16 Lake Avenue, Ocean Park, NJ


Matthew Conte


Copyright 2018 by Matthew Conte


Photo of a text message.

It would be easy to act jaded in a place like the dining room of the Rainforest Cafe on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Its at the bottom of a neon hill, a miniature Vegas strip so bright from the wax museum, the arcade, the miniature golf, the hulking, decaying dinosaur models, that it could never fully be night, and in fact, we did act a little jaded. Less than a week after the fire that took our apartment and our belongings, we stopped in the Amazon-themed gimmick as the last of an all-out tourist blitz of the connection between lakes Erie and Ontario, confronted with the cheeriest of Canadian waitresses.

Ok, perfect!” she’d say after each thing we ordered. “For sure!” after each additional question. She returned to the table like she’d personally caused me harm to apologize and tell me they were out of the Bailey’s Boa, a fancy alcoholic drink with Bailey’s Irish cream—an order in the same vein as the “aw screw it” attitude that brought us there in the first place. Earlier that day we had stood in the cold, me bundled in winter clothes my uncle showed up with when he heard I didn’t have any and Katie in the clothes that had been in the dryer, which, though smaller than most, stood up well pitted against flames and falling ceilings, watching water fall from one spot up to another. Then we paid $13—discounted because of some construction—to stand behind the water as it fell. They let us watch it for as long as we wanted to for just the $13.

I don’t think she heard us properly and was too polite to ask us what we said or meant when we asked for the check—most likely due to the twice-an-hour rainstorm thundering overhead—and she left with another polite affirmative. We contemplated just walking away and what she’d say when she realized.

Oh, they’re gone? Perfect!”

I’ll just box up the food and leave it in case they come back!”

Will this come out of my paycheck? For sure!”

ABC7 Eyewitness News the morning of the fire, which I watched from my parents’ house 18 minutes south wearing the same Squan hockey sweatpants and Batman t-shirt I had woken up in, showed the fire trucks pouring water onto the roof of our West-facing apartment on the top floor of the LaPierre building. For hours the water fell from the hoses, through our windows and the newly-formed hole in our roof. Later that week, snow would fall through the hole, by then more just a lack of roof, and blanketed the remains in a serene powder, freezing remaining drawers shut, creating and apocalyptic sheen over it all.

Back in September of 2016, we had sat on the floor, eating take-out Chinese off a crate in the spot we’d selected to place the 60-year-old table from my grandparents’ Jersey City home. We were on the fifth floor and the living room had human-sized windows, the kind that really scare the crap out of me, even when they were closed. I stood a few feet back to admire the view, keeping my distance, but Katie, “Look, look at all the birds on the railing of the bridge” or “Look, there’s a band setting up in Kennedy Park, maybe we should check it out—open the window, see if we can hear it from here,” or “Look, we can almost see the Stone Pony from here if you stand at this kind of weird angle.” She even let me plop my homemade and home-painted record shelf right in the middle of the room and helped me alphabetize and then reorder chronologically and then alphabetize again.

Then, in October, we walked in the Asbury Park Zombie Walk — something we had done in previous years but forgot about up until the day of. Luckily, we were able to see them ambling down Cookman from those windows and hustled over to the old carousel where with just a few minutes in a chair and some face paint, they turn the living undead. I got the $15 paint job to go with my old costume, a torn up suit jacket and pants splattered with green and orange paint, while Katie stuck with her trusty hazmat suit to play an apocalypse survivor. She was able to shed hers, but I proudly displayed my rotting flesh later that night at her sister’s engagement party

For Halloween, we dressed as Woody and Jessie from Toy Story. I had a pull string rigged on my back and Woody’s six catchphrases memorized as we set out to the Quaker Inn. It was a block away and run by old family friends. They were throwing a Halloween party at the insistence of my mother and her sister, who found the bed and breakfast, when empty, reminiscent of The Shining. It was right across the street from Nagles, so sometimes we would get milkshakes and sit on the porch—a big wraparound on Central Ave. with rocking chairs and a view of the sunset.

