For many years, my grandmother rented us a house each summer in Stone Harbor, NJ. It was huge, taking up two lots on the corner of 91st Street and 2nd Ave and had a wraparound porch. That porch was the center of summer life. It is where all the grandkids (13 of us in total) had lunch each day after we spent the morning on the beach, body surfing and playing games. In the evening, it was where everyone gathered – adults and kids alike – watching the traffic on the busy avenue and staying cool as the hazy day melted into the breezy, refreshing evening. On rainy days, or just lazy ones, it was where my cousins and I would gather to hang out, playing card games and telling stories.
And I distinctly remember listening to the local radio station whenever we were on the porch. That first year we went, it was 1983 and I was going into seventh grade that fall. MTV was huge, and its flashy and sometimes poorly made videos catapulted an otherwise obscure song into popularity. That year one such song was The Safety Dance. I remember playing a card game with one of my cousins when it’s bouncy synthesized opening started coming out of the speakers of the giant, double-cassette boom-box he brought. Everyone started chanting the letters as we bopped our heads: Ess-ess-ess-ess. Aye-aye-aye-aye. Eff-eff-eff-eff. Eee-eee-eee-eee. Tee-tee-tee-tee. Wie-wie-wie-wie. Then we clapped our hands and yelled “SAFETY! DANCE!”
Over the years, not much changed. We sat on the porch throughout the day, and as we got older, we switched from playing simple card games to Scrabble. After I turned 21, my cousins and I drank beer through the sizzling hot afternoons and well into the night. The local station still played The Safety Dance, long after it had rotated off MTV (long after MTV stopped playing videos, actually). It was well into the 90s, after I graduated from college and had my first job, that I realized the radio station was sort of stuck in time, constantly playing the summer hits from back in the day. Simpler days, when all my cousins and I insisted on sleeping in the same room, throwing our mattresses across the large bedroom on the third floor.
In Calm Undone, the radio station that Tyler, Liam, and the other characters listen to in their cars is that exact same station my cousins and I listened to as teenagers. In my head, it is the local ‘oldies station,’ playing the songs their parents listened to as high schoolers. During one scene, Tyler and Liam are arguing as they wait for the drawbridge to close on their way to Wildwood. As a song comes on, there is a beat in the dialog, and a moment for Tyler to struggle with what is happening between him and Liam, and what is changing in his life.
The song that plays – it’s Safety Dance. I don’t say it in the book, because it doesn’t drive the overall story line or fit with the tension of that scene. And that moment is based upon a very real one in my life: One evening my cousins and I were heading to Wildwood, and we got stopped by the draw bridge. As we waited, The Safety Dance came on. Someone turned up the volume. We all rolled down our windows. Then we chanted and sang and danced as best we could. Although Tyler and Liam are arguing in the book, in my real life, this is just one of the many joy-filled, often silly hours I spent with my cousins at the beach. It’s a strong memory, one of many that form the backbone of the relationships that I (hopefully) created in Calm Undone.
We eventually stopped listening to the radio – with the advent of writable CDs and MP3 players, we started creating our own summer playlists to blast from the porch. I’ve pulled together (as best I can remember) a playlist of Stone Harbor 80s Summer Hits. Songs that I can distinctly recall listening to with my cousins. Of course, it has The Safety Dance on it. But some others. Take a listen. And remember: You can dance if you want to.