Mr. Pacific Beach


What do you get when you ask Neal Pollack to write a very short piece of seaside fiction? You get "Mr. Pacific Beach." Here's the story on the story. "Believe it or not, that story is based on my own grandfather," says Pollack. "The details have been changed to protect the innocent, though that doesn't matter much because he passed away 16 years ago." After you finish "Mr. Pacific Beach," dip a toe into Elinor Lipman's "Alice Apologizes," Dara Horn's "Song at the Sea," and Danit Brown's "Jews at the Beach."

In 1976, while the world ostensibly convulsed around him, my grandfather sold his tire dealership in Bloomfield, New Jersey, and moved, with my grandmother, to San Diego.  He’d been there once decades before, on a Navy furlough, and had found the climate to his liking. “I want to live near a real beach,” he said. “The Jersey shore is a toilet with sand attached.”

Of course, the beaches in San Diego were also toilets. My grandfather realized this as soon as he arrived. On his first trip to Pacific Beach, he had an unpleasant encounter with a Whataburger wrapper in the water and subsequently vowed to never go near the ocean again.

This proved challenging, as he and my grandmother had rented a two-bedroom apartment three blocks from the boardwalk. Seagulls landed on their patio. The air smelled vaguely of inedible fish. In the mornings, the lawns in their neighborhood carried a thin film of salted dew. Breeze-blown grains of sand were constantly slipping under my grandmother’s contact lenses.

Every morning at 6, my grandmother would leave the apartment so she could walk down to the roller coaster and back before going to work at the department store. My grandfather awoke an hour or so later, stumbling to the bathroom to gargle away the previous night’s sour residue of Canadian Club that had stuck to his gums. Then he’d pull his false teeth out of their glass, slide them in, and, whistling thinly, sit down in the dining nook with his paper and his cup of instant coffee, which had been simmering in a pot on the stove, and a plate of microwave-defrosted lox.

The dining-nook window faced the street. Across the way, in another window in another apartment building, a couple of elderly spinsters also took their morning coffee. One morning, my grandfather looked up; they giggled at him like freshmen girls gazing upon a four-sport letterman. Sure, he—a short, unshaven man in the last phase of middle age, a man wearing 40-cent flip-flops and a sleeveless undershirt—saw the irony in the situation. But he still found himself wanting to indulge them.

One morning, my grandmother came home early from her walk to find my grandfather standing in the window, grinning and flexing his biceps like Charles Atlas.

“What the hell are you doing?” she said.

“Look,” he said, pointing across the way at the giggling old ladies.

“Who do you think you are?” she said. “Mr. Pacific Beach?”

My grandfather liked that title so much, he began referring to himself as Mr. Pacific Beach. He even had some business cards printed up, though he only gave them out to his poker buddies. Every morning, he’d do his routine for the ladies, and then one day they weren’t there anymore. But Mr. Pacific Beach, in his Price Club undershirt, didn’t want to stop. He kept flexing his saggy muscles long after anyone stopped noticing.