L’ Shanah Tovah! Happy (Jewish) New Year! September 2012, Mom and I stay at Welcome 35, a two-star motel on Route 35 in Wall, New Jersey. It has everything! A Vietnamese proprietress who we never see (and whom I love), a young, helpful staff of Vietnamese boys who spend all day playing video games on their smartphones, color TV, free breakfast, many fruit flies among the bananas, clean rooms, great beds, loose change lying on the parking lot and a surfer clientele who remain totally oblivious to anything like ambience.
“Shore Points,” this part of New Jersey is a madhouse in-season, when “the Bennies” come down from the north and spend their Ben Franklins in the beach towns of Point Pleasant, Belmar, Sea Girt and the hearty-party locales of Jersey Shore.
Since my 91-year-old mom walks with a cane, watching where she puts her feet, she’s the one who finds quarters, dimes and nickels on the pavement. Too decrepit to reach down, she stops and waits for me to salvage the treasure.
Once I cut up a banana for our cereal at a breakfast table in the lobby (“Breakfast 6:30 – 10 a.m.”), we are joined by a veritable swarm of fruit flies. Since they eat virtually nothing, who cares? Still, we’d rather not have them wandering all over our styrofoam cups of orange juice or onto our breakfast cereal.
The Venerable Reader (she reads everything), mom picks up a copy of The Beachcomber brochure. A true sun-worshipper in her youth, my mom’s meds forbid her to expose her skin to direct sunlight. Boy, does she miss it!
“Reviewing the alternative accommodations,” she tells me, “I notice that the cheaper motels provide breakfast, while the more expensive ones do not. Rich people buy their breakfast. Go figure!”
Mom and I have come north to New Jersey to spend the Jewish New Year with my niece Judy and her family. Judy has married into the Spritzer clan. Very famous name in New Jersey. Mom is GGM, the Great Gand Ma. Judy has a 6-year-old daughter “Penelope” and a 4-year-old son “Nimrod.” They love GGM dearly, clinging like barnacles to any warm relative who passes by.
I am “Uncle Kevin,” the human punching bag. My one claim to fame is indestructibility. The kids get to rough-house with me in ways clearly verboten on a play-date with their contemporaries. They throw plastic toys at my head. We wrestle. They punch every part of my body. Every. Part. Of. My. Body. (“Uh!”) My grand niece Penelope loves to bounce on my stomach while I lay prone on my back on the floor.
Classic helicopter parents, Judy and her husband hover endlessly. They are in so far over their heads, any discussion of a topic outside the home falls utterly flat.
We used to stay at my niece’s, but since her kids are voracious, having us there 24 – 7 only made them more demanding. And less appreciative. This trip, I ration my playtime with them. And I gits mo’ respect.
They live in Decibel, New Jersey. One of those townships off Route 9, Decibel features the sign,
“We’re only six blocks long,
So honk REAL LOUD!”
By the time you turn right and drive through the development, you’re in Jackson, home to one of the world’s more impressive Outlet Malls. Not so Decibel, which is— despite its name— a quiet ‘burb.
Forty rooms at the motel, we’re the only ones who have a Toshiba TV. Forget flat screen, this is a huge analog monster with a 23” screen. Only problem is, the RCA remote doesn’t operate on the same frequencies as the television. Mom likes to lay in bed channel-surfing. She watches manual TV the first night. By the next morning, after endless nagging, the Vietnamese clerk arrives with four different brands of remote. None of them work! Later that day, he brings us an ancient, silver-colored Zenith programmable remote and an instruction book containing 16 different codes.
“I have only put in the first one,” he tells me, but even as he pushes the POWER button, I hear the TV groaning into life!
Deaf as an adder, mom plays the TV at full volume. When she hears “U.S. Open,” she thinks “Golf!” This, however, is the U.S. Open in Surfboarding. What does my mom know from surfing? I find her sitting on her bed in the motel room, studying hang-fives on the color TV.
“What are you doing?!”
“I’m interested in how they score the events.”
