This past week a colleague asked me, “Why do you create?” I stood there for a few minutes, dumbfounded, probing my thoughts for an answer. I soon realized I had to recall my past to find the answers. Childhood wasn’t the “best of times” for me, and I knew I had to recall memories and moments I have tucked away in the back of my mind long ago.
Like a scene from a sci-fiction film, I’m immediately transported to Ocean City New Jersey, a small seven-and-a-half-mile-long barrier island in Southern New Jersey, I recall the island’s long sandy beachfront on the east and sweeping marshlands on the west. I was a small six-year-old kid wandering the beaches, streets, and boardwalk of that small 3½-mile wide Barrier Island searching for the storytellers who lived, worked, and visited the town I called home, which, oddly enough was known as “America’s Greatest Family Resort.”
Oh man, I lived for the stories, longed for them, and could not wait to lose myself in their telling. During the winter months, when the island was a ghost town, I would sneak inside The Strand Movie Theater on 9th street to get my fix and immerse myself in the world projected on the screen.
Back then, I hated school, mainly because I was the forgotten kid in the class, a ghost behind a desk. No one, not even the teacher spoke to me. Until one day, I became so frustrated, I threw a chair at the teacher to let her know that I was real. I got her attention and a seven-day suspension that I cleverly hid from my Mother. Most of the time no one cared if I was there or not and for that reason, when my seven-day suspension was over, I chose not to go back.
My classroom were the streets, beaches, and boardwalk of Ocean City where I was the center of attention and I knew every inch of it. I knew the names of every street, where the cracks in the sidewalks were, which planks on the boardwalk were loose, and the names of every boarding house, restaurant, and church in town.
My Mother worked as a nurse at an old folks’ home across the bay. Often exhausted from working twelve-hour shifts, she slept when she could. The only time I saw her was when she came into my room early in the morning to give me a kiss and remind me to stay out of trouble.
My mother kept a red, white, and blue leather belt that my sister and I christened, “Old Glory,” with our backsides. She stopped using “Old Glory” on me altogether, mainly because she couldn’t catch me, or was too tired by the time she got home. Instead, She would give me a stern lecture and a word of caution, “keep it up Joe, and you’ll turn out just like your father.”
Back then, I was very aware of his absence, on those days I would skip school, run down to the corner deli and buy fresh Italian rolls with my lunch money to feed the seagulls. I would climb the 5th Street jetty, toddle over the rocks, sit down close to the edge where the windswept boulders met the sea and toss pieces of bread in the air.
The seagulls cheered me up; made me laugh every time they snatched the bread from the sky. They comforted me, made me feel wanted and welcomed. I could always count on them. After the bread was gone I would stare at the horizon and think about my father, imagine what he was like, wonder where he was, and what he was doing.
I was a street-smart little hustler, always knew how to make a dime and although my sister was older; I looked out for her. I shoveled snow in the winter, sold newspapers on the beach in the summer, raked leaves in the fall, and gave directions to lost tourists in the spring. At the end of the day, I would count the nickels, dimes, and quarters and buy something to eat for the both of us.
Every Friday, I would help the little old ladies carry grocery bags to their cars at the supermarket on 16th Street. They would offer me a few coins, but I would refuse. I learned, if I refused their first offer, they would, nine out of ten times, offer me more the second time. Sometimes scoring some paper money, I would only accept the folded bills and worn pocket change from them after they fussed and insisted. It didn’t feel right, taking their money, so to relieve the guilt I would put half of the take in the little wooden box at St. Augustine’s on East 13th Street, say three “Hail Marys” and spend the rest on something to eat for my sister and me.
Ocean City had more churches than any town in South Jersey, and on the weekends, they filled-up to capacity. Crusaders would stand on the boardwalk, holding signs that pronounced “Repent” and “Christ Saves” and preach the gospel to anyone that would walk by.
I attended church for the first time when I met a young family on the boardwalk the day before; the father was standing by the water fountain on the boardwalk preaching about the rapture. His charismatic delivery formed a crowd around him, curious I crawled through the front of the crowd when I emerged he asked me if I was saved. I didn’t understand what it meant “to be saved” but I found out in church the next day.
At the end of the service, the preacher asked if anyone had been saved, I stood up and declared that I was. At that moment, the church erupted in roars of “Praise the Lords” and waves of “Hallelujahs.” It was then the preacher came over, shook my hand and welcomed me. I was overwhelmed with so much praise and attention from the parishioners, tears streamed down my olive-skinned face, I savored the moment and the attention. After that, I got saved at every church in town.
I met all sorts of people growing up in Ocean City; Kind ones, mean ones, and evil ones too. I recall a moment from my childhood I have repressed. It happened so long ago, but the memory is so vivid and full of detail when it invades my thoughts. A moment I was lured under the 11th Street boardwalk and molested.
It was the lessons I learned on the streets that saved me. I had the street smarts to take advantage of the opportunity to defend myself and get away. I kicked the man in the groin when he tried to unbuckle his belt. He flew backward into a sandy patch of concrete blocks and broken beer bottles. I could hear his screams as I rushed out from under the boardwalk and his curses as I rushed over to the summer police officer walking his beat.
The storytellers I met during my island exploits were a mixed bag of characters as colorful as those I seen on screen. They entertained, mentored, and distracted me from the harsh realities I found myself in. There was John, the evangelist, who would preach about the gospel and the end of the world to anyone who dared to stop and listen.
Giovanni, the owner of a small Italian boardwalk restaurant, who would feed me fist-sized meatballs and amuse me with tales from his childhood days in Sicily. There was Dave, the 5th street fisherman, who would convincingly tell me tales about talking seagulls that flew about the island and the biggest fish he ever caught.
These are just a few of the many storytellers I met during my childhood. It didn’t matter if the stories were true; their stories, each told in their own style, became my own and allowed me to connect to the world around me and escape the abandonment I felt as a child.
As I grew older it was the lessons learned embedded in these stories that guided me through my troubled adolescence. For most of my childhood, I grew up in and out of foster care, abandoned by my mother, father, and older sister. Often mistreated and abused by those charged with my care. Told I was dumb, and placed in special education and forgotten until I dropped out of school in the 9th grade. As I transition into adulthood, stumbling over the potholes of life, I discovered new meanings within the stories and I soon began to develop narratives of my own.
I would later discover new ways to express myself in photographs, video, or some form of art. Looking back it was these narratives that encouraged me to overcome the situations I found myself in. Like all art, stories have the power to motivate and encourage change. I have witnessed this power in my own life, overcoming many dire circumstances and situations I found myself in. Its the lessons learned in these stories that encourage me to overcome my learning disabilities. I returned to school earned a GED, an AA, BA, MA and an MFA. I create to leave a legacy, to be remembered, to overcome my circumstances, and to express and communicate how I am feeling. I create to be free.