Memorial Day weekend on Martha’s Vineyard is traditionally the beginning of the high season here. It is the weekend when the Island kicks its tires, so to speak, to make sure everything is running smoothly before the full rush of summer vacation hits.
It is also the weekend that 94-year-old Cee Jay Jones goes back to work.
Cee Jay, as everyone calls him, holds down the weekend shift 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday until October, at the information booth in Oak Bluffs. The booth looks like a small replica of the gingerbread cottages that dot the Camp Ground. It rests at the foot of Circuit avenue right outside the Flying Horses and across from Giordano’s.
It is a very busy corner.
During the season the information booth sees upwards of 15,000 visitors, all of them loaded with questions on what to do, where to go and how to get there. That’s a lot of talking but Cee Jay is up to it. The man makes a six-year-old-boy, sugar-crazed on cotton candy, seem sleepy by comparison.
When asked how he stays perpetually young, (not only does he have the energy of youth, the man looks damn good too), he answers: “Stay positive.”
A few minutes spent hanging around the information booth point to yet another secret to a long life.
An attractive friend of the female persuasion stops by the booth to say hello. Cee Jay winks. “Another reason I like this job,” he says.
His coworker Bob Falkenburg concurs. “Regardless of age or color or size, women keep coming around and asking, ‘Is Cee Jay here?’”
The woman gives Cee Jay a big hug.
“You look wonderful,” she says. “How are you?”
“Ah ta ta and apple pie,” Cee Jay answers.
The woman introduces a friend who holds out her hand to shake Cee Jay’s hand. He looks at the hand as if a bit confused. “Oh no, I don’t do that,” he says. Then he smiles and opens his arms wide. “Keeps me young,” he says while in a deep embrace. “Keeps my heart pumping.”
Cee Jay first started working at the information booth in 1992.
“A fellow came over when I was playing bridge at the center and asked if I was interested,” he remembers. “And I said, well, I don’t know. If you come back next week I’ll give you an answer. He came back and I said I’ll do Saturdays and Sundays.”
The rest is history.
Cee Jay is particularly suited for the job. Not only does he have a positive outlook, it seems he has been in training for it for years.
“I learned street names from when I was doing Meals on Wheels [delivering food to the elderly],” he said. “When I passed a street I looked at the name and remembered it.”
He is also diplomatic.
“People ask me where they can get the best cup of coffee in town. Imagine that? I say, well, I don’t drink coffee but I can tell you where to buy some.” Cee Jay then admits that he does drink coffee. He just doesn’t want to offend any of the proprietors in town by showing favoritism and so dodges the direct question. He also admits to a bit of self-preservation too. “If I tell you something is good and you go there and don’t like it, I don’t want you coming back here.”
Of course every rule was meant to be broken. Bill Harding, who worked the booth back in the 1990s, used to tell tourists it wasn’t possible to rent a car or moped, no matter that four or five of those businesses existed in a one-block radius of the booth. In his 80s Mr. Harding still made his way around the Island mostly by bicycle or kayak and felt the tourists should do the same.
Cee Jay admits to a past act of favoritism too, back when Dee’s Harbor Cafe was in business.
“When she [Dee] opened up that place and somebody asked where to have breakfast, I said, go there. People came back here and said, thank you!”
Cee Jay was born on April 22, 1917 in Winston Salem, N.C.
“A wonderful year,” he says.
He moved to New York city in 1942 and seven years later received his first taste of the Vineyard.
“I had a vacation up here every year after that. We’d take rooms or whatever we could get and if a place wasn’t suitable my wife wouldn’t come. But I’d come.
“I only missed one year of vacation here because my wife and I went away somewhere else. That was in 1972. Then I moved here for good in 1989.”
In New York city, Cee Jay worked for the motor vehicle facility of the post office. “Located at 528 West 34th street, between tenth and eleventh avenues,” he notes. “I was in operations. Driving trucks and tractors. I did that because you could make more money. Then in 1960 I took an exam and made supervisor. I retired in 1982.”
New York city held Cee Jay in its sway for a long time.
“I lived in Harlem up by the Polo Grounds, St. Nicholas place and 155th street. We called it Sugar Hill. I was a barhopper and went everywhere. You believe me, I’ve been around the block more than twice. But coming here [Martha’s Vineyard] I never thought I’d feel the way I do. I haven’t been back to Harlem but once in 20 years.”
Cee Jay moved to the Island with his wife, Mavis. They were married for 38 years. “She was my sunshine, that’s what I called her,” he says. Mavis died 13 years ago.
When asked to reflect on the world he has lived in since 1917, he doesn’t hesitate. “Lots of changes. Everything changes. Moves up. And it’s for the best.”
An incredulous reporter, forever wet behind the ears even in his middle age, shakes his head. “All the changes were for the best?”
Cee Jay nods and in his ever-diplomatic and understated way takes the white man to school. “Bill Harding had me over to East Chop to play tennis. You weren’t seeing that over there,” he says, telling a story that occurred many, many years ago. He is referring to race. “But Bill said come on. And nobody bothered me. Accept the inevitable.”
“And what’s that?”
Indeed Cee Jay is still here.
And Cee Jay is not complaining. “Yesterday was the deadline for all complaints,” he says. He is also by no means alone. In addition to his many female friends, a host of buddies check up on him. Some come by the booth to pass the time. One friend sneaks up to the window demanding to know where the bridge to Nantucket is. Another inquires about what type of hot dogs he sells.
The phone rings.
“Oh, hey Flowers,” Cee Jay says when he answers it. The man on the other end is Kendell Flowers, a friend who lives in New York city.
“He calls me wherever I go over the last I don’t know how many years,” Cee Jay says. “He checks me out at least two times a week.”
The reason for all this attention is quite basic. Cee Jay Jones’ attitude is infectious.
Reflecting back on his life, he says he has absolutely no regrets.
“It’s all good. Even the bad stuff was good. I had my legacy stolen, best thing that ever happened. I’m glad I didn’t get all that money. I don’t know where I would be but I wouldn’t be here. And there’s no way that I could have had a better life than what I’m having.”