Brilliant late-summer weather, we have blinding sun and temps in the 80’s. I swim among the surfers at the locals’ beach in Spring Lake. Tawny brown, the sand is wide and pristine. It looks tarrier than it is. Young families climb on the rocks jutting into the ocean, a sport I do not comprehend. There’s even a boardwalk and lavatories. This is a very quiet, residential town: The only thing “downtown” on Route 70 is Hoffman’s Ice Cream & Yogurt.
Off-season, there are no lifeguards. It’s “swim at your own risk,” but there is also no fee for entering the beach. After years of mayhem, New Jersey townships learned that the only way to impose order in-season was to charge admission! And, yes, there is an undertow, but we are all super-careful in the water. This late in the year, it has warmed up.
After a few hours of paradise, I slowly begin going crazy looking at blond teenage girls. I get the hell out of there.
“You were swimming with the rich folks,” comments my mom. “There are no motels in Spring Lake. First class, it has only the most expensive beach resort hotels. You bathed with the upper crust!”
“And surfers,” I add. “All ages, all sizes. In wetsuits. With boards. Congregating like seals.”
Sunday, I drive north and visit my buddy from college, Mario. We have so much fun together, visiting him always leaves me feeling lonely! This is the price I pay for not maintaining an active social life. The Oxburg Towne Amateur Baseball League, the Oxburg Civic Association, the Oxburg Democrats, the Moosegrave College Alumni Association see neither hide nor hair of Kevin Feingold. It’s enough of a miracle that I have teenage girlfriends. Tantalus never had it so bad. The “You may look but you may not touch” ethos of lap-dancing applies to the entire relationship. My only excuse for such self-flagellation is that it keeps me from getting sucked into a grown-up romance, marriage and child-rearing. To quote Sinéad O’Connor, “I do not want what I haven’t got.”
“So my mom bought one of these hyper-modern Low H2O/ High energy detergent washing machines for $800 that hardly uses any water,” I explain to Mario, sitting in his living room on a plaid sofa. His wife Carlie scarfs down the chocolate bon-bons I have brought and reads the Sunday edition of The New York Times from cover to cover. “My mom hates the new machine! It does everything but get the clothes clean. Finally, my sister Carol visited, and the two of us said to mom, ‘Why put up with aggravation at your age? BUY A SIMPLE WASHING MACHINE YOU LIKE!’ Sears had a Labor Day Sale and for $299, mom and I got an old-fashion agitator machine that uses lots of water and actually washes clothes.”
“Put that in your blog,” suggests Mario.
When I tell him I have six readers— four of whom live in Australia and New Zealand— Mario chides me for not choosing trendier titles for my blog posts. “Check out the Google buzz index, the Yahoo buzz index,” he suggests. “Zero in on buzzwords: Lady Gaga, Kate Middleton’s nude photos, anti-Obama humor, Mitt Romney sex scandal uncovered. People will check out your posts just to see what they are about!”
(See title above!)
Mario’s daughter Violenza feels she has been stuck with cursed genes: “Diabetes on dad’s side, cancer on mom’s. Big stomachs. Frizzy hair. Big butts. Bow legs. Color blindness for orange and purple. Bushy eyebrows. Ingrown toenails. Crooked teeth. Dandruff and — look here, worst of all! — my hair parts in all the wrong places!!!”
“Yes, but Viola, look at all the good qualities you’ve inherited!” I counter.
“LIKE WHAT? Name ten!”
She’s been watching too much David Letterman.
“Yeah, name ten good things I’ve inherited by being born into this Etruscan family?!”
Alas, when I cannot come up with ten, she marches into her parents’ bedroom with her mom’s passport from September 1988 and accuses her mother of being coked up in her passport photo. “Look at those eyes! Those are crazy eyes if I’ve ever seen some. You were snorting coke when you were pregnant with me! That’s why my genes are all screwed up!”
Carlie is sprawled across the covers, cruising the Net on her laptop. “Vi! I was not doing coke while I was carrying you!”
“LOOK AT THIS PHOTO!” Violenza insists.
“Oy vey, they’re fighting,” laments Mario, leading me onto the back porch to sun ourselves.
A macher in the New York film world, Mario loads me down with DVD’s containing independent filmmakers’ documentaries celebrating 9/11, devil worship, the Brooklyn music scene and, for some reason, Britney Spears.
