It is not always clear when you are about to experience the last of something. I used to savor the acquired taste of Liederkranz cheese and Ballantine’s India Pale Ale in McSorley’s Old Ale House (Seventh Street and Yale Place, New York City). Liederkranz is a semi-soft cheese, that when properly ripened, runs creamy when left at room temperature. It develops a soft edible crust, not unlike brie. It also smells like the first whiff of a dead Pharaoh when the tomb is opened after 4500 years. Liederkranz is best consumed in a tavern where the fixtures haven’t been dusted in 150 years (McSorley’s). It should be eaten with slices of a Bermuda onion on crisp saltines, accompanied by mustard so hot that it was used to gas troops in WWI. The original Ballantine India Pale Ale (which I considered to be the best of its kind anywhere in the world) was aged 1 year in oak barrels. It tasted like heaven. When Ballantine’s (Newark, NJ) went belly-up, Falstaff brewed it.
McSorely’s offered both of these.
Then one day, the cheese was gone. The company that made it threw in the towel. Apparently, Ihor Sypko and I were the last two people on earth who ate it. Ten years later, Ballantine India Pale was gone too. A woman who once loved me got the last case of it on the east coast, and we drank it together. America’s desire to remain fat while drinking light beer (pre-processed urine) eliminated the need for brewing an ale that was more expensive than the current price of aviation fuel. Had I known that either of these two national treasures would shortly become extinct, I would have stretched out those final moments.
Above: McSorley's Old Ale House - 7th Street and Yale Place. One of the oldest saloons in New York City. Certainly the most colorful. Will liederkranz cheese return?
The same can be said for two women I’ve loved. One twisted my DNA into a Gordian knot that left my balls looking like a pretzel. The other untwisted them, and undid all of the damage done by the first. (I drove both of them crazy and each of these once-in-a-lifetime romances ended in a crash and burn that registered .9 on the Richter scale.) Sinking into the numbing quicksand of their kisses, it never occurred to me that these were finite. Nor did I realize how I’d miss these far more than the cheese and ale.
Above: The Atlantic Ocean off Cape May, NJ in the moonlight. Photo by Roy Groething.
The ocean haunts and taunts me with a persistence that has lasted for years. I am fascinated by the vastness of the sea, its moods and its color changes. I love the scent of the wind blowing in from the Atlantic or when the breeze carries the pungent salt aroma of the marshes. There are a thousand ways to experience the ocean. You can surf it, fish it, swim in it, and tan next to it. I prefer to ride alongside it, just out of reach. I just never realized that my last run through Cape May, NJ would be a kind of finale for disease-ridden legs. Otherwise, I’d have gotten into a lot more trouble.
Above: The low dunes of North Cape May (Lower Township) over a calm Delaware Bay on a gray day, when the clouds dissolve into the water.
I was straddling a 1995 BMW K75 fifty feet from where the Atlantic washes into Delaware Bay, in North Cape May. The day faded to gray and it was impossible to see the state of Delaware only 15 miles distant. The dunes, carefully preserved by a community that has its priorities right, are incredibly romantic. Just like my first sexual experience, I was there alone. But there is something about me that some women cannot resist. An elderly lady with a walker approached, fired off a flirtatious smile, and said, “Isn’t that cute. A man of your age riding a motorcycle.”
I respond by forcing a twinkle into my left eye and by smiling back. I am 58-years-old. I imagined what it would be like to watch a giant squid drag this old bitch into the water, wrapped in 50-foot-long tentacles. But there is never a giant squid around when you need one.
Delaware Bay has the docile nature of a seascape designed by Disney, unless there is a storm brewing. The bay is shallow and gets whipped up right quick. Huge ships rest at anchor in the channel while waiting for a pilot to guide them to the port of Philadelphia. The effect is that of gentler, littler Atlantic just off the pavement. The view from here is amazing. To the left (facing north), is a strand of beach unspoiled and uncluttered, offering a view that changes as the clouds cavort or just hang there. There are days when the gray haze is the same color of the water, and the bay ascends into heaven like an Escher painting. There are other days when the bay is pissed-off about something, and you’re glad to be on shore. The best place to view all this is from the saddle of a motorcycle. The second best place is from a joint called “Harpoon Henry’s,” a seasonal gin mill and seafood restaurant open until October 20th, 2012.
Above: The higher dunes and scrub trees just outside the "Rotary Park."
