It was time for a vacation and my parents wanted to see me. So I flew back east last Wednesday and visited them in Spring Lake, New Jersey, a beach resort town 60 miles south of New York City.
The Essex & Sussex Hotel on Ocean Avenue in Spring Lake, New Jersey.
The memories blind-sided me on the second day of vacation. The wiffle ball games, the Sunday masses, the watermelons, the cheeseburgers, the body surfing, the summer jobs, the boys I never kissed, the boy who said he loved me. It all came rushing as I took a run on the boardwalk and passed the Essex & Sussex Hotel.
I worked there as a 16-year-old bus boy. The waiters and waitresses were all college students, so we drank a lot of beer and partied together and played softball every week. I even had a crush on one of the waiters, but I never said anything. I wasn't convinced that I was gay.
I kept running on the boardwalk to the North End Pavilion, where my buddies and I hung out the summer before our freshmen year of high school. We played Marco Polo in the pool and hit the beach for an hour or so and then left to play long games of wiffle ball.
The boardwalk and North End Pavilion.
Other times we'd skip the beach and bike over to the lake and try to catch some fish. Then we'd hang out in town without the fish and talk about baseball and wait for the girls to show up. The girls always thought I was shy, but I wasn't interested.
The fishing spot at the lake near town.
When the bells at St. Catharine's Church rang at five o'clock, it was our cue to ride back home for dinner. I lived behind the church, but the bells never bothered me. Somehow they were comforting.
St. Catharine's Church in Spring Lake.
After the run and all the memories, I went to New York City with my parents. We ate dinner with one of my younger brothers and his wife and newborn baby girl. We had a good time, and then I stayed overnight by myself at the Chelsea Pines Inn on 14th Street.
Sixth Avenue and Eleventh Street in Greenwich Village.
Before I moved to back Los Angeles, I lived on West 11th Street near Sixth Avenue and worked the front desk at the Pines. At the time, I was taking a partial break from journalism and wrote mostly novels and screenplays that never sold. I always wanted to be a guest at the hotel, so a few weeks before my visit, I emailed the owner and asked for a room. Jay Lesiger gave me his best one.
Jay, who grew up in Brooklyn, is old school New York. He loves the city, works hard, and helps you whenever he can. We chatted for a bit in the backyard of the hotel and I asked why he started the place. “The idea was to create a safe haven (for gays and lesbians),” Jay explained. “A place where nobody would be mocked and everyone would feel comfortable.”
Jay Lesiger, owner of the Chelsea Pines Inn, sits in the backyard of his hotel.
Now real estate developers stop by the hotel every week, looking to buy the building. Jay still isn't ready to sell. “There will never be a place like this again,” he told me. Like a lot of old school New Yorkers, Jay seems to be holding out for a bigger reason than money.
On Saturday, I played two wiffle ball games with my cousins and their kids and laughed a lot. The next day, my parents and I drove to Pennsylvania to visit one of my younger brothers and his wife. On Monday, I flew back to LA. The memories still nagged me on the plane ride home.
I wasn't exactly sure why they were hanging around in the brain, but for the first time I realized something: My teenage years were very All-American in a throwback kind of way. We stayed away from drugs, we kept life extremely simple, and we were always suspicious of anyone loud and any kind of bling. These things informed me, and they were completely at odds with the stuff that's pushed by the popular cultures of gay and straight America. It almost made me some kind of cultural misfit in reverse.
When I landed at LAX, the memories felt good. I guess I had been searching for something, and now I had found it.
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.