… some of us are more than halfway to 110 years old.
There’s a clown on Rt. 35, just south of Belmar. He leers over the top of the Circus Drive-In sign with its Broadway-lit letters and neon-highlighted arrow pointing to the parking lot. But this is a sad day for the clown because, as the announcement board reads, “SUNDAY SEPT 7 LAST DAY OF THE SEASON.”
The Circus Drive-In opened in 1954 and, although the building appears to be well-maintained, its style is dated. Its circular roof has wide red and white stripes that hang over the facade so the whole place resembles a big-top tent. Cutout clowns, along with female performers that appear to be acrobats, stand hand in hand on the roof.
A metal awning with the tent motif stretches out from the right side of the main building, providing covered parking for maybe a dozen cars. A sign on top proudly proclaims “WEATHER-PROOFED CURB SERVICE,” meaning they bring the food to you right there in your car so you can eat without ever having to set foot in the Circus itself. You can even buy souvenir t-shirts bearing an image of the iconic sign and the restaurant’s slogan, “I’M WITH THE CLOWN” (which your spouse may or may not appreciate).
The menu, as you might expect from the décor, is heavily laced with cheese-laden appetizers, steaks, ribs, chicken, burgers, dogs, battered fish platters, and five varieties of French Fries. Oh sure they have salads, but eating green is clearly not what the clown is about. If you’re with the clown, you’re gonna eat grease.
I pulled in last Friday afternoon, just two days before lights out, but I couldn’t bring myself to order any food. It’s not that I wasn’t hungry, and I’m not averse to the occasional artery-busting plateful of mouth-watering, deep-fried everything. But, senseless as it seems, because the Circus opened the same year I was born, I felt somehow responsible for it, as if I had conceived of its garish style and approved its throwback menu selections.
I was embarrassed to be there.
1954 was the height of the post-war baby boom, and most people in the U.S. were feeling optimistic about the future. Good jobs were plentiful. Gasoline cost about a quarter a gallon, and you could buy a brand new Ford for less than $2,000. Cigarettes, not considered harmful at all, were still promoted in magazines and on billboards with ads featuring images of doctors and babies – even Santa Claus.
The Circus Drive-In must have been a pretty cool place to idle in your shiny metal machine, unfiltered Camel dangling from your mouth, waiting for your double cheeseburger, shake, and fries. The Clown’s gleeful smile must have felt exactly right for the times.
But look what’s happened since: assassinations, suicide bombings, terrorists beheading journalists, war after war after bloody “police action,” natural disasters, exotic diseases, overflowing jails – the list of modern ills is as expansive as the country’s 1950’s dreams. The Clown’s smile today feels forced; almost cynical. The Circus Drive-In’s season may have just closed on September 7, but the season of our optimism from which it sprang ended, sadly, many years ago.
My father was born, lived and died in the same house. But that’s a rarity. The odds are that if you’re over 50, you have lived in several different places in your life. I’ve lived in nine.
It’s always interesting to return to the place where you grew up. For some of us, it’s depressing. Inner city neighborhoods that once were great places to live, now are not so much. For others, it’s just a strange experience because so many years have gone by that most of the people we used to know are gone. I moved out of my hometown of Lodi, New Jersey in 1975, the year I got my first job. If that looks like I couldn’t wait to get out, you’re right. But just about every year since, I have returned to the town of my birth to partake in a cultural landmark — an annual Italian street fair called the Festa de San Giuseppe.
Most people in the New York who have been to an Italian feast have been to San Gennaro in Little Italy. That’s the king of Italian feasts. It has great food and even greater crowds. In fact, the crowds can be compared to a subway car at rush hour. It’s not a fun experience and no one would do it if the food wasn’t so great. By contrast, the smaller feasts like San Giuseppe in Lodi are comfortable and the food is every bit as good.
For the uninitiated, these Italian feasts are basically church fundraisers. Non-Italian churches have carnivals and bazaars every summer; Italian parishes have feasts. In addition to the best pizza and sausage and peppers sandwiches around, Italian feasts always feature a statute of the church’s patron saint on which feastgoers tape paper money. It used to be just dollar bills, but these days you often see 20s and even 50s. Watch for the guy who attaches a $100 bill. He probably is either a fan of The Godfather, or he is the real thing.
