We’ve come to think of “nostalgia” as a very friendly word, a highly commercial one in fact, but it’s helpful to note its literal meaning: the pain of remembering. It’s a wallow in the warmth of the past, but we never forget that gone is gone and isn’t coming back. The pain is in the loss (parent, pet, cola brand, the Expos, Ella Fitzgerald) but surely there is pleasure in unpacking memories and trying them on in real time. These memories needn’t be 100% accurate: the flattering patina of age softens the stark elements and pleases the mind’s eye. Everything’s bite-sized and easily digested. That’s Big Nostalgia’s brand.
Anyway: we are putting the Sea Cliff house up for sale.
I was seven years old when we moved in. The family had just become five: my brother Joel was the baby, my sister Pat three years older than I. I attended Sea Cliff elementary until they sent me down the road to North Shore High. Wherever I replanted myself–Pittsburgh, New York City, Los Angeles–I’ve always called Sea Cliff my home town. But things change, and now there’s a basement full of stuff to deal with.
I pick up my rental car on 83rd and hit the road. Pre-GPS, I’d have headed due east and gone toe-to-toe with the Long Island Expressway, but now my kindly pocket-sherpa advises an up-and-over scheme: West Side Highway to the Cross-Island, catching the L.I.E. midstream. Okay, Robot Lady. I, for one, welcome our new electronic overlords.
For most of the fifty-minute trip I’m just another commuter, getting a midday jump on rush hour. I could be anybody. But by the time I’ve closed in on my exit, I’m all me. Visually, the transition is gradual: just soft-focus landscape at first, but then the individual streets and houses sync up with the memories and everything sharpens into something…readable. That’s not just the pizza place we’d go after a late rehearsal, that’s where I first heard “Baby Love” by The Supremes (insert your own pizza-parlor debut reference here). And that used to be Stein’s deli, where we went to smoke cigarettes after school. (It’s also where David French and I wondered aloud what the hell President Kennedy was doing in Dallas that November afternoon). History and the Top Forty take care of the broad strokes; we spend decades refining the picture, the faces and places of our past make it our story, ours alone.
John le Carré, in his excellent memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel, suggests a new word might be needed to supplant “memory” in some cases. Again, accuracy is beside the point; the past is what we make it, tarted up and freshened with sachets or draped in mourning for lost loves, blown chances, and dead presidents. We call them memories, but they are something else. “Le Carrés”, perhaps.
I pull into the driveway of the family home, and hug my nephew, who’s been living in the house. His father, my brother-in-law, Richie, is very ill with a progressive respiratory disease. We chat for a minute or two about this and other business, when I suddenly realize I’m starving. Paul isn’t, so I take myself to Glen Cove (next town over) for a bite.
Henry’s has been a Glen Cove mainstay since 1929. The rest of this city (pop. 27,000) has changed dramatically, but Henry’s still delivers as always: burger, fries, chocolate shake.
Fortified, I take the long way back, past the water, where the Sea Cliff Bathing Pavilion once stood.
Check out the view from Memorial Park (“Hippie Park” as it became known in the seventies)…
…roll past Mr. Thompson’s used book store (now some sort of financial planning outfit), and park for a few minutes near my old elementary school, not too close because you don’t want to be a lone male casing a playground. I scope the place through the graveyard fence. Yes, right next to the school is a little old cemetery. Its proximity was something I’m sure all of us kids dealt with in our own way. I thought it was pretty cool, actually. Youth fears monsters, not mortality.
Back to the Old McKean Place, specifically the basement.
The last time I’d been down here was about twelve years ago. My mother, Ruth, was in a coma from which she would not awaken. I rooted around and found a few things I brought back to Los Angeles with me: odds and ends, some photos, some books, a few LPs, some drawings my dad did for his college magazine. I didn’t even scratch the surface.
My father’s years in the record business are well represented down here. Boxed sets of classical, opera, and spoken word share cardboard cartons with pop stuff, hits and oddball one-offs, from all areas of the rich tapestry. Lonesome as a ghost town bus stop and thick with dust, but one could imagine amid the jumble the voices of long gone artists, locked in the grooves. I’d given much of the pop a spin back in the day, but the classical stuff was Dad’s bailiwick: I couldn’t lay a racket on it.
And there amid the clutter: our Jack Davis originals. The great Mad artist became a friend of the family when my father (then at RCA Victor) recommended him for some LP cover art in the 1950s. He drew our Christmas cards for several years, and we wound up with some original artwork from his inimitable hand.
I scrape together a few boxes to take into the city, leaving the bigger stuff for another day. Brother Carlin’s “A Place for Your Stuff” screed comes into my head and stays there as I move my stuff from a big place to a smaller place (flying in the face of practicality, I know) and I make a note to research legit record collectors—grown-ups—to help with the rest in the spring. Chipping away…
Back in the city, I hump the four cartons of books, records and framed art into the elevator and up to the apartment. There it shall stay while I whip off to England for six weeks, and rejoin my West Coast mob for Christmas. I won’t even lay eyes upon this stuff for a few months, but its status has not materially changed, just shifted west to Manhattan along roughly the same route I’d travelled in youth, ping-ponging from Sea Cliff to The City and back, stacking up memories.
CUE: “Baby Love”
POSTSCRIPT: My brother in law, Richie Cardenas passed away mere days after this trip. He was a very friendly man and I liked him a lot. He also gave me my first gig in music: toggling a little light switch backstage at the New York dive Ungano’s, while he and his band, The Rich Kids, rocked their young asses off. I don’t recall whether they ever paid me, but I got to meet a real, live go-go girl. Good bass player, good guy. Good bye.