One of the joys of going to college in Boston was that it’s a beach town.
Well, it is if you make a bit of an effort. And we did, regularly, during the four summers I spent there back in the day. Sometimes my friends and I packed up our suits and towels and headed north to Singing Beach in Manchester-by-the-Sea or Crane Beach in Ipswich. There were good beaches on the South Shore too but once you were out that way it wasn’t much farther to Cape Cod and that’s where we usually ended up.
I’ll tell you one beach we never went to though.
Not to beach it, at any rate.
In those days, saying you were going swimming at Revere Beach would have sounded as nuts as saying you were going swimming in the heart of Kenmore Square, the difference being that the sidewalks there were cleaner than the sand at the beach and the neighborhood was safer.
In those days, you didn’t just stay out of the ocean, you didn’t walk along the beach. Not barefoot, anyway. I think there were signs. The sand was as polluted as the water. Take a stroll and with every step you’d kick up candy and popsicle wrappers, paper cups, plastic cups, styrofoam cups, or their broken pieces, cigarette buts, broken glass, the tabs from poptop soda and beer cans, the cans themselves, needles, as hypodermic syringes. not to mention whatever microbes, poisons, and chemical effluents that washed in from the cesspool and aquatic toxic waste dump Boston and its neighboring towns had made of their harbors and bays.
It’s not that we never went out there. I made it to Revere Beach more than a few times, as a matter of fact. It was a place to go to to take a break from school and get away from campus that wasn’t the usual escape. An easy subway and train ride out of downtown Boston on the Blue Line just long enough to make it feel like a real trip to a real somewhere else, you could go up in the late morning, have lunch or a snack at Kelly’s Roast Beef, be back home before mid-afternoon and still feel you’d made day of it.
Kelly’s, by the way, was a landmark seafood and sandwich stand word always had it was on the brink of shuttering. The point was to be able to brag someday that you were one of Kelly’s last customers. Revere Beach is in the city of Revere, a never affluent factory town a few miles north of Boston then on a downward slide. You didn’t want to be caught around there at night or during the day, for that matter. Poverty, drugs, and crime were bleeding the life out things and the neighborhood around the beach looked to be going to pieces. There was the ocean no one swam in. The beach you didn’t walk on. There were the remnants of the arcades and amusements that once made Revere Beach, the first public beach in the United States, a treat and delight and a relief to working and middle class city dwellers, a New England Coney Island, on a smaller scale, and there were a few surviving restaurants and snack stands like Kelly’s, and Kelly’s, everyone said, was sure to be a casualty, sooner rather than later. Better eat there while you still can. And we did. And that’s all we did in Revere. We bought our sandwiches or clam rolls and got out of there.
Still, I have some good memories.
Once a friend and I, continuing a conversation that began over breakfast at a diner near school, walked and talked our way up Comm Av, through the Back Bay, across the Public Garden and the Common, past Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, and wound up at Government Center. We intended to circle back by way of Beacon Hill and then along the Charles River, but we’d worked up an appetite and decided what we needed for lunch was roast beef sandwiches. Buzzy’s was practically right there but for some reason only Kelly’s would do. Probably we figured this might be our last chance. We hopped on the train, found our way to Kelly’s, grabbed our sandwiches, which we ate sitting on the seawall (This is a key point.), and got out of there. We weren’t done though. Back in Boston, we went to a movie. Wise Blood. And of course we had to talk about that after. We talked about it over pizza. We talked about it over a few beers. We talked about it over coffee. We’d have been still talking about come morning but we were both dead on our feet and finally said goodnight.
Not the most exciting tale, I know, but here’s the thing. That was one of my favorite days from that time in my life and I remember every detail. I can picture the whole day in my head as if I had it on slides and was projecting it on a screen. (Yes, that’s a Kodak Carousel allusion. That’s how long ago this was now.) And not one single slide includes the ocean!
Not even the slide of my friend and I sitting on the seawall with our sandwiches.
It’s the same with my memories of my first visit to the beach, which as you’d expect made a vivid impression. Another friend took me out there, insisting we had to eat at Kelly’s while we still had the chance, because, you know, its days were numbered, the neighborhood being what it was and all. I remember Kelly’s. I remember a pavilion on the sea wall where elderly residents of the neighborhood sat in lawn chairs reading newspapers. I remember a dog inquiring about sharing our sandwiches. I do not remember the beach. Or the ocean. Not even as fleeting glimpse in the background.
This makes me think that it was not just that you didn’t go in the water. You didn’t even look at it!
We’re back home after spending a long weekend mooching off Uncle Merlin and Art the Wonder Dog at their house north of Boston where we were well taken care of. It’s a pleasure to be pampered by a world class pamperer. We didn’t do much. It was just a relief to get away for a change of scenery and a little low-budget, practically no-budget R & R before school starts next week for all three of us Mannion men. Uncle Merlin was especially diligent about fussing over Mrs M who really needed the fussing over. We had a Family Movie Night (The feature was Blade Runner.), had an old friend over for dinner, met another friend for lunch, the guys took Uncle Merlin to see Guardians of the Galaxy at what Oliver has pronounced the best movie theater in America, and that’s about it. Except for on other thing.
