“Puka Then, Puka Now”

Memoir by Frank Vespe

   The best day of my life began with the worst hangover. It could have been the last day of my life if not for a chance meeting that forever changed my life. In July 1985, in the shadow of the Garden City Hotel on Stewart Avenue in Garden City, a one-bedroom condo was my home, a neat little single’s place that had “Fortunoff” written on everything. The hotel housed a pretty hip nightclub, Club G, that during the week was pretty lame, but on weekends, was a happenin’ place.
    Brian, the general manager, always let me slide inside without paying the ten buck cover, and after a full day of shooting videos throughout New York City, hanging at Club G listening to a new artist named Madonna, weaving tales to female customers, and nursing a 7&7 cocktail was a neat relaxant.
    Two months earlier, me and my best friend and business partner Garvin had plucked down every penny we ever saved, about $38,000, and bought a brand new Sony Betacam SP broadcast-quality camera to embark into this new arena called video production. Before you knew it, we were shooting and producing videos all over the East Coast, Bermuda, St. Croix, Miami Beach. On this particular Saturday though, we had just signed a contract to produce a video on the Island of Jamaica for Jamaica Jamaica, a resort that had everything you could imagine, and so we decided to celebrate at the only place two Long Island guys should go on a hot summer night in 1985: The Oak Beach Inn in Babylon, a great meeting place overlooking the Great South Bay.
    Today, all that remains of the Oak Beach Inn is a handful of memories for a handful of people who thought they were really on a pier in Santa Monica instead.
    I don’t remember much of that night, except for my dancing to a band called Little Buster and loads and loads of cocktails with the word breeze in their name: bay breeze, sea breeze, that’s some-breeze, but the next day, July 28, 1985, will live with me forever.
    I awoke Sunday morning with the worst hangover of my life, and decided a day rinsing my toes in the waves of Jones Beach would do just the trick. By noon, I was awash in coconut-smelling suntan lotion, a gallon of water by my side, sitting in my blue and white striped sand chair from Fortunoff’s Backyard store, staring aimlessly into wave after wave after wave, pondering my next video production, my next video assignment, my next trip back home, alone. . . .
    “Hey buddy,” the voice screamed into my right ear, “Ya want one of these?”
    “Huh?” I answered, seeing a young Michael Corleone look-alike wearing a white tank top T-shirt hovering over me and waving a handful of white puka shell necklaces and bracelets.
    “How ’bout some puka jewelry today, handmade in the Philippines, only four bucks?” he continued as he dropped a bracelet in my lap.
    “Puka?” I asked.
    “These are magical, my friend,” he continued with his pitch.
    “They look kinda feminine,” I said.
    “Chicks love guys who wear puka shells,” he continued.
    “I don’t need some feminine-looking white puka shell jewelry made in the Philippines to get girls,” I answered.
    “Oh really?” he said. “Then how come you’re sitting here all alone on a beautiful day in July when there are a thousand gorgeous girls in string bikinis smothered in baby oil within earshot, and uh, none of them are with you?”
    “Gimme one of those,” I said as I stuffed a $5 bill in his hand.
    “I guarantee success when you wear this, or, I’ll meet you here tomorrow and give you back your five bucks,” he said as he screwed the feminine-looking white puka shell bracelet, made in the Philippines, on my right wrist.
    “Thanks,” I whispered, but when I looked up, he was gone.
    By 4 o’clock the harem of string bikini-wearing, bronze-colored single girls soaked in baby oil headed off the beach to their Camaros and Firebirds, as I followed slowly alone, kicking sand as I went. The girls in the string bikinis most likely headed north on the Meadowbrook, but instead of heading to a lonely, one-bedroom condo in Garden City, I drove west, to Island Park, and a waterfront marina called Channel 80, under the Long Beach Bridge. There, for five bucks, you could feast on an unlimited amount of hot dogs and hamburgers, swaying to reggae music, sipping mimosas, surrounded by a bevy of beauties only the Beverly Hills Hotel could replicate.
    The rectangular pool at Channel 80 was sparkling, clearer than clear, didn’t even look like real water, an image as if Christie Brinkley was to emerge.
