Adding It Up
Mom-Mom and Pop-Pop had a house in Pt. Pleasant Beach, NJ, and it was perfect. Everything a summer house and a grandparents' house should be. One block from the ocean, one block from a fishing lake, on a lively street with a beautiful grass median. Most importantly, it was tricked out grandparent-style: at the drop of a hat, they could host 16 people, with another two in the garage and two more in "the shack," an enclosed porch attached to the garage. There was an outside shower, a backyard deck and a screened-in front porch.
Every summer, as a preteen, I spent at least two weeks there, without my parents, left to my own devices with whatever aunts, uncles and cousins were kicking around. On weekdays, I'd spend my afternoons on the boardwalk playing video games, or under it looking for dropped change. I'd come home and hit the early-bird special at Sizzler with my grandparents. On the weekends, most of the family would go to the beach, then cook dinner or barbecue. At night, I'd be in the arcades, scavenging through coin-return slots for quarters, always scraping up enough for my own night of video games.
The summer after I turned 13, I was allowed to spend the entire months of July and August down the shore. For a few seasons, I worked as the Pt. Pleasant equivalent of a carny: I ran the games, suckering bennies and day-trippers out of their quarters in exchange for cheap trinkets, stuffed animals and bags of candy. Then, summer of 1987, the summer before college, I landed the cherry job: cashier and stock boy at a liquor store, which I got based on a sterling reference from my previous boss. I spent my senior year working in...a liquor store.
In addition to the perfect teenage job, I also had the perfect car (a beater '68 Mustang) and the perfect girlfriend (my first love: Laura from Florida, a cute blonde chick who enjoyed reading my bad poetry, drinking whatever I'd stolen that night and screwing). My friends would visit on the weekends. We'd five-finger the store, drink in a park, cruise the boardwalk and crash in the garage, distanced from the house, able to come and go as we pleased, as drunk as we wanted.
I only remember having four tapes with me that summer, but I played them relentlessly in the car and in the liquor store (as soon as the boss left for the night). A copy of Big Black's Atomizer with the Fuzztones' Lysergic Emanations on the other side. That best-of Squeeze album. Roger Waters' Radio K.A.O.S. The self-titled Violent Femmes debut.
I don't think of that summer, that job, that girlfriend or that car when I hear Big Black or the Fuzztones. That's probably because they survived in my life; they transcend that period of time. I don't think of those things when I hear Squeeze, but only because I'd just as soon go deaf than hear that-fucking-band/those-fucking-songs again. And, thank God, I don't know if I've even heard Radio K.A.O.S. since that summer.
When I hear the Violent Femmes' "Add It Up," though, it all comes back. For me, in 1987, that song hadn't yet become an idiot party song. Like "American Pie" and "Mony Mony," "Add It Up" would plague me in the college years to come. In every dorm room, at every friend-of-a-friend's house, someone would inevitably slap in a mix tape containing "Add It Up," and every sorority girl in the place would scream along to "Why can't I get just one fuck..." They were worse than parrotheads on "Margaritaville."
In '87... It was still just a loose summer song. But that summer isn't about the job, the car or even the girl. It's not about the profound freedom of being 18 years old, in control of everything yet nothing at the same time. The memories that come back are of the house. Of the gathered family. Of my grandparents.
On those nights when I wasn't with Laura or hanging out with friends, I'd sit on the porch with Mom-Mom, watching tourists stroll to and from the boardwalk. We shared a passion for people-watching and picking up junk from curbs and garage sales. I always knew that she enjoyed my company. That she was proud of the man I was slowly becoming.
My grandfather was soft-spoken, mellow and kind. He was the early riser of the two; we'd sometimes go fishing in the morning, then come back and cook breakfast for Mom-Mom. When I was a young scavenger on the boardwalk, I'd always keep some of my found money aside to buy him a quarter-pound of Swedish fish from one of the candy shops. Even as a teen, I'd remember to pick some up for him when I was out with my friends, providing we didn't get embarrassingly, unpresentably drunk.
They both died last year, seven months apart. She went first, mostly from old age. Same for him. The house went up for sale after he passed, and as much as I wanted to buy it, I was in the middle of a financially devastating divorce. I was surprised that no one else in the family stepped up. Maybe they don't have the same memories, the same fondness for the place. I'd like to say that when that house comes back on the market, I'll do whatever it takes to buy it, bring it back into the family for another generation or two, but I doubt that will happen. Instead, I'll likely carry with me only the memories, triggered to recollection here and there by the smell of salt air, fresh-caught fish and the unlikely Violent Femmes song.