I always identified the building to people by telling them it was the big pink one next to the lake. Having lived in the town for a few years, the McNulty’s knew immediately which one I meant. It looked like it had once been very pink, but the salt air had faded the color to look more like the house in Saugerties where Bob Dylan and The Band recorded The Basement Tapes. I loved that. I hope when they rebuild they keep some version of that pink.

In November, our six-month-old one-eyed kitten Rhett Miller died sleeping in my arms at 3 a.m. We didn’t know what else to do and neither of us could go back to sleep, so we wandered to the beach and sat on the dunes to watch the sun come up. I hadn’t grown up with pets, but Katie’s family had dogs and cats, possums and raccoons, fish, chicken, lizards, caterpillars, and she assured me there was nothing left to do but bury him. We had picked him up from the Monmouth County SPCA shortly after moving in, deciding that 16 Lake Avenue, Apt. 30 had enough room for a second cat, intending to pick an orange one and name it after the stuffed tiger from my favorite comic strip, but then we saw him.

Holy crap, Katie, that one is missing an eye. We’re getting it.”

I hid the engagement ring in a little knot in one of the floorboards underneath a rug, and on Thanksgiving day, Katie’s high school locker helped me ask for her hand. The home team won and then we went and told our respective families, who luckily lived only about the time it takes to listen to Bruce Springsteen’s “Rosalita” apart, a fact I learned early on in our relationship. The next day, we played tackle football in the grass between Ocean Pathway and then crammed our closest friends around our coffee table for a second Thanksgiving dinner. I cooked the turkey I’d gotten free from work and we all sort of figured out how to carve it together.

Thanksgiving is Katie’s favorite day of the year, and her locker—no. 1168, combination 0-30-8—was where we met, or at least, that’s the tidy version of the story. Hers was right across from mine. We would sit on the ground at our respective lockers and talk across the hustle and bustle of the new wing hallway during those precious minutes before the homeroom bell. That turkey day, we snuck up to the “new wing” of the high school during the football game. She miraculously found the very same ring in that very same locker. We both had our senior yearbooks at the apartment in a top floor room with crooked floors and all of our books and magazines and Katie’s crafts. The books started alphabetically by author and finished under the windows, a place I didn’t dare approach after the fire when the glass of the windows lay in pieces on the floor rather than its rightful place between me and the ground. Katie’s mother braved the walk to grab each and every one of the sopping wet Vonnegut books that survived, even the duplicates.

In December, we put up a 3-foot Christmas tree, needles and all, a stocking for me, a stocking for her, a stocking for the remaining cat, who’d never once to my knowledge worn shoes, let alone a stocking, and a Stranger Things-themed colored light display on the wall above the hundred-dollar Craigslist couch. We had lived together above her grandmother the previous year, but it was the first Christmas Eve either of us had spent sleeping somewhere other than our childhood bedrooms. After opening presents and listening to John Denver and The Muppets sing Christmas carols, we split up to see our families.

That December, I had contemplated giving away that album—a 1979 recording of the country singer and Jim Henson’s creations singing 11 holiday standards, including one medley—when an elderly woman wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper complaining that she had ordered a copy on Amazon as a present for her grown daughter in Florida that had been delivered and subsequently stolen from her Manasquan porch. It was now out of stock and she was unable to find another. I ultimately held on to our copy, and I can’t help but think how, if not for that simple selfish act, at least one of us would be able to enjoy it now.

We split only for a few hours, she to Spring Lake Heights with her two sisters and their parents and I to Brielle with my two brothers and our parents. I had my pajamas on but I got in a fight with my dad, who said I should dress nicer to go to my aunt Maggie’s house for Christmas dinner. I stormed out and called Katie.

Do you know where my tuxedo is?”

