At the risk of receiving death threats like George Webber in Thomas Wolfe’s novel after which I’ve entitled this essay, I would like to write about my recent 40th high school reunion. I had never considered going to a previous reunion, but after 40 years, I thought it might be an adventure.
Although the reunion was on Saturday at the New Jersey Shore, and I was coming in from my current home in South Florida, I flew from Fort Lauderdale to Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC on Thursday evening. My son lives a few miles to the west in Fairfax, VA. He and his girlfriend picked me up and the three of us went to dinner and then to his apartment for the evening. We hung out for half of the next day before he took me to Lorton, VA, so I could meet up with Jerry, a High School classmate for the ride up to New Jersey.
Jerry and I were friends for most of middle school and high school as we were both musicians in the woodwind section and spent a lot of time together in that pursuit. We also spent a couple of summers at a music camp and played dozens of performances together. My grandfather and Jerry’s mother were both talented string players and knew each other for years from the local classical music scene.
Over the course of our five-and-a-half hour ride to New Jersey (apparently there was a lot less traffic in the Northeast 40 years ago), we went through our yearbook and discussed our memories of the approximately 300 kids in our graduating class. This was the first inkling that the reunion would provide more than just touching base with old friends.
As we went alphabetically down memory lane, we both noticed that the percentage of classmates that were in our social circle was disturbingly small. I know that we spent a ridiculous amount of time in the Band Room, but there were a large number of people that neither of us had ever talked to. There were also quite a few that we didn’t even remember ever seeing.
The next revelation was even more disturbing, but I’d like to preface this with some demographic information. We went to Lakewood High School in Northern Ocean County along the Jersey Shore. Our class was approximately 29.5% Black, 4.5% Hispanic, 21.5% Jewish, and the remaining 44.5% Caucasian. I’ve separated the Jews from the other Caucasians for a reason that deals with the following brief history of Lakewood.
During the early part of last century, Lakewood was a resort town for upscale Jewish people from New York. There were many hotels and entertainers such as Jerry Lewis and Hal Linden did some of their earliest work there. The Jewish hotel owners tended to hire Blacks as porters and chambermaids. There are those who debate the rationale behind this approach and it is not something I care to delve into herein.
In the 1950’s air travel became popular and South Florida supplanted Lakewood, as well as Asbury Park and Atlantic City as the new Mecca for Jews on vacation. The resort business in these towns quickly died and what was left was a town in transition. There was a large Jewish population left behind that were the descendants of immigrants, farmers, and businesspeople who had escaped from Europe over the past decades. Many of these people became the doctors, teachers, musicians, and leading citizens of Lakewood. They were also the parents and grandparents of my generation as well as Jerry’s. Lakewood also had a relatively large black population, many who were descendants of the aforementioned hotel workers. They tended to be poorer, but certainly a significant part of the culture of Lakewood.
The surrounding towns of Brick, Jackson, Howell, and Toms River had significantly less diversity. In elementary school, we all played together. As a matter of fact, my teachers in my first three grades were Black and in the next two were Jewish. I lived in a Puerto Rican enclave within a Black section of town and never thought much about race. My mother had grown up in the same environment.
In the mid-sixties, things began to change. Riots in Newark spread to Lakewood and crime and gang activity increased. My Grandmother assured me that this was an economic issue rather than a racial one, but talk among the old-timers began to take on a negative tone. “The Blacks are ruining Lakewood” was not an uncommon thing to hear. Oddly, “The Puerto Ricans are ruining Lakewood” would sometimes be heard by some of the Black old-timers. This led to some interesting dynamics in the schools.
First of all, some middle school and most high school classes were tracked, separating “college prep” kids for more “vocational” types. This worked well for me, but I was too naïve at the time to realize that this doomed many Black and Hispanic students to sub-standard curricula with possibly sub-standard teachers. Also, in order to have some sort of “quasi-equality”, our schools system took a “separate and equal” approach. We had a Black and White of pretty much everything. We had a Black and a White Assistant Principal, a Black and White Homecoming Queen, both a Black and a White band at the prom…well, you get the idea.
Jerry and I were both kind of embarrassed to find that we had virtually no meaningful relationships or even interaction with any of the Black or Hispanic kids from our high school class, a place that we spend a full four of our formative years! This was over a third of our class. Sure, we knew the few Black kids that were in the band, but only in the most cursory way. I figured the reunion would be about finding out what happened to some of the people I knew during those years. This was the first inkling that I might actually be finding out more about myself.
