“Creative nonfiction is a term that is currently having its day. When I was in college, anyone who put those two words together would have been looked on as a comedian or a fool. Today, Creative Nonfiction is the name of the college course I teach. Same college. Required to give the course a title, I named it for a quarterly edited and published by Lee Gutkind, then at the University of Pittsburgh. The title asks an obvious question: What is creative about nonfiction? It takes a whole semester to try to answer that, but here are a few points: The creativity lies in what you choose to write about, how you go about doing it, the arrangement through which you present things, the skill and the touch with which you describe people and succeed in developing them as characters, the rhythms of your prose, the integrity of the composition, the anatomy of the piece (does it get up and walk around on its own?), the extent to which you see and tell the story that exists in your material, and so forth. Creative nonfiction is not making something up but
making the most of what you have.”
Rene Ouellet was a Canadian transvestite who disappeared in June of 1992, almost immediately after he had begun working as a female impersonator at a bar called the Fun Spot in West Wildwood. I had been living on the island for a month when this occurred, and I remembered it because Ouellet’s apartment had been located on the same Davis Avenue block where I spent my free time. “MISSING” several street-pole flyers read, followed by Ouellet’s full name and stage name (“Michelle”). There was a photo featuring a thin man dressed in drag wearing a lopsided wig. This man looked like Michael Jeter’s mustachioed cabaret singer from The Fisher King, so much so that I had posted a copy of that flyer in the beach house where we drank.
Thirteen days after Ouellet’s disappearance, an old man sweeping the beach with a metal detector discovered the Montreal native’s body. It had been hidden inside an alcove beneath the Montgomery Avenue bandshell. Ouellet had suffered a beating; blunt-force trauma to the head, forearms and torso. Ouellet’s lungs were overrun with sand, rendering the official cause of death to be asphyxiation. Rumor had it the old man’s metal detector had zeroed in on Ouellet’s wristwatch, thereby minimizing any chance that this had been a robbery turned ugly. Ouellet had last been seen wandering east toward the beach with an unidentified male at 2:30 in the morning. Collective evidence suggested that it was this male who had fatally assaulted Ouellet, before returning to camouflage the body a short time later.
Media coverage of Ouellet’s murder began to dissipate toward the end of that September. Years passed, and the case went cold. Cape May County had all but forgotten about Ouellet until police received an anonymous tip during the winter of 1996. From that point forward, investigators shifted their attention toward Brian Halter – a 24-year old who had been working as a Wildwood lifeguard during the summer that Ouellet had been killed. Halter was arrested on June 26, 1996; nearly four years to the day after Ouellet first disappeared.
Under interrogation, Halter insisted he had passed out on the beach after a long night of drinking, waking up to find Ouellet performing oral sex on him. Brimming with rage, Halter began to punch Ouellet, prior to beating on the 30-year-old via the broad side of a board. Once Ouellet proved unresponsive, Halter covered up the body with sand. Halter left, but then returned, at which point he discovered Ouellet elbowing his way out of the ground. Halter pummeled Ouellet; he strangled him. He dragged the body to a nearby enclosure, where he re-covered it with sand before deserting it once more.
From an outsider’s perspective, Halter’s perp-as-victim angle appeared remarkably convenient. Lifeguards were known to pass out on the beach (an effective way of ensuring they could make it into work), but the idea of a transvestite taking it upon himself to spontaneously begin blowing somebody … well, it kind of screamed to the most insecurely heterosexual of males that, “Given the circumstances, you might’ve done the same thing.” The more reasonable assumption – an assumption that would’ve connected several of the ill-connected pieces – involved a drunken Halter meeting Ouellet out on the streets. This sort of thing occurred throughout the summer, and it would’ve accounted for the “unidentified male” whom Ouellet had last been seen with. Perhaps Ouellet had dropped some hint about being a man; perhaps not. Perhaps an inebriated Brian Halter had proven too oblivious to notice. Regardless, there was ample reason to believe that the two of them had disappeared underneath of that boardwalk consensually.
In August of 1997 Brian Halter pleaded guilty, effectively downgrading an original charge of first-degree murder into aggravated manslaughter. Three months later, on November 3rd, the 25-year-old was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He would be eligible for parole in a year and a half.