She’s a much better finder than me, but she’s better at knowing where things already are, which is why I usually ask her before I even look. She did question why I wanted it, but she also told me exactly which closet it was in and when I got to the apartment, she was right. I left the car parked illegally while I went up to change because parking could be tough on that street, with so many people—there were 36 units in our building—vying for just a few spots at the end of a one-way street and the beginning of another. I’ve visited Asbury since, once for the Shadow of the City music festival at the Pony and once when I was lucky enough to be selected as an exrta in a Brian Fallon music video. Both times I parked on our old street, no parallel or block-circling needed, and walked across the lake.

Ryan came over to ring in the New Year with us; the three of us fell asleep shortly after midnight, watching Sausage Party and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates from the Redbox at the Asbury Main Street 7/11, skipping out on the tickets we had for an electronic dance music party across the lake at the still fairly-new House of Independents that a friend at work had gotten for me. Although Sausage Party had gotten better reviews according to Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, we all agreed we liked Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates better.

I liked that in Ocean Grove we had those options: the EDM if we didn’t want to zonk out with schlocky comedies. The closest bar by walking distance was Paradise, a legendary gay bar in the basement of the Empress Hotel where the dance nights were epic. We could walk to the end of our street, then down the walkway along Wesley Lake. Weirdly enough, the building’s address was 16 Lake Avenue, but Lake Avenue was technically that walkway, not an actual street. The building itself was actually on the corner of Beach and Spray avenues. We would take Lake through the abandoned casino and boom, there was Paradise.

We celebrated Valentine’s Day with take-out nachos from Capitoline—Italian nachos with crumbled sausage, hot peppers, melty asiago cheese. They were my favorite. We still have gift cards because I made that so well known. I have to ask for no tomatoes, though, because I don’t really like tomatoes. We’ll have to find some good excuses to travel back there to use the gift cards. Maybe something like “the nachos are just really good.”

In February, after the engagement party at my parents’ house, disparate groups of friends —NJ Department of Environmental Protection employees, newspaper reporters and photographers, high school friends, Roger Williams and Stonehill College grads, cousins, various significant others, the ones we scoffed at in secret and the ones we heartily approved of—listened to records in our TV room before walking to the bar and later spending the night. It felt really good to have this space all to ourselves where we could hold all these people we loved. We also loved that we only really had one unit next to ours: Natalie would play loud music sometimes, too, and never complained when we did. Sometimes, when she did, I would turn off the sound of whatever I was doing to listen to hers. She was a big Tom Petty fan. We didn’t know Natalie very well but became a lot closer after the wall separating us came down.

It was only after we “moved out” that we discovered her age, her occupation, her relationship status. She had been planning on moving out of LaPierre and in with her boyfriend on April 1 after seven years in unit 31. It was funny to see how she had things set up on her side of the wall. At one point, I stepped right over where it had been to lend her a pair of construction gloves that one of the men clearing rubble from the first floor had in turn lent me. We’ve even somewhat kept in touch. She moved far away, too.

And in March, just a few days after the blaze from the abandoned Warrington Hotel spread to our building, our roof, our dreams, our windows, our books, our Stranger Things-themed Christmas decorations I still hadn’t taken down, I watched from the 26th floor of the Fallsview Marriott Hotel as the water fell for hours. We had planned a trip to Toronto months before to see the Flyers play the Leafs, visit the Hockey Hall of Fame and hit up the waterfall on the way back. We weren’t sure at first if we were going to go through with the trip, but we had already paid for it, and I somehow fished our passports out of the pieces of wood that had been a dresser, so we went. The Flyers lost, but we somehow ended up seated next to a Canadian Flyers fan at his first NHL game who was happy to find some friendly colors so close to his seat in the upper level.

Katie couldn’t, but her dad let me listen to the voicemail on his cell before he deleted it. She had somehow managed to butt dial him and leave a four-minute long message full of breathless exclamations of death, sirens, and eventually a long silence broken into even parts by the beeping of the seat belt reminder in my Subaru.

