The Prime Mover of my unplanned day left the cafe so quickly that I stepped lively to catch up with him, still sucking the frappu through a straw that was too short for the clear plastic cup and remembering I hadn’t paid for the drink. Oh, well. Bocca knew where I lived. He could always come to my door or text me, unless he trusted I’d pay up later.
Chatty little groups of people I didn’t recognize as locals curdled around outdoor tables and at the threshold of pocket-pet-size shops whose doors were wide open. Nearly all of them were dressed in shorts, bathing suits, sleeveless tees and other garments better suited for the Bahamas than for the Jersey Shore just coming out of the tail end of spring. The temperature inland was expected to reach into the high 80s, but here, a few blocks from the ocean, it was in the high 60s. I had lived at the Shore long enough to know that some people at the beach on the first day of summer dress for the beach no matter how chilly it is, for no other reason than that it is the first day of summer and they are at the beach, and nothing is going to stop them from acting as if they belong on the beach.
Put in perspective with this crowd, the white suit wasn’t so incongruous, after all. The person who filled it, who by that point had introduced himself as Rolands Dzenis, gestured toward the half-naked forms along the way and stepped aside so the cameraman could get a clear shot.
He edged close to the side of the camera, speaking so only the microphone, the cameraman and I could catch his voice. “This is amazing,” he said as if fearing to disturb a rare, nesting beast. “Two hundred years ago, what we today call casual dress was called ‘undress.’ I’d say these folks were closer to being just plain undressed than casual.”
He accosted a ring of women whose pale flesh around their bikini tops shone with tanning product. “Ladies, aren’t you cold?”
Huge sunglasses concealed a good deal of their faces along with their eyes, an arrangement that reminded me, queasily, of ant heads in a macro lens. But I knew they were looking at Rolands. Their heads turned toward the sound of his voice; they were giggling and flashing the kind of perfectly aligned, American-white teeth that shine brighter than the Transfiguration.
“This is the Shore,” one protested as her friends half-laughed, half-simpered. “This is how you dress at the Shore. Don’t you have beaches where you come from?”
“Yes, but where I come from, we like to stay warm! Tell me: the people who lived around here more than two hundred years ago didn’t have fancy swimwear. If they went swimming, they went in the altogether. Do you think they’d have been happier swimming in bathing suits instead of birthday suits?”
The directions of the women’s heads denoted them looking at each other. There were hesitant splutterings. A voice emerged. “I don’t think they’d have known any better.” The speaker turned her head from the camera to Rolands. “They were products of their times. They didn’t have bathing suits, so they didn’t know about bathing suits. They’d have been happy just being in the water.”
“They didn’t have to worry about squeezing themselves into something that fit or that made them look good, either,” the friend on her left chimed in.
“People think women have it easier now than they did in the past, but when you think about how contemporary society dictates how women are supposed to look, I think women in the past had it easier. Unlike them, we’re high maintenance. Really high maintenance. We can’t be fat. Our hair can’t be gray. We have to get facelifts. We have to make our breasts bigger and our tummies smaller.”
“Not all of us have to do that,” said a friend who until that point had not been heard clearly. “Some of us have parts that don’t need to be fixed.”
Rolands jumped on the verb. “Fixed? Contemporary women feel they have attributes that need to be fixed? Doesn’t ‘fixed’ imply that something is broken and needs to be mended?”
“Not necessarily. I think it means something can use improvement. There’s nothing wrong with improving what you have.”
“Why would you want to improve something that you have and that’s not broken and would otherwise not need anything done to it?”
“It’s the same thing as with a house,” said the first woman. “You live there, but every now and then you like to give it a fresh coat of paint or knock out a few walls.”
“Have you done that to your own house?”
“We turned our home from a three-room cottage on the beach into a home entertainment venue with a wet bar.”
“You did all that with a three-room cottage? On the original footprint?”
“We had to get permission from the town, but it sure was worth it.”
“You said it was a cottage. Was it a summer bungalow, like the ones built south of here, in Ocean Beach?”
“Oh no, ours was nothing like that. It was a real cottage, built the year after this town was founded.”
“And when was the town founded?”
“I think it was 1869, 1870.”
“So you razed a house that was built when the town was founded and was likely considered part of the history of the town. Is that correct?”
