by Ilene V. Smith
Disclaimer: I’m a stickler for grammar and punctuation but a terrible proofreader. So, if you see something, say something. But don’t hold it against me.
The phone rang in the middle of the day while I was trying to get some work done. It was late June and we were in our third month of the lockdown we thought would take two weeks. My workload was light so I didn’t mind the interruption, especially since the caller ID flashed Ronnie’s name and number.
“So what do you think of joining a beach club?” Ronnie asked.
“A beach club? You were serious about that?”
She had briefly mentioned the idea during Corona Cocktails, the Zoom happy hour we had been holding every night during the height of the pandemic in lieu of in-person socialization. I had dismissed the idea even though it made sense: to maintain social distancing, beaches across Long Island were strictly limiting access to residents only. As Manhattanites, that limited us to the shores of the Hudson and East Rivers, neither of which has ever been mistaken for a beach.
“Mindy and I are at Catalina in Atlantic Beach and I think we should all join. You, Mindy, Judy and Melanie can take a locker and I can get a Cabana for my family.”
“Is it nice there?” somewhat dubious given my impression of Long Island beach clubs. I also hadn’t visited one in decades.
“It’s beautiful. Really,” Ronnie went on to describe the pool, the large patio facing the ocean, the access to beach chairs and umbrellas, the logistics and costs. “Plus, since we’ll be outdoors, we’ll get to see each other and play Mah Jong IRL.”
“How are they keeping it safe?”, a reasonable concern in 2020. Since Ronnie was, among us, the biggest stickler for COVID safety protocol, I expected she had thoroughly vetted the place. I was concerned but also envisioning the weird face tan I would get from wearing a mask in the sun.
“Oh, they’re doing everything the CDC says you should,” she said, reassuring me. “You have to wear masks in all the common areas — on the deck, in the bathrooms, in the cafe — but not on the beach. You can sit as close as you want to the people in your own party but you have to be six feet away from anyone else.”
“OK. Let’s talk about it when you get home,” I said, stalling for more time to think the decision through.
I never thought of myself as a beach club person. As a child, my grandmother had taken me with her on occasion to Brighton Beach Baths, the Brooklyn beach club that she belonged to for at least 25 years. She never actually spent much time on the beach or in the ocean. After walking the three miles from her Sheepshead Bay apartment, rain or shine, and well into her 80s, she’d walk into the damp, cement-walled changing room, struggle into her bathing suit, and head to the patio, where she played Mah Jong. She did that every single day, as far as I can remember.
After moving into their first house on Long Island, my parents joined one of the many beach clubs that still line the stretch of Lido Beach that runs from Point Lookout to Long Beach. Our membership there was cut short when my sister and I started to go to day camp and then sleepaway camp. My aunt, still living in Brooklyn, frequently had me as a guest at her club, Breezy Point, which gained fame as the club where The Flamingo Kid was filmed.
So I’m not sure if it was my own memories or the memory of that movie that conjured up images of overweight women in too-tight swimsuits sitting at tables by the pool, gossiping over the sound of Mah Jong tiles clacking against the table (Mah Jong and beach clubs, for whatever reason, are inextricably linked), while their kids, jumped into the pool one after the other, each splash more thunderous than the one before. I imagined the men, sitting at their own tables, playing cards, the acrid stench of cigars masking the fresh smell of sand and saltwater. I envisioned cabana boys rushing to and from the beach, overburdened by beach chairs and umbrellas, tending to the needs of whining and unsatisfied members beckoning the boys from the comfort of their lounge chairs.
Later that night, Ronnie reminded me, “We are beach people.”
Growing up just a few blocks from the Great South Bay, the 45-mile stretch of water that separates the south shore of Long Island from the ocean beaches, and a bike ride away from Jones Beach, we were used to sea air in our lungs and sand in our toes. We couldn’t imagine summer without the beach.
After some negotiating with the club and with each other, we received our turquoise laminated membership cards and flashed them proudly as we entered the club for our first day.
As we pulled into the parking lot, my beach club memories didn’t just come flooding back to me but hit me like a tsunami. Catalina was unabashedly kitschy. The club was built in the 1950s to resemble a cruise ship and has changed little in its 70-year history. Its white and aqua Mid-Century Modern decor — just Modern when it was built — made me wonder whether Don Draper was lurking somewhere, dressed in matching cabana shirt and shorts, ready to hit on the attractive young female lifeguards in their red bikinis.
