Originally published on January 4th, 2013
I never caught his name, which I regret, because he gave me the best "welcome back" that I think I received.
Permit me some nostalgia.
In a summer in the early '70's I returned to the United States from Scotland. I went from rainy, gray skies, meat pies, wool jackets, tiny cars, and incomprehensible accents from Taysiders to the beach in south Jersey, which meant sunny skies, caramel corn, swimsuits, my dad's Pontiac Catalina and incomprehensible accents from Philadelphians.
Summer beachwear in Scotland was a jumper [sweater vest] and half-pants [shorts]. If it got up to 60 degrees I'd wear footer bags [shorter soccer shorts]. An exciting day included banana sandwiches.
In New Jersey, beachwear was board shorts and towels and an exciting day meant a trip over to Tony Mart's, which was one of those marvelous music venues, now long gone, that used to present a rich variety of pop music from a surprisingly diverse collection of musicians. One night, it could have been a soulful singer/songwriter, the next a huge band complete with horns offering a Ray Charles retrospective. In the mid-'60's, their house band was named "Levon and the Hawks". Bob Dylan stopped by one night, heard the Hawks, and asked them to be his back-up band as he had decided the time had come for folk music to use electric instrumentation. They changed their name to The Band. Levon, of course, was Levon Helm. [You've heard his voice, even if you don't realize it.]
The night I was there The Hawks were long gone, of course, but other elements of the '60's still lingered. The Vietnam War was still in progress, the serial killer Ted Bundy was roaming around the area, hippies, or at least their fashions, were still to be found, the music on the jukebox was a combination of hard rock, doo-wop, Dylan, and The Beatles. Oh, and there was a familiar LSD casualty who had a regular, perpetual seat at the bar.
Next to him, naturally enough, is where I wound up sitting, as it was a crowded night and it was the only seat left. There are two things I still remember from those days, mainly the smell of Coppertone and the look of sunburn; now rarely encountered in the beach scene. But I remember them in particular as I was appreciating both in the person of a blond girl my age whose name was "Clarkie". As she was inviting me to dance with her [I used to cut quite the rug in my youth], the old hippie next to me smiled, raised a rather soiled glass, and said,
"There are few things better than being a young man in America."
Ain't that the truth, brother. It was great to be back home.
Tony Mart's met an ignoble end. It went through a lot of hands, mostly those of inept businessmen, and finally burned down one night. I think it's a parking lot now, I don't know.
The hippie I would occasionally see during the rest of that summer, but then never again. Clarkie is now a grandmother on the west coast who owns a decorative bead franchise, and I'm a grandfather in Connecticut who occasionally misses the halcyon days of youth but can still form a smile when he hears a certain song, the one that Clarkie and I were dancing to, the one that played, in all of its surreal glory, on the jukebox as I savored the wisdom of the hippie and the sheer joy of being home.
Oh, and the song? Here it is:
[P.S. For more Tony Mart's trivia, there is a dull movie called "Eddie and the Cruisers" that came out in the early '80's that features a pivotal scene at Tony Mart's. As far as I know, that's the only time it was captured on film.]