Moving On: Bob Barker (& The Legend of Tin Can Alley)

And so it came to pass, somewhere in the deep weeds of August, 1992, that I began working nights along Surfside Pier. I agreed to take the job because I needed extra money. And my buddy Mike needed an extra body to slot in for the Irish, many of whom were reaching the tail-end of their visas. Mike and I ironed out the details over beer and cards one evening. I would work from noon to six at the water gun game on 24th Street, then grab a bite and make a beeline for the pier, where Mike would plug me in somewhere from eight to close.

There were tremendous ancillary benefits to this arrangement. In addition to gaining full access to all rides and water slides across three piers, I also acquired a reasonable excuse not to start drinking at 6:15 every evening. In return, my buddy Mike got a top-notch recruit, one who got off on the idea of putting up decent numbers in a stand.

I still had no official form of ID, and the pier wasn’t willing to pay any employee under the table, so Mike offered to cut a deal with a nearby business owner who would, in turn, cash my checks through his deposit. That nearby business owner was an uber-tan matchstick of a man named Gary Rutkowski.

Gary was an equal partner in Gary’s Balloons – a step-up joint that generated slick profits and a record number of fines from the state gaming commission. Gary had moved his entire family from New Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to North Wildwood, New Jersey – two generations worth of hayseed yokels speaking their minds like flat-bed politicians. Gary, in particular, stretched his “oll”s into “awl”s, and his short “a”s into long ones.

Dollars became dawlers. Ears became airs. Gary Rutkowski became known as a modern-day George Hull.

The first time I met Gary, I watched him talk a 10-year old into comping him a free copy of The Daily News. The second time I met him, I watched him talk me out of the better part of 10 dawlers.

“Do you remember the percentage we agreed on?” I asked Gary, as I stood signing my first paycheck over to him.

“Sure,” Gary told me. “I’m pretty sure it was four percent of the gross.”

“Actually, I think it was two percent of the net,” I said, without looking up.

“Oh, right … two percent,” Gary said, slapping me on the shoulder. “I was just playin’ with ya, madman.”

With that, Gary pulled the check and the pen from my still-wringing hand, then disappeared behind the counter. He reemerged a half hour later, cradling a coffee can full of change underneath his left arm.

“Here ya go, madman,” Gary said, as he pushed the canister toward me. “I was a little low on cash back there, so I had to give it to ya in quarters.”

I stood there for a moment, head tilted, counting up the number of rolls lining the canister.

“There’s only a hundred dollars in here,” I said. “My check was for 113.”

“Yeah, well, I was a little low on quarters this week, too,” Gary said, laughing. “Tell you what … I’ll catch you with a tip the next time around. Sound good, madman?”

It did not sound good. In fact, it actually sounded pretty fucking bad. Even more so, given the next time around Gary not only disappeared with my check for well over five hours, but he subsequently paid me in a slapdash array of singles and dimes, short-changing me a full $12 in  the process.

George Hull once told a reporter, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Gary Rutkowski once told me “There’s no such thing as a hustle in which the mark knows it’s a scam.”

Sometimes I found it difficult to differentiate between the two.

***

By the third week in August, I was earning enough scratch to afford three meals a day. Only my schedule wouldn’t allow for it, and neither would my drinking. Most mornings, I needed to scarf down something solid that would sink right to the pit of my stomach. If I woke up on 26th Street, that meant a quick breakfast sandwich, which I’d wash down with a can of Jolt Cola and a cigarette. If, on the other hand, I came to at the flophouse over on Davis, I’d usually go with a 50-cent burger from Snow White, which I’d devour on the 15-minute tram ride from Davis Ave. to 24th.

Snow White boasted burgers that looked and tasted like old dog toys. What’s more, customers would hand-pick their own patty from a dozen steaming burgers left wading in a tub. Snow White was the only boardwalk eatery with a barker. During off-peak hours, management would play a rolling list of menu items from a pair of amped-out speakers. Once prime time hit, a microphone was passed back and forth between veteran servers, each of whom would blurt out split-second specials. “Hot dogs! Foot-longs! Corn on and off the cob!” these quick-bid barkers might howl. “Beef pies! French fries! Forty-five cent sides of slaw!”

Lunch was non-existent, and dinner was a toss-up. On a good day, I’d spend my break along the south side of Morey’s, feasting on stromboli from Sorrento’s or a bucket of french fries from Curley’s. On a bad day, I’d knock back a cold slice of pizza on my way back to the apartment on 26th Street, where I’d set an alarm and sneak in a nap.

The best pizza on the boardwalk was hiding two blocks north of Surfside Pier in a tiny Greek eatery known as Fisher’s. The Greeks cooked their pizza in a pan, as opposed to a brick oven, and they layered it with feta, both of which offered a refreshing alternative to the generic blend of mozzarella and ketchup most boardwalk businesses tried to pass off as cuisine. Italians, by and large, have absolutely no idea what the fuck it is Americans have done to their traditional margherita. Authentic Mediterranean pizza is flavored with various oils and lard, and every diner at the table is presented with his or her own personal pan.

Italians have no interest in sharing their slices.

Americans have no interest in sharing their pie.

Mangia! Mangia! You too-big-to-fail motherfuckers.

***

I spent my first week at Morey’s learning how to work the low-maintenance games … kiddie joints like the Duck Pond and the Troll Wheel. By the end of that week, I’d graduated to the Bottle-Up and the Fishy-Fish – both of which required a certain degree of hand-eye coordination. From there it was on to the Break-a-Plate, then the Ball Toss, before eventually getting called up to work in Tin Can Alley.

