Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The Very Thought of It: an essay about nostalgia

Oh sure, I remember that like it was yesterday. 

My mother would give me and my brothers a few dollars to spend at the lunch counter. The doughnuts were the best. They came in one flavor: plain. That made it easier. No coating of sugar, never any icing or sprinkles. Just an O of solid dough, cooked up in a bath of hot fat. For energy, I guess, although we didn’t lack that. For a little celebration, perhaps, a pat on the belly for all of us making it to the boat on time. Could be it was mostly to keep us busy.

Somehow everything tasted better on board the ferry from Woods Hole to Nantucket Island. (Nantucket was our happy place. There was no other “island” we would ever be referring to. Not too many people went there, the rich folks hadn’t found it yet, and the kids at school in their stupidity would sneer at you for supposedly mispronouncing Nantasket, a fading, not-so-happy, carny-on-an-icewater-beach in Hull that they did know about.) Don’t tell me the ferry doesn’t go from Woods Hole to Nantucket. Not anymore it doesn’t, I know it doesn’t. This was Back Then, when Life was Better. The ferry used to run all the way from New Bedford, you know, quite a long ride. I think that was before the Bourne Bridge and Sagamore Bridge were built, and here now you see them talking about replacing those bridges ASAP, they’ve both quickly gone somehow from OK Just Fine to Maybe Falling to Pieces Pretty Soon, what a waste, but what’d you expect, oh well more jobs for construction guys, and people’s relatives up at the State House, “state worker” an oxymoron, know what I mean?

But maybe, then, the big ferries will run from New Bedford again, if only for a few summers. I’d take that ride. That’d be something!

Anyhow, the doughnuts. Sure they tasted better! With the salty air, the restless green sea, the crying of the gulls, and the sunshine and excitement on our once-a-year trip to the island, there’d be no comparison with sitting dully eating this same doughnut at our kitchen table at home. We never actually had doughnuts at home, and we didn’t actually have a kitchen table either, friend, I’m just trying to help you out here. Our kitchen was tiny, with barely room for one person (my mother) to work. The house, like all the rest in this post-war development, had been designed at drafting tables somewhere by men, who rarely visited their own kitchens except to raid the fridge, and accordingly made these kitchens no bigger than they thought they had to be, you could say. I did say! I’m the creator of this goddamn Cherished Memory so what I say goes! Our kitchen featured the main telephone for the house and all of the food (except for a stack of canned items that sat for years under the basement stairs, in case of nuclear war or some other disaster, so we could dip into them and perhaps survive a bit until help arrived). Our kitchen also had a busy back door, for getting to and from the garage and driveway; it functioned as the main entrance to the house, worn from use, endlessly opening and shutting. The electric range sat right next to it. In the winter, with people coming and going all day long, icy breezes and sometimes snow would blow into the room any time the door was opened (“Shut the door!!!”), and you’d have a hard time heating up a saucepan of soup.

Anyhow, back to the ferryboat. This boat I’m talking about, a ship, really, it was the steamship Nobska, built at the Bath Iron Works in Maine in 1925. It had a most mournful, hair-tingling whistle. ( If you ever got bored during the trip (and you did get bored), you could go down to the car deck (the ceiling was too low for modern tractor-trailers) and peer into the engine room below from one of several doorways, and watch the steam engine at work, the crankshaft shiny and flashing as the four great pistons turned it over and over, the beating heart of the ship. Off to one side of the engine was mounted one of those telegraph-dial gizmos for relaying orders from the bridge (Full Ahead / Stop / Slow Astern) like you see in the movies. They don’t let you go down there anymore and besides the engine is a diesel and there’s nothing to see and the crew runs it from the bridge like a car and the whine in there would make you deaf. I don’t know why everything has got to be ruined.

Back to the lunch counter. The Nobska had a well-varnished wooden counter with rounded corners and a curved lip, like a bar you’d see in some classy restaurant. There was just enough opulence, the way there were just enough doughnuts of just the right kind. There were also hot dogs. (The menu board might have called them “frankfurters.”) They were short and plain (and hot) in their oblong buns. Each was handed to you in a sleeve of stiff white paper to make it easier to carry, and to keep the ketchup and mustard off your fingers but I never used any of that stuff anyway. You’d inch the hot dog along, down the sleeve toward its open end as you ate it bite by bite. By the end of the trip, the deck would be littered with empty hot dog sleeves crushed flat underfoot. As with the doughnuts, the hot dogs tasted much better on the ship.

No! It wasn’t always the Nobska! The steamship company had other boats too, including the Islander, the Martha’s Vineyard, and the Nantucket, but that one was an ugly one, and hard to steer as it turned out, a real tub of lard that had “low bidder” written all over it. You didn’t know what boat you were going to get until the family car pulled up to the wharf. It could determine whether your trip got off on the right foot. In my memory, it is always the small-scale, gently-breathing, gently-rolling, little-old-lady Nobska. That’s the thing, when you get down to reminiscing. Some of your best memories are of things that kind of didn’t actually happen.

Other things come in too, like ants to a picnic. I remember seeing a tip jar in a corner of the lunch counter. Years later, I read a news item about a pair of teenagers, one carrying a big, floppy shoulder bag, who approached the Nobska’s lunch counter one day and ordered some coffee. While the counterman’s back was turned, the one with the shoulder bag casually raised it and plopped it on top of the tip jar. Sometime after they had paid and left, the counterman noticed that the tip jar was gone.

I don’t know why these things have to happen! Bittersweet memories, they’re supposed to be pleasant, basically. The bitterness ought to arise simply from the fact that the good old days can never return. Who willingly dredges up unhappiness? Why does it have to butt in where it’s not wanted?

Still. My parents, I recall now, while they were good at making reservations, and prepping and packing (and paying for everything), had trouble getting places on time, especially my dad. We were usually running late by the time we left our house for Woods Hole, and it could get very tense inside that car as time ticked away. More than once, we came close to missing our boat, a potential disaster since space on the ferries was strictly limited and had to be booked months in advance, same as today. I felt this anxiety keenly, keenly, especially in my stomach. Saying nothing, I would use the pain in my gut to push us ahead to get to the boat on time. Please! No more stalled traffic ahead, no more red lights! Please hurry it up, I would silently urge my father, as he bent over the steering wheel, gnawing on the side of his index finger.

Wait! Stop that! Why can’t I have my wistfulness untainted? How hard is that?

Here’s what you do. You settle into a comfy chair with the photo album of your mind, like you’re about to rip open a big old candy bar, one that promises to be exceedingly delicious. Yum! Your memories reveal themselves and they are grand, incomparably grand. They always taste sweet and never give you a sugar headache. There’s never any fuss. You’re a kid! Somebody else will take care of everything and think of everything and smooth the way, and there will never be any need to be troubled about anything, anything at all.

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