If you were from or of the Wildwood scene during the early 1990s, chances were you knew of an urban legend involving a whistling man who haunted midnight sands beneath the boardwalk. There were variations on this theme with each of them agreeing on this much: The Whistling Man was white, he preyed on girls who were distraught, he would whistle as he shadowed victims underneath the boardwalk, eventually luring them below, where he would rape and then strangle them before disappearing into the dark. The Whistling Man had been born out of a germ, the kernel of something that had persisted without check. Women had been strangled underneath the Wildwood boardwalk. There was Carol Hill in 1970, Patricia Thompson in 1982, and Bonnie Marks in 1986 – each of them sexually assaulted, without any of their cases being irrevocably removed. That is until July of 1998, at which point DNA evidence (unavailable during the spring of 1986) allowed investigators to charge Kenneth Mann with the rape and murder of Bonnie Marks. Mann was a convict, serving 45 years for the strangulation of a prepubescent girl in Ocean City. Mann’s rap sheet was long, and it included – among other things – an arrest for making lurid phone calls to teenage girls
along the shore.
News of Mann’s indictment arrived on the heels of an unsettling assault in North Wildwood. According to The New York Times, seven Staten Island teens had been detained in connection with the gang rape of a 15-year-old at the Grey Manor Motel (located at 21st and Surf). This story raised eyebrows, particularly because the mass attack had taken place in the exact same room where a nearly-identical assault had taken place one season prior. During the initial assault, a 19-year-old from West Deptford had been drugged, and then handcuffed, before being violated by at least two of her attackers. During both occurrences, the perps had taken photos of their victims in the nude.
Early on during 1998, the Grey Manor’s owners had been threatened with a lawsuit alleging negligence (by way of premises liability). The plaintiff in that action, Brian Blair, had gotten cold-cocked outside of the Grey Manor during prom weekend of 1997. Blair’s assailant was a 17-year-old whose BAC had risen to an approximated .45 in the hours leading up to the attack. The incident, a series of police reports asserted, was less an aberration than the norm. Compounded by a second multi-party sexual assault, rampant word began to spread that the Grey Manor might not only need to settle, but shutter its doors.
The fear was that a cancer was incrementally spreading throughout town. Wildwood Crest remained dry, essentially removed. North Wildwood, on the other hand, was situated between the bars of Lower Anglesea and The Pacific Street Mall. That mall was open to traffic now. Its clubs had taken to closing at 3 AM. And yet its walkway was still a major area for concern. One night in June I came across Mike Strickler, Surfside’s Director of Operations. Mike was laid out on the asphalt, his jaw completely broken. Mike had gotten jumped along the north end of the mall on his way home from The Fairview. An ambulance was approaching to attend to him as I arrived.
The two cities – North Wildwood and Wildwood – kept twisting the truth into equivocations. One could see it in the way a North Wildwood police captain felt compelled to tell a New York Times reporter, “This type of attack is a rare occurrence,” amidst describing a repeat sexual assault at the Grey Manor Motel. One could sense it in the way a local prosecutor very quietly ignored the open murder case of Patricia Thompson, citing an unofficial confession made by an anonymous suspect who had been deceased since 1991. Both municipalities had become entrapped by multi-generational legacies. Obfuscation became the name of the game, the bedrock of a campaign designed to recast Five-Mile Island as a 1950s paradise. The hands kept moving backwards, fueling notions that the only true means of reform might be upheaval; something like the Hurricane of 1938 or the breakneck Storm of 1962; something raw and unavoidable that would jettison the bile, laying waste to old-school promises, replacing cronyism with honor, and rededicating a people
via one cause.
What does it say about the motion picture industry when a franchise’s fourth best film becomes one of the top 10 movies of the year?
Carol is immaculately detailed, much like everything else that Todd Haynes has directed.
6. Mississippi Grind
It’s not the winning, but the ride.
5. She‘s Funny That Way
Peter Bogdanovich returns with the most entertaining rom-com Woody Allen never made.
Last week, the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, published a negative review ofStar Wars: The Force Awakens, taking the film to task for its “misleading representation of evil.” To date, the Vatican’s newspaper has not reviewed the motion picture Spotlight, nor has it commented on that movie’s representation of evil. Vatican Radio, on the other hand, has lauded Spotlight for its honesty.