On the day after Halter’s sentencing, the City of Wildwood voted in favor of an ordinance that would roll back the closing times at neighborhood bars from 5 AM during the summertime to 3 AM, year-round. This decision had been a long time coming, an unnecessary byproduct of the February beating that had resulted in John Vollrath’s death. Vollrath’s attackers remained free on bail, their sentencing postponed. Club Kaladu – the establishment where Vollrath and his attackers first clashed – had been shut down, its liquor license revoked.
Club Kaladu was located along the southeast corner of Schellenger and Pacific – a commercial intersection that unfurled much like a crucible. Schellenger’s Y axis came buffeted by a Ferris wheel along one end, and a two-block spate of projects along the other. Schellenger was home to Mariner’s Landing and Midway Pier, Castle Dracula and The Landmark Motel. But it was also home to the Stardust Nightclub, the Hurricane Strip Club, and the seafood restaurant behind which Susan Negersmith’s body had been found. Pacific Avenue intersected Schellenger about its midsection, running north to south from 26th Street all the way through Wildwood Crest. The Pacific Street Mall – perennially recognized as the centrifuge of Wildwood’s nightlife district – boasted the same red-brick walkway as Cape May’s Washington Street Mall. Over time the two had been rendered a fascinating study in the impact of socioeconomic development on architectural design.
This was not so much indicative of a year-to-year struggle as it was a decade in decline. The 1990s in The City of Wildwood had started off with what appeared to be a municipal cover-up (200 meters east along Schellenger Avenue) before disintegrating into a wave of violence that included at least 10 murders in less than seven years (independent of Wildwood Crest and North Wildwood). Compare that with four murders within the city limits throughout the 1980s and a feeling of animus began to take hold. Tourism was down; the city’s poverty rate kept rising. Wildwood at-large had gone from being an enjoyable punchline to pretending as if it weren’t in on the joke. Throughout that November, wherever one stood, regardless of whether he were one of the 125,000 who made up Wildwood’s height-of-season population or one of the 5,500 who remained there throughout winter, whether he were in favor of a 5 AM closing time or opposed, in favor of a hospitality tax or beach tags, budget cuts or a multi-million-dollar casino; regardless of whether he were Kent Negersmith insisting on justice for his daughter or John Vollrath, Sr. demanding justice for his son; regardless of whether he were applauding the incarceration of Brian Halter or denigrating the alternative lifestyle of Rene Ouellet, the fact remained that everyone – and I mean everyone – along Five-Mile Island had taken to accusing everyone else of having ulterior motives. Amidst the empty streets, the weather-beaten porches, there were scarecrows missing faces, slow-rotting pumpkins on the corners. The holiday season was approaching, an opportunity for order.
(Header image taken by digital designer and photographer Jenny Chang, whose work can be found here.)
“It all comes down to class, doesn’t it? And I mean the middle class, because there is no other significant class. It’s about the theme-park-ization of Britain. We’re all supposed to aspire to the generica that the middle class aspires to. It’s not only the working class that’s disenfranchised but the owning class as well – disenfranchised from their intellectual and artistic aspirations. For the middle class, the only thing that matters is sitting on the fence, whereas the disenfranchised classes aspire to soul values. I am of that other class that defined itself as different because – ridiculous word – we ‘discovered’ things and defended them with sharp objects and wrote them down.”
We kissed for the first time while sitting in a tree, eight feet up inside of Glenwood Park. We were drunk and it was 4 AM. We were 23 and we were young.
I had known Jen for six years; we had kept each other company during the loneliest of hours. There was that night in 1993 when Jen got into a fight with her boyfriend, and she and I sat on a merry-go-round, talking about our relationships until dawn. There was that morning when I came across Jen on the front porch of a beach house on Poplar Avenue. Jen was alone, wrapped up in a blanket. And we sat there and we drank and we listened to 100.7.
Jen worked the games on Surfside Pier from 1992 to 1994. She bounced from job to job after that, and eventually she stopped working on the boardwalk altogether. I called Jen after the two of us had lost contact, on Christmas Eve of 1995. Meghan and I had broken up, I informed Jen. I was in Delaware County, nearby. Jen rushed me off the phone, and after that we didn’t speak until the second week in August, 1997. Jen came meandering along the promenade one afternoon. She was holding hands with a boy named Andy. Andy was short and tan, wearing a tie-dyed shirt and a baseball cap. Jen introduced us, before continuing east to visit the water park. She returned alone a few hours later, at which point I agreed to meet her at the Poplar Café after work. Once there, Jen and I drank; we played the jukebox. We decided to leave. We walked through Glenwood Park.
