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.
WE'D BE SENT OFF AT DAWN to spread out and walk long lonely stretches of beach in the brief lull after the people who used the parking lot for sex had left their own garbage for us and before the arrival of the early risers -- the metal-detector obsessives and earthy folk who wanted to commune with nature.
You could see how clearly the morning people relished the quiet perfection of the beach, how they were blind to the giant grid of garbage pails, and the workers picking and the grind of the trucks that ride the sand. And, on top of that, the greater illusion of pristine beach and ocean. If every park employee slept late the same morning, these people would find the sand littered with cups and plastic bags, tampon applicators and cigarette butts, and some daily surprise: a car tire or a doll's head, or the endless anythings that weren't flushed far enough out to sea.
It didn't take many mornings of watching what the moon tides had left us to make me swear off even dipping my toes in that ocean.
THERE WAS A BOY NAMED DAVID, who was supermodel beautiful and used to wear a bandanna tied over his hair. He was obsessed with becoming a Freemason. David showed me where to pull a board loose at the sealed-up old bathhouse if you wanted to hide out during the shift. We went in there one day and, once inside, went through yet another door, into just the kind of place where you'd expect to find a few bodies decomposing in their Ocean Pacific shorts. But that kind of laziness, though admirable, didn't really fit with my kind of laziness. That is, I'd rather do what I was there to do slowly and poorly than invest the kind of energy it takes to sit in a creepy, dark abandoned building waiting for the minutes to tick by.
There was also a huge, morbidly obese, but still very imposing, guy we called House, and his sidekick, the less-huge, less-imposing guy we called (embarrassingly, now that I think back on it) Garage, because of the way he fit so nicely on House's side when they were, inevitably, glued at the hip.
When anyone needed to enforce any beach rule, it was nice to know House had your back. Say someone brought a pack of wolfhounds to the beach, and you said, "Sorry, no pets allowed." They might then say exactly what you would imagine, and you might turn around and scream, "House!" I can recall needing to do this only once. The sight of House, loping my way, moving as fast as he could move, made my request suddenly sound less optional.
ONE THING I LOVED DOING was raising and lowering the flags at Field 6. It may be from my days in a religious Jewish boy scout troop (don't ask), and it may be because I like that kind of ceremony -- the handing over of the corners, the triangular folding and the don't-touch-the-ground respect of it. And it may have been related to the giant ropeless, flagless flagpole on the front lawn of the house I grew up in. From the time I was little, there was talk of fixing it, but it never happened. That flagless pole was our own silent, unflapping tribute to suburban dysfunction. (After 30-plus years of our family's house ownership, the residents who replaced us had a flag flying within a year.) At Field 6, I took great satisfaction in working the pulley system and wrapping the rope around the pole's metal cleat.
And, at a beach, the raised flags always snap lively in the breeze.
THERE IS GREAT NATURAL BEAUTY TO THE JONES BEACH PARK. And the dunes, which we weren't supposed to tramp over, were full of delicate species. Mostly I was exposed to jellyfish shimmering clear in the sand and endless, aggressive gulls that would rip a hot dog out of your hands. There were also horseshoe crabs, lots of them, looking ancient and armored, with that spear of a tail.
On one especially isolating day, I was sent across the road to work Zach's Bay. I remember finding groups of horseshoe crabs in the sand, looking exhausted and barely alive. I took it upon myself to help them back into the water: righting them, nudging them back in. Both the number of them and the silence of the bay side made it that much more depressing. On the ocean side, there was the motion of the waves, the pull of undertows and roiling foam so that you could better root for whatever dying animal you'd helped back into the sea. Even if a fish was too far gone it always looked like it was trying.
THERE WERE THE RIDICULOUS ASSIGNMENTS, one of which, and I heard it only once from the serious (and increasingly dislikable) supervisor, was to go "knock down the fag shacks" in the dunes. I remember how shocking it was to hear. I'd heard talk of an unofficial gay beach and a nude beach somewhere far, far down the long stretch to the left of Field 6. It must have been way far down
because I don't remember seeing either -- and if my 19-year-old-self, with hours of garbage-picking to get through, didn't head off to see naked ladies, that beach must have been out past Montauk and off the end of the island. As for those shacks, apparently people would build lean-tos for a little privacy in the sand. I surely wasn't going to do what I'd been told, but I walked off in the direction I was supposed to, and walked and walked. There was always more garbage to be picked at and always more daydreaming to be had.
I'VE SINCE DISCOVERED THAT -- as much as I was desperately wishing for a new life straight across that ocean -- Jerusalem lies to the east, and I was facing due south. In the coming years, I'd end up making my way round the world in that direction, too, but I didn't then know the scope of my wish or that what came to pass would outshine the wanting.
In walking that long stretch of beach again and again, in the endless dreaming of a Jerusalem I didn't yet know, I can remember everyone else turning as invisible to me as I was to them. It was hard work that I was doing, and it was hot work, and it was, as noted, smelly, filthy, garbage-in-the-summer-sun work. But when I picture the best moments, I remove the bag of garbage from my side and the pigstick from my hand. I can see the shore empty of other workers and beachcombers and bathers, and I can silence the scream of the gulls. What I recall most sharply is the excitement of standing at the water's edge, of looking out over the ocean to see as far as I could possibly see, and thinking my future was on the other side.
Nathan Englander is the author of the short story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. His novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, was published in May by Knopf. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.