Seventeen years ago last night an old-fashioned wooden picnic table flew through a picture window and into the living room of my off-season oceanfront rental home on Long Beach Island, along the Jersey Shore. I spent the pre-dawn hours blasting the Replacements tape a history graduate student had given me prior to my departure for a book-writing sabbatical year. Those tempestuous Minnesotans represented the only in-house artistic force of nature capable of roaring back at the beast unleashed by 100-mile + per hour winds, 60 or so mph in excess of the forecast. It was louder than loud that night; a kind of primeval howling coupled with ancient aromas loosed from deep under the churned-over ocean floor.
Meanwhile up the coast in New Haven the not-yet Dr. Chew contemplated the likelihood that her scheduled Ph.D. examination would be capsized by the great nor’easter.
Seventy-two hours after the picnic table fenestration, the washed out causeway bridge to Long Beach Island was finally re-opened. An hour or so later Michael Young, my dear friend, comrade and co-dedicatee of ‘Irish Waterfront’ pulled up alongside the house in his 1964 Chrysler Newport. Mike had previously dragged me out of something dangerously resembling quicksand just off the perilous, ever shifting southern tip of the island; and a good thing too as we had tickets to hear the great Sonny Rollins in Philly that same October evening. This was a more routine rescue; we gingerly traipsed down the exterior stairway of a house left standing albeit barely.
The paths of the now-nearly Dr. Chew and me crossed most fatefully just over a year later in New Haven. Our beloved Charlie was born in St. Louis a little over three years after that. We returned to the shore whenever possible and were always joined for part of our visit by Michael Young, who was near-deeply affected by Charlie’s 1999 autism diagnosis as were we. But he was also fascinated by Charlie’s unique mode of arranging objects, the identical phrase I’d ascribe to Mike after spending hours with him gathering ‘found objects’ particularly in the vicinity of the magnificent dunes off 13th Street in Barnegat Light. Mike found sources of artistry in all things including the pots and pans of yet another shore rental that inspired a percussion duet Kristina still remembers warmly.
Mike celebrated Charlie’s progress with Kristina and me and offered up some mighty sage observations. In summer 2002 our great mutual friend Richard D. returned from Tokyo for a visit; we all spent a difficult, emotionally wrenching afternoon together down the shore. We saw Mike once more—he had commissioned Kristina to sing her Virgilian translations over a kind a Latinate hip-hop groove—and then Michael Young died.
Kristina and I think of Mike every day, often in conjunction with Charlie and his own organic bond with the Shore. Charlie is nearly Mike’s height by now. He has endured a most challenging year; we all three have. Yet just yesterday his placement—and more importantly his genuine place—at a new school were confirmed at a meeting that was a wonderful gift to his mom and me. A subsequent incident left me raw-stricken, but the response is on me not a condition of autismland per se.
The fact is I finally wrote a book for readers, thanks to the regimen of daily responsibility and discipline forged of a decade’s engagement with Charlie and his special world and needs. “Wax on, wax off” as my dear friend Louise reminded me, when I asked what the Pat Morita character told the Karate Kid during his apprenticeship. I always loved watching that process at work in Mike too, and his irreverence toward pretensions external to the creative process itself: “I envision your future in dry cleaning,” as he observed shortly after we met in 1979, on learning of my preposterous-sounding ambition to
become an academic historian.
I earned several unaccredited doctorates-worth via his example and inspiration: there is no Brancusi exhibit—or Sonny Rollins concert—like one animated by the presence of Michael Young. As to our shared gift for falling in our own chosen paths; that’s one whose implications are yet unfolding. But at some point in our quarter-century friendship, narrative cultural histories such as that found in ‘On the Irish Waterfront’ joined Mike’s repertoire of passions; we talked history against the beat of the tides like a pair of blustery old salts.