It was Jen’s idea to climb a tree. She helped me up, then we sat cradled by the base. I kept trembling when we kissed, holding onto a nearby branch for balance. There was a gazebo to the right, and – for a moment – I considered leading Jen onto its canopy. We climbed down and wandered west toward my apartment. The following morning Jen made arrangements to stay with me for a few more days.
We avoided any talk of Jen’s relationship, opting instead to drink and dance, then eat at Ernie’s (the late-night king of sausage and eggs). Jen was a Northeast Philly girl; she had graduated from Archbishop Ryan. I was a product of the suburbs, Cardinal O’Hara. The two of us were skinny, built like coat bags; we had long hair with lemon streaks throughout. Time and again, Jen and I bonded over our lack of communication with our fathers. I was Jen’s mistress, and I felt in control.
Jen left town that Tuesday, but she came back the following weekend. On Saturday night, Jen got plastered and she told me that she and Andy had agreed to see other people. I assumed this was a lie told for our mutual convenience; one of those heresies people justify by saying, “It’s just made matters easier.”
Jen got along with my roommates, and the three of them spent a great deal of time together whenever I was at work. As a result, I became increasingly consumed with the possibility that Lori or Joanna might dissuade Jen from seeing me. Joanna, in particular, had ample reason to see me thwarted. I had acted cruelly toward her throughout that summer, acknowledging her with vitriol (on the occasions when I acknowledged her at all).
Jen and I were entering a new phase. We spent our free time at the apartment, or in public places, surrounded by people. Jen remained vigilant, fearful of who might see us on our own. There was sex, but only during pre-dawn hours, when the two of us felt weary and the walls ran dark with sweat. Beyond that, the closest thing Jen and I shared to intimacy amounted to passing notes beneath the bar. I dared not mention Jen to friends we shared in common, and Jen, at large, continued pretending as if I didn’t exist.
It was the bottom third of August now, and each day was passing by with the intensity of weeks. Jen’s late-night calls were arriving less frequently. I would phone Jen from the pier, only to be told that she was out. I knew Jen would be heading back to Shippensburg the first week in September, and I was growing frustrated over this when I came across Gerry Vessels one afternoon.
“Whatta you been up to?” Gerry asked. He was standing along the front porch of his house.
“I’ve kinda been seeing somebody,” I said. “I think it’s somebody you know.”
“Oh, yeah,” Gerry said. “Who’s that?”
“You can’t tell anybody,” I cautioned Gerry.
“Who the fuck am I gonna tell?” Gerry asked.
“It’s Jen,” I said. “Y’know, Pier Jen? Jen who used to work up at the Fishy Fish?”
“Hippy Jen?” Gerry wondered. “Like, Whacky Jen?”
“Yeah,” I said. “She’s been coming down every now and again.”
“Be careful with that,” Gerry told me. He was shaking his head.
“Be careful with what?” I countered.
“Be careful with getting too caught up in the way things were,” Gerry told me. “The two of you are older now. Besides, if I remember correctly, isn’t Jen a little shady?”
“Yeah, but not, like, bad shady, y’know?”
“Didn’t she get fired for stealing?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Yeah, well, I wouldn’t get too caught up in it. That’s all I’m sayin’.”
“She’s got a boyfriend,” I muttered.
“A boyfriend?” Gerry blurted. “Dude, what are you thinkin’?”
I had made plans to travel back to Delaware County so I could see Jen before she left for school. Jen had agreed to this, but as the day in question neared, I could not get her on the phone. I traveled to my parent’s house anyway, taking two buses and one train to get there. I had been day-drinking, and when I called Jen, she insisted she didn’t have access to a car. I gave Jen the address of a bar where I would be, and she showed up unexpectedly around 9 PM. My demeanor was off-putting. I kept reintroducing Jen to a handful of people whom she had already met. Jen left alone – and unhappy – a few hours later.