For weeks people offered me things. Money, clothes, furniture. I was thankful for it all. I tried to turn it down because, well, they’re just things we lost. You don’t need to give a white 25-year-old $200 to replace his TV when it could certainly go towards something better. And there were things no one could replace; my movie stubs, culled from years of trips to AMCs, Bowties, Loews and indie theaters; my journal of handwritten setlists from every concert I’d ever been to, starting with Mark Knopfler in Newark when I was 13 to Brian Fallon in Asbury February of this year; the trust of Penny Lane, our tuxedo kitten I manhandled in the frantic 5 a.m. escape; our personalized engagement gifts from our party the week before, both the ones we wanted and the ones we probably would have kept in the back of a closet for years. Even worse, no one, not the boards of education of our elementary and high schools with their very official checks or the old church ladies with the $20 bills slipped into palms, could replace my peace of mind. For months, I lay awake at night, listening for those sounds of crackling and breaking. At  my job as a beat reporter for a weekly newspaper, it took me a week of staring at my computer screen in between writing stories like “Spring Lake Heights council discusses measure to permit dogs in parks” and “Sea Girt plants garden to celebrate its centennial” before I wondered why I was doing it at all and put in my two weeks, which would actually end up being four weeks.

I’ve always really loved songs that basically say, “I’ll come for you.” Like when James Taylor says “You just call out my name, and you know wherever I am / I'll come running to see you again,” or Brett Dennen’s “And if you ever need me you just call me, I'll come running to you / Straight from the airport, I'll come running / Cut through the customs line, I'll come running.” It doesn’t matter if they’re great songs — the Killers new album has “If you call my name / I will run whether or not it’s tonight / or the life to come” — or top 40 pop hits, like Rachel Platten’s recent “You’re not alone / cause I’m gonna stand by you,” I will find a way to have an irrational affinity for them.

Before March 3, I’d never needed anyone to come running for me. Our friend Paul texted me the next day and said “Do you need help pulling your stuff out?”

He was insistent that the TV, as wet and broken as it looked, could be coaxed into working. He unplugged it and brushed the pieces of wall and ceiling off and picked it up, the screen engulfing his face as he stumbled down the hallway and into the emergency stairwell, the only way up and down the building with the elevator out of service. In Katie’s parents’ garage in Spring Lake Heights he took a towel to the screen, returning it to black and revealing no cracks or chips anywhere on it. He plugged it into the garden outlet and rejoiced when the little red light blinked on in the lower lefthand corner. It now sits in our Chestnut Hill apartment, and you can only really catch the whiff of ash if you get really close and try too hard, like you know it’s there.

Our jokes about the impeccable etiquette of our neighbors to the north aside, at some point, my “screw it” softened, into a different intonation on that same phrase. I think it was during one of the many birthday announcements. Every few minutes, one of the servers, clad in park ranger gear, would announce to everyone that it was Jason’s fourth birthday! On the count of three, everybody wish him a happy birthday! Happy birthday Jason! I stopped enjoying the background animal sounds and Amazonian setting ironically and started really enjoying it. And everyone at Jason’s table smiled and clapped. Maybe these servers’ jubilance was put-on, but to me it seemed infectious. I thought back to the restaurant we went to on my last birthday, where the server gave us our red velvet fried oreos and said, “We don’t sing, but happy birthday.” I mean, it was nice to say, but singing is nice, too. I like to sing, even though I’m not great. I’m a karaoke hog, an enthusiastic caroller, and a steering wheel rockstar. I’ll even sing if I somehow end up in a church during a mass. I sang along each time it was somebody’s birthday at the Rainforest Cafe on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, even when it was so far on the other end of the dining room I didn’t know what name to sing.

Matt Conte is a writer from Monmouth County, NJ, who has worked in kitchens and schools,on docks and in warehouses, newsrooms, and fields. He currently lives in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, with someone he loves very much.

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