The beach was vast and empty, but for the shorebirds. Both east and west of me, they gathered like tidal pools of fluttering feathers.
It was a sparkling October day, about sixty, with a soft wind; the sea, more Great Lake than North Atlantic. I set up my chair at the water’s edge and could not see a soul beyond the east or west jetties. Did I not get the memo about a tsunami?
But the sea held no disaster, only fishing craft, a sailboat, and the line of tankers, and container ships, those iconic jack-o-lantern teeth on the horizon of Long Beach shore.
The sailboat framed on my camera’s window was so faint I thought my camera malfunctioned. I looked again to the sea; the scene was so soft, so subtle that it awakened something inside me—once again. I had to put my camera down.
Shorebirds darted across the seascape. It was so divine, I thought, “Did I die? Am I on the other side?”
Maybe I’m being overly descriptive for some of you and I can understand that if you’ve never felt this. For those who know what I speak of, my words resonate. You too feel the pull of the sea at a place deep inside you. It takes you to happiness, joy, ineffable serenity, if just for moments. You know what I’m talking about.
This shore has always been heavenly to me. So, when I leave this plane, I’ve often said, let my ashes spread where I now tread.
I strolled carefully to the amassed flocks at the west jetty, I didn’t want to spook them. They too seemed at peace to enjoy a shore free of noise, running kids—sunning simians.
These young terns eyed me warily:
But the flock did take flight, and I have to admit, to be amidst the massive flutter of wings, the screams of gulls, was an utter delight. The beach was suddenly alive. It was performance art of the wild.
On the way back, I saw a lady taking a photo of my chair. Had I come upon another finder of art where others see banality? So, I captured her—in my camera.
I chatted with Marie Renee, visiting from Queens.
We spoke about the sea, the shorebirds, dolphins, and whales.
We exchanged emails for photos.
Her art appears here.
She liked the chair’s shadow and the cloud above the chair. I do too.
You have a good eye, Marie Renee.
Marie had just left when I spotted the first dolphin. I turned to call her back, but she had already reached the boardwalk. Then I saw another dolphin and still more. A pod of about ten were feeding off the same baitfish that drew the birds.
Young goodman, Robert, walked along the surf, wearing white, of course.
He took phone photos of the sea. But he didn’t seem to see the dolphins. So I called to him, “Dolphins! Do you see them?”
He turned and waved. We watched the dolphins breaking water, none fully breached.
Robert said he loved the beach and that he often carries plastic bags for the litter that washes to shore.
I was impressed with this guy. Robert said, “I like to do it, it’s good for me, and it’s good for the environment.” He said, “This brings me to my happiness.”
Music. I hear music when people talk of happiness at the shore. How many times have I heard that one word, “happy,’ in so many interviews I’ve had on this shore.
To watch this is fun.
To feel this is joy.
To be with this, sublime.
I asked Robert Potter what he did for a living. He said, “I’m a funeral director.”
Now, if your job is librarian, Wall St broker, or wife and mother, the shore is mind balm. But working in a funeral home, that carpeted valley of tears, shore walking has to be almost orgasmic. My Brother Transit cops can relate to this antidote to the dank and dreary.
Robert said the ocean relieves stress. He recommends putting your feet in the surf and let them sink into the sand. He said, “The negative energy leaves the body into the earth.”
Recall, dear readers, how you felt when you did that; you focused on your heels sinking in the sand while surf enveloped your feet. Negativity was gone in those moments. You knew joy.
Lovers of the shore possess something primal. Not everyone feels it. Some think more about breaking news than breaching whales.
I asked Robert how he became a funeral director. He said eighteen years ago, a friend, Mike, a pallbearer for Denis O’Connor Funeral Home asked if he could fill in. Robert said, “I had a white shirt, black tie, and pants, so I went.”
Robert began to fill in regularly at the funeral home, then worked the parking lot. When the maintenance man moved to Florida, he took over that job. Soon Robert covered the office at night. Finally, he went to school for funeral directors, American Academy McAllister, in Manhattan. Now he directs at the funeral home in Rockaway, and at churches and cemeteries. He’s been a funeral director for fourteen years, and he is soon to be—a partner. Seems like a winning formula: Sidle in, be diligent, be reliable, then, soon-to-be-partner.
The pandemic was challenging, Robert said. “We got calls pretty much every ten minutes,” for two months. The funeral home now operates at 25% capacity to maintain social distancing.
He said some people couldn’t understand why there are so many tears for someone who dies at ninety-nine. He told them, “That person was a part of their lives. They were important to them; it’s not a matter of age.” He keeps that perspective in mind when he takes his mom someplace—every day is important.
Robert is in his mid-thirties. I said, “You seem to be a well balanced young man. Are you married?” He said, “No, I’m not; maybe that’s why I’m so well balanced.” Robert’s quick too.
We watched a paddle boarder sailing off. Robert said, smiling, “That’s his drug.”
Robert said he doesn’t want to waste someone’s time when he’s not ready to be there for them. He spoke of how ladies want to get married, have kids. He lost his dad and feels he has to focus on his mom and his career right now. He’s been living in Long Beach for three years now, and loves it. But he also goes to Jones Beach and Democrat Point with his four-wheel-drive, fishing rod and air mattress. He stays all night.
Robert said the shore gives him a better perspective on life. When he was younger, many of his friends were big on drinking and even using drugs. He parted ways with them and went on to live a healthy life. He walks the boardwalk at night and hits the rowing machine too.
Now, he said, he directs funeral arrangements for some of those old friends. Many, dying by overdose
The hardest part, he said, is interacting with their parents now. Robert said he went to elementary school with their sons, little league, basketball, High school. He said many of them started on drugs because drinking in bars is very expensive, so a pill and one beer can do a better, cheaper job for them. Also, Robert said, “If you’re drinking a six- pack or twelve back a day you’re not going to have the beach body that you want,” so they take opioids. They move up the ladder of drugs to heroin, until they do themselves in, often from Fentanyl.
Robert, waving his hand along the shore, said, “This is my drug, my getaway, my happiness.” He said this is all spiritual, religious. He pointed to the sky, “Look, there’s the sun and the moon at the same time.” He grinned all over his face.
As Robert was walking down the beach, I called out, “Robert!,” for a final shot. He turned and waved. And on cue, Stacey arrived.
Stacey Russo heard my call to Robert as she set up her chair, I told her what the shout was about.
Stacey was intrigued by the story of the strolling funeral director. She’s married with a four-year-old daughter. Stacey lives in Long Beach and comes to the shore to heal—and speak to her mom. She said, “This is my happy place.” Yes, she did say that.
Stacey grew up in the same bedroom as her mom in a house on Rochester Ave. Her dad, a custom furniture builder, filled their home with his hand-built furniture, even a grandfather clock. A home can’t be homier than that.
When her mom died twenty years ago, Stacey spread her ashes on Rochester Beach. Her dad died last May; she keeps his ashes under her bed. When her sister comes from North Carolina, they’ll spread his ashes on Long Beach shore, probably on the anniversary of his death.
Stacey, a world traveler, has been to six continents; she’s always talked to her mom through the world’s oceans. She said, “I’d really love to see my parents united in the sea.” Stacey will then speak with both of them through the oceans of the world.
When I came to the beach I saw it as vast and empty. But it was only vast.
What I found was a gathering of different species, yet kindred spirits, all. We dwellers of sea, air, and sand, we all have hearts that beat under the same sun. We are life, we are all of the sea.