Jen was gone now, back at Shippensburg, but I would think of her throughout September, whenever I passed that lazy cigar tree in the park. I’d envision Jen on autumn nights as if she was meandering the promenade – cigarette in-hand, wearing a cable-knit sweater that ran two sizes too big. We had shared this thing that maintained no integrity whatsoever. And it was because of it her sudden absence left a void … some emotional hurt based on having rediscovered each other after so much time, and determining in the end that neither one of us was especially proud of who or what we
Donald Trump is the most publicized human being on the planet, and he has been for a little over five weeks now. The momentum of Trump’s campaign is such that any Republicans who downplay his significance wind up making an embarrassment out of themselves. Take Lindsey Graham, a flat-lining senator who deserved to have his cell phone number released after referring to Trump – a man who he had previously petitioned – as a “jackass”. Take Jeb Bush, an ex-Florida governor who initially reacted to Trump’s comments regarding illegal immigration in the same way that an elephant reacts to a fly. Take Chris Christie, who could’ve been the Donald Trump of 2012, eons before bad press transformed him into a pariah. Donald Trump represents an age-old metaphor; that of the tall, dark stranger, wandering into town. His campaign will be undone, but not before it exposes several front-running conservatives for the antiquated group of charlatans that they are.
The danger of a Donald Trump, ironically, is that he is not funded by special interests. In fact, the only interests Donald Trump seems to be funded by are his own. Consider what Trump has said during interviews, how he’s used the approach of slapping China (pronounced Chai-nah) and Mexico down before extolling their virtues. “Their leaders are much smarter than ours,” Trump has said. “Their negotiators are much tougher.” A self-effacing statement; the type of rhetoric that’d cause any pundit to cream in his pants. And yet, what Trump is advocating for is this idea of cut-throat dealings; some notion, perhaps, that the goal of any first-rate power should be to keep the exchange rate under its heel.
A few weeks ago, Donald Trump suggested that George W. Bush should’ve invaded Mexico as opposed to Iraq. The obvious follow-up would’ve been, “Do you still believe that the United States could benefit from such an invasion, and, if so, would you pursue that type of invasion assuming you were elected into office?” Trump’s answer might’ve dovetailed into some rigamarole concerning how we need to build a wall, and how he could get the Mexicans to pay for it. But the real answer has to do with how – and why – Donald Trump believes we need to teach the rest of the world a lesson, and why he’d prefer to use our bordering neighbors as a means of establishing more control.
During previous election cycles, top party candidates were largely focused upon jobs, guns, the economy, the military, healthcare, terrorism, China, Iraq, equal pay, education, economic disparity, the government and taxes. These were bedrock issues, the kind that make or break a presidency (and a nation). In the absence of them, what have we got? Foreign trade, illegal immigration, building a wall, “getting the oil”?
Bill O’Reilly recently referred to Donald Trump as having “no fear,” but it would seem more accurate to assert that Donald Trump has got no shame. There is no lawsuit that can sully Trump, nor mortification that can deter him. And so what the American public is treated to amounts to political kabuki. There is an expiration date to such things, a shelf-life that is already dwindling. And in the end the corporate suits will hoist Jeb Bush upon their shoulders, parading him around despite disposing of their best-bad chance to win the presidency.
For now, Donald Trump will continue touting himself as a Wharton-educated billionaire who co-wrote a best-selling book about negotiating several years before portraying the unsympathetic figurehead on a reality TV show. In political terms, this means that Trump identifies as a ruthless capitalist villain who has proven brilliant at getting his own way. So why does it work? It works because Donald Trump is more in-touch than the average candidate, because Trump is intelligent and calculated and sober and the majority of his skeletons have already been flushed. It works because Donald Trump is not a prisoner, nor has he been in the game for too long. It works because Donald Trump has inserted himself into a party that is so far off in outer space its last high-profile endorsement came by way of Clint Eastwood, who was talking to a chair. It works because Donald Trump is a showman, much like his good friend, Vince McMahon. It works because Donald Trump is an orator, much like his good friend, Howard Stern. It works because Trump is aggressive, because he’s telegraphing the media, because his goal in every interview has become to “win” rather than explain.
It works because Trump is ingratiating himself to the far right-wing masses, preaching about how we need to give power back to the police and the military. His message is not so much about racism as it is about classism. This is a man who took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, advocating the reinstatement of the death penalty to punish five innocent teens – all of them poor, all of them from minority households – who had been accused of raping a young, financial analyst from the Upper East Side. A quarter-of-a-century removed, despite all five boys being exonerated, Trump remained defiant, claiming (via Twitter): “Tell me, what were [those boys] doing in the Park, playing checkers?”
On balance, Donald Trump represents a positive for the Republican Party, a ritual cleansing. Trump is forthright, despite being misguided, and he may be on the mark when assuming that some – but not all – of America’s leaders are inept. The question we need to ask is what a man like Donald Trump might do after replacing all of our borderlands with walls … and how a fortified facade might actually appear to any countries on the outside looking in.
