Bench Your Bottom Dollar
I’ve been coming to the Surf Club of Quogue ever since I can remember. Now sixteen years isn’t quite a long time in most people’s books, but being that it spans my entire life so far, I’d say it’s relatively significant. Before my sister and I started to go to camp in New Hampshire, we’d spend an exhausting amount of time at the Surf Club. Each summer, we would spend practically every waking moment at this beach; rain or shine, fog or wind, high tide, low tide, you name it. We’d show up in the morning before most members had even woken up, and we’d stay until our babysitter insisted that we shower off the accumulated layers of sand and get in the car. Our parents have made friends with almost all the other adults who frequent the club, but my sister and I never felt the urge to get too chummy with the kids our age, since we were always quite content spending time with any of our 12 cousins on our dad’s side. To us, July and August meant bodysurfing (when the flag was white, of course), ice cream dripping off the cone and down our arms, strenuous sessions of swim team practice, and climbing the lifeguard stand after hours as the sky became a watercolor of peach and gold.
One of my personal favorite traditions about the club is its notorious system of blue and green benches that sit on the sand, awarded to loyal members who’ve waited patiently through the years to receive one. As a little kid, at the beginning of each summer, I loved frantically searching for my last name painted in black print on the back of our (always) lime green bench. See, the reason I had to look is because every year, the order of benches changes the slightest bit. Families who’ve been members the longest sit closest to the water, and families who’ve just received a bench start out in the back row. As I get older, the names become more and more familiar, as I can retain them better, and have gotten to know the people. It’s a simple loyalty system that I’d never seen a problem with before. In fact, I was always kind of proud to have a bench in the second row.
However, just recently, a friend of mine referred to our beach club as “the bench hierarchy”. I was amused and appalled at the same time. I couldn’t believe that someone would have the gall to berate our cherished customs! Yet, I laughed at the fact that my friend was offended by a few rows of brightly painted plywood, hardly even used as seats and mostly used to dry towels and hold coolers. Then I realized that our “cherished customs” were hardly even used as seats and mostly used to dry towels and hold coolers, and I laughed at myself.
But this got me thinking. The definition of a hierarchy is a system of rank where people or things can be placed in order of value, one above another. Socially, the ones ranked towards the top almost always have it better than the ones at the bottom. At the Surf Club, the bench owners in the front row are given special privileges based on their membership and loyalty to the club. They enjoy an uninterrupted view of the Atlantic until there are no family members left to use the beach pew. The second and third rows still have a substantial view, but may be distracted by the “old money” beachgoers setting up camp in the front. Owners of the last row of benches are closest to the dunes and have to endure the hottest sand that sometimes turns black and scalds the soles of your feet. They’ve got three whole rows of seating in front of them, and walking down to the ocean is like trekking across the Sahara.
Soon enough, I started to ponder the similarities between our bench system and the state of people in America. The upper class, receiving rewards for fidelity and sponsorship; the middle class, the biggest and most prominent; and the lower class, pushed into the back and required to watch everyone above them, struggling to, but only moving up every so often. I became alarmed. Am I part of a faux class system? Do I actually participate in a hierarchy where the bottom is oppressed and the top is protected? Will my little beach club on Dune Road become ancient Rome, and will we eventually call each other patricians and plebeians?
Of course we won’t. As I explained to my friend, our benches are a practical way to feel included in a bigger picture. As far as I’m concerned, everyone at that beach is family and looks out for each other, no matter what row they’re in. Doing otherwise would be ridiculous. What we have is not a “hierarchy”, but a close-knit web of members who’ve known each other for ages. Since the Surf Club was first established in 1942, there’s been a sense of togetherness, and it’s always a joy to come back after the cold to see all the familiar faces we associate with summer. And you know what? The benches are our trademark and make fabulous conversation-starters. I do and forever will have a miniature green bench replica, adorned with sand and mini seashells, sitting on my bathroom counter. The Surf Club is my family’s home in the short months after May, and I can’t think of one place I’d have rather spent my sixteen summers so far, and hopefully many more to come.