I don’t know about you, but, if you spent time at the Jersey shore when you were a kid, there was something about the combination of sounds and smells of the boardwalk at night that’s like nothing else on earth. No matter how far you make it through life, that — what would you call it? — that thing, that sense memory never leaves you.
Here’s something you probably don’t know; every shore town with a boardwalk has its own special thing. I know, because when I got older I used to visit most of them with my old man when he made his rounds in the summertime. Keansburg, Brielle, Seaside Park, Ocean City, Asbury, the Wildwoods; I’ve been to pretty much all of them.
You may have picked up on the fact that I left out a few. Atlantic City was a special case, because that was somebody else’s territory, thanks to one of what my old man used to call the “unwritten rules.” And I also left out Point Pleasant on purpose, which in my humble opinion, between you and me, was the nicest damn boardwalk of all, pardon my French.
Point Pleasant was where my old man took Ma and me and my little brother. I used to wonder why, because most of the families in my neighborhood hung out in Keansburg, which was a lot closer. You know, less sitting sweating in traffic jams and all that (no a/c in those days), although I gotta tell you it wasn’t the snazziest place, even back then.
It wasn’t until my old man took me into the business that he explained why he made us spend the extra hour dripping wet in his Buick. He liked to keep business separate from family, and from the neighbors, and he only had one customer in Point Pleasant. Big Sal’s Arcade was a huge old place, right in the center of the action for maximum traffic, between a frozen custard stand and a pizza-by-the-slice joint. Perfect for business, and a cash business to boot.
My old man was a creature of habit, and he made sure the summer routine never varied, right down to the food he and Ma packed for the day. Slaw from Frankie’s Deli, two cans of Pringles (no breakage), Ring Dings, and Bonomo’s strawberry Turkish Taffy.
If that wasn’t crazy enough, he went nutso over the drinks and burgers. A six-pack of Ballantine Ale in bottles just for him, Dr. Pepper and a jug of iced tea for the rest of us. But not normal iced tea, like the good Lipton’s or anything like that. It was a concoction his grandma made whenever we went to visit. Half brewed Red Rose tea bags, half Minute Maid pink lemonade concentrate from those weird cardboard cans.
The burgers were something out of, I don’t know, something out of a health magazine my old man musta read once. He’d mix three parts ground beef, one part wheat germ, and one raw egg in a mixing bowl. With his bare hands, no less! Then he’d roll the stuff into meat balls, all the same size, and stick them in this metal press and turn them into burgers, one by one, and stack them between sheets of wax paper. Marcal, it had to be Marcal, God knows why.
By the time he and Ma got all this stuff together and into the car, and the grill and the charcoal, and had their usual shouting match over who knows what, it was like a freakin’ miracle that we even got to the beach.
And, oh yeah, here’s a shocker for you; it was always the same beach. Not a normal beach either, the normal by-the-sea beach that the other kids went to. Oh, no, not us. My old man took us to a beach that was on a river! The Metedeconk River, a name I couldn’t even pronounce until I was 16.
Although to be fair, I gotta say that it was a pretty cool place. Johnny’s Beach and Picnic Grove, it was called; holly bushes and pine trees, a few cabins for rent, a snack and bait store, some picnic tables, a little dock you could go crabbing off of, leaky old rowboats for rent. And oh yeah, a beach, a tiny one. My brother and I used to count the number of times our bare feet got stuck by holly bush leaves between the picnic table and the water.
And there was a real Johnny, too, the same Johnny who was on the sign over the entrance. A big guy, “The Big Swede” my old man called him. Prize fighter way back when. Old, but still in shape. Hands as big as your head. The stump of a stinky De Nobili stogie always clamped between his choppers. A beat up old newsboy cap on his noggin.
Sadie, his wife, was the real boss of the operation. Bleached blonde, about five foot nothing. A real looker in her day, I recon.’ Johnny didn’t do nothing without her say-so. “Yes, dear.” “No, dear.” Pathetic.
My old man sure knew how to butter those two up. On our first trip there every summer, he’d hop out of the car, give Sadie a hug like she was his long lost whatever, and shake Johnny’s hand while he passed over the double sawbuck he’d palmed like Harry effin’ Houdini.