3. Ex Machina
Every year, one great movie slithers out of the slush pile. In 2015, that movie was Ex Machina.
2. The Revenant
Astonishing in almost every conceivable way. Leonardo DiCaprio will – and should – win the Academy Award for Best Actor.
What separates Sicario from Denis Villeneuve’s previous outings is an unrelenting emphasis on story as opposed to metaphor. Sicario is the best work of Benicio Del Toro’s career. Same goes for Denis Villeneuve. A++.
Once, I met a woman on the streets of Midtown Manhattan. The two of us were drunk and it was 5 AM. I asked the woman if she wanted to get a six-pack. She suggested that I lead the way. We went to a deli; we bought a six-pack. We bought a four-foot Christmas tree, which we took to my apartment along East 92nd Street.
This woman stood 5’5, with drooping eyes and dirt-blonde hair. She was tan. We decorated the tree, and then we had sex. Two hours later, we ran out of alcohol. We took a cab to the woman’s apartment which was located in Queens. We bought another six-pack, and then we had sex.
It was the weekend now, and the woman had an appointment to get her BMW inspected. We drove the BMW to a dealership, where we got high with a mechanic. We split a six-pack while we were sitting on a parking block. We drove the BMW back to the woman’s apartment, and then we
Around 3 PM, I spilled an Anchor IPA on my jeans. The woman gave me a pair of Nike sweatpants to wear. The woman’s mother called and she invited us to come and visit her on Long Island. We bought a six-pack, and we pulled the top down on the woman’s BMW. We hit the expressway. It was 49 degrees.
We were driving east, toward Suffolk County, which – in my delirium – I had mistaken for us driving south, toward Suffolk, Virginia. We pulled up to a ranch house. The woman told me that she loved me. We were smoking cigarettes. I responded that I loved her dress.
We went inside. The woman’s father poured us shots of Wild Turkey. Night was falling and the woman’s mother recommended that we go out for a nice dinner. The Nike sweatpants violated a dress code, the woman’s mother explained, and so she provided me with a pair of jeans.
The restaurant was formal and dark and over dinner the woman’s mother began confronting her about bringing home somebody whom she had met on the streets. I excused myself, and headed off toward the restaurant bar. Twenty minutes later the maitre d handed me a server book containing a dinner bill for 115.
I couldn’t pay. I had left my wallet and my cell phone at the woman’s apartment back in Queens. I rushed outside, to where the woman and her mother had continued arguing. The maitre d gave chase. He started threatening to call the police.
The woman’s father paid the check, and then he drove us to the ranch house. I drank a beer while the woman’s parents went to sleep. Around midnight, the woman led me down into a basement, into a guestroom that had been constructed like a bunker. The woman was wearing an old pair of her adolescent pajamas. I was still wearing a pair of her mother’s pleated jeans.
I passed out, and then came to during the middle of the night. I could smell the fragrance of a woman beside me; I could picture her face without remembering her name. It was dark now, like a chasm, and the only way to keep from trembling was to clutch down on the sheets. I leaned my cheek against the woman’s ear. She tilted her head back and we kissed. My stomach churned, and I could taste the dry rot in my mouth. We were in it now, the post-drunk period of arousal, and the woman whispered that her parents’ bedroom stood immediately above us. The woman mounted me; a squeaking bedpost proceeded to gavel. I tried – and then failed – to have an orgasm. I kept fighting back the urge to just throw up.
That was December 4th, 2011 – the most recent time that I’ve had sex. Was a 30-hr. binge uncommon? Yes, but only insomuch as it occurred without the benefit of sleep. My pattern – for more than two decades – had been to drink until I could work up enough confidence to approach any woman. After that, I would either maintain or continue self-medicating until I bottomed out. I have never been a habitual dater, I have little confidence in my appearance, and I can chalk almost all of my first kisses up to alcohol. When I quit drinking (less than two weeks after the aforementioned incident), I assumed that I would have to re-acclimate myself to the hook-up process. To that end, I went on a date, and I kissed somebody. A month later, I responded to a late-night text, and I wound up sleeping in a bed with one of my previous sex partners, three-quarters clothed. I found both of these experiences to be exhilarating. Yet neither one went any further, and I imagined this to be for the best.
