Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: They are smaller than they used to be. I don’t care what you say. I don’t care what the current purveyors of the legacy say. They are smaller. Full stop. I am an expert, I should know. Based on my consumption of these chocolate and cream delicacies in college alone, there should have been enough revenue and profit to endow the brand for millennia. I don’t know what they did with the money.
There is a bit of betrayal here as well. You see my family worked for Drakes Bakeries. A lot of my family. Their coworkers became godmothers and godfathers, husbands and wives and life long friends. In the Northeast they were bigger than Hostess and had their own, better, treats. Hostess used a spongy type of recipe for its cakes. Drakes used a heavy Devils Food. If you ate a Devil Dog or Yankee Doodle for example, the cake would stick to the roof of your mouth. You needed to drink milk with Drakes Cakes. They were better. Me extolling Suzy Qs is like a Pepsi family admitting that Coke ain’t so bad. Treachery.
Naturally there are stories in my life that revolve around Devil Dogs or Ring Dings or Yankee Doodles. But this is about Suzy Qs. And I gotta tell you they’re pretty damned good. And like the Drakes Cakes, there are stories.
Suzy Qs and Mountain Dews got me through my first Computer Science class. I spent a lot of time in the lab, half programming and half eyeballing the lab assistant. Either way i needed constant sugar and caffeine infusions and right down the hall were the vending machines. It was just too easy.
One day I ran across this girl out by the vending machine area. Turns out she was one of those vitamin chicks. But, she was hot for days and so normally I’m gonna listen to whatever the hell she’s saying. So she starts going on about her concern for my health. Now if I thought she actually gave two shits about my health or if there were any possibility of exploiting her professed concern that would have been different. But this was one of those bullshit pyramid schemes and she doubled down “If only you used (insert bullshit vitamin product name here) you wouldn’t have to eat those awful things.” She waited. She was pretty. She was used to guys agreeing with her just on the main chance. I stared back. And then I went full John Belushi on her. I stuffed the entire (original larger size) Suzy Q in my mouth and begin chewing, noting with satisfaction that a good portion was escaping out the sides of my mouth. She looked at me in disgust, turned on her heel and stalked off. Was it as good as sex? No, but that wasn’t going to happen anyway. But I’ll tell you, as I walked away, wiping the mushed chocolate and cream from my cheeks I was walking away with my dignity intact.
And that wasn’t the last incident. But if I told you about it you’d never believe me. Except that there was a witness…
I held her hand tightly, because I could. It’s what she wanted. It was sure as hell what I wanted.
She was visiting me from out of state and I was showing off the city. We had been wandering around Manhattan all day and now long into the evening. It was New Years Eve and we had taken the train in from the Island to watch the ball drop. That would be later. For now we were just looking for things to do that didn’t involve being out in the cold.
So we lingered, here on the top of this tallest of buildings. Seeing the city spread out before us…the warm orange glow of sodium vapor lights stretching out in all directions…as far as the eye could see. It was pretty, interspersed with the dark tendrils of rivers and the blotches of bays and inlets. To the east it came to an abrupt end where the mainland gave way to the dark Atlantic.
Somewhere near, in relative terms, stood a twin. Just as high but you never thought about the other tower when you were up here. You were too awed by the panorama and the engineering marvel you stood on top of. The observation deck was dark and combined with the glow outside it had an intimacy. I was no fool…that is why we came here.
It was always quiet at night. For some reason no one spoke. Or at least they spoke in whispers. At the Narrows I could see the lights of the Verazanno Narrows Bridge. My grandfather, a union electrician had worked on that illumination; as he had done with the building we currently stood in. I never thought about it at the time. He had been involved in so many of the iconic public works around our city.
Now…now that place where Jenny and I stood is no more. Pulverized into dust. The soaring steel arches melted down to make warships and toaster ovens. We stood atop a massive structure that turned out to be as fragile as the egos of the men that built it. I’ve lost that memory of Jenny. But more importantly, those men, those zealots that flew airplanes full of people into the spot where Jenny and I stood, those men, took away the legacy of my grandfather. They took a little piece of me I cannot get back. Like so many New Yorkers, we lost a family member. An in-law of a cousin, a fireman trapped when the towers came down. I never met him so the grief did not touch me directly. My only loss was of memories and legacies and while those hurt, they can be gotten over.
Still, Lower Manhattan will never look the same to me. The imposing view from the Staten Island Ferry. The sweet memories of my Grandfather, and the night with Jenny live on, but they are tinged with melancholy. I miss the buildings. I miss Jenny. I miss my Grandfather.
