That infamous madeleine that had Marcel Proust spinning tales of yesterday… the modern penny that slammed Somewhere In Time’s Christopher Reeve back into the future… and my grandmother’s beach bag with the sand in the bottom.
I was getting ready to go to the grocery store yesterday and realized that I didn’t have any “green bags” handy in the house. I wasn’t sure if there were any in my car– maybe they were all in the other car– so I decided to bring a black plastic leatherette bag that my sister Lois had driven to Florida from Brooklyn last month, filled with Depression glass that my mother was sending me.
The pieces are in the lacy, complex Madrid pattern, which they used to give out at theatres back when they awarded you prizes for actually going to the movies; I’m not sure if my grandmother got them before a showing of some hot Lana Turner problem drama, or if she bought them at the five and ten, but Depression glass they are: grill plates with built-in sections for different foods; delicate oval serving bowls; custard cups in two styles in which she used to serve us tapioca pudding; a platter… it’s beautiful stuff.
Thinking that I would one day bring them back to Florida with me on the plane, I had wrapped all the pieces in newspapers a few years ago, which I heartily scanned before recycling. Then I plunked everything in that black bag, which arrived intact with Lois.
So there I was on the way to Publix to buy dinner, and something compelled me to look closely at it– there was an anchor emblem on its side that caught my eye– and then I looked deep inside the bag, and I was immediately transported back when I noticed grains of sand all along the bottom.
Sand from the beach, and probably Coney Island. I’m sure she hadn’t been there since the late 1960s… possibly the early 1970s. This was definitely her beach bag, in sober black, which matched her bathing attire. All the old Italian ladies in those days wore black bathing suits, and white rubber bathing caps; the more daring ones sported headgear festooned with rubbery daisies. Mary Santola was one of those rare few who actually had a cabana at the beach, which she’d use practically every day. You’d see her walking proudly down the street, brown as a nut, carrying a beach chair and a pocketbook.
Many, many times my grandmother took us children to the beach by bus. It seemed to take forever, involving– I think– three different buses. I remember a transfer point at Stillwell Avenue under the elevated subway that you had to cross the busy street to get to. Those buses were always crowded during the weekday: grandmothers, kids, beach chairs, beach bags… we were always so encumbered! In the beach bags were usually egg salad sandwiches, which no amount of foil could succeed in keeping the sand from; sunglasses; towels; toys; and, possibly, “suntan lotion.” (Nobody knew about sunscreen in the 1960s… it was the beach! Why avoid the sun?!) And somewhere in all this was a beach blanket, usually an old bedspread from the 1940s.
We looked like refugees leaving Pogromstan ahead of the latest Cossack raid. I’d see boys my age, or slightly older, carrying nothing but a rolled beach towel, unlit cigarettes in their mouths and behind their ears, nestled close to their Brylcreemed hair. And their female counterparts with the Connie Francis hairdos would be clogging the aisles, and yet the bus stopped at every stop to take on even more beachgoers.
One time a large lady fell backward and ended up sitting on me for a few blocks because there was no room for her to get up.
We’d all pile out of the bus like clowns exploding from a miniature car at the circus, but we were allowed one amusement before actually staking a claim to a patch of sand. One time we insisted on a ride through a haunted fun house; one day we rode a coaster-like contraption called the Wild Mouse; and another time we visited the Coney Island Wax Museum. THAT was amazing; I’m surprised they let us children inside, but there we were, ogling President Kennedy’s recreated office, and various scenes (in wax) of horrific murders: the man in the bloody bathroom with the suitcase in which he was stuffing a shredded corpse… the two-headed baby in a big glass box… and lots and lots of other horrifying, gross tableaux featuring strewn intestines and decapitated ex-wives.
Afterwards we always stopped to eat a knish.
Finally on the sand, you had to smooth out an area to make sure that there were no buried chicken bones to stab your feet. The blanket went down, all our shoes holding down the corners, and then we’d race for the water as the Italian people found one another and began talking. Now that I look back, I wonder what they talked about: how much better it was in the old country? The price of salt pork at the secret little salumeria in Bensonhusrt that only fifteen thousand people knew about? The state of their corns?
We were in the salt water, and we didn’t care about anything else. I’m sure we were being watched from the sand, but it always felt like we were so free because we’d be surrounded by strangers: and all different colors of them, too– white and brown and black, and sometimes Chinese people, all of us standing waist-deep in the brine, watching the brave older boys as they swam out deep. Sometimes there was a cry– “jellyfish!”– and everybody would scream and rush back to the sand. And sometimes it rained, which caused mass pandemonium as all the Italian grandmothers collected their charges and rushed us under the pier or the boardwalk. (If you stayed out in the rain, you’d get wet– or worse, catch cold.) Then for an hour or so when the sun came back out you’d hear announcements from the boardwalk: “Johnny Malatesta, your grandmother is looking for you… Angelina Pomodoro, report to the police booth… Santarosa Benevento, meet your uncle at the top of the stairs in front of Astroland.”
My immune system is in excellent shape thank sto those egg-salad sandwiches which had been baking in the hot beach bag for hours. And the ever-present sand helped add a dose of roughage, and we’d wash everything down with warm lemonade or iced tea. Men came around in those days selling ice creams or sodas from icy coolers, and I remember loving some sort of ice-creamy treat covered with some sort of shredded strawberry-flavored something. We’d always have to wait a half hour before going back in the water or we’d get horrible stomach cramps, which I realize now was just a Big Lie– that half hour away from the water was so that the grownups could eat in peace without having to worry about little Maris being carried off by the undertow.
And then the quiet, dreamy, sun-drunk bus ride back home.
I haven’t thought of half these things in years. It’s funny how just a few grains of sand can open up a whole beach bag full of memories for me.