Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Shore in August

Stone Harbor is a funny place at the end of August. It’s still technically summer and the weather is great, but most of the crowds have vanished. As in, the place is deserted. The hordes are gone because the school year starts in August these days, not after Labor Day as I recall from my childhood. Families with kids make up a significant part of the Stone Harbor customer base. Since I’m not that big on seas of vacationers, it’s a great time to hang out at the Jersey shore.

For starters, there isn’t a better time to visit any of the many roadside stands selling locally grown produce. Most of the stands are quaint without being cute, and even the cute ones aren’t that cute, presumably to the dismay of the Cape May County Visitors’ Bureau. The produce, however, is top notch, and as you load up your bag with seed catalog illustration worthy Jersey corn and tomatoes, you understand how The Garden State got its name.

All the shops and restaurants in Stone Harbor are still open, but stores now have sales as they try to move that merch that no one snapped up over the summer.  So, if you need to load up on beach-related tchotchkes, now is the time to do it--there are plenty of things to choose from. Fudge Boy and his co-worker, Fudge Girl, the product samplers at The Fudge Kitchen are still passing out fudge outside the shop, but I feel kinda bad for them as they don’t get to talk about the rich creamy fudge and the salt water taffy special to nearly as many people as they do in height of the summer tourist season.  

Even the Wells Fargo Presbyterian Church, I mean the Wells Memorial Presbyterian Church, in Avalon, is low on customers. (There’s always the possibility that between my visits they may have all have gone on to their heavenly reward. They’re at that age, you know.)  Fortunately this weekend the church had the Haverford School Notables in town to make a joyful clean-cut Ralph Lauren-ish a capella noise to the Lord. Not only did they look and sound super, but since there were eighteen of them, they took up lots of space in the tiny church. Even though it was their first outing of the school year, they had the stage presence of organist emeritus Betty Ewart— recently retired after 50 years at the not-so-mighty Wurlitzer.

Tuesday morning my friend Martha and I took a long walk on the beach. No, we did not discuss our mutual love of Frank Sinatra, Vermont during the leaf-peeping season, freshly made gazpacho, classic cars, or anything else that either of us had once put in a personal ad. Taking the sea air seemed like a good idea because the previous night we were in a hard fought—go ahead, call it a slugfest—Quizzo match at Fred’s Tavern, the local watering hole of choice.

Yes, team Writers’ Block was the victor in four rounds of bar trivia covering Science, History, Current Events, and Spelling. We didn’t win in a walk, because even with a nurse and an author on our team we couldn’t spell the word “inoculate” and my priceless cultural heritage did not include knowing—after a couple of drinks—where the Trail of Tears started. (“Right after that first swig of tequila” was not the right answer.) We celebrated our victory in the contest by spending the $50 Fred’s gift certificate on a festive round for the team (yours truly, Martha, Chris, Sharif, and Bill). As fun as it was the night before, that celebratory round didn’t feel like such a good idea the next morning.

So, in lieu of hair of the dog, we embarked on a restorative regime of moderate exercise, sunshine, and salt air.

The beach is deserted early in the morning. There are a few folks exercising in earnest, a barefoot runner here and there, and some people walking as they yammer into phones.

(In a thick Philadelphia accent)

Gary, stop at WaWa and get some wooter. 

Listen to me. 

Gaaarrrry. Lisssen. 

You’re not lissening. 

Stop at the stinkin’ WaWa and get some wooter. 

Clearly Gary has hydration issues.

Life guards and beach tag inspectors start working at 10:00 and even then, they don’t have many people to watch over.

Most of the guards are guys, though there are a few especially sturdy female lifeguards. The guys seem to be into making sure that we members of the public see how fit they are. When they’re not pushing their obviously heavy lifesaving boat to the water’s edge, they’re doing sit-ups next to the lifeguard chair, running from one lifeguard station to the next, or doing curls with the big logs that serve alternately as rollers and chocks for the their boats. I didn’t stick around long enough to see the caber toss, but I’m sure that’s someplace in the daily fitness performance.

With bodies made taut by exercise, deep tans, and wind-tousled, sun-bleached, hair, the guys occupy that nether region between models that specialize in mid-priced homo-centric underwear and full-on Bruce Weber make love to the camera Abercrombie & Fitch guys slash gay porn actors. In a state not known for its eye candy (Gov. Chris Christie in a fleece. I rest my case.), they’re a bright spot.

Uniforms wise, the male guards wear navy (with red trim) board shorts. I keep hoping that the Chamber of Commerce will point out to the Stone Harbor Beach Patrol that it’s time ditch the retardataire swim togs and go with something that reveals just a tad more in the leg department. The suits the female guards wear don’t leave much to the imagination, so it’s not as if management doesn’t know that sex sells, even when it comes to beach safety.

Our stroll took us across Nun’s Beach and past Villa Maria by-the-Sea. Stone Harbor-ians are as proud of our vacationing nuns as people in California are of their redwoods. Unfortunately, on this day, there were no nuns out doing Habit Hiney Camp or even the Canadian Air Force/Little Sisters With a Place at the Beach calisthenics. I know that nuns are practically on the endangered species list so I especially enjoy seeing one of the old girls out taking a break from doing God’s work, lollygagging at water’s edge, with a beach tag pinned to her outfit. 

