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Shifting Sands

By Nathan Englander
Sunday, June 24, 2007

I WAS A LAZY, TELEVISION-RAISED, SUBURBAN-GROWN COLLEGE BOY. Before the summer of 1989, the only parts of the day I was aware of were prime time and late night. Then, in an act of defiance that was supposed to teach my parents a lesson but was really teaching me one, I took a job picking garbage at the beach. It often started at first light, and I worked a shift I could measure by the movement of the sun.

I'd set out on the Southern State Parkway in my Plymouth Horizon, an aptly named hatchback, as I was headed to the mini-city that is the Jones Beach complex, with its not-so-mini infrastructure of which I was the smallest cog. As for the actual horizon, it would be the central focus of my summer. Endless, endless hours spent staring at that line between earth (in this case water) and sky. It's the early morning shifts that I remember best, the dark, traffic-less highway, the half-awake driving and the feel as the road and world narrowed down to a strip of beach where I worked.

I WAS HEADING TO ISRAEL IN AUGUST. I'd be the first in my family (including my two living grandparents) to cross an ocean -- and for me, I was sure of it, everything I was looking for was waiting on the far side. I was 19 years old and desperate for the old way of life to be over. I wanted change, and I wanted adventure, and that -- even without a job so droning -- ensured a summer of frozen time waiting for what was to come.

When I'd first told my mother I was going to spend my junior year in Jerusalem, she said, Absolutely not. Forbidden. It's too far and too dangerous.

For those familiar with the Orthodox Jewish community, my mother's position begs some explaining. Half my community would fly to Israel during Armageddon, to show support and take advantage of the airfares. In my mother's case, there was something that overrode her Zionism, and that was her surety that every activity I undertook would lead to death or serious bodily harm.

This was the single golden rule with which I was raised: If you do anything, aside from sit quietly on the couch, you will die. I was brought up on a strict regimen of absolute fear. To cross the street is to die. To travel is to die. Basically everything will kill you or cause you grievous bodily harm. My mother's version of the age-old joke goes like this: Why did the chicken cross the road? Because he wanted to get run over and die and then kill his poor mother with the grief of it.

THE DECISION TO GO TO ISRAEL was an all-out familial declaration of war. I was headed toward giving up religion; I was turning into a neo-hippie (embarking on an unfortunate hairstyle that I'd keep for 15 years); I was going to become a writer of fiction and, with that, give up on my family's plan that I become a stockbroker with a secure life.

There's no way to explain this without acknowledging its freakishness. But when the other kids from yeshiva went off to expensive religious sleep-away camps, I would spend my summers working in Manhattan at a brokerage. I'd get up, put on a suit, get on the Long Island Rail Road and then take the E train from Penn Station to an office in Midtown. I'd been doing that since 10th grade, and by my sophomore year of college, I was also studying for my Series 7, so that I could start trading. By the time my summer at the beach rolled around, it was also painfully clear that I didn't want to work in the stock market anymore. I didn't want any filthy lucre, didn't want to be corporate. I wanted to run around Jerusalem barefoot chasing girls and playing the bongos (and I did, almost immediately upon arriving, purchase a drum in the Arab shuk -- God help me). The tenor of the mother-son negotiations over the stock market, let us say "escalated" to the point where I may have said something like, "I'd rather pick garbage than work in that office."

And my mother may have responded by saying, "So pick garbage." Or, "You think you're going to teach me a lesson by picking garbage?" Or, "So go pick garbage. (Pause.) You'll pick garbage over my dead body."

THERE WERE ARMIES of us who split the 6 1/2 miles of beach into fields and split the day from dawn until dusk. Each shift, at each field, was supervised by a supervisor -- a basic hierarchy that I don't think I'd ever been exposed to as a worker before. One day I found a syringe -- the Golden Ticket of garbage picking. This was during the pre-global-warming era, when we used to talk about medical waste washing up from the sea, and a syringe could end up on the nightly news. I called the serious, power-corrupted, rule-enforcing supervisor over to show him what I'd found. He told me to throw it in the bag. When I protested, he said, "Do you know how many forms I'll have to fill out?" And I threw it in the bag.

Except for filling the Dumpster, putting garbage into pickup trucks and taking garbage out of pickup tricks, we mostly walked the beach picking garbage by ourselves. I wore my official park worker shirt, jeans and boots -- no matter the heat. I'd take a store of garbage bags, shoved into back pocket or belt loop, and set off with my own green-handled pigstick, the tool of the trade, the garbage knight's sword. It's an aluminum pole with a grip and trigger on one end and a sort of metal beak on the other with which I'd snatch at the detritus of our wasteful world.

No one has ever been so invisible to a pretty young girl in a bikini as a guy in jeans and boots, sweaty and picking garbage, a pigstick in his work-gloved hand.

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