I was lost in thought during my walk this morning when the Four Seasons “Marlena” came on my MP3 player. I was transported back many years to the nights when I shot pool with a friend on his unleveled table while “Marlena” and the other The Four Seasons’ Greatest Hits played over and over again on his record player. I wasn’t thinking much about what I wanted to do with my life. All I cared about was sinking the straight-on shot in front of me and smoking the stale the cigarettes I had pilfered from my parents ancient stash.
These are private memories. As I relive them, I live in the past. The details mean nothing to anyone but me. That’s the problem with so many memoirs and personal essays: they mean nothing to anyone but the writer. I may want to share them, but who really cares about experiences no one but I had? Maybe readers will be polite and humor me, or something.
It’s not that there’s nothing human and universal to be shared. I could talk about the ease with which kids can improvise fun from something like an out-of-plumb pool table. I could talk about the naughty joy of getting away with something like smoking stolen cigarettes. (How little I knew.) I could talk about the days when records played on turntables were the latest technology. I could talk about the unspoken friendship that was nourished by hours of doing nothing.
These memories bring out feelings that almost everyone has felt. They are “cocoon” memories. They are private memories belong exclusively to me, yet they are memories that are both universal and unique and private. It may not be possible for me to share precisely what listening to “Marlena” in my friend’s basement felt like. Still, I know that others have had their own “Marlena” moments and know exactly what I’m talking about.
I spent every summer between third grade and college at Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey. I have vivid memories of the boardwalk, the bungalows, the beach, and the crowds; of taking my shoes off and putting them and my long pants away until the fall; of leaving for the day with the door wide open and returning to find nothing disturbed. New Jersey’s oppressive heat, humidity, and mosquitoes stayed away, replaced by gentle breezes and the aroma of suntan lotion, cotton candy, and 35-cent hamburgers. From the concessions pavilion a short walk up the boardwalk, the music of the pinball machines and skeeball alleys transformed every summer into a three-month carnival.
Hurricane Sandy destroyed all that. As I look at post-storm photos from Point Pleasant Beach, I recognize the geography, but the Martian landscape is hard to fathom. My family had ridden out hurricanes in the years we were there. Always, the magnificent beach kept the waves far from out house on the boardwalk. Secure in my teenager’s invulnerability, I even fantasized about body surfing a hurricane-powered wave into the ride of a lifetime. I never imagined that the broad, impregnable beach would one day prove so feeble.
It’s not like Point Pleasant Beach was ripped out of the past. The town had visibly changed since I summered there. Huge, star-wars-style condominiums had gone up along the inlet, and many of the ramshackle bungalows on the boardwalk had become year-round pleasure palaces. The Tilt-A-Whirls had been replaced by amusement rides that would scare you to death and dislocate your neck out at the same time. The memories lived, though. I could take them out of my memory chest any time I wanted. The dream of returning to the good old days may have been just a dream, but I could still touch it and taste it.
Point Pleasant Beach will be there next year. It will rebuild. Insurance money will pack McMansions into the narrow lots along the boardwalk. Jenkinson’s will repair the damages, cater to a new clientele, and raise prices. The cotton candy will come from brand new machines. All I have left are photographs, feelings I can describe only vicariously, and memories in two dimensions and black and white. The physical touch and tastes are irretrievably gone, so I can share them only as caricatures. At least, I’ve shared them.