After we passed the end of the guarded and manicured beach, where people store their Hobie Cats, we decided we’d go the rest of the way to the tip of the island, technically forever and a day away. In the far distance we could see a person with some sort of tripod. I suggested to Martha the person might be doing plein air painting.  But when we got closer, it became apparent that it was a young woman with a small telescope and a notebook. She was dressed in shorts, a light blue polo, and Teva sandals for that rugged outdoor girl look. We smiled and kept on walking. She seemed to be observing the water birds.

After we were finally (and I do mean finally) on our way back from the tip of the island, we came upon tripod woman again. This time she was taking photos with her phone. She was facing away from the water and taking pictures of something mounted on fence post. It sure looked like a naked Ken doll. A naked, headless, Ken doll. OK, we had to ask.

 “Hi. Say, are you an artist or something?”

(Who else would take photos of what looked like a naked, headless, Ken doll?)

No, actually I work for the New Jersey Department of Fish and Wildlife. I’m here photographing birds. My boss collects photos of creepy toys that wash up on the beach. I thought I’d send this to him.

Good choice, we all agreed.

I thought to myself, you know, in Rehoboth, this would have been a Billy doll. Then again, perhaps this was Earring Magic Ken and he just well, made some bad choices. In addition to that lavender vest and the time with G.I. Joe in the men's room at The Renegade, I mean.

Great hobby I thought, but really how many creepy toys wash up on the beach? Everyone knows that New Jersey is the place where medical waste washes up on its shores.

When she’s not photographing creepy toys that was up on the beach, our photographer friend is some sort of scientist with the NJ Department of Fish and Wildlife. She was checking on the local birds and took the time to explain to us the difference between the Piping Plover (super rare) and the Semi-Palmated Plover (not so rare) and the plentiful Sanderling.

She also said that the harvest of creepy toys is way down this year, perhaps do to Superstorm Sandy. (In the words of Dave Barry, I am not making this up.) It seems counterintuitive, since with all the stuff that washed out to sea from North Jersey, you’d think that there would be more than an occasional Chatty Cathy wrapped up in fishing line, or the less plentiful Barbie’s Corvette (Jayne Mansfield autograph model) smashed into a rusty Tonka Truck.

Contemplating the shortage of creepy toys on New Jersey beaches, Martha and I walked back home. This time we walked through town where we took the jiffy tour of the ancient lifesaving station, saw some bad tattoos, picked up a flyer for a condo, and said thanks-but-no-thanks to girl passing out samples at the Fudge Kitchen. However, if she’d been promoting a special where you got a free photo of a creepy toy that had washed up on the beach along with that pound of rich, creamy fudge, I just might have bought some.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Fleet-ing Thoughts

I saw this truck in downtown State College the other day and it brought back memories. And as you can see, it was even photo-worthy.  It's the word "Fleet" rather than the flame logo coming out of the gas cap that I find so amusing. (Note to you really think that's a good idea?)

In perhaps 1994 or 1995, I was flying to San Francisco to play tourist and visit some friends. While 1994 wasn’t the “Golden Age of Air Travel” when everyone had matching luggage, airlines served gourmet meals, and cocktails and smoking on the plane were practically mandatory, it was still a far cry from the post 9/11 flying experience. Security was an annoyance but not particularly invasive, and sitting by an empty seat wasn’t even noteworthy. Flight attendants might have even been friendlier then—they certainly weren’t as harried and hassled as they are today.

So there I was, in the mostly empty back of the plane, with a row of seats to myself. There was one guy in the row ahead of me. I’d noticed him when we boarded: great hair, nice looking, well dressed, in shape, about my age. While it isn’t a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good haircut on a flight to San Francisco is in no way, shape, or form in want of a wife, it was my guess that he was gay. 

In the middle of the flight, after what passed for a meal service, the flight attendant came by and engaged both of us in conversation. It was rather a neat trick since Mr. Great Haircut and I had to talk through that gap created when one airline seat is reclined and the one next to it is fully upright.  There was no need for gaydar when it came to the flight attendant. He had the volume up to 11, as they say in Spinal Tap. He was toting an open bottle of champagne (leftover from the first class cabin, he noted) and offered us free glasses. The flight attendant also told me that I should move up a row to sit in one of the empty seats by the guy with great hair since it would make conversation much easier.

It turns out that Mr. Great Haircut was an off-duty flight attendant---hence the free leftover champagne; it was a professional courtesy. Definitely not in want of a wife, he gave good chat as long as you didn't get too near testosterone-soaked he-man type topics like football and baseball. While he was no threat to the Jeopardy Tournament of Champions, he was cheerful company on a transcontinental flight. 

At some point I said, “You know, it’s Fleet Week in San Francisco.” 

And then, putting my nerd bona fides right out there on the non-upright and unlocked tray table, I added “I read it in their Visitors’ Guide.” 

“Fleet Week?” he replied, clearly not knowing what I was talking about. 

“It’s when the U.S. Navy puts on a show and navies of other countries drop by. They show the flag, and build goodwill. It's hands across the sea and all that.”   

And then, going for the low-hanging conversational fruit, I added, “You know, there’s something about a man in uniform.”

He paused.

I'd say it was a long pause, but single guys on flights to San Francisco are prone to misjudging the length of things. So let me just say that it felt like a long pause.

“Oh. That kind of Fleet Week!” he said.  “I thought it had something to do with the brand of enema. We are going to San Francisco after all.”

I had to admit, he had a good point. 

This is an actual World War 1 U.S. Navy Recruiting Poster. Seriously.
I haven’t been back to San Francisco in eons, but when I do, I’m definitely consulting its visitors’ guide, just to see if it’s Fleet Week. You know, there’s something about a man in uniform. Even when he's an off-duty flight attendant.