“I’ve got Long Beach Sand in My Shoes.”
That’s the bumper-sticker I grew up with. It was everywhere. Like the sand. The sand that got into everything – the carpets, the beds, the cracks between floorboards, and yes, the shoes. That sand was home.
Almost seventeen years ago I left there, in search of adventure, of foreign shores. I’d decided I was never going to live my parents’ life, an hour from the city, commuting back and forth on the Long Island Railroad, returning home to a small beach town. Though I loved that town, loved the growing up there, that was not who I intended to be. Long Beach, sandwiched between two bodies of water, the bay on one side, the ocean on the other. We were connected to the mainland only by bridges. That island-ish life, that beachside self is who I was for thirty years. It is who I am still.
Now I live on the other side of the world. And here is the irony. I live in a small beach town, about an hour from the city. Of Melbourne, Australia.
On Monday night, Hurricane Sandy devastated my hometown of Long Beach. Indeed, it devastated the whole East Coast. New York City was underwater, subways like swimming pools, lights out, power stations exploding. I spent the next three days scouring the internet for images, to see what had happened, to see what was left. Friends and family were at risk; we texted and Facebooked and found one another. I aided the search for my best friend’s mother, posting messages asking for locals to search for her. Her daughter found her just as the National Guard were about to take her to a shelter. And I cried for what had happened there. And I kept thinking of home, of what it meant to me. Here is what I recalled:
The boardwalk. The boardwalk was the center of our life. Under that boardwalk is where I finally got kissed by the boy I’d loved all year in High School. It is where I learned to run. It was our bike-riding place, the place where we climbed over the fence to swim in a private school’s swimming pool. It was where I sat on the benches to stare out to sea, wishing some handsome stranger would sit down with me and ask me why I was crying. Where I first saw magic in the sky. The ramps to the boardwalk were the only hills anywhere in our completely flat town; riding up them was a test for our legs.
The sea. That friendliest of places. I’d swim out too far with my older brother, and my mother would stand on shore and shout at us to come back in. We’d pretend we didn’t hear her; we knew the ocean and were unafraid. I couldn’t swim, not proper swimming, but I knew how to jump over and under waves. I knew how to stay afloat. Every block, there were stone jetties jutting out into the water. I thought this was true of every beach in the world. Only a few beaches had waves enough for surfers — I didn’t know any surfers, and I didn’t see any point in it.
The beach. Where we pretented we were junior lifeguards, just to hang around the handsome young men who were lifeguards. Where we had Christmas in July, with real eggnog. Where I got sunburned far too often, kissed boys after dark up in elevated wooden lifeguard chairs. Had Italian Ices from the pizza place on New York Avenue. Where we grew up.
Gino’s Pizza. Truly the best pizza in the world. My friends and I spent many happy hours sharing one slice and a diet coke, talking of boys, life, nothing. We were teenagers. We could talk of nothing for hours.
Long Beach. Where three generations of my family had lived, had grown up in the same small house. The public library, and City Hall, and the town clock. The street names that still ring of home. The smell of the sea when I’d get off the train from New York City. The calm that would wash over me when I got to the ocean.
What is home? Where is home? This week, I am hard-pressed to answer this question. My heart is back in Long Beach, my eyes staring in astonishment at photos of streets covered in sand, at cars swept by the sea from their parking places. The boardwalk, crumpled and broken, pieces of it lying in the center of streets. Photos of houses in the West End, where I grew up, which indicate the water must have got to three or four feet high. Mandatory evacuations, no water, no power. All unbelievable.
What gives me hope, though, is remembering my mother’s photos. She showed them to me after a particularly bad hurricane hit in the early 1980s. They showed the sea meeting the bay, streets underwater. It has happened before. Not to the catastrophic level it did this time, but it has happened before.
Long Beach has withstood so much. The people there are strong, sun-wizened, used to the wily ways of the ocean and bay. The older people who refuse to leave at the call of the younger people now in charge; they know. They have seen the like of this before.
As I run the beachside trails here., my thoughts and prayers are with the people of Long Beach, and others along the East Coast, whose lives have been forever changed by Hurricane Sandy.
The hope and love of the world will support the people there, even if we can’t be there in person. Long Beach, New York, the world is right there with you, I am right there with you, forever with Long Beach sand in my shoes, even over here on the other side of the world.