The Sea Breeze Motel

IN the south Jersey town where I spent the summers of my childhood, there was a motel called the Sea Breeze. I suppose that every seaside resort town has a place to stay called the Sea Breeze. The name goes with the territory. In fact I never thought much about the old Sea Breeze Motel, which had neat white clapboards and an unassuming aspect no matter how you looked at it. But I've remembered the name, and for good reason. A sea breeze is a special breed of breeze, as it never ceases to remind me whenever I encounter one.

The world is full of breezes, and each of them has something to recommend it. The dry wind across the open plateau of the hilltop city of Masada is almost so arid as to be intellectual, a kind of disembodied quiddity moving through the ruins of baths and Herod's palace. No one I know will deny that the breezes in Paris in the late summer are sultrier and slower than those in Israel, but with an occasional unpredictable eddy that makes the air come to life. Breezes in England are almost always portentous

at any time of the year, managing both to soothe and to warn of impending storms at the same time. And in the high country of Yosemite, the breezes always have a brisk certainty to them, as if it were their job to let you know the wild power of the place into which you had so innocently strayed.

But a sea breeze -- well, that's something special. Like some sentences, a sea breeze is not simple, or even compound, but complex. It has at least three different parts, and one of them has little to do with breeze. On a clear day, with no clouds in the sky and the thermometer showing about 70, a breeze by the seashore has such a comforting touch when it first moves in around you. It is warm and soft; it feels like sunshine itself.

Perhaps you are riding your bicycle to the bakery for a dozen cookies or some apple crisps, or you're out washing the old station wagon. The first hint of a sea breeze will invite you so warmly to the beach that you may well give up on the bakery, put down the garden hose, and strike out for the ocean.

But then, as the breeze dies down, you feel the odd tremor in its tail -- a kind of coolness, not cold or brisk but simply cool, which always speaks of autumn and the nor'easter lurking in the weather pattern. This is the slight, hard edge of the sea breeze, the mysterious seriousness that gives it its allure.

A sea breeze will never tempt you into indolence or sloth. Always there is the hint of preparations to be made, risks to be taken. Because of this a sea breeze tends to make life more interesting. Though you may decide to continue to the bakery and keep on washing your car, you do these tasks with a little extra verve, an energy that wasn't there before the breeze arrived.

Then there's the taste and feel of salt -- the special third ingredient no other breeze has. Its presence is subtle and even secretive, and it moves onto your lips and arms and legs the way frost moves, in winter, onto the panes of glass in your bedroom window. You awake, and the patterns of frost remind you that something vast and silent has happened while you were dreaming. In the same way, after dreams of sailing or water-skiing or frolicking in the sand, you suddenly awake to the sea breeze and the coarse and tangy taste of salt on your lips. The sea, whose bounds are more or less defined, nevertheless slips farther inland in this quiet, uncharacteristically gentle way: It leaves its tartness on your lips, so that as you go inside for a glass of water or apple juice you pause, for a moment, to savor the taste of an airborne escape.

I think of these attributes of the sea breeze now, many years and a continent away from the Sea Breeze Motel of my youth, because every now and then I catch a taste of that old elixir. Though here in California I am separated by a mountain range from the Pacific Ocean, a sea breeze from time to time blows down the San Francisco Bay to the town where I live.

I'll be out walking, heading for the grocery store or the university, when a warm wind will accost me, smelling fresh and full of itself, and I'll be glad it's summer and I'm outside. Then, as I'm turning a corner, I'll catch the slight chill, and I'll know where I am: at home in a sea breeze, where the storms gather in the distance, and the tang of life is sweet.

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