In those days ...
… the days of the local legends, everything seemed larger than life. We kids couldn’t imagine that we were walking in the footsteps of giants … and when we found out about the titans that trod the earth before us, we wondered if we could ever measure up. We knew we had enormous shoes to fill.
The town itself seemed larger than life. The massive buildings along the shoreline, ornate palaces built at the turn of the century … each told a thousand and one stories of fabled guests and their exploits, of countless lesser lights and their undocumented peccadilloes. The epic weather that bathed the coast in glorious, rapturous sunshine and then turned its mood like a capricious schoolteacher or impetuous little sister and then smashed into the strand with enormous force. Thunderstorms, gargantuan in and of themselves, paled in comparison to the hurricanes that brewed up out there in the open ocean. More often than not they ran aground far to the south, but their presence was felt in the relentless waves like rows of sharks’ teeth that chewed away at the sand, which we always thought mighty and eternal but proved itself as fragile as sensitive children. And we learned, early, to never turn our backs to the sea.
The wide streets that ran parallel to the boardwalk and bisected the city like an immense notochord. The boardwalk itself, lined with shops and amusements, scene of a hundred thousand romances, breakups, breakdowns, operas and drama and emotional earthquakes. And the ever-present undercurrent of menace that could be felt, especially on those nights when the ocean-fueled mist blanketed the town, enveloping the neon of the amusement parks till all that was left were multicolored glows and flashes without any visible sources. We could never know what was hiding in those mists … switchblade wielders … six-gun bearers … spare-change seekers with ulterior motives in mind. All were there, at some point, waiting their turn to come out and play, like the legendary Coney Island warriors. You could hear the pop-pop-popping of their choice weapons throughout the night, but they were part of the city’s soundtrack, like the rhythmic rumble of the late-night commuter trains over the trestle as they inched to the last stop on the line, or the low foghorns of the tramp cargo vessels plying their contraband along the interior bays and inlets behind the barrier islands and amidst the salt-marsh hassocks, or the “rehhh…” of the firehorns several towns distant, over the landfill Everest that threatened to become the highest point along the seaboard, or the earsplitting, heart-stopping diaphone blasts from behind city hall and echoing back from the east and west ends, warning of conflagrations or school closings, or the chimes that strove to emulate Big Ben at noon and midnight and aspired to Christmas carillons proclaiming silent nights (which we were told to ignore by our survivor fathers) … among this orchestra, the popping of the gangs’ shooters were mere percussion instruments. And so we thought nothing of them, and made no correlation between them and those congealed, pulsated, viscous red streaks on the concrete a block away from the ramps. Or the disappearances of our big brothers … some of whom turned up 2 to 10 years later or were gone 25 to life, or simply never came back. And when the sun would peer over the previous night’s precipice and then arch into the domed vault above, gathering strength and finally burning through the exhausted mists, nothing would be amiss … the hotels, the rides, the boards all still there, ready to greet a whole new day’s worth of daytrippers from the city and points beyond, leaving behind the heat, beat, and concrete for a day’s frolic in the ocean. They, too, would see the congealed red streaks and reason them away … this town sure has a lot of burger joints, and slobs who give them their business.
And the rolling heartbeats and throbbing palpitations produced and promulgated from the mobile bandstands by those who would fancy themselves heirs to the royalty that would caravan through the area, stones and zeppelins and doors and who knew what else … leaving hordes of desperate, pimply-faced youths in their wake, aching to emulate them, burning with desire to burn down the town with the arson of twin stacks and double-necked axes. Whether any of those rebels ever did more than smoke themselves into oblivion would never be known to us, the little innocent oblivious kids that we all were. But they’re the ones who came before us, and they’re the ones we saw haunting the bandstands for weeks and weeks after the titanic pounding primordial power left the landscape devastated. It seemed that the rolling thunder revues and hammers of the gods that blasted through were as intent on apocalypsing our beachfront as the genuine forces of nature were, and the marshalled forces sought to emulate them both.
And yet, what did we know of all this. We grew up, with our middle-class piano lessons and art classes and chess clubs and karate exercises, tempered of course by the rigorous study of three-thousand-year-old laws and their endless permutations and thumb twists, and all we wanted to do when we came out of that meat grinder was get the hell out. Some of us escaped … right back into the maws of urban decay that our first-generation parents fought like devils to get us out of. “I worked my tail off for thirty years to get out of that ghetto, and you’re just marching back in there?” But others set their sights further … going to college in other states and establishing careers on another coast. Some of us wandered, emulating our forefathers with 42 stops through desert and exile, until ending up right where we started, with some of the old faces asking why we were back, but many others who never knew of the antediluvian giants that once stomped and roamed here, and could never imagine that such a scene could even exist along this bucolic, benign barrier island.
Long Beach like it once was.