(Donald Trump is currently running for the American Presidency. He is, by his own admission, the best builder.)
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
The decline had been occurring over days – a heat wave during which I had continued going out every evening. Drinking was my respite. I had become so embroiled in the bar culture I dared not miss an outing … an outing where Petra or Marta or Tara or Erin or half-a-dozen others might be available for a fling. I had become obsessive and chauvinistic and hurtful and proud, my behavior so obscene that I had invited two girls back from the Fairview one night, with one arriving just after I had fallen asleep inside the other. I was self-medicating, addicted to the reinforcement one derives from dishing the dirt. I had grown more eligible, an available target for aspiring females who were excelling at a similar game. We were exchanging one another; we had become trading cards. I was 23, and my endurance was beginning to falter. One night toward the end of July, I had arrived at the apartment completely bloodied. “Something happened to me,” I had explained to one of my roommates. Whatever it was, I couldn’t recall.
I fell ill the first week in August, one night toward the end of my shift. My skin ran gaunt, my eyes severely jaundiced. A girl who I had a crush on told me I needed to go home and rest. This was the night of Mike’s party – the house party, the one where that girl and I had all but agreed to get it on. I would be fine, I assured myself. I would eat a cheesesteak and then I would be fine. Only my stomach kept doing somersaults, and I lacked the fortitude to call in my order. And so I went home and lay on my bed. And my belly began to hiccup just like a pile of broiling waste.
Around 2 AM I phoned Mike to let him know I could not make it to his party. Mike offered to drive me to Burdette-Tomlin, but I refused. I was entrenched now, an amplified version of that iatrophobe I had initially become as a child. Despite concerns, I had not submitted to any type of a physical in well over a decade. And so I lay there, on my back, and I experienced a series of fever dreams. I kept drinking water. I started to vomit around dawn.
It was morning now, a Saturday in August – one of the biggest money nights of the year. And the question became one of whether I would be able to make it into work. I had never called out sick. And it didn’t matter that I felt depleted or that my body kept alternating between spasms and chills. What mattered was perception, and the perception was sure to become that I was a drunk. The numbers at Bill’s Concessions kept dipping, in part because I kept scheduling myself off two nights of the week. My promotion had proven a liability, a perennial drain on whatever cost-benefit
Just short of noon I made the call. Perhaps this is a reckoning, I reasoned, some dark-end path meant to lead me to the main. I had bottomed out, no question. I was existing in a sandbox, perfecting circles in my brain. A handful of my friends were applying for first mortgages. They were driving fancy cars and they were getting engaged. I was still eating my dinner out of a grease-covered bag, inappropriately flattered by rumors I had gotten addicted to cocaine.
By 3 PM I had transitioned into bargaining, faxing terms off to a god that didn’t exist. There was a bucket sitting next to me alongside a Slurpee cup that I had filled with water. My lower-back was in a state of trauma; the soggy bedsheets smelled like urine.
My father arrived around dinnertime. “Hel-lo?” I could hear him calling at the door. I got up and I let him in and we went into the living room and we talked. My father was in town for the weekend, he explained, and he had gone up to the boardwalk looking for me. “You sure you don’t want to go out for a nice dinner?” my father kept saying, to the extent where it felt odd having to re-turn him down. This was how it had often been between the two of us, mutual frustration obfuscating concern. My father went out and he bought me an electric heating pad from CVS. He returned unexpectedly an hour later with a carton of ice cream he had bought me from the store.
It was dark now and it was cooler. I had watched the day-time shadows wax and wane across four walls. I was eating ice cream in bed, the second verse of John Mellencamp’s “Check It Out” playing on repeat in my head. I can make it into work tomorrow, I reassured myself. The fresh air will do me good. I hadn’t thrown up since 4 PM, this despite leaning my face over a bucket several times. Outside I could hear the echoes of late-night announcements across three piers – “15 minutes to get that last ticket for that last ride of the evening,” followed by, “Mariner’s Landing is now closed.”
I shut my eyes, considering the irony that I had taken ill during the least fashionable bar nights of the week. I fell asleep from 3 to 7. I took a shower and pulled the sheets off my bed. I made a breakfast sandwich, which I ate in tiny bites. Before leaving for work, I put the bucket and the Slurpee cup outside on the back porch. There was nothing but a few spare grains of sand in
Morning … no, afternoon. And the phone kept ringing loudly. It was July now, and I was sleeping on my stomach, dressed in boxer shorts and nothing more. The window fan kept rattling, streaming heat onto loose sheets that had been kicked onto the floor. I sat up, placed shaking hands upon the mattress. I lumbered hard into the kitchen, mumbling audibly “Hold on.”