Over time, I became less responsive whenever contacted by an ex-sex partner late at night. Our paradigm had shifted, and, as such, I would do a mental work-up of the M.O.: How long has it been? What was the nature of our relationship? Did we date? Did we share a one-night stand? Did we find each other engaging? How did we leave things? And why? Why is she contacting me? Is the manner in which she has chosen to reach out consistent with our past dealings? Is this an invite? An overture? If I respond, will it be like putting something back in spin? Is it worth setting aside whatever it is that I am doing? Is it worth setting aside work or sleep or a chess game or some great book that I am excited about finishing? Is it worth hailing a cab? Taking a subway? Hopping a train? Is it worth the conversation? The push-n-pull? Is it worth stifling every cough until I can leave at break of day? Is it worth the guilt? The misconceptions? The back-and-forth? And do I make the mistake of assuming this was ever actually about either one of us achieving an orgasm after all?
As a result of my skepticism, I was becoming more cognizant of all the ways in which I have mistreated women, all the ways in which I have violated their trust. I felt embarrassed without having lost any urge. To this day I continue to sext and instant message. I frequent porn sites and jerk off. I am not chaste, nor am I promoting abstinence. This is not a “step,” nor am I in the throes of being reborn. I am not suffering from performance issues. I am not closeted or gay or otherwise confused. I am not currying attention, nor am I carrying a torch for some great woman who I knew. I have simply shifted gears. I feel increasingly fulfilled.
Looking back, my sexual progression traces its way up through my childhood, through a catholic education, through an initial gateway into hook-up culture, through several all-night parties and a constant needling to get laid, through objectifying conquests and rewarding acts of chauvinism, through promoting an extracurricular hierarchy based on drinking and athletics and sex, through establishing a bacchanalian persona that left me feeling faithless and depraved, through it all until my thirties, at which point I had been repeating – and exacerbating – the same-old tired cycles for so long I suffered a break. This is not to confuse the issue, as I had a lot more eating away at me than how I had elected to get it on with chicks. But it is to express that I had developed a mental illness, and that my long-term health depended on a much more stringent accounting of what had precipitated that type of event.
The male sutra of my upbringing fashioned its whole creed upon fraternity. Groupthink was essential; collusion became a part of the deal. For every female I knew who’d been sexually assaulted I knew a male who was potentially guilty of having committed a corresponding offense. Transgressions took on the auspices of an in-joke. The more macho the circle, the more comfortable people became with recognizing – or even encouraging – a mutual level of shame. Among the familial, a contingent of females that earned its keep by feigning complicity. Hooking up represented the first – and sometimes only – aspect any confidant might ask about after a night spent on the scene.
Understand that I am not above this culture, I am of it. With the exception of newfound love, I can chalk up every major spike in my sex life to a period during which I felt inescapably without purpose. When I quit drinking at 38, I committed to writing nonfiction. I had no aptitude for this. A quick look back at the first two seasons of Moving On will bear that out. But I kept at it, and by the beginning of 2013 I was writing and revising for 14 hours a day, running and reading and meditating and seeking out other forms of inspiration in between. The lack of dating allowed for a deeper state of focus, a dynamic which was reflected via a 2011 Archives of Sexual Behavior study which found the mere possibility of interacting with a woman negatively affected the average heterosexual male’s intellectual performance.
Having put the drinking aside, I am more forthright in my dealings with women. Women, in turn, seem more receptive to me. The women who I am interested in (romantically), well, let’s just say that they are aware of it. Beyond that, I am 42 and poor and unattractive and effectively alienated from almost every social strata. I am not what the majority of females would consider eligible. Am I DTF? Youbetcha. But only if the circumstances are in alignment, or if I fall in love and that type of intimacy make sense. I am not actively campaigning for either.
Recently, I had occasion to revisit working in an office, the first time in eight years that I had done so. Within days, I grew aggravated … the routine schedules, the prep-school dress code, commuting via the 4 Train for an hour and 15 minutes, back and forth. I was stationed alone in a back-corner supply area, completing all of my assignments via a hand-me-down laptop that had no resources, not even Microsoft Word. Three weeks in, all of that displaced energy – a sudden lack of running and calisthenics and upper-body workouts, combined with unhealthy eating and an almost-obligatory malaise – began to channel itself into arousal. A woman’s pencil skirt, the passing scent of strong perfume. I did not pursue sex, but I wanted it. I was reverting to old habits, mistaking the distraction for a need.