I have written about the town of Cape May before. It is a community of preserved Victorian homes (many now Bed & Breakfasts) and hotels that date back to the Civil War. There are some cool places to eat and a boardwalk that terminates at “the cove.” This is one of the prettiest views of a lighthouse on the entire east coast of the US (including Cape Hatteras). The best time to see it is just before the summer season starts, or as it is about to end... like now. The place is mobbed in the summer-time. Yet this is one seaside community that is beautiful in the winter too. Especially if it is a mild winter, with temperatures barely in the 30’s.
There is a coffee house in town — Higher Grounds — where you can get a cup of great organic (free trade) coffee and a number of organic breakfasts and lunches, made to order. Get there in the afternoon, and you’ll meet the owner, Katie. Katie is the kind of beauty that makes most men wish they had something clever to say. I always have something clever to say. (I think Katie hates clever.) Give her a day or two notice, and she’ll bake you an organic chocolate or apple pie ($$$). She bakes phenomenal cookies. The place is a hangout for local musicians, artists, and writers. It is also the most comfortable source of WiFi in town. Tell her the gimp who wrote the cigar book sent you.
The best seafood place in town is the famous Lobster House ($$++), right on the wharf. Get there early on an off-season weekday and try the Cape May Salts. These are local oysters (raw, on the half-shell) that more than compare with anything from Prince Edward Island. Raw oysters are an acquired taste and any raw seafood should be consumed with a hint of caution. Oysters on the half-shell are rumored to have a great side-effect on men. I ate 12 of them on my last visit but only the first nine had the desired effect. (In my opinion, the raw oyster looks like something Georgia O’Keeffe would have painted. I have no problem popping this stuff in my mouth.) These are some of the best oysters that I have ever tasted. I recommend a dozen oysters and a Negroni (Campari, gin, and sweet vermouth) while sitting at the bar. My only complaint about the Lobster House is that when the place is busy, it’s like eating in Newark Airport. On an off-season day, you can get an inside table right on the water.
The lobsters here do not come from Maine. They come from Point Pleasant, NJ, which supplies 10% of the nation’s lobster. New Jersey-caught lobster, as well as local scallops, oysters, and clams are premium products. They are second to none. But I digress. Had I known that this would be my last motorcycle ride for the next 18 months (hopefully), I would have been more purposefully melancholy. The trouble with the last of anything, be it kisses from a naked woman or great motorcycle rides, is that you don’t know if it will be the “last for a while,” or “the last forever.”
Above: The "New Jersey," the smallest of the Cape May - Lewis ferries arriving at dusk. Photo by the author.
There is a place called the “Rotary Park” in “Lower Township,” just on the north lip of the canal. I pulled in here and dropped the side stand, without dismounting. It was my thought to light up a cigar, watch the Cape May-Lewis ferry come in, and reflect on a life that was taking a dark and dirty turn. The view was appealing though the wind was getting up. Gusts were rocking the bike and it wouldn’t take much to dump it. I had the cigar in my hand when a local citizen cheerfully pointed to the sign restricting the use of tobacco products. I smiled back, wishing I had the supernatural powers of “Squid Man,” able to summon a giant squid with a whistle. The giant squid would grab the old bastard with one tentacle, and pull down this stupid sign with the other.
The cigar was a maduro robusto that had come to a bad end in my pocket. The wrapper was peeling and I had been chewing on it. My thought was to toss it (unlit) into a trash barrel. My aim was good but I was off on the windage. The bruised stogie arched sideways in the breeze, bounced off the rim of the can, and hit the pavement. Gulls scrambled for it. One tough customer snatched it up in his beak, and strode around looking like the late, great actor Edward G. Robinson. I could almost hear this bird say, “Mmmyeah... Shaddup... See... I’m the Big Boy now.”
I was about to go when I heard the growl of another motorcycle. A rider was approaching on a baby cruiser, which turned out to be a black Suzuki Boulevard S40. I’d never seen one of these before and was amazed by it’s compact lines. It was cool-looking for a 250cc machine. The rider parked it like it was a time-bomb with a pressure sensitive fuse. The rider was in jeans, a short leather jacket, and a black helmet with a tinted face-shield. Once settled on its side-stand, the rider pulled off thin biker gloves to reveal nicely polished finger nails. This neatly explained my initial interest in the rider’s ass.
“Nice bike,” I said, taking care not to actually say, “Nice ass.”
“Thanks,” she said. “Is the BMW logo on your bike from the same company that makes cars? I didn’t know BMW made bikes.”
“This is a prototype from 1995,” I replied. “It’s the only one. They never made another motorcycle.”
Now I can’t explain why I took this tack. She was nice enough and in her mid-forties. She explained she was a new rider and this was her first bike. Fresh out of the safety course, she was still on her first tank of gas. It would have been the work of a second to offer to ride with her for a bit.
