“Welcome to Downtown Historic Lakewood” read the sign as I turned down County Line Road. Hey, why not? I had a little time to kill and I hadn’t been there in I-don’t-know-how-long. In the decade after World War II, I had the good fortune to spend my huckleberry years growing up in Lakewood New Jersey. I thought back to the times I rode my bike down County Line to get eggs at Leifer’s chicken farm. Always rode on the north side, both ways, under the canopy of the grand old Sycamores that lined it. Legend has it that Jay Gould had them planted at the turn of the century. I didn’t think about it at the time (I was just getting eggs) but those trees were a wonderful example of Mother Nature showing off.
Now don’t get me wrong. Lakewood didn’t just spring up full blown out of nowhere. It started out among the Bricksburg iron Works and cranberry bogs before the Civil War. At some point they built a dam, flooded the bogs, and grew a lake. It was aptly named for picturesque Lake Carasaljo and the majestic pines that surrounded it. In the early 1900’s luminaries flocked to it. Gould and Rockefeller built magnificent estates. Grover Cleveland and Gentleman Jim Corbett vacationed there. Later Joe Louis and the NY Giants baseball team trained in Rockefeller Park. New York doctors sent their patients to Lakewood for the therapeutic value of the fresh pine air. Hotels sprang up and filled to capacity every winter to accommodate this magical world.
When the lake froze, the fire dept. would hose it down to a smooth shimmering surface. On skates, a good westerly wind blew us the half mile from Route 9 to the inlet at Georgian Court College. Past the boardwalk, the boathouse, the little arcade; past the ice fishermen sitting on their buckets with their pints of brandy waiting for that elusive perch. On sunny days the city vacationers deposited themselves on the boardwalk lounge chairs. Like turtles on a log they basked in the winter sun, mink coats and aluminum coated sun reflectors gleaming in the brisk pine air. My buddy Mike and I would go down and shine shoes. 10 cents a shine. Of course, we only shined one pair of shoes a piece since over at Monneson’s Fish Market the juiciest pickles could be plucked out of a barrel for a dime. And there we would sit across the street on the steps of the post office, sucking on a sour pickle and discussing the pressing issues of the day: like who was better – Mantle or Mays.
A novel cottage industry grew up around the hotels: the horse-and-buggy trade. Dozens of them, wheels creaking along the pavement or silent when it snowed and the stables replaced the carriages with sleighs. A favorite mode of transportation for us kids was to jump on the back of a buggy and, if the driver didn’t catch you and try to whip you off, hitch a ride around the lake.
Memorial Day was a Norman Rockwell painting. The high school band warming up to the strains of “On Wisconsin”. Along Madison Ave. ladies crammed shoulder-to-shoulder cheering wildly for their husbands, uncles, brothers marching with the American Legion, VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars), and JWV (Jewish War Veterans). The volunteer firemen strutting like peacocks proudly in front of their new hook-and-ladder. The scout troops, boys and girls, waving to their parents as they giddishly marched by. Then the cheerleaders, each one more adorable than the next. Some would go on to become Miss Lakewood Daily Times or Miss Ocean County Fair. Followed by the majorettes; tall and royally elegant with their lofty headdresses; their white boots stepping high as the batons spun magically in front of them, then behind the back, then spinning through the air in synchronized perfection. The parade paused at Woodlawn Cemetery for a 6 gun salute to the fallen heroes before marching on while tougher kids than me jostled across gravesites for the spent rifle shells left on the ground. The procession finally ended at the lakeside War Memorial across from Haley’s Florist. From there everyone was welcome at the American Legion Lodge for refreshments. I recall one year when the entire Dodger Little League baseball team got stung by bees after one of them stepped on a beehive. But so what? Hot dogs and soda – for free? How cool was that?
In summer, the town blossomed with a burst of energy. It all started the last day of school; that final report card saying you got promoted. All the C’s and D’s that you got punished for all year meant nothing as long as you didn’t get left back. So much revolved around Carasaljo. In a time when most families had only one car, the ten miles to the ocean might have just as well been a trip to the moon. So the small sandy beach on the north Shore was a popular respite in the summer heat. It had everything you could want: concession stand, changing booths, picnic tables, and outhouses. Best of all, it had a floating raft in the middle of the lake. Whole days were spent playing king-of-the-hill. The lifeguard could blow his whistle until his cheeks gave out; the game didn’t stop until we were all adequately bruised.
On the south Shore, Dickie Madresh’s dad rented wooden rowboats when he wasn’t out delivering the mail. In these boats the adults pulled out some nice trophy bass. We kids, casting off the banks, found the bass generally cavalier about our earthworms and kernels of corn. To the bluegills though it was steak; and that was good enough for us. Nighttime brought even more adventure. All you needed to hunt bullfrogs was a flashlight and fast hands. Both always in ample supply. I had a new pet every week: a frog, a turtle, a snake, a praying mantis. Put them in a box in my room. How they escaped very night I do not know. My mom said she knew nothing about it. She always told me not to lie so she must have been telling the truth.
Big department stores? New York had Macy’s and Gimbels. We had Efros (Ee-fraws). Cradled right next door to the only Orthodox Synagogue in town, we all got our bar mitzvah suits at Efros. You could find anything from Keds to cardigans there. And when you checked out at the cash register, watch your receipt transported in a wire basket up along the wall to some secret office in the sky.
Mall wasn’t even a word then, but who needed one? Everything you could possibly want was right in town: bats, balls, and mitts at Pat McCallion’s sport shop, book covers and baseball cards at Berger’s Stationary, peaches at Griffin’s Market, and egg creams at Hermie’s Luncheonette. Saturday mornings I would be commissioned to pick up fresh milk at Esterdale’s Dairy, the Daily Forward (the Hebrew paper for my grandfather) at Tony’s Sweet Shop, and “half a loaf sliced” of the best rye bread on the planet at Gelbsteins Bakery. If these stores didn’t have what you needed, you could always head down to the Sears Catalog store on Second Street (bring cash; credit cards were also in their infancy).
But things change. It’s been said, “We often mistake change for progress and progress for wisdom”. I see the change; the wisdom escapes me. Where there once lived trees and fields and shops and homes, now wall-to-wall-to-wall-to-wall apartments, townhouses, and dented cars. It’s a tenement mentality borne of greedy developers and landlords, enabled by callous politicos.
There is nothing left of Lakewood I knew. No doctor would now send a patient there for therapy unless he felt that poor soul wasn’t getting enough carbon monoxide. The postcard-picture lake, once a rosy cheek, now pockmarked with a commercial fleet of pontoon boats and giant plastic swans. All moored to a long dock jutting out like some ulcerous tentacle. The romantic “kissing bridge” garnished with metal, plastic, and Styrofoam rubbish. Even the sycamores are gone. Bulldozed into oblivion with so many other trees. The lake’s no longer pristine. The wonderful pines ravaged. Yes, Historic Lakewood does exist – But only in my mind.