Here is a list of things that generally occur during the period leading up to and through a seasonal storm in Wildwood, New Jersey: aware tourists strip all of their bathing suits from railings, chartered boats begin to bottleneck the shore, deep-sea anglers employ talk of separating the men from the boys, local affiliates broadcast flood warnings, armchair meteorologists debate the radar, restaurants and bars begin to move all of their seating indoors, the movie theaters recoup losses, vacationing families bond over a deck of cards, the wind plays hell on banners, a wooden menu board collapses, the sky goes white with lightning, a teeming rain begins to fall, the amusement piers go dark, arcades put cardboard mats down on their floors, entire families wear cheap ponchos, a girl stands shivering in wet clothes, the air runs deep with saltwater, the streets curl up with steam, the breeze runs cool and perfect, red lights begin to gleam.
Such was the case on the evening of June 14th, 1998, an hour of which I spent inside the Guest Services booth at Surfside Pier. There was a girl working in Guest Services whom I had been eager to meet. I had noticed this girl rounding the Dime Pitch every day at 5 PM. I had noticed that this girl stood 5’2, and that she wore what appeared to be imitation Diors. I had noticed that this girl had freckles, and that those freckles came obscured by an alabaster tan. I had noticed that this girl’s body was toned, and that her hair was short, and dark, and that she either pinned it back or let it fall. I had noticed that this girl’s ankle boasted a tattoo of what appeared to be barbed wire, and that her arm boasted a tattoo of what appeared to be a crimson sun. I had noticed that this girl generally arrived for work either accompanied by a female coworker or alone. Seeing her every afternoon provided me a subtle jolt. It felt like morning coffee, like finding a handwritten note left in the dirt.
There were still players at the Dime Pitch. I could see them in the distance, tossing coins into the wind. I could see the silhouettes of several ride ops. They stood huddled beneath an awning, the hue of cigarettes dancing like fireflies whenever they inhaled. The lion’s share of employees had packed themselves into a hallway. I high-stepped over them, holding my breath due to a heightened stench of B.O. Upon entering Guest Services, I introduced myself to the girl with the tattoos. She ignored me. Undeterred, I handed the girl a stuffed frog that I had pulled out of the Lost-and-Found. This frog had a cardboard tag attached to its neck that read: “You don’t love me, you just love my froggy style.” The girl picked it up, saying, “Aw, thanks,” before tossing it into a garbage can that was positioned next to her feet.
I made small talk, and discovered that both girls working in Guest Services were roommates; that they were renting a house on East Juniper, that they had four additional roommates, and no specific plans for the evening. I gave them my address. I’d be having people over, I explained. This was an impromptu decision, one that required me inviting over other guests, as well. I was living alone at 212 East Magnolia, in a cabana behind the main house that I had lived in throughout 1993. This cabana included a kitchen with a breakfast nook, a spacious living room, a pull-out couch. It included a bedroom with twin beds. Its bayside windows opened out onto a vacant lot, which meant that late-night noise would never be a problem.
Surfside called it quits just after 11. An hour later there were a handful of people at my apartment. I was playing chess with Mike Strickler when the girl with the tattoos arrived. She was alone, wearing denim overalls that covered a three-quarter-length shirt. Across her forehead, an earth-tone bandana that accentuated the emerald in her eyes. She introduced herself. Her name was Talia. It occurred to me that I had forgotten to ask.
By 2 AM half of my guests were heading out to the bars. By 3 AM the other half had departed. Talia and I were on our own now, and we were talking. Talia was from Northeast Philadelphia, 10 blocks south of Cottman and the Boulevard. Talia had studied modern dance at Philadelphia’s High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA). Talia was a Scorpio, like me. She had a druggy past, like me. She dug The Roots (Questlove and Black Thought were 1989 alumni from CAPA). She was Filipino on her mother’s side.
I leaned in to kiss Talia around 4 AM. She kissed me back. There were flood whistles going off all over the island.
