VIOLET, BABS, AND COOKIE STEVEN LEWIS
My closet: an intriguing if aesthetically unimpressive memoir of the last 45 years of a would-be beach bum’s life on hangers.
I reach in and take out my wrinkled-writer’s standard issue all-purpose wedding-funeral-bar mitzvah-confirmation-graduation suit. Moments later, dressed like a boy, I stand in front of the mirror and wipe the scowl off my face in preparation for some tedious summer event out on the Island that my wife and I are obliged to attend.
Then I think, So when the hell did you get so old and crotchety?
Unfortunately, I have no ready answer, no bon mots. Truth be told, I never thought I’d be 67. Not that I didn’t think I’d live this long—the appallingly truth is I figured I would never be old.
But 67 is indeed here. As Procol Harem once crooned, “…the mirror tells its tale.” And it does. And despite my own carelessly created myths of endless hipsterhood, I do feel my age. A little world weary. A little melancholy in those odd seconds between the endless clutter of an undeservedly good life.
In the breast pocket of the suit I find a 2010 invitation in to my dear friend’s daughter’s wedding in East Hampton. I read and re-read the invitation and whisper the bride’s name: Violet. A sorrow older than my age overcomes me. Suddenly I am nostalgic for girls named Vi.
That’s Vi. Not Violet, like the one who got married, a beautiful and stylish Manhattan and Amagansett fashion editor who no one would ever confuse with a Vi. My Vi resides in that narrow lost neighborhood of time as a member of the steno pool—or maybe someone else’s favorite 2nd grade teacher: cat shaped eyeglasses, a bob sprayed into place, an eggshell white cardigan with a brooch, a girl who never said a bad word about anybody.
And right next to Vi is Babs. Oh man, Babs: Keds, thick white socks, red lips, sweet as candy. The nicest girl you’d ever want to meet. The kind, you know ….
Which brings me right to Cookie. In my book, Cookies are just like Babs-es, but with a cigarette dangling from those cherry red lips, just hangin round places like Indian Wells all summer long. Even better than Babs. The nicest bad girl you’d ever want to meet.
But, now looking through the image of my grandfather in the mirror, I must acknowledge there are no more Vi’s—or Babs-es—or Cookies on South Fork. Or anywhere else. Look around. Cute little Emmas, Isabellas, Delilahs, Madisons, Hannahs up and down Newtown Lane with their nannies.
So it goes. However, despite the summery weather and the promise of a beach after the obligatory affair, the passing of those names makes me kind of melancholy, maybe even a little remorseful. And soon enough, despite a lifetime spent fending off second-guessing of all kinds, I am filled with regret.
And what does a man with 7 kids and 16 grandchildren regret? Nothing.
And right at the top or bottom of the Everything list is a stock aerial photo of the East Deck Motel in Montauk. When my kids were young, we stayed there several times. Back in the ‘80s it was simply a great, musty, moldy seaside joint parked right on the sand.
Despite its unpretentious (and continuing) charm, though, the regret at this moment is not for the East Deck itself but the small cottages we would pass behind it off Ditch Plains Road—the same small cottages which are now teardowns or fully renovated seaside homes featured in Coastal Living Magazine.
Back in the 50s and 60s, though, they were the kinds of summer places that working class families owned … uninsulated, drafty, smelling of salt spray and sea grasses, that aromatherapeutic mustiness you only find at the shore. The wives and kids driving out there the Saturday after the last day of school in June and staying until Labor Day. Hubbies taking the train out on Friday nights, returning Sunday afternoons.
In the spirit of full disclosure, that was a world I never knew. My birth family and I were “homesteaders” from Flushing who landed in Roslyn Heights on a flat quarter acre lot with a single maple tree. And that was that. We never even made it to the Suffolk County line. Ever. In fact, I don’t think we ever drove to Jones Beach as a family. The suburbs were who we were, where stayed, where we planted our Thom McCann and Buster Brown soles.
So what is there to regret? Well, even as a kid I loved the dream of those summery cottages on the South Fork. So while I was packed off to camp in Connecticut for the summer like practically every other kid in Roslyn, I dreamed about the long beach days I had heard about around the Hamptons, me and my pals wandering aimlessly through the dunes, riding bikes, collecting shells, diving into the surf. Cheese and tomato sandwiches. Nehi sodas. Ice cream. Fireflies. The sound of the surf crashing just across the road.
Now fast forward 15-20 years: When my wife and I packed up the hippie van and left Wisconsin in 1973 with several degrees, two kids, three dogs and I don’t remember how many cats, we weren’t thinking shore. I don’t know why. We settled upstate in the beautiful green Shawangunk Mountains—with the unspoken understanding that one day we would buy a breezy beach cottage in the Hamptons or Montauk … and give my kids a chance to live out that the summer dream I never had.
And thus we have arrived all these words later at the continental shelf of regret: All woulda-coulda-shouldas aside, we never did it. You know how it is, married life and five more kids to come and summer teaching jobs and mowing the two acre lawn and little league and any number of undistinguished events kept us home—and by the time we desperately needed a beach to save our souls, the Hamptons were way (way way) out of our price range.
Years passed. We camped on Martha’s Vineyard. We bought a tiny affordable beach box on Hatteras Island, NC, too far for weekends. My kids grew up and moved on. And as I realize once again, looking back at Violet’s lovely invitation still in my hand … well, think of your favorite beach cliché assigned to sand castles.
So, if you spot an old hippie in a beach chair this fall at the East Deck or up at the Silver Sands talking to himself and watching the swells roll in, don’t call the constables or social services. It’s just me waiting for my long lost Vi to show up in her skirted bathing suit, bathing cap in hand. She’s probably accompanied by Babs, polka dot one piece, sun hat, the two of them gossiping and giggling, soon pointing at Cookie squealing in the surf, jumping on some bad boy’s back. That’s my pal Richard, Violet’s pop.