I inspected the locker, gathered my towel and walked, or rather trudged, through the wide stretch of beach, alternatingly pushing and pulling my feet through the sand, my flip flops not quite up to the task. When we reached the group of chairs and umbrellas that our cabana boy, Sam, had set up for us right at the shoreline, I took note of the vintage feel of the wood-framed and green canvas cruise ship-style loungers. “Of course,” I thought. Slipping off my shoes, my feet continued their exploration of the familiar terrain as I walked to the water. I felt the changes in the sand as it went from dry, gritty and pliant to the damp, slightly cool, and hard-packed sand left in the wake of the receding tide. Once at the edge of the water, the sand turned cold and the hardness gave way, allowing me to dig my toes into it for warmth as the cool swash of water surrounded my ankles.
I waded into the water gingerly. While I’ll defend the beauty of Long Island beaches against those anywhere else in the world, I will admit that the ocean itself folds in comparison to the warm, clear aqua waters of Florida and the Caribbean. By the time it hits the Northeast shores, the Atlantic Ocean becomes a dark, army green, the summer heat belied by the shockingly cold temperature and the seaweed piling into the shallow water so that you felt like you were swimming in salad. But, in July of 2020, when so much else seemed to be going so wrong, the water, was clearer than usual, tepid and comforting, with not a single strand of seaweed snaking around my legs.
The ocean flirted with me, pulling me with the undertow, then pushing me back with each new wave. I smiled and thought to myself, isn’t that what bad boyfriends do?
I felt happy for the first time in months. What pandemic?
Sure, there were still women clacking Mah Jong tiles on the terrace, children screaming as they jumped into the pool with all of their force and men sneaking cigars on the shore. But, as I sunk into my vintage lounger, the shade of the umbrellas and whisper of wind off the ocean cooling me down, all I could think is, “Thank goodness we are beach people.”
This summer will be our fourth at Catalina Beach Club.
If there was an essay equivalent to a “ditty” this would be it. It’s a little story I wrote for a humor class I took last summer after someone asked whether or not I thought the bags on The Real Real “fell off a truck.”
LUXURY BAGS FALL OFF TRUCK ON L.I.E
MANORVILLE, NEW YORK -- A container truck carrying luxury goods crashed into the meridian near exit 63 of the Long Island Expressway this afternoon, creating an hours-long back up. The truck was bound for the new crop of high-end stores that have overtaken the once-charming East Hampton village. Helicopter views of the crash showed a mile-long spillage of designer handbags from well-known brands like Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Gucci and Prada that fell out of the jack-knifed truck. The clean-up was delayed when well-dressed women and men from neighborhoods and cars surrounding the crash site swarmed the highway to help gather the bags. The brave volunteers spent hours diligently loading the bags into the shopping trolleys and carts they had brought from their homes or had stored in the trunks of their cars.
“It was a mess,” said Joanie Applebaum, one of the volunteers. “We were on the way to our house in Quogue and were stopped about a mile behind the truck. I told my husband Morty that we had to get out of car and help.” Ms. Applebaum and her husband were seen loading a large amount of debris into their black Range Rover.
The driver of the truck suffered minor injuries and was brought to a local area hospital where he was treated for minor cuts, bruises and the repeated step marks of Golden Goose sneakers.
The truck was carrying bags from the Spring 2023 season, a bright array of the Pantone colors of the year, Blue Perennial, Summer Song and Skylight. The bags included the whimsical shapes and back-to-the-office work bags that are trending now. A few of the most industrious volunteers brought shovels and were able to dig deep enough into the debris to uncover a few classic Hermes Birkin bags.
Emergency vehicles were eventually able to get through the traffic and upright the truck, which appeared to be several tons lighter than at the start of the crash.
The volunteers helpfully carted off the bags and many can now be found on eBay, The Real Real and Poshmark for 50 percent off their retail value, except for the Birkin bags, which are now being offered for 300 times their original worth. The remaining bags are being temporarily housed in the volunteers’ closets.
The owner of the truck, Manny Goodz, is hoping to identify the volunteers so that he can thank them for their help and make a personal visit to their homes. If you can identify any of the volunteers, you can call the hotline Mr. Goodz has set up, 1-800-MYSTUFF.