The 21.5% Jewish population in my class was not indicative of the Jewish population of Lakewood in 1976. There was a significant population of Hasidic Jews in the town as well. None of these kids went to the public school, so they are completely unrepresented in the class demographics. All of those kids attended private schools. At the time of my graduation, the population of Lakewood was about 30,000 people. Shortly after my classmates and I moved on to college something new began to happen. The Hasidim came a-knocking.
Hasidic Jews began knocking on doors, offering to buy houses for high prices for cash. This began a sequence of events that has changed Lakewood drastically over the intervening 40 years. In no particular order, here are some of the changes: The population has more than tripled and is expected to continue its growth leaving my small hometown the third largest city in New Jersey by my 50th reunion. A large population of undocumented Mexicans has moved into town. Hasidic Jews have been elected as Mayor and Town Councilors. Hasidic Jews have been elected to the School Board. White people have moved out in droves. Black people have moved out in droves. Courtesy bussing has removed about fifteen percent of the school budget to provide free transportation to primarily Hasidic private school students. Racial incidents and hate crimes have increased. The public schools are a mess. Our wonderful music program now has a High School Band of a dozen kids. The infrastructure in the town is a mess. Traffic is a mess. Housing is a mess. Neighboring towns are desperately attempting to exclude Jews. The main street in town is a potholed mess with nearly all of the storefront signs in either Hebrew or Spanish.
As such, our reunion was held in Brick Township, a neighboring town. Only about 10-15% of our class attended, about the same number of classmates that are no longer with us. That was depressing. About a third of those, I had been friends with at some level. It was both weird and interesting. Jerry and I both found out a bit more about the mysteries gleaned on our trip. We both seemed most interested of seeing who turned out most like our expectations and who had taken the most twists and turns. Some stories were positive and some were sad. Drugs were becoming popular in the 70’s and did ruin some lives. I was pleased to find that I was not interested in who was rich or successful or had aged well. I was most interested in who was happy and healthy.
There were also a few awkward moments. I ran into a guy that I was friends with in elementary school and hadn’t heard from or about in the intervening time. I shook hands with him and said “Hello”. There wasn’t much left to say, so I mentioned how much Lakewood had changed with the massive influx of the Hasidim. The guy leaned into me a said, with a wink and a knowing nod…
“Yeah, they’re like the new niggers.”
What? Did I just hear that? I quickly moved on. I hadn’t traveled 1700 miles to get into a fistfight with an ignoramus, but as I moved on, I tried to figure out how someone with so similar a background as I could be so clueless.
First of all, even ignoring the offensive racial nature of the comment, was this his attempt at cleverness? I certainly hope not. Also, this guy hasn’t seen or spoken to me in over 40 years. If you have read my books or blog, you will quickly see that I would in no way support such a position (side note: if you haven’t, what the hell are you waiting for?). He said this to me as though he’d seen me at the local Klan meeting every week since 1976. When I told my friend Tyrone (News flash—Tyrone id Black) about this, he said the guy must have figured that I was “down”. I reminded Tyrone that I was “down” with him and that even if he was correct, I didn’t think that the slang version of “down” could possibly be used mean “in with the other racists”. My racist classmate may be correct about one thing. I have a cousin who lives near Gilroy, California which is known as “The Garlic Capital of the World”. When the old-timer Jews said that the Blacks or anyone, for that matter ruined Lakewood, few today would disagree that it was Jews who indeed ruined Lakewood. Could Lakewood possibly become “The Irony Capital of the World”?
I also was reminded at the reunion just how immature and offensive teen-aged boys can be. We all used horrible terms like “faggot” and “retard” to describe people. Somehow my kids have evolved never to use such terminology. Maybe I did learn a few things. I spoke to Kim and Jenny, two flute players that sat in front of me for hundreds, if not thousands of rehearsals and concerts. I realized that at least three-quarters of anything I said to them would be considered sexual harassment today. At least I was able to apologize in person.
It wasn’t all grim. I was able to share a few stories I had about some of my classmate’s parents or siblings that they were unaware of. Some of these folks had passed and it felt good to give them an unexpected memory. I was on the receiving end as well. One classmate told me that his mother frequently reminded him that he would never have been able to attend college if my mother hadn’t helped her navigate through the financial aid process. I heard some nice stories about my grandparents as well.
The next day, Jerry and I headed back to Northern Virginia to get back to our families and lives. We shared all the inside tidbits we learned about some of our classmates. Mostly, it gave us a chance to reflect upon our early influences and our growth into adults. We were pleased that we navigated the past 40 years relatively successfully and that our kids are probably much better people than we were. We wondered if our kids had the basis for them to learn from that we had and if our stories of our past will help them. For all intents and purposes, the Lakewood we knew is long gone. We may be all that is left.