“Hello,” I said.
“Bob, it’s John.”
“Hello, John,” I said. I lit a cigarette.
“I need your help,” John said.
“You need my help with what?”
“Well, we just opened and there are a bunch of wrestling guys up here and they’ve already started putting out tables and they–”
“Wrestling guys?” I said.
“Yeah, like, a bunch of them,” John said.
“Like what kind of wrestling guys?” I said.
“Like, like, like King Kong Bundy’s sitting on a bench about 15 feet from me.”
“And what exactly are they putting out tables for?”
“One guy says they’re here to sign autographs. Another guy says they’ve already gotten permission from the More –”
“OK. I need you to sneak out of there for a minute so you can come down here and pick me up.”
I had been asleep for a little over four hours, in and out after drinking at The Poplar Café until dawn. I threw on a T-shirt. My upper-body smelled like cognac. I wandered down onto the sidewalk, led by a stultifying horn.
I was drunk, and I apologized to John for my appearance. This was my first summer assuming any significant management role. Bill Salerno had moved on, claiming ownership of a boardwalk eatery across from Surfside Pier. Bill’s departure resulted in a vacuum, and as I clamped my hair into a ponytail, it occurred to me I showed no signs of either leadership or control.
John parked his car beneath the boardwalk. I could not see the beach for sizzling fog.
“Who’s in charge here?” I shouted. I was speaking to a coterie of wrestlers, many of whom sat sprawling on the Dime Pitch counter. A bearded man with a shiny forehead pointed off toward the promenade. Out there, beyond the pier limit, stood a bleach-blonde man with a megaphone. He was reading notes off of a card.
“Tonight, at the Convention Hall,” this man declared, “it’s Bam Bam Bigelow versus Bobby Duncum, Chris Candido versus Balls Mahoney, and ECW Tag-Team Champions D-Von and Buh Buh Ray Dudley versus Axl Rotten and his partner, Nuuuuuuuuuuuuuu Jack.”
When the man took a moment to pause, I beckoned him over with a wave of my hand.
“Larry Sharpe,” the man said. “Are you the guy running the show?”
“I am,” I said. I gestured with my chin toward a pair of tables that had been set up along the front of the Dime Pitch. “Listen, I can’t have you blocking any major concessions along the foot
of this pier.”
“And what’s your name?” Larry said.
“Bob,” I said.
“Bob Morey?” he said.
“No,” I said, “Just Bob. I’m the day-time manager.”
“Yeah, well, listen to me, Just Bob. Morey told us we could be here, OK?”
I was staring at Larry. I had seen him on TV. Over the years, he had been affiliated with an abundance of east-coast wrestling promotions. Larry was also affiliated with The Monster Factory, a popular training facility located in Paulsboro, New Jersey. Up close, he had the sad-eyed look of Dusty Rhodes. Yet his demeanor was off-putting; his patois, extremely shrill.
“Bob, you gotta tell me what the problem is,” Larry continued, “cause my guys, they all came out here today hoping to sign some autographs for the fans.”
Larry’s coterie had taken to its feet, half-a-dozen of them strong. These guys didn’t appear so much like athletes as they did disgruntled dockworkers. I recognized none of them with the exception of Bundy, who had remained along a park bench, showing little interest
in getting involved.
Professional wrestling was experiencing a renaissance. The WWF stood months away from introducing the Attitude Era. Ted Turner’s WCW had taken control. WCW had been luring away talent – Hulk Hogan, Lex Luger, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash. The WWF was reinventing itself around a WCW transplant who had shifted his image to “Stone Cold”. The Monday Night Wars were underway – a series of prime-time, head-to-head, two-hour extravaganzas, pitting money and power against experience and verve. As the point man behind WCW, Eric Bischoff had taken the battle to WWE, eventually go so far as to broadcast the results of Monday Night RAW as it was in progress (via Monday Nitro). Vince McMahon, on the other hand, was about to step out from behind the announce table, reestablishing himself as the king hell bastard of that fold.