    I toured the outside veranda three times, with not a female catching my eye or my glance. None intrigued me enough to sit alongside them and weave another tale. Instead, I retreated to an indoor bar, where the aloneness seemed apropos for the day’s end. As I pulled open the yellow curtain leading to the long mahogany bar that was illuminated with fresh sunlight from a skylight above, my eyes, my heart, my soul, leaped out of my body. I noticed the most beautiful, most captivating woman I had ever seen in my entire life, a woman only Cecil B. DeMille could have chosen for this movie-like moment, a woman with deep blue, Elizabeth Taylor eyes, smoother than smooth skin, redder than red lips, and long red nails. She was covered in a whiter than white off-the-shoulder tunic, pinker than pink Capri pants, matching flat sandals with pink laces wrapped high around her ankles. The light glistened around her like a halo, a spirit, an angelic vision you only capture once in a lifetime, a vision you witness right before you crossover.
    “Uh, hi,” I whispered, extending my hand into hers.
    “I’m Joanie,” said the girl with the most riveting blue eyes in the entire Milky Way.
    “Oh, like Joanie Cunningham from ‘Happy Days’?” I stupidly asked.
    “That’s funny,” she said, giggling into her fluted mimosa glass.
    And for the next six hours, I floated above the bar and the room, an out-of-body experience, an experience you only hear about on the Discovery Channel.
    The following day, as I sat in a chair on Park Avenue South in New York City for a haircut, I told my haircutter about my encounter, an encounter I swore had changed my life forever.
    “I own a house in Springs,” Jason the haircutter said. “Wanna use my place for the weekend and show this amazing girl an amazing East Hampton?”
    “Really?” I said.
    “I’m too busy this weekend, so it’s all yours, on me, no cost.  Just make sure you bring your garbage to the town dump when you leave,” he said.
    “Town dump?” I asked.
    “Springs doesn’t have home pick-up like you’re probably used to,” he said.
    “Oh, that sounds fair. Thanks, Jason,” I said as he handed me a single key on a single paperclip.
    The following weekend, I brought my new partner, my soulmate, my lifemate, to 911 Springs-Fireplace Road in Springs for a whirlwind weekend that has continued for 27 years. It’s blessed me with four fantastic children and, remarkably, a home within walking distance of 911 Springs-Fireplace Road, as well as some moments that might never have occurred without that chance meeting with the puka-shell vendor on Jones Beach Field 6, inches away from the tide and 30 feet to the left of the lifeguard stand.    
    Last Tuesday, while driving to Montauk to buy some sparklers for my 12-year-old son, Paul, I came across a set-back surf shop that could have been the sleeping quarters for the Skipper and Gilligan on Gilligan’s Island. For some weird, unexplained reason, I felt compelled to stop and browse inside.
    Perplexing why I would stop, especially since I’ve never surfed in my life, I thought. Inside the small throwback shop, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I noticed a display with white puka shell bracelets, hanging on a side rack, for $3.99 each, all labeled “Made in the Philippines.”
    “These bring back some great memories,” I said to the fiftyish surfer-type guy with the thinning blond hair.
    “A lot of people say the same thing,” the surfer-guy said as his young female assistant struggled to screw the puka shell bracelet onto my right wrist.
    Pulling out of the surf shop’s noisy gravel parking lot, I felt a sense of euphoria, a feeling that stays with me now, as I finger the white puka shell bracelet I’m still wearing today, forever remembering that day in 1985 when a chance meeting on the beach became the best day of my life.
    So if you ever catch me sneaking a free hazelnut coffee at the bank on Newtown Lane, see me returning empty Target brand water bottles in the recycing area of the supermarket across from Fierro’s Pizza, or notice me sitting on the bench in front of Dylan’s Candy Bar, staring aimlessly at the chocolates in the window, feel free to stop and chat, but please don’t ask me about my white puka shell bracelet.    
    That’ll be our little secret.

    Frank Vespe is a video producer who heads the Long Island division of the FM radio station 94.9 NewsNow, WJJF, broadcasting from Montauk.


Frank; Growing up in Hawaii, I use to make my own Puka shell jewelry. Puka means hole in Hawaiian. The Hawaiians have for years looked for these tiny shells with holes in them from years of the natural movement on shores edge creating tiny holes in the shells. A puka shell is a symmetrical cone snail sea shell with a hole at its center, not some white piece of shell with a hole in it from a drill. The Hawaiians thought that the puka shell would bring good luck. When I was a teenager, I combed the beach between surfing sets at Pupukea near Sunset Beach on North Shore. I'd made several necklaces and a few braclets for my Wahine. It did bring me the luck for we wed a few years later. This story brought back some fond memories and I thank you Frank for that. Rick G.