Tin Can Alley was a 30-foot stand located front and center across the gateway to the pier. The game attracted traffic from all sides, and it had three decades worth of rides and attractions serving as a backdrop. During prime-time hours, Tin Can Alley went brimming with tourists of all ages, many of whom kept waving singles in the air. The Gambit, which was located one block north, had superior microphone operators and flash, but Gambit was a roll-a-ball game, which meant the turnover time for a single race could run anywhere from 30 seconds to three minutes. Because of the way Tin Can Alley was set up, a lot of its races were over in 15 seconds or less, which allowed the operator to zip straight up and down the line, collecting more money, faster.

Tin Can Alley was furnished with eight brightly-colored trash cans, each of them lined up against a wall, facing a 25-foot trough of polyvinyl balls. A traffic signal rose behind each can, with a series of seven red, yellow and green lights. Once the game was set in motion, all eight lids would open in unison for a period of five seconds, then close again for an equal period of time. Players would use this down time to reload, over and over and over again, until one player managed to land seven balls inside a can.

Tin Can Alley was stocked to the gills with all manner of Tiny Toons plush – Plucky Duck and Dizzy Devil, Babs and Buster Bunny – lining the shelves in various shapes and sizes. Once a minute, the Tiny Toons Adventures song would ring out like a battle call: “We’re tiny. We’re toony. We’re all a little loony. And in this cartoony, we’re invading your TV …

It was a scene, man. And it provided an ideal platform for me to hone my skills on the microphone. Unlike the majority of race games, which were built with a three-and-a-half foot counter that cut off above the waist, Tin Can Alley was built on a downward slope with a rolling strip of Astroturf that redirected delinquent balls toward the trough. I used that strip as if it were a stage, bouncing back and forth like a village idiot on mescaline. I was still learning how to minimize race turnover, but the counter remained packed and the totals were top-notch, so no one really saw fit to complain. I had a knack for putting up strong numbers during late-night hours … hours during which most boardwalk ops were either too drunk, too tired, or too disinterested to bother with what little cash was left.

Late-night drunks would shuffle over to each outlet full of verve, urging every member of their tribe to follow suit. The Alpha drunks would usually attempt some half-ass headcount, then offer to foot the bill for the entire crew. Offer the late-night drunks a raucous time, and they’d reward you with big bills. Try and take them for a ride, and they might tear you from the stand.

Fortunately, the games on Surfside Pier were meant to reflect a family atmosphere, and – as such – full-time employees were never urged to milk a patron dry. With the exception of bending rims and waxing boards, management made very little effort to manipulate the odds. Most of the kids who worked these stands were young, clean-cut, sailing through state college on their way to middle-management.

These co-eds held no interest in fleecing wide-eyed tourists. And yet they had no qualms when it came to stiffing their employer. Most games were a cash business, after all, and this was long before the bean counters installed an eye in the sky to monitor each stand. As a result, the overwhelming majority of game ops were stuffing all manner of U.S. currency up their blouses. One Surfside employee actually had a full-time partner who would arrive along the midway wearing some ridiculous disguise. This partner would then locate whatever game his friend was working, and pay to play using a one-dollar bill. The game op would, in turn, dig into his apron, making change for a 10, a 20, or perhaps even a 50. They went on six nights a week throughout that summer.

Now and again, management might mark a bill to nab some scoundrel in the act, but the majority of shady dealings continued on unchecked. The nonverbal agreement was this: “Pull your weight, hit your numbers, and the rulings will turn in your favor.”

***

“You’ve got a phone call,” an operations manager told me. It was 8 pm on a Saturday, the final week in August. “You can take it inside wardrobe.”

A phone call? For me? Inside wardrobe?

Who on earth could it b …

“Bob, it’s your mother.”

It was my mother.

“How did you know to call me here?” I asked.

“It’s not like you have a phone,” my mother told me.

“No, I meant to call me here,” I said.

“I looked up the number,” my mother told me. “Listen, I’m just wondering when to expect you.”

“Expect me for what?” I said.

“The fall semester,” my mother said. “It starts in two days.”

“Yeah, well, look, I don’t think I’m gonna be doing that right now,” I said. I was staring at the wardrobe ladies. They were staring back at me.

“What d’you mean, you don’t think you’re going to be doing that right now?” my mother asked.

“I mean I’m not going back there this semester,” I said.

“Well, then, when are you going back?” my mother asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “All I can tell you is that I’m not going back right now.”

“What are you gonna do, work at the circus for the rest of your life?” my mother asked.

Silence.

“Look, I don’t have time to get into this right now,” I said. “I’m really busy.”

“Yeah, well, your father and I have been really busy for the past 18 years,” my mother insisted, “trying to put the four of you through school.”

“What?” I said.

“What?”  my mother said.

“Nothing,” I said. “Look, I gotta go. I’ll give you a call during the week, once things begin to settle down a little bit.”

“Goodbye,” my mother told me. She hung up the receiver.

“Who was that?” one of the wardrobe ladies asked.

“It was my mother,” I told her.

“At 8:15 on a Saturday?” the woman said. She was directing the emphasis much more toward her colleagues than me. “I mean, you’d think some of these people never worked.”

Day 148

(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB)

©Copyright Bob Hill