It’s dark out. It always is. These conversations only happen at night. Daytime shines a light too bright. You need darkness, lit only by the glow of the dashboard lights so that you can reveal only what you want; keeping the rest in shadow. The car is your cocoon wrapped in the darkness. They are confessions. They are delicate questions. They are endings and they are beginnings and they are things that will never happen. The intimacy is palpable.
Even with the windows cracked, sometimes they fog. An hour; two hours of conversation overwhelms the flow of fresh air. You hardly notice; the conversation is too intense. It rises and falls between hushed talk and long silences. The silence is for thinking…letting what was just said sink in. You break it only to give comfort or to seek to understand.
A friend tells you he is gay and is in love with another friend. He needs someone to talk to. Revealing himself would destroy the facade he’s built and nurtured. His chosen career would be out of the question. He is living in pain but it’s more comfortable to him than the alternative. You cannot help him; he cannot help himself. He is lost.
The tall striking girl, overcome by drug addiction wants you to stay. You kiss her because who wouldn’t. Later you cry because you want to love her but know you can’t. She is a lost soul…you leave her adrift, lest you drown together.
Astrid is crying on your shoulder. She is crying for what she can’t get back. Distraught, rejected, she terminated her pregnancy. She is blaming herself, but it is no use talking her out of it. She needs the guilt..it’s the only emotion she can grab ahold of. She is vulnerable, but you let it go. She loves you for that.
You know you go together. She knows you go together. But you can’t hold her. It was only for a couple days. She was in charge of the guestbook. She was the prettiest girl in the room. You don’t even know if she has a boyfriend but you know the electricity and so does she. But she can’t stay. She won’t stay. She tells you to write…but. you know she won’t write back.
You’re not saying anything. Not for two hours. You just sit there, in the back seat while someone else drives. You’re not alone but you might as well be. The people in the front seat whisper to each other, they are in a separate world, being careful not to intrude on yours. Protective, the driver looks in the back seat once, decides you’re just enjoying being together. She doesn’t turn around again. The girl has has her head in your lap, you are gently playing with her curls. You don’t know what she wants. She doesn’t know what you want. All you know is this time is rich and intimate and fleeting. You run into her again a few weeks later. Neither of you speaks of it…like it’s delicate and easily broken.
You and a buddy from work are coming back from an out of town party. He is driving with the moonroof open. There are few cars on this lonely stretch of interstate. Your seat is reclined and you’re watching the stars through the open roof. The radio is off and the only sound is the slipstream made by the car. Neither of you says anything; not for the entire drive. There are no women to distract you. No need to manufacture conversations…you’ve been through a lot together, you are comfortable in the silence, lost each in your own thoughts. He drops you at your apartment and says “good talk”. He is not being ironic.
A thousand conversations start with “Dad”. There are too many to recall. I want to change my major. I want to try fencing. I want to switch from skiing to snowboarding. Do you think I would be good at such and such? What do I do about so and so. I can’t start these conversations…which makes them so precious when they occur. They are always at night. On the Powhite in Richmond, or on I64 on the way back from skiing. No matter where, it’s always dark.
David was an unlikely role model. Alcoholic, unable to hold a job for long, drifting from sibling to sibling dependent on their love of family to put him up in their homes. They were a good sort, his brothers and sisters, my aunts and uncles. And so they put up with David. And his nieces and nephews got used to him as a sort of flawed authority figure.
But here is the thing about David. He was not lazy. He worked hard wherever he was. He was an easy guest that fixed things, made food, and kept a low profile. He watched over us kids, and while we thought he was a bit grouchy, we respected him.
David was also a reader, and that was probably his biggest gift to me. He read voraciosuly, and he and my Uncles Andy and Bobby would discuss the books in front of the kids. TV was not really a thing for us. Maybe some football, or a movie like the Wizard of Oz. But generally, we consumed books.
David was also a walker, somewhat common in a city like New York, but even more common in our family. Most of my Aunts and Uncles did not own cars. They didn’t even have drivers licenses. You took public transit or you walked. Taxis? That was for rich people.
I don’t know what made David like he was. He fought in Korea, so it could have been something, a scar, or a nightmare he carried from that experience. I will never know.
And so I became a walker. And I became a reader. And I learned that books were something to be discussed and debated. And I learned to be a polite guest and to always lend a hand.
Not a bad legacy from an alcoholic, unemployable, drifter.
The ushers hustled everyone to their seats. They wore the Jones Beach State Park uniform. Blue and white. There were seahorse emblems on their hats and epaulets.
