Roller Coaster Blues

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At 75, he was homeless. Not permanent, hopeless homeless, but homeless nonetheless.

He still marveled that they had called this monster of destruction and desolation Sandy, like it was Little Orphan Annie’s lovable, zero-eyed dog, and not the deliverer of primeval chaos that it had been.

It didn’t really matter, though; he was still homeless. His houseboat still sat, stinking of mould and fetid bay water, with no water or electricity, among the fifty or so other houseboats in Sea Village, the only houseboat community in the state, off the Margate Causeway, near Atlantic City. The residents had been allowed back to view the damage and gather what they could of their belongings, but no one could live there again until the utilities were restored on the ruined docks, and that still hadn’t happened, even now, as winter pushed relentlessly, hopefully, toward spring.

He had spent the storm at a school gym in Northfield, and then allowed himself to be temporarily relocated, driving to the Starlux, a gussied up former motel in Wildwood. When the state funds had run out, he had stayed on, paying the reduced rates. He had two sisters in the area, and they had offered rooms, of course, but solitary living had by now become too deeply ingrained, and, besides, he rather liked life at the Starlux: the quiet, shy, Mexican maids; the friendly, courteous desk people, and the ocean view from his room.

He liked Wildwood itself, too. It reminded him of the honky-tonk of Seaside Heights, where his grandparents had a cottage and where he had spent many of his summers as a child.

He was still quietly amazed at being 75. He had read somewhere that Freud had said we are all 23, and he could see the point now: his mind was still young and supple, and his body hadn’t broken down yet beyond aches and pains and various problems that medications had under control. He was in good shape for the shape he was in, was how he put it to himself.

He had been a runner for 35 years, until his knees gave out, and he still managed to walk three or four miles each day. He actually increased that distance during his stay at the Starlux, walking north to the end of the Boardwalk and from there on to the benches at Second Street in North Wildwood where he would sit and contemplate the ever-changing waterscape across to Stone Harbor. Only on the most bitter, windiest days did he foresake this new ritual.

When he read that Seaside Heights had been re-opened, he drove there. There was still more devestation than he was prepared for, and he drove very cautiously through the almost deserted streets. Even through the closed car widows he could hear the constant hum of heavy machinery and the echoing hammer blows and electric buzz of saws as the town fought its way slowly back to the resort it had been. The phrase “honky-tonk angels” occurred to him, unbidden.

He vaguely remembered where his grandparents’ cottage had been, and, mostly by instinct, found his way there. It was a parking lot now, and he smiled ruefully to himself and thought of Joni Mitchell. It was on the same street as the Casino complex, and he drove to the Boardwalk entrance, parked, and made his way onto the Boards.

He had seen it on television and in the newspapers and magazines, but on this brilliant, sun-drenched day, the toppled roller coaster in its watery grave was etched so starkly against the melding blues of sea and sky that he caught his breath at first glimpse and blinked his widening eyes several times. He walked as far on the pier as he could and stood quietly for several minutes, watching the small waves lapping against the downed coaster. Then he walked back to his car.

The next day was Saturday, and a small crowd of winter weekenders had gathered at the benches at the Second Street inlet. When he arrived at the halfway point of his walk, he saw that they were pointing and gesturing at a pod of dolphins that was gliding easily through the smooth sea.
He stopped to watch, and presently three of the creatures turned toward the land and jumped in unison – once, twice, and then again – haloed in a fine rainbow spray. There were delighted shouts and then spontaneous applause from the fascinated onlookers.

A nearby woman nodded to him several times and said, “Dolphins are supposed to be good luck, you know.”

“I hope so,” he answered.