Now it would be strange enough if the feast just featured a currency-covered statue. But an important part of just about every Italian feast is the procession of the statue through the streets. That’s for the people who are too sick (or too lazy) to come to the feast. On at least one day during the run, the feast comes to them, accompanies by a band playing music from the old country. The marchers carry the statue right to the doors of willing donors. This procession of the statue through the streets of town is among my oldest memories. It’s quite amazing to a small child for a band to come to your house once a year carrying a statue like the ones you’ve only seen in church. It’s like God opened a traveling branch office — equal parts fascinating and terrifying.
Anyway, the Festa de San Giuseppe was a part of my life for all the 22 years I lived in Lodi. And it has continued to be a part of my life for the almost 40 years since. As my hometown has changed to the point of being unrecognizable in many ways, one thing has remained constant — the feast still happens every Labor Day weekend. And it still looks very similar to the way it looked 50 years ago. I have dragged my wife and children to the Feast for years. Why? Because it provides a sense of continuity to my heritage and to the place of my birth. And that’s important in our transient society. The unchanging ritual is comforting. Labor Day’s ritual used to be to watch Jerry Lewis on the MDA Telethon and go to the Feast. Jerry is gone now, but the Feast carries on. And I hope it does for the rest of my life. The zeppole are out of this world!
We can’t keep our Short Shorts off.
They met, they kissed; they wed, they bred; kids fled, lives led; they’re dead.
I graduated high school in 1973. We went to football games on Saturday afternoons, and spent many a Friday and Saturday night at the Rec Center.
In the summer, we cruised The Circuit, a continuous loop down Kingsley Avenue, past the Palace with its ferris wheel, carousel, and bumper cars.
We curved around, and traveled north, up Ocean Avenue leaving the Casino with its different carousel behind, and up to Convention Hall, where we seemed to play pinball games all night long.
I worked at the Donut Shop and my friends worked at The Casino Coffee Shop.
We all seemed to have service industry jobs. I do believe, we believed, we were the luckiest people in the world. I moved onto college and law school – D.C. and Manhattan – but my mother continued to live at 615 Blanchard Parkway in Allenhurst, so I always went back “home.”
In 2010, my mother moved to Manhattan, and there went the anchor. But life is funny, or as Bob would write, everything happens for a reason. Years ago, I met Steve, and last year he decided to buy a house in Elberon, in Ocean Township, and I’m falling in love with where I grew up all over again.
I drive by the high school, and I see my girlfriend driving us into the side entrance every morning junior and senior year from the day she got her license as we listened to the 8-track tape deck blast music. I see the cheerleaders on Saturday afternoons screaming “Spartans Spartans, give me an S.” I see us being so impressed with how big the high school was after the petiteness of Dow Avenue.
I drive down Main Street, and look up, and there is the old YMCA building, and there I am, nine years old, jumping into the 1930s pool learning how to swim. The Y is now an adult day care center, tattered and battered, and the pool is gone. But the smell of chlorine lingers, and so does some of the art deco fretwork that decorated the top lintels of the building.
I mourn the Palace, the Casino, the Mayfair and St James and Lyric theaters. Of course, there’s still The Wonder Bar and The Stone Pony, and the ghost of Mrs. Jay’s Beer Garden flits by. The pinball games we once played are enshrined, but working, in a Pinball Museum on the Boardwalk. I am thrilled the tent homes still go up every summer in Ocean Grove.
I see so much of my life through the lens of Ocean Township, and it just highlights in technicolor how fast it has all gone by. Everyone I grew up with has their slew of memories of Ocean Township and Asbury Park. It seems we love to take our trip down memory lane because there is/was something so comforting in our familiarity with each other, and the world we inhabited for that short time between the day we entered elementary school and graduated high school.
It may be September, but some of us are still wearing our short shorts.
She spun a silk honeycomb. Of lies.