Just as he was getting back in the car his eyes lit up and he’d scratch his head, like he’d just remembered the formula for turning dirt into gold or something, open the trunk, and take out a big Whitman’s Sampler for Sadie and a box of De Nobilis for Johnny. Same routine, exact same, year after year. I swear, if you’d taken a picture of his little sidewalk act every year you couldn’t tell them apart, except everybody’s hair was a little grayer and thinner each time.
Johnny’s Beach and Picnic Grove wasn’t exactly a gold mine; some days we had the place pretty much to ourselves. If my old man was in a good mood he’d give my brother and me a couple of quarters to walk up to the store to rent a net and buy some crabbing bait, chunks of frozen mossbunker with some coat hanger wire stuck through and a piece of string tied on.
You’d take the stuff down to the little dock, toss in the bunker, and wait ’till you could feel a blue claw tugging on the string. Then slowly, slowly, you’d pull that sucker toward you, hoping it was so hungry it didn’t notice. You kept it up until you couldn’t stand it anymore, then brought up the net from behind and scooped it up if you were real lucky.
My old man was strict with us about following the rules; she-crabs and males under five inches had to be tossed back. Some days I swear we caught the same crabs a hundred times. Other times we’d get a half-dozen or so, not bad for little kids. My old man always made us take the peach basket with the crabs up to Johnny, kind of a payoff or something I guess.
It was always the same; Johnny would say “Your father, he raised two good boys” or whatever. Then came the part we’d been looking forward to all afternoon. He’d take a key out from behind the counter, open up the Coke machine, the kind that had a lid on top like an old chest freezer, and hand my brother and me two ice cold ones. That was the best.
By the time we’d gone for a swim and drifted back to our spot in the grove, Ma was usually packing up while my old man dragged himself away from his fifth Ballantine and the Daily Racing Form and dumped the ashes from the grill into a 55-gallon drum that Johnny had put out.
As always, Ma ordered my brother and me to “police the area” before she handed us clean towels, underpants, shorts, and a T-shirt and pointed us to the outdoor shower. No soap, no shampoo, no hot water; but God help us if we came back without rinsing out our bathing suits or had a grain of sand on any part of our bodies. Ma made sure of that.
Eventually somehow, me, my brother, the cooler, the blanket, the chairs, and all the other stuff my parents had packed into the car were more or less back where they had packed them that morning. Off we went, out the driveway, big wave to Sadie and Johnny, right turn at the county road, left at the causeway to the main road to Point Pleasant.
My old man always found a spot near Jenkinson’s Pavilion, where the honky-tonk part of the boardwalk with the rides and stuff was to the right and the quiet part of the boardwalk with nothing but houses was on the left. It was also where you caught Jenkinson’s Beach Train, a miniature steam train that ran on the beach on real train tracks that you could ride all the way down the quiet side of the boardwalk to a little amusement park by the Manasquan inlet.
While my old man went to buy the train tickets, my brother and I were sent to the men’s bathroom, because as he said every single time, like a broken record or something, “Nobody’s stopping the train just because you have to pee.”
He went into the bathroom with us when we were real little, but one year he told us we were men now and it was time to go on our own. It was weird, ’cause we really were still pretty little, too short to use the pissers, so this attendant guy would bring over soda crates for me and my brother to stand on.
It freaked us out at first, standing on a soda crate and peeing in front of all those grownups, but we figured everybody was too busy minding their own business to notice two little mugs.
The worse part was dragging the crates over to the sink when we were done and washing our hands with that green liquid from the dispenser bolted to the wall. God help us if we “forgot” to wash up. The smell of that soap, or the lack thereof, was a dead giveaway.
Once in a while, if we’d behaved ourselves that day, my old man would shake the hand of the engineer before we got on the beach train, the same kind of double sawbuck hand shake he’d given big Johnny on our first day at the picnic grove. That was great, because it meant my brother and I got to ride on the little locomotive with the engineer. We even got to ring the bell and blow the steam whistle! I bet the other kids hated us, but I didn’t care.
After a few turns on the rides, it was back to Jenkinson’s for burgers, hot dogs, Cokes, and fries. Then, when I thought my belly was just about to burst, my old man would walk us over to Kohr’s Frozen Custard. I never did figure out what “frozen custard” was, but it tasted like the best ice cream I ever had. My favorite was the vanilla and chocolate swirled together, with chocolate sprinkles.