“Take care and good luck with the Suzuki,” I said, pulling out. Not knowing the back roads, I took US-9 to Route 47, which parallels the coast but not on the water. “That was stupid,” I thought. “What the hell did that gain me?” It would have been nothing to be chummy with that rider. I recalled the days when I was a kid, about 8-years-old, when my grandfather would buy me a huge ice cream sundae. It would always seem endless with the first few spoonfuls, but you could tell when the end was coming. I never thought about there being a day without ice cream. It never occurred to me that there could be a day without my grandfather.
Most of Route 47 north of Cape May is nondescript. Yet it has it moments, and its secrets. The firmament to the left is a kind of illusion. It is a band of land of varying width between the road and salt marshes that line the bay. I made a left turn (west) at a sign that read “Reeds” beach. About two miles later, this road crossed in a sea of reeds. The salt marshes are endless tracts of cattails, rank with the aroma of aging fish stuff, with occasional glimpses of open water. In the distance, I saw houses buried in the tree line. Some of these were original bungalows and little more than shacks. Others were classic shore houses, but on less of a scale than beachfront property. Living on the edge of these marshes seemed the height of seclusion. Of course, the bugs would be murder in the summer.
Reeds Beach is one of the coolest New Jersey towns I have ever visited. The community is as wide as the width of one narrow road, with the bay-side houses on piles and barely out of the water. The marsh-side houses are almost in the cattails. You cannot pass a car on the road (if you are in a cage). The houses fall into two categories: a handful that are probably valued at $1.2 million or more, and some that were old travel trailers (one welded to a former school bus). I cannot imagine the building code that grandfathered this style of living, but I love its originality. The bay-side houses were too close together for my tastes, but had an incredible view of the water. One or two of the more original dwellings out here were for listed sale — with a real estate company known for handling very expensive and exclusive properties.
There was an old black motorcycle (read “rat bike”), bearing distinctive, though battered, BMW side bags, parked in a driveway. I was amazed to see this rig was actually an old Honda, under a bizarre arrangement of non-Honda gear. I retraced my steps out to Route 47 and continued north. There are two or three places where the road edges open water or thousands of acres of salt marshes. Regrettably, you have about three seconds to take in the view and I do not recommend pulling over. In the town of Belleplain, NJ, there is a 100-foot high steel firetower on the right. I thought this was some kind of a museum and was surprised to learn it is a working firetower.
Above: The salt marshes of New Jersey are alive with wildlife and are hauntingly beautiful.
Route 47 takes a 90º left at NJ Route 347, and I banked left to pick-up a charming country road to Heislerville. This was a nice run at about 30 miles per hour. Heislerville is straight out of 1910, and not in the tourist sense. It is another absolutely original New Jersey community. Going straight, the road passes through some great stands of trees and dense forest, and then you are in the marshes again. This time there is only the asphalt and cattails. The beauty of this place makes even the muted sound of a prototype BMW seem like an intrusion. Then you find the lighthouse.
The lighthouse looks like a schoolhouse that got ambitious. The second oldest lighthouse in New Jersey, East Point Light was built in 1849 on the east bank of the Maurice River. The charm of this structure is overwhelming. It is located on one of the most dramatic views of Delaware Bay. You can look down the length of the bay right into the Atlantic. The wind was blowing at 40 miles per hour... yet aside from its whine, it was uncannily silent. The road continues to a community of ten, or so, houses right on the water. One is in bad shape. The others are intriguing. Towering high on piles, the houses have an unusual degree of architectural incongruity. I loved all of them.
But on the other side of the lighthouse was a private lane of bungalows that were built to accommodate hobbits. Some were tidy and miniature versions of traditional shore houses. Others seemed to be seasonal party houses. The lane wasn’t eight feet wide and barricaded. This is the New Jersey I know and love. This is where the artists, the musicians, and the people who eat Sabrett hotdogs for breakfast live.
I retraced my steps to Heislerville, and noticed signs for a nature preserve. Following one, it led me to a road that wound through the marshes to an elevated viewing platform — in a community of nesting ospreys. Ospreys are beautiful, sleek, short-tempered sea eagles. Their nests are made in platforms provided by the State of New Jersey. The birds weave sticks and branches into nests about six feet in diameter. Some of these were right close to the road, as were signs that said “Do Not Stop.” Ospreys are easily pissed, it seems. I stopped at a safe distance to view them from my binoculars (a gift from one of the two women whose kisses ran out), and saw the movement of a fuzzy little head in the nest. That fuzzy little head was probably ripping the guts out of a 10-pound sea bass.