I walked Talia home that night. One night later we got drunk and she invited me to stay over. Talia had her own bedroom. She had proper bedding with an egg-crate liner. Talia held a second job as a chamber maid, and there were mornings when I’d wake up to nothing more than a note. I took to spending nights with Talia, and days off, and dinner breaks, and jaunts to work. I viewed Talia as a reflection of myself. I could speak freely around her. I could make funny faces and play with my food. I did not revere Talia in the way I once had Meghan, but I could identify with her, particularly because Talia struck me as being abrasive in a way that signifies hurt.
I had been a spinning compass for the past two summers, freewheeling from one sexual dalliance to another. During May of 1998 alone, I had disappeared from my sister’s wedding with one of the guests, engaged in sex with a pair of best friends, and slept with a woman whose daughter worked as a game operator on Surfside Pier. I had zero scruples, and limited interest beyond inflating my own ego. A lot of that changed, however, after Talia and I met up at The Fairview one June evening. Talia was wearing a skin-tight mini-dress (midnight blue), and she was dancing, as was custom. Amidst the smoke and flashing lights, I noticed a pair of dudes grinding up against Talia, from the front and from behind. I felt angry, and strangely vindicated. I would parlay this into an argument, I decided. And that argument would, in turn, lead to a clearer definition of our roles.
At some point between that evening and dawn I had transitioned into being Talia’s boyfriend – he who seemed hellbent on ruining everybody else’s good time. Talia and I shared friends, a few of whom saw fit to warn her about my sexual past, my history of behaving like an opportunist, and my tendency toward being extremely possessive in relationships. Valid arguments, which I responded to by clarifying that I had only been in one long-term relationship (despite being 24), and that I had never even come close to stepping out while I was involved. I was possessive because I suffered from low self-esteem. I struggled to understand why any woman of considerable worth would want to spend her time with me.
One night in mid-July Talia and I stayed up and we told stories and we looked over a box of old mementos in my room. We were celebrating something – a month to the day since the two of us first met. At 7 AM I walked Talia to the bus stop. She was en route to Northeast Philadelphia to spend a few days with her parents. I waved goodbye and hurried back to my apartment. I turned on the AC. It felt superb to sleep alone.
I was sitting on a worn-out carpet, leaning my back against a bed frame for lack of any chair. I was reading a Rolling Stone cover story about the final episode of Seinfeld. This story’s layout featured the show’s primary cast members, made up to look like their imaginary counterparts from The Wizard of Oz. There was Julia-Louis Dreyfus (as Dorothy), Jerry Seinfeld (as the Tin Man), Jason Alexander (as the Cowardly Lion), and Michael Richards (as the Scarecrow). All four of them were skipping off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Seinfeld’s finale was scheduled to air later that evening, capping off a five-month build that was reminiscent to that of Cheers, an NBC sitcom that had run for 11 seasons (275 episodes) to Seinfeld’s nine (180). Seinfeld was no longer as entertaining as it had once been, due in part to Larry David having departed. Regardless, the show’s popularity remained high. Seinfeld had pervaded the culture, representing the prestige of Must See TV. Without it, Thursday nights would soldier forward, NBC touting the likes of Friends and Frasier and Veronica’s Closet, two out of the three of which wouldn’t have existed without Cheers.
These were my thoughts as I sat reading in a single room along the third floor of the Mag House – a massive boarding space for Morey Organization employees. Located on Magnolia Avenue between Atlantic and Ocean, the Mag House operated like a dormitory. There was a GA on the ground floor, and he recorded the names of any guests who weren’t employed by Morey’s Piers. Rents ranged from $50-75 a week, a fee which was deducted from one’s paycheck. There was a bathroom at the end of every hallway; a dank domain of phantom razors and caked-up soap dishes. Mosquitoes magically appeared out of the spigots; any functioning light bulbs were immediately stolen. The carpet in my room showed cigarette burns and its texture pricked the skin like naked wires. Along one wall, there was a bunk bed; along another, a wooden bureau. One could borrow metal chairs from any common area. There was a kitchen on each floor.
And then there was that sound: ch-chit-ch-chit-ch-chit-ch. It had a rhythm like maracas – tight, and droning on for hours. That sound came wafting up through the rafters, either putting me to sleep or plaguing my subconscious. I grabbed my Walkman and threw on a denim jacket. I left my room and wandered east.
