Autobiography, Memoir, Personal Essays

Hopatcong Heaven

Please enjoy the second installment of my ongoing autobiography project, where I post chapters from my life’s story every Friday. 

From ages 4½ to 11½, summers were heaven. For two delicious months, my family and I escaped our tenement confinement in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, by heading to Brief’s Bungalow Colony on the western shore of Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey’s largest lake. Uncle Philly, who was married to Aunt Lena, my father’s younger sister, was a fish monger. He sold to rural New York and New Jersey hotels, which were kept hopping with Jewish vacationers escaping the summer swelter of the city. Philly had discovered Lake Hopatcong on one of his Pisces peddling sojourns and couldn’t wait to tell my father about it.

“Max, you won’t believe it!” he told my father. “I found Gan Eden [Garden of Eden in Hebrew], minus that grumpy, self-righteous landlord, just a couple of hours from here. What are you going to do this summer to get Helen and the kids out of Brooklyn’s schvitz bath and bad tempers? I’ll tell you what! You send them up to Brief’s Bungalow Colony on Lake Hopatcong for two months! Cheap, $400 for the summer. And you? You can visit them on the weekends!”

Philly’s enthusiasm successfully persuaded my father, although I will never be sure if it was because Dad thought it was truly a great deal or because he couldn’t wait to get rid of Philly. Philly traveled with a miasma about him from the fish he sold—mostly of the northern Atlantic variety—that he purchased wholesale at the Fulton Fish Market in lower Manhattan at three o’clock in the morning. Lake Hopatcong’s fish did not smell like that, nor did they reek of alcohol like Philly did. How memorably embarrassing was his commandeering the emcee’s microphone to blurt out his own version of Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn, or To Me You’re Beautiful, at one relative or another’s Bar Mitzvah or wedding. Like most Jewish families, ours were righteous teetotalers. Only ceremonial Manischewitz and Schnapps were sanctified. Whiskey, Philly’s favorite, was not. It was not unusual to hear one relative or another say, “Who invited that Shmegegee [buffoon]?” or “Why doesn’t Lena divorce that Shikker [drunkard]?” or “Look, nobody has the Chutzpah to take the microphone away from that pisher.” But that was just Uncle Philly.

My mother’s family were all experienced swimmers. Her father, Grandpa Joe, a candy store owner, loved the ocean, and as soon as his children could walk, he taught the three of them to swim in the waves at Rockaway’s public beaches.

When my mother’s brother, my Uncle Myer, heard of Lake Hopatcong, he joined the summer exodus with his wife, Ester, and his three children. This was great for us, because Uncle Myer owned a hand-me-down woody station wagon. It was a gift from his Uncle Lionel, the artist, who, amongst other things, created the MGM Lion! Into the woody would go our suitcases, fishing lines, towels and bedding, and then we would set off for summer heaven. Even the trip to the lake was itself an adventure, because the woody was old and cranky and would overheat at the hint of any grade over five degrees. Lake Hopatcong was 60 miles away on winding, hilly roads from Brooklyn. We would all be on alert for steam rushing out from under woody’s hood, the signal for the caravan to circle. Myer stocked woody’s running-boards with five gallon water tanks, strapped down securely and ready for action. After guzzling a couple of gallons of water, the old timer settled down and the caravan would round us kids up and move on. We’d replicate this ritual four or five times on the way to Lake Hopatcong.

Brief’s Bungalow Colony sat on the western shore of the lake. The area had a foreboding name—the River Styx—and it included a two lane, narrow bridge. Our bungalow had three bedrooms and an all-purpose kitchen, living room, and dining area. The bungalow’s screen doors and windows invited summer breezes to pass unhindered through the bungalow, blurring the lines between outdoors and in.

There, at Brief’s, we escaped the squalor of Brooklyn with its locked doors and windows used to keep out winter and thieves, and the relentless noise and traffic pollution of Bedford Avenue, a major thoroughfare that was right outside our door.

Brief’s Bungalow Colony owned 50 feet of lakeshore. Its dock extended far into the lake before making a sharp turn to the left. Doing so, it created a rectangular “pool,” or safe area. It was here that my mother taught me, an already accomplished swimmer at age 4½, how to float. I remember floating effortlessly on top of Lake Hopatcong’s gentle waters, arms and legs outstretched, relaxed, completely enchanted by the billowing clouds that moved lazily across the blue sky above.

I never did, as a youth, fathom the length and depth of Lake Hopatcong. From Brief’s dock, I could see the white plumes of speed-boats in the distance as they crisscrossed the main body of the lake. It was probably smaller than I imagined then, but in my mind it stretched on forever, blue waves and endless water.

It wasn’t just the water. My whole Hopatcong world seemed vast, though it mostly consisted of our bungalow, the grassy commons of the larger colony where I hunted night crawlers, and the long dock where I caught upwards of 400 sunfish every summer. I spent a good deal of time diving under the water, trying to become like those very fish I spent so much time catching, beheading, gutting, scaling, frying (though my mother did that part), and eating.

I remember lying on my belly, fishing on the dock with a drop line, hook and worm dangling in the clear lake water, watching the brightly speckled orange-bellied sunfish dart about my hook, just two feet from my nose. Those sunfish never failed me.

When I was fifty, I revisited Lake Hopatcong and tried to locate Brief’s Bungalow Colony. I drove back and forth about four or five times, unable to figure out where Brief’s was. It finally dawned on me that I was looking for Brief’s with my child’s eye. The actual area, sans bungalows, was so small compared to my memory of it that I had passed by it time and time again without recognizing what it was.

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