Just back from a trip with the family down to the shore, where the “new” Hampton Beach was proudly showing itself off. A sudden sense of togetherness struck me at our house just after 5 p.m. when I shouted out over a stir-fry plate of chicken and rice that it’s time we kick it old-school and hit an arcade.
“Enough of these cooking shows!” I blurted out. “I can only watch some celebrated chef drizzle sweat onto a sparkling plate of unfilling food so many times.”
I wanted a greasy, all banged up, retro-looking arcade, too. Something ancient with 25-cent games, plastic rice rockets to wiggle on, skin-slick basketballs to hoist, and piano men to shoot in the back with an air rifle.
Over the past couple of years, Hampton Beach aficionados have really stepped it up when it comes to the shore. Not long ago, it was filthy at best, that stretch from Seabrook to North Hampton. Rock-hard sand, even harder at the water line. A trashy, unsafe feeling encompassed your senses with treachery and danger back then. Food with a germy, heavy stink on it seemed to be all that was offered.
But not tonight. Tonight Hampton Beach was aglow, brilliant all over. From the pink moon to the packed restaurants. Everywhere you turned, there was happiness. A good, cleaner version of Hampton happiness. Same faces, same ethnicities. Seemingly every nationality was represented on the boardwalk, street walk, the strip, whatever Hampton is, and was filled to the brim with a thousand lives from all over the North Shore.
I was wildly impressed. New buildings painted fresh, with onlookers pulling on drinks from high above, reading books, sitting in silence, just enjoying life from their balconies above Ocean Boulevard. Musicians playing covers of Van Morrison and Etta James inspired kids and seniors alike to wiggle and grind in unison at the new Sea Shell Stage while the sun went down.
People were weaving in and around one another — the diehard yoga moms showing off their carved, tanned calves, the pin-thin older gents with uncontrollable gray chest hairs curling up under their armpits — were all present.
Hundreds of teenagers in fashionably Naked Sports Gear careened politely in and out of traffic, gripping powder-drenched fried dough, talking loud and proud.
My kind of party!
And my wife could not believe her eyes. She’s lived in the Granite State for over 20 years now and always seemed to head to Rye or some other heralded beachfront with a more refined clientele when it came to sunning her bod.
“I had no idea that this was like this,” she said. “It really is beautiful.”
She was right.
A bevy of $100 matching haircuts and expensive beach heels has never kept me away from the beaches in York or Kennebunk. But you can get that at any house party on your subbie block on any given weekend.
Or, you can gather at Hampton Beach and flash back to the days when you and your friends would dig holes in the sand to sun in, then hit the strip and chow down on the most delicious turkey-and-mayo subs on C Street.
And that sense of togetherness was building as I watched my kids get painted with tattoos and roll skee balls up the faded target boards into the molded catch rings. Overstimulation was in abundance, what with the arcade music chaotically spiraling from the cobwebbed ceiling speakers.
Then, as we were wrapping up our trip to the coast, we passed a new yogurt shop filled with orange and white futuristic-looking chairs.
“Care for a free sample of Snickerdoodle yogurt, sir?” a teenage boy asked me as we stood out front.
I was shocked. Free samples! At Hampton Beach! Yogurt! This is so not 1987!
“Doodle me away, kid,” I told him. “Just promise me you don’t sweat all over my sample. I’m kicking it old-school tonight. Just not that old-school.”