Along the promenade I passed wet paint. I passed proprietors who were filling shelves with last year’s stock. I passed some tourists down by Mariner’s. They seemed perplexed a giant pier would still be closed. I passed the Whaling Wall along East Garfield; I passed Atlantic Books where thinning blocks ran droll. I passed it all until I reached the boardwalk’s edge. I lit a smoke and turned around.
Looking north from here it became apparent how much of a monopoly the Moreys had built up along the east side of the strand. In addition to owning three of the five amusement piers within an 18-block strain, the Moreys were entering negotiations to assume ownership of a fourth. Dinosaur Beach, which had shouldered previous incarnations as Ocean Pier, Hunt’s Pier, and Conko’s Party Pier, respectively, currently belonged to the Catanosos – a family that leased the Steel Pier in Atlantic City (via Trump Entertainment). Conceptually speaking, Dinosaur Beach appeared dead on arrival. The $20-million enterprise had hitched its fortunes to a fad. This despite lacking the specificity, product licensing and accompanying scope that rendered Jurassic Park such an indomitable draw. Adding insult to injury, the Catanosos had transformed The Golden Nugget, Wildwood’s most beloved dark ride, into some suspense jaunt involving T-Rexes, all of whom kept terrorizing archaeologists on a dig. The Golden Nugget Mine Ride, as it had come to be known, was situated adjacent to Escape from Dinosaur Beach – a fairly similar dark ride that carted patrons through a warehoused grove.
In the offices above Surfside, one would hear discussions as if the acquisition of Dinosaur Beach were already complete. There were allusions to a monorail, to installing gates “across the front of all four piers.” Dinosaur Beach represented the lynchpin, providing as it did an open path from Surfside Pier to Morey’s Wild Wheels (just off Spencer Ave.) The eventual purchase appeared a given, and yet the question of how to proceed beyond that had precipitated a recent splintering between factions. On the one side, Bill Morey, Sr.’s offspring (Bill, Jr. – the acting President of the Morey Organization – Joan, and Jane), who maintained their headquarters in the offices above Surfside. On the other, the late Will Morey, Sr.‘s progeny (Will and Jack), who had consolidated their power in the offices above Mariner’s. The smart money lauded Will and Jack, particularly because their approach seemed less draconian, a bit more cognizant of the municipal risks involved with sequestering a region’s businesses at a remove from the town. Beyond which, there remained a question of governing ordinances: What would justify any for-profit organization’s obstructing a public mile’s worth of beach?
It was twilight now, the magic hour, and 90% of the boardwalk was closed. In years past I’d be transfixed by the stillness of the promenade on any afternoon like this – the awkward presence of a place that has been stripped of all its sights and sounds. Instead I found myself considering what I should do about the Seinfeld finale. I had watched the Cheers finale at a friend’s house on West 13th Street back in 1993. The morning after I couldn’t remember anything except for Sam uttering, “We’re closed.” I saw no point in house-party television. It divorced the social contract that accompanied enjoying movies in a theater. I would buy a six-pack, I decided, and watch the crowning episode on my own.
Mack’s Pizza was open, and I ordered a pair of slices to go. Upon my return to the Mag House, I could hear that fucking noise again: ch-chit-ch-chit-ch-chit-ch. I followed that noise down to the second-floor corridor, where I came upon a stream of light, an open door. That’s Brian’s room, I noted. Brian was a ride operator. He had once recovered $1,300 in cash that I had lost on Surfside Pier. I felt indebted to Brian, and for a time I’d be receptive whenever he stopped by on the pier to say hello. That dynamic shifted, however, after Brian – a 33-year-old local – presented me with a copy of The Tao of Pooh. “To a great man,” the book’s inscription read – a sentiment that hit me somewhere between a come-on and a joke. I was thinking about such matters as I tiptoed close to Brian’s room. Brian had his back to me. He was sitting Indian-style. He was wearing a pinstriped engineer’s cap. He was fiddling with a control box on the floor. That control box was connected to a train set. That train set featured a metal caboose. That metal caboose had hitched its coupler to a boxcar. Several tiny wheels went ch-chit-ch-chit-ch-chit-ch.
“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