We got to the beach.
And not to eat at Kelly’s.
One summer day, a couple years ago, Uncle Merlin heard that at pizza joint in Revere, Bianchi’s, had been rated as serving the best pizza in the area. Bianchi’s is right by the beach, and the beach is a fifteen minute drive up Route 1 from Uncle Merlin’s house. He went out there to try a slice and made a discovery.
Somebody had cleaned up the beach.
And the ocean.
That somebody being the state of Massachusetts.
In the early 1990s, the state began building the now massive Deer Island Waste Water Treatment Plant. No sooner did that begin operating than the state set to work expanding and improving it. In a little over twenty years Boston Harbor has been transformed from “the dirtiest harbor in America” (You may remember its starring role in one of George Herbert Walker Bush’s attack ads from his 1988 Presidential campaign against then Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis.) to what the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, which manages the plant, can justly boast of as a “Great American Jewel.”
More or less at the same time as the harbor was getting cleaned up, a major reclamation of the beach began. Giant dredgers were brought in, Uncle Merlin tells me, and dug up the entire beach, sifting and replacing the sand to a depth of six feet.
Meanwhile, Revere has bounced back somewhat, and the neighborhood fronting the beach has been revitalized. Kelly’s is still going strong. No one’s talking about its imminent demise.
The result is more than just a sprucing up of the beach. More than a restoration. It’s practically a whole new place.
Once upon a time there was something here called Revere Beach, now there’s something else, which is called Revere Beach in its memory.
“We did this,” I said to Uncle Merlin, as we sat in the sand, drying off, and gazed out at the remarkably blue ocean.
By we, I explained, I meant human beings. And what we did was ruin the place and then fix it.
This is what we’ve always done. We’ve always been good at turning one sort of place into another sort of place.
Often we’ve done this by making messes.
We’ve been very good at making messes.
Lately, in the last forty years or so, we’ve discovered we’re also good at cleaning them up.
I was leading us into a discussion of climate change denial.
Denialists have a number of arguments to support their denialism. Most of them boiled down are economic and, translated from derp, amount to “I don’t want to pay for fixing it!” Others are political. These denialists simply refuse to admit Al Gore was right. Some are stubbornly, selfishly personal. “No way I’m giving up any of my fun or inconveniencing myself for something that probably isn’t happening anyway.” But for a great many denialists, it’s religious.
Climate change is God’s will.
Actually, it may be wrong to call them denialists. Many of them don’t deny the earth’s warming and the climate’s changing because of it.
What they deny is that humans have had anything to do with it.
That’s why the phrase “man-made” keeps popping out of their mouths.
Everything that happens happens as a part of God’s plan. If the earth is warming and the climate’s changing, God planned it. And all God’s plans are for our ultimate good, no matter how miserable the working out of His plans may make us here and now. Which implies that making us miserable is something God does deliberately. He wants us to be unhappy. He takes our jobs, takes our homes, gives us cancer, kills off friends and family, wipes out our towns, sends us famines, wars, and pestilence, all to make us fit to join Him in heaven.
Strange way for a supposedly beneficent, merciful, all-loving God to behave, I’ve always thought.
It all goes back to Adam and Eve, I think, and they and their descendents being cursed to earn their living with the sweat of their brow. We got ourselves thrown out of paradise and now we have to wait for God in His infinite Wisdom to decide we’ve earned an invitation back in.
But, its being God’s will that we’re miserable, it follows that it’s an act against God to try to make ourselves less miserable. We’re challenging His plan. That’s what Lucifer did, isn’t it?
What this leads to is an argument that it would be actually wrong to do anything about climate change or to reverse global warming.
If this means letting large portions of the earth dry up or ice over or drown, so be it. His will be done.
This is what you get when you believe in a God who’s a pathological micro-manager.
Well, I don’t believe in any god these days. But when I did I believed in a God who gave us our big brains.
And he did have a plan. It went like this.
“Here’s the manual. Here are the keys. You already got the brains. You’ll figure it out. I’m off to create other universes. Come find me when you’re ready.”
The bible says God gave us dominion over the earth. Some believers think that means he gave us the earth to own and use as we see fit. I think it means he’s letting us rent the place for a while and we’re meant to take good care of it and, when the time comes, hand it over to the next generation of tenants better than we found it.
There are those who think better means paved over, clear cut, scraped down, hollowed out, and pumped dry, but they have no souls.
I think better means Revere Beach. The new Revere Beach.
I think that if we get it together in time and do something to clean up our messes and there is God, when he sends his son back to take back the keys, Jesus is going to show up at Revere Beach, gaze out at the ocean, take a swim, take a walk along the sand, stroll over to Kelly’s for a crab roll, and then, sitting on the seawall, eating his lunch, with which of course he’ll also feed the gathered multitudes and the seagulls, and after gazing out at the ocean some more, he’ll turn to us, smile, and say, “Good job.”
Uncle Merlin, Mrs M, Oliver, and Ken Mannion at Revere Beach. Saturday. August 16, 2014.
Photo by yours truly. Top and middle photos by Uncle Merlin, taken on that July day in 2012 when he made his discovery about the new Revere Beach.