would have answered yes: I could feel myself changing, and if the future seemed uncertain, I felt unduly confident about my place in it. But almost twenty-five years later, I’m not so sure. Summer now strikes me as a time marked less by the flailing exuberance of youth (spring!) than a maturation that almost always coincides with a kind of disenchantment for what so much of life has to offer. The sheen of novelty has worn off; it’s a season for middle age. At forty-two, I have little choice but to look back as much as forward, when perhaps the oppressive torpor of life makes me crave the relief that can only come with the fall. This is my celebrated summer.