As a child I had been a fan of professional wrestling. I had collected all the thumb wrestlers; had acquired the plastic ring to go along. I had my favorites – Ricky Steamboat and the JYD. I owned The Wrestling Album, the gate-fold cover of which I had tacked onto my wall. Many of that era’s superstars had faded, replaced by HBK and The Undertaker; Hollywood Hogan and his NWO. Comparatively speaking, the cast of grapplers Larry Sharpe had assembled looked like jobbers – a team of aging, wound-down leftovers, full of liniment and oil.
“Call Morey then!” I heard Larry say. He was speaking to Mike Strickler, an operations manager who had arrived to mediate the scene. “Cause I ain’t taking my tables down, no matter what some fucking peon tells me.”
“What d’you call me?” I inserted myself into their conversation.
“I called you a fucking peon,” Larry repeated.
“Fuck you,” I said. And with that, the bearded man with a shiny forehead came charging through the breach. “No, fuck you,” he said. He shoved me several feet across the boards.
“That’s enough,” Mike Strickler shouted. “I’m sure we can get this whole situation resolved.”
The bearded man started pacing now, muttering something about how, “You don’t talk to [his] fucking boss that way.” None of the other wrestlers had backed him, a dynamic which did nothing to allay my fears. I crossed my arms, positioned my back against a pillar. Mike Strickler got on the walkie, calling out to each of the Moreys, one-by-one.
The more attention this disagreement attracted, the more apparent it became that there was no problem, really. We were talking about a beach day with fewer than a hundred people along the strand. The cost-benefit of allowing the Dime Pitch to be blocked appeared negligible. The issue was that I had demonstrated zero initiative. On top of which, I had grown irritable, consumed with the notion that if those wrestlers remained up on that pier, then I would have to remain up there, as well. I wasn’t scheduled to come into work until five.
I could not imagine anything like this happening in Cape May or Ocean City. Sea Isle, maybe. Atlantic City, for sure. Wildwood had always seemed similar to Atlantic City – similar geography, similar design. Turn-of-the-century Wildwood, much like turn-of-the-century Atlantic City, was originally marketed as a spa, accessible by train with clean air and clean water and a wholesome bathing culture. The subsequent rise of Atlantic City occurred as a result of corrupt politics, driven by the criminal enterprises of the day. In the wake of prohibition, a lot of rackets had gone legitimate, bolstered by an infrastructure that was already in place. Atlantic City’s club owners, meanwhile, began exploiting the very African-American entertainers who – by day – were relegated to a block-long stretch of Missouri Avenue known as Chicken Bone Beach. Abbott & Costello were performing in black face. The ethos of greed began exacting a toll.
While the scale and timelines differed, Wildwood seemed intent on repeating a lot of Atlantic City’s same mistakes. By the summer of 1997, there were rumors, rather prevalent, that Wildwood Mayor Fred Wager had been negotiating a deal with the Lenni-Lenape – a Native American tribe that had originally settled the Delaware Bay. Wager wanted to welcome the Lenni-Lenape back in return for them opening a casino on sovereignty grounds. Assuming all of the pieces fit, Wager’s definitive stroke would be to approve construction smack-dab in the center of the island, at Schellenger and Pacific, a deteriorating block where both John Vollrath and Susan Negersmith had been fatally assaulted, less than 200 meters apart.
All of this kept running through my head as the North Wildwood Police pulled up in a patrol car. Larry Sharpe was being ordered to take his business elsewhere. A pair of wrestlers began collapsing tables, and as they descended the ramp at 26th Street, King Kong Bundy approached me from behind.
“How much for the lobster?” King Kong Bundy asked. He was motioning toward one of several four-foot pieces of plush hanging upside-down inside the Ring Toss. Normally I wouldn’t have sold that piece for anything less than $60 (a 114% markup), but given the circumstances, I sold it to Bundy for cost. The two of us got to talking, at which point Bundy made a joke about not even being on the card that evening. “Just in town to show my face,” he said. Bundy was wearing a gray cotton T-shirt. He was an Atlantic City native, as he went on to explain.
“That night, in a tent, I had a war with some old Calypsonians. A tent is a bamboo shack with a palm roof. The Calypsonians sing in them during carnival and charge admission. A war is where three Calypsonians stand up on the platform in a tent and improvise in verse. One man begins in verse, telling about the ugly faces and impure morals of the other two. Then the next man picks up the song and proceeds with it. On and on it goes. If you falter when it comes your turn, you don’t dare call yourself a Calypsonian. Most war songs are made up of insults. You give out your insults, and then the next man insults you. The man who gives out the biggest insults is the winner.”