Limousines were parked in their special lot while VIP guests ate 5 star meals in the dining room. Soon they would be whisked to their special box seats right up front with each box manned by an attendant to bring food and drink at their whim.
Guy Lambardo’s Royal Canadians were warming up in the orchestra pit on the audience side of the moat. They were the house orchestra for the lineup of Broadway shows produced especially for Jones Beach Marine Theater. These were not travelling shows, these were dedicated productions starring the biggest names in musical theater. There was a hum of outboard motors as the ramps between the stage and the shore were retracted from the moat.
Suddenly the orchestra launched into a fanfare and the house lights dropped. The only lighting was from the stand lights in the orchestra pit and navigation lights out in the bay. Suddenly there is the roar of twin marine engines at full power. A spotlight searches the water until it lands on a speeding wooden Chris Craft runabout. Guy Lambardo is at the helm and he comes to a dramatic stop right in front of the conductors box. He hops out of the boat and onto the stage and immediately he strikes up the Star Spangled Banner.
The spectacle complete, the lights come down and the Orchestra begins the overture. And this was what it was like to see a show at the Jones Beach Marine Theater. And this was a State Park, one of the finest in the world, which is just as Robert Moses had intended. People will rave about Radio City Music Hall, but in its day, Radio City was just another big theater in a city that was full of big theaters. The Marine Theater was something totally unique.
It still operates today as a concert venue. The moat has been filled in with seats and the dining rooms are gone. It is undoubtedly an amazing venue for an outdoor concert, situated on a bay next to the Atlantic. But at one time, it was something only Robert Moses could have pulled off.
US Department of Agriculture. That’s what was printed on Food Stamps when they were actually physical paper currency. Actually, the word “Food Stamp” did not appear, the proper name was “Food Coupon”. I would know. They are what kept food on the table in our little household after my mother was disabled. But I know, people use them to abuse them. A few I suppose, but mostly, they were, and are, used to buy food. Do you doubt that?
Here I am as as a 12 year old boy. Now come along with me to Key Foods on Jamaica Avenue in Hollis, Queens. Come to the register, as I remove the multi-colored currency from my pocket and try to sneak it to the cashier who is annoyed. She is annoyed because it changes her flow. There are impatient people in line with actual money. They are watching. The bag boy is watching. They are all watching as she carefully counts out my change in the currency of poverty and hands it back to me. Look around to see if anyone from school has seen me, especially the girls. Grab the groceries with me and slink out of the store.
Now take that experience, multiply it by the lens of adolescence, that same lens that thinks every slight is the end of the world. Now tell me, that people want to be on Food Stamps.
One summer, during my college days I was starving. I had no money. I had no food. I lived in a dorm which was probably a salvation but it was hard to find a job. I was eligible for food stamps. I lived on puffed rice cereal, usually without milk or sugar rather than take food stamps. I knew, that hassle of trying to get them and the embarrassment of having to use them. No one wants that. People take them because they are desperate. Because they need to feed their children. Because they are less fortunate. So stop being selfish , and enjoy the fact that we live in a country where we can afford to help people less fortunate.
Don’t get me started on how my mother was disabled in the first place. That is another, angrier story.
“Kessler does not raise flags. Kessler burns flags!!!!!” And so that was that. There would be no flag-raising today, and the flag pole stood unadorned all day. No one batted an eyelash. Such was life at Camp Da-Ro, a summer camp, populated by about 400 Jewish campers and counselors…and me.
Before you get all up in your righteous flag respecting, My Country Tis of Thee rage keep in mind this was 1970. These counselors, like Kessler, were faced with the draft and possibly going to fight in a war. A stupid war, an insane war. Kessler was a big intimating guy from Brooklyn and if you didn’t like what he had to say, he’d just as soon bust you in the mouth.
And so there was no flag that day. But the next day there was, and the day after and so on until the end of the summer. We were only 13 years old in our cabin, and so we did not quite get the significance, but the other counselors did.
Kessler had said his piece, and overseas young boys continued dying and civilians continued to be caught in the crossfire. And we rode horses, and we water-skied, and we had color wars, and we launched panty raids. I got a little teasing for being the only non-Jewish camper, but they mostly didn’t care. I remember the other campers being whip-smart and the adults being kind. The camp is closed now but if you visit the Hudson River Valley around Germantown the grounds are still there, undeveloped. It’s a lovely spot. And that was a wonderful summer spent with kind souls living in the midst of a crazy world.