Above: A nesting osprey in a New Jersey supplied nesting frame. This is the nest in which I saw the baby.
I never got off the bike at any of these places. The pain in my legs was considerable and they seemed to sweating a bit. I turned the K75 around to head back, and my left leg buckled. That was new. I had taken my share of Celebrex and Tramadol for the day, so it was just a case of gritting my teeth. Except, I really was gritting my teeth. There is always an inspiring phase one can mutter to keep up appearances and I mouthed mine. “Fuck this shit,” I said in the purest New Jersey vernacular. I snicked the bike into gear and headed back to Cape May.
I had a sudden yen for forbidden ice cream, and I needed a few other things, so I hit the local supermarket. Parking the bike in the lot, I noticed my pants legs were soaked clean through, like I’d ridden through a puddle. “What the fuck,” I thought. I got what I wanted in the store, and grabbed a box of rock-hard Dove bars. My riding buddies would killed me if they thought I was eating ice cream. But it was less damaging that a bottle of whiskey, or so I reasoned. There was a 12-year-old car parked next to my bike in a sea of open spaces. “Stupid asshole,” I thought. I hate when anyone crowds my bike in a parking lot. I put my stuff in the side bags, and got ready for the last 5-minute ride back to the house.
That was when the driver of the car showed up — with her little boy in tow. He broke free from her grip and came skipping up to me.”I’m gonna get a red motorcycle too,” he said.
My first impulse was to say, “Don’t fucking skip if you get a BMW. It’s hard enough getting laid on this thing.”
But that’s not what came out of my mouth. “Would you like to sit on this one?” I said. And for the benefit of my shallow readers, I said this before noting that his mom was very pretty. The kid was impressed when I showed him the cool stuff on the K75. (You “R” bike guys can piss and moan in the comments section. The K75 is cool.) I got on behind him and switched on the key. Everything lit up and the kid was delighted. Then I let him press the starter. “Fireballs,” the legendary K75, started with the whine of Valhalla in two seconds, and sent the needle skipping across the tach. I let the kid jazz the throttle and blow the horn. His name was Billy. He needed a haircut. So did I.
Billy’s mom thanked me and said they had to be getting home for dinner. Billy had a thing for macaroni and cheese. I could see several boxes of it in the bag his mom carried. “And tomorrow, we’re gonna get ice cream,” said Billy.
There were rust spots on the otherwise clean car. Billy’s mom wore no jewelry, and that included any rings. She was about 34, and just like I like ‘em: brunette, slight, and with the kind of eyes that can cut glass at 300 yards. She gave the kid a resigned smile and took him by the hand again.
The image of Dick Bregstein (my legendary riding partner) materialized. Actually, it was just his head, like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. Dick smiled and said, “You need a box of Dove ice cream bars like an elephant needs three asses. You already have the three asses. But that bike is going to need three seats at your current rate of butt spread.”
I pulled the ice cream out of the side bag and handed it to Billy’s mom. She refused it at first, but I told her she’d be doing me a favor.
“Do you live around here,” she asked. “My mom likes motorcycle’s too.”
Bregstein’s head started to laugh uncontrollably. “Her mom likes motorcycles too,” he said. “Her mom. You are such a presumptuous asshole.”
“Nope,” I replied to her. “Just passing through.”
I pulled up to the house 5 minutes later and poured myself four fingers of Irish whiskey. I swallowed a mouthful then dumped the glass in the sink. The last taste of ice cream... the last mouthful of whiskey... the last time I rode through the marshes or anyplace... the last time I kissed a woman who numbed me to reality... the last time I pushed a bike to 100 mph... the last time I walked without a cane... the last time my legs worked. I could only remember some of these last times... mostly the ones I didn’t want to remember.
I suddenly couldn’t recall when I had last spoken with a close friend, so I called Bregstein.
“Hello,” oiled Dick, the consummate riding buddy. “How are you, Jack?”
“Kiss my ass,” I said. "You can ride her mother." Then I hung up.
I’ll be dipped in shit if I have a last time for anything. I read that Liederkranz cheese is now available again after a 25-year absence. Someone will commercially brew India pale ale in oak casks again. And somewhere out there is a “K” bike that is going to carry me to the west coast, at fantastic speeds, to unbelievable adventures and to the arms of a future former love interest, who is going leave me gasping on a beach where the suns sets in the water. I may never again have the legs of a pole vaulter, but I am going to have the legs of a pole dancer. You can count on it, and you’ll read about it here.
©Copyright Jack Riepe 2012
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