Ma said that the lady behind the counter had to go to school to learn how to do it. I acted like I believed her, but I didn’t. Once the lady handed over the cone, the smart thing was to eat it fast, before it melted all over the place, but that made my head hurt.
The day was almost over, but we had one more stop to make. You guessed it, nextdoor to Big Sal’s Arcade. Except for Ma, who liked to sit on a bench and stare at the ocean. Go figure.
Like I said before, Big Sal’s was a huge old place. Big Sal had filled it with every kind of machine you could imagine; pin ball, The Claw digger machine, SKILO, Test-Your-Grip, Zoltar the Fortune Teller, electric shooting galleries … anything that could separate a penny, nickel, or dime from a kid.
But I never even noticed none of that stuff when me, my brother, and the old man went in there. We headed straight for the Skee-Ball machines that lined the back of the place. For me, it was like the joint was empty except for Skee-Ball.
There was always somebody there taking care of the Skee-Ball, ’cause that was where the action was, the only place you could win tickets you could exchange for prizes. My old man would always lay a fistful of dimes on us before he disappeared into Sal’s office.
In case there’s one numb-nuts out there who lives in a cave or something and never heard of Skee-Ball, it’s kind of like a miniature bowling alley, but without the pins.
You dropped a dime in the slot next to your Skee-Ball lane and pulled a lever that let nine balls the size of grapefruits roll your way. Then you rolled them one by one down the lane and up a little ramp. If you rolled them just right they’d drop into a little hole marked 50, the most points you could get, or 40 or 30 or 20 or 10. Or, if you were a complete moron, into a slot that got you nothin’, kinda like a gutter ball.
The points added up until you rolled all nine balls, and one of Sal’s people threw a bunch of tickets down on your lane that added up to the total. When you got enough points you could trade them in for one of the prizes they had in this big display case.
I knew out of the gate that Skee-Ball was a con. Sal always hung a giant stuffed panda bear or elephant or something over the lanes, like a kid had a chance in hell of getting enough points to win it. I remember the first time I took my little fistful of tickets to the prize counter, figuring I had at least enough to get a giant bear, maybe two.
I was standing there like a little rube trying to figure out how my old man would get two pandas in the car when I caught the lady behind the counter — Sal’s old lady, it turned out — laughing at me. She pointed to a sign I had never bothered to read that said the giant panda cost 300,000 points, 299,025 more than I won.
I shoulda walked away, but I was a little knucklehead in those days. “I know that,” I told her. “What can I get for 75?” She musta seen it coming; she musta got the same question 10 times a day from little punks like me. She takes out this pencil from behind the counter, one with a miniature plastic whistle where the eraser oughta be. “This’ll cost you 500 points, sonny, it’s the cheapest thing we’ve got.”
I swear she was smirking at me when she said it, and I never forgot it. In a way, it made what happened years later a little easier.
Anyway, by the time my old man came out of Sal’s office, we’d either pretty much run out of dimes or were treated to a free game or two by whoever was giving out the tickets, usually Sal’s son or daughter as it happened. Sal was always smiling at my old man and pumping his hand like they were long-lost brothers as he showed him out, and stuffing an envelope into my old man’s jacket with the other hand.
I didn’t know what the deal was between Sal and my old man until years later, when I took over the business. Around the same time, Sal Jr. moved up and took his old man’s place, so it was kind of a father-to-son thing for both of us, a “passing of the torch” as some might say.
I speak metaphorically, of course. I was nowhere near Big Sal’s Arcade the night it burned to the ground; five reliable witnesses testified to that very fact this week.
Too bad Sal Jr. didn’t follow the rules, the unwritten rules, like Sal Sr. did. Like my old man taught me, “They play by the rules, you play by the rules. They don’t play by the rules, you got to make them an example for the others.”
Gotta go, I just got the word; the jury’s coming back in. I’ll give you two to one I’ll be home for dinner. I miss Big Sal’s Arcade, but at least I have my memories, and my souvenirs; 75 points worth of Skee-Ball tickets, and a funny-looking pencil that smells a little like Sinclair Dino Supreme.
Lawrenceville resident George Point’s freelance work has appeared in the New York Times, U.S. 1, and other local and regional publications. He currently produces and presents Book Talk! for radio station WDVR FM in Hunterdon County. This is his fourth year reading submissions for the Summer Fiction issue.