L’ Shanah Tovah, Monday night’s Spritzer family get-together quickly becomes a very Orthodox affair: All the men sit around a table in the dining room discussing baseball scores, while the women and children are relegated to the kitchen. Resolutely uninterested in baseball, I refuse to join the men. I cannot say the table talk in the kitchen, however, is particularly Talmudic:
“Whenever I use matzoh meal to bread my pork chops, I feel sacrilegious.”
“China continues to make the best dreidels.”
“I’m not a teacher, so I don’t care what Governor Christie does to their pensions,” says Rachel.
Rachel’s niece is a militant middle school teacher. Rachel is sitting in her niece’s kitchen, eating her niece’s food. Yet, she tells me this.
Amazingly callous or enormously self-absorbed?
I feel like the Romney campaign in Iowa. You are among friends, but the trek is endless and it’s all uphill.
“I haven’t gotten the rest of my New Year cards sent out yet,” my mom tells Judy’s mother-in-law Marjorie, “but I figure there’s a 10-day grace period between now and Yom Kippur. As long as I get them mailed by then, IT’S STILL THE HOLIDAYS!”
Talking about Judy’s allergies, mom and I assume that they rule out Judy and the kids ever getting a dog. Marjorie— your typical mother-in-law— suggests a poodle or a Bichon Frise. “They don’t have fur,” she tells us, “they have hair.”
Dogs with hair? This I never knew.
Tuesday morning, mom and I sit in the lobby of our motel eating breakfast on a folding table with a green damask tablecloth.
“I fought to liberate your country,” a gnarled, flinty, gray-haired American tells the 23-year-old boy behind the counter.
Mom and I consume orange juice, cereal with milk and sliced banana, toasted bagels with cream cheese and jelly, and coffee.
“I served In Khe Sanh. You know where Khe Sanh is?” asks the veteran.
No, the kid doesn’t know where Khe Sanh is! He was born and raised Stateside. He has never even been to Vietnam. In that sense, I am more Vietnamese than the 23-year-old. The ‘Nam and I bonded in my youth. Part of me never returned to The World. The Wandering Jew, I’ve always had a tendency to go native, whether in Vietnam, Sweden, Israel or Japan. Vietnam was my first, adolescent taste of war. It left many scars.
“We burned more hooches than you could shake a stick at,” the weathered gentleman rants, standing by the front counter. “Our jets napalmed your jungle! We were The Grim Reaper, kid. We fought the Commies in your dank, sweaty, shitty country from the Delta to Hanoi!” The old guy is really getting into his memories.
The Viet boy looks as horrified as I feel at this barrage of verbal brutality. Mercifully, finally, the veteran leaves the lobby after getting a local map and some brochures. He gets in his Navy blue, American muscle car and drives off with a throaty roar.
Jesus Christ! All that abuse and the guy wasn’t even a paying guest.
Why do the Viets look embarrassed every time they discuss with me the amount of our bill “plus tax”? When I get the final printout, I see why: State tax, city tax and “lodging tax,” combined, add another 15% to the total!
My mom is incredible. Back home in Oxburg, Maryland, she sits in her favorite chair in the living room, while her charitable contributions cure harelips among African children, stop anti-Semitism in Europe, stop the lies of the Republicans in Congress, stop unwanted pregnancies, stop AIDS, stop starvation in The Third World, stop the suffering of the Jews of Gondar in Ethiopia, stop the prevalence of breast cancer in women over 50… Yes, mom’s money can stop everything except the constant flood of junk mail soliciting charitable contributions! The United States Postal Service is going broke delivering this stuff.
I’m so excited over Finding Nemo becoming available in 3D, I am penning the screenplay to Finding Nimoy. Our story: A film archivist unearths such Leonard Nimoy sci-fi gems as the 1952 twelve-part serial Zombies of the Stratosphere as well as Bruno VeSota’s The Brain Eaters from 1958. A good time guaranteed for the entire family! As compelling as still another speech by President Obama.
“Two thumbs way up!” - Kevin Feingold, yustyoking.com