Off the Shelf: Stupid Fun

Sea Isle City, N.J. (Sea Isle City/Facebook)
Reflections from a midnight moped ride

It was about 11:30 p.m. or so last Friday night. Except for our laptop bags and a few perishables, our car was packed. The kids were asleep, too. This was it: Our week-long vacation in Sea Isle City with my wife’s extended family was ending in the morning.

But, this was my moment. I told my wife, and I texted my wife’s cousins, “I think I’m going to take the scooter out one more time.” My wife said, “Fine.” The cousins did not text back any interest in joining me. We had collectively rented a few mopeds for the end of the week. They’d be returned in the morning. Well, I’m going anyway, I thought. I put on the custom T-shirt the family members had made to commemorate our trip and pose as a fake biker gang. My tag name was “Peso,” after a character in my daughter’s favorite cartoon series, The Octonauts. Whenever I wore the shirt, she would call me, “Dad . . . I mean Peso.”

I wiped off the droplets of water gathered on the seat. I turned the key and began to go. Less than a block later, it stalled. A block after that it stalled again. I didn’t ask questions. I just returned it and grabbed one of the other scooters. And then I was off.

There are only three main avenues of travel north or south through most of Sea Isle City. Pleasure Ave. is closest to the beach and only runs south. It is occasionally winding and often filled with human activity. In the morning, it is joggers and dog walkers. In the afternoon and evening, bicyclists. At night, people walking while eating ice cream. There’s Central Ave., which is closer to the bay side of this barrier island. And then there is Landis in the middle. We were closer to the south end of the island.

After I got the second scooter running, I cut “up” on Pleasure from our spot and traveled south to the tip of the island. The speedometer told me I was going 36 miles per hour, but when we had gone through some speed cameras earlier, I knew that I was topping out at about 27 miles per hour. I got near the bridge down to Avalon, N.J, a step closer to Cape May, and a step upward in the socio-economic hierarchy of New Jersey beach towns. I was exhausted.

The house our family rented was lovely. But, it was not child-proof. Instead of the round doorknobs my 18-month-old son cannot master, it had light-touch levers. He realized within minutes of arriving that no door could bar him. I had to carry him constantly throughout the week, to prevent him from falling down uncarpeted staircases. I was monitoring him constantly. One of his only verbal phrases is “Go, go, go!” He says that, and runs until he crashes into something. It’s my job to make sure that something isn’t too perilous.

Beyond the kid-wrangling, I’m behind on the finishing touches of my book manuscript, and time just slips through the cracks everywhere when you are past your deadline. I thought I would find time to write in the evenings after the kids fell asleep, but by then I was usually falling asleep myself. That’s what a day on the beach does to you.

And so this ride was my vacation. I wasn’t going to end it in Avalon. I turned up Landis, and cut it loose. The speedometer went up to 48 mph, which meant I was maybe going 32 mph in real life. This wasn’t even as powered as a Vespa. But I did not care. My wife’s cousin — a cousin I’ve known for so long I think of him as “my cousin” — and I took one other ride earlier in the week. And he said these scooters were under-powered by “stupid fun.”

When we rolled up to the commercial parts of town, and people looked at us — two guys with identical white scooters and identical T-shirts — he would flip his front two legs over the front handlebars. I would lean back with a big swagger like I was riding a rumbling, stripped-down chopper. So Stupid. So Fun.

But on this night, it was just me. I rode through J.F.K. Boulevard by all the people soaking up this beach town’s simulation of night life. A few people party like they are on episodes of Jersey Shore, but this is not a real club down. Soon, I got to the northern parts of Sea Isle. The island narrows down, until Landis is the only street. The bay and the ocean air both hit you. I blew into Strathemere, where the earlier ride had ended. The air was getting cool — for once. Goosebumps on my forearms. The sea air filling my nostrils, the smell of suntan lotion finally being washed out of them. This was the longest waking stretch of time on the vacation when I hadn’t been tasked with something, and I could feel the dumb, under-powered engine shaking the stress out of me.

I needed it. We’ve been coming here with the rest of the family for years, and almost every year it had been a kind of personal retreat. I would bring larger and larger stacks of books, often thinking through a personal problem or a part of history. Fifteen years ago, I remember reading the scorching polemic The Great Façade: Vatican II and the Regime of Novelty in the Catholic Church, by Tom Woods and Chris Ferrara. A few years ago, before our daughter was born, I read J. J. Lee’s wonderful history book Ireland 19121984. But with the kids the reading has gotten thinner and lighter. Last year I had ambitions to really re-familiarize myself with English history. I brought the doorstopper by Robert Tombs, The English and Their History. But I only finished Lacey Baldwin Smith’s spritely English History Made Brief, Irreverent, and Pleasurable.

This year, I brought down some books on the Hapsburg Empire, and hoped to finish the week reading John Lukacs’s Budapest 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and Its Culture. I managed only a few pages. My instinct is still not to make more realistic expectations for myself in this very unusual season of life with very young children, but to beat myself up over not completing the impossible. But, not last Friday.

The fact is, like a lot of people, I spend too much time not quite working but not quite resting or enjoying myself either. I have this anxiety to know more, to let endless streams of information flow past my brain all the time. Check the feeds. Check email. And check the feeds again. But on this stupid fun scooter, I’m actually more in touch with reality. I have to pay closer attention to the road, to my environment, to the sounds. I can’t even fit headphones under the very silly rental helmet.

I thought, screw it, and I blew past the Deauville Inn and followed the signs toward Ocean City. There are two bridges and another tiny barrier island to cross. If this was my vacation, I was going to extend it. So what if I was tired on the drive home in five hours.

I went over the dark bridges, and drove down West Ave. Ocean City was founded by Methodists, and even though it is a dry town (quite the contrast to Atlantic City), it recently was named New Jersey’s “drunkest town” based on data from the CDC, or something.

Well, there I was after midnight on a Friday night. And there was not one drunkard in sight. Sad. Actually, Ocean City was unsettlingly quiet and surprisingly beautiful. The whole town was dark; the most frequent signs of life I saw were flat-screen televisions beaming from within some houses. Unlike Sea Isle City, which seems to be rebuilt every 20 years, with ever-larger duplexes that are designed almost solely to attract renters with their interior spaces, many of Ocean City’s homes are still sociable to the street and to each other — with porches and symmetrical, traditional designs.

And by the time I got to the middle of Ocean City, all the worry of life finally felt stripped away. I collected to my mind all the golden moments of the vacation, the little instants when my children were lost in pure joy, chasing the incoming tide, or the sandpipers across the shoreline. All the work to be done, all the self-improvement I have in mind, all those streams of information that press in on me, could wait. By the time I crossed back over the bridges, I felt that rare high feeling where the natural world itself seems to be in sympathy with your mood and mind, where you float along the world. We all need some stupid fun.

I got back to the rental house. I climbed into bed and fell asleep, enjoying the pleasant post-ride sensation, where the vibration of the engine and road seems to be carried in your forearms for the better part of an hour. The long-promised door-stopper books on Russian history will come next week.

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