“You tore down your home knowing it was part of local history.”
“It was old.” The whine approached the defensive. “We wanted the kids to have something better. Would you want your own kids growing up in a place that was more than a hundred years old?”
“Actually, where I come from, a house built a hundred years ago is considered new. Most of the houses on my street where I lived had been built two, three hundred years ago.”
“Wow! What was it like with everybody trying to use the outhouse at the same time?”
I think that was the moment when Rolands realized it was time to go and till another part of the landscape for more fertile soil. After a hasty thanks to the interviewees, he scurried down the alleyway between Jer’s cafe and the pizza parlor. All the while he spoke to the camera, walking backward. Despite the low pH of what he’d found on the sidewalk, he was optimistic.
“I confess, that turned out a wee bit more cerebral than I expected. Like a contestant in a beauty pageant waxing intellectual as she answers the judges’ questions clad in a thong and bandeau. Do you know,” he continued, without taking a breath, “it’s amazing, how little Americans appreciate their past. In this country, it’s all about progress, which is a poor euphemism for the making of money. You don’t build things to last, you build things so you’ve got to take them down and build anew so people can make money in the process. There’s no sense of or appreciation for heritage.”
“That’s not true,” I said, having no desire to precede my annoyance with an apology or to decorate it with niceties. “This nation is exceptionally concerned about its heritage. The federal government has a Federal Preservation Institute that’s part of the National Park Service. Every state has a historic preservation commission; so does every municipality. Historic preservation has been a priority of this nation since before the Centennial, in 1976, when the places like Pennsylvania Station in New York City were being torn down in the name of modernization.”
“No, no, no, no, no,” mourned Rolands, shaking his head. “I’m not talking about a nation’s obligation to its historical past. I’m talking about families’ preservation of their own past. Don’t you know anyone who lives in a house that was passed to them from their parents, and that house had been in the family for generations before that?”
Of course not. But I shouldn’t have. It wasn’t the American way. Or, at least, it wasn’t the way of the Americans I knew. “If every family did that, there’d be fewer houses built. If there are fewer new homes, there’s no work for construction workers. And if there’s no demand for new homes, there’s no demand to make the materials that go into home building. The people who make the materials would be out of work. More people out of work means less money available to put into the economy.”
“No, there would be other ways to make money and get it into the system. A nation with a sense of heritage always finds those ways. If this country had a sense of heritage, it would never use cheap, shoddy materials to build houses. But it doesn’t have a sense of heritage. It doesn’t want things to last. It prefers to tear down, like a religious zealot casting opponents into Hell, enjoying every moment of doing so.”
Well. The speech was a tad on the strong side. Rolands’s homeland had broken away from the old Soviet Union in 1991, during a string of peaceful revolutions that proved Communism was a failed form of extreme micromanagement. What he said could have been lifted from a Communist party handbook on the evils and inefficiencies of capitalism. But was he old enough to have been active in the party? He had the face of a thirty-year-old but the graying hair of someone at least ten years older. And his eyes … steady with intelligence, glittering with wit, warm with patience, but sharp with a reluctance to suffer fools. Of course, he needed a full range of emotion. He was the core of this program. His producers wouldn’t let him travel the world if he couldn’t deliver a product that was entertaining. He must have known what he was doing. I didn’t.
While I stood there, ruminating, uncertain what to say but unwilling to make Rolands mad at me, he wagged his finger at the cameraman, and the recording stopped. “What happened? You were doing brilliantly! Not everyone is comfortable with the camera.”
“I can’t decide if you’re out to discover the Hessians in Monmouth County or to make fun of whatever you run into along the way.”
I’d never known eyes to gasp, but Rolands’s did. They popped wider and faster than the window we threw open at work the day the egg burst in the microwave. I thought I was about to be yelled at. Instead, those popping eyes tripped into an expression of joyful astonishment that flooded Rolands’s voice.
“Darling! This is a trip of discovery! If we find Hessians, we find Hessians. If we don’t, we don’t. Now come along. Avos! as my Russian friends would say. Hit or miss, it will all turn out for the best, and we shall see what we shall see!”
For the second time that morning he was leading me on, and I followed, little suspecting that his quest would have nothing to do with Hessians or even the world as I had allowed myself to know it.