Gerry Vessels had been summoned by a pair of childhood friends, both of whom confirmed there was a towering brute berating Jackie. Jackie meant Jackie Keane – an 18-year old local who also happened to be a long-time co-worker of Gerry’s. As a result, the towering brute suddenly found himself surrounded, Gerry Vessels weaving his way into the fore.
“What the fuck is this guy gonna do?” the towering brute wondered aloud.
The brute stared down his nose at Gerry, whose fists were wrapped like casting irons. One of Gerry’s henchmen motioned forward, slapping a cap from high atop the brute’s bald head.
The brute looked down, then Gerry Vessels lunged forward, attempting a shove that spiraled out into a roundhouse. The brute caught Gerry’s ankle in mid-air, yanked it vigorously toward him. The brute connected with a right, forcing Gerry “BAM!” into a bumper.
A full-blown melee soon ensued, rival factions squaring off out in the street. Before things got too heated, a blipping siren cut the air. Seconds later, there was nothing left but remnants … rattling fences and a baseball cap, left straddling the gutter.
Incidents like this were common back in those days. The majority of us were still young, fueled by equal bouts of adrenaline and verve. While the trash-talk rarely escalated into brawling, it was nonetheless reassuring to have taut muscle on one’s side.
Throughout the summer of ’92, Gerry Vessels represented that muscle.
Gerry grew up in Kensington, a war-torn pocket of North Philadelphia where most people either came up hard, or they never really came at all. Upon leaving Philadelphia and moving to Wildwood, Gerry gained a reputation for being the prototypical good friend from a bad neighborhood – fiercely loyal, completely uncompromising when put to the test.
Gerry represented the common touch-point for several nascent clusters, all of them loosely bound by Surfside Pier – same hours, same bosses, same bullshit conversations regarding who was fucking who. Ours was a fresh, young crop of boardwalk superstars, brash and vital, strong in numbers.
There was Mike Higgins, our unofficial leader, who hired his close friends to work the midway games. Then there were Weasel and Dirty, Steeley and Mod, along with Skip and Camel Joe. There was a Kenzo by the name of Bobbi-Jean and a bleach-blonde by the name of Renee. There were the two Jackies – Jackie Keane and Jackie Korne – and the two Jasons – Jason Banks and Jason Reese. There was Kelly Carr and Megan Higgins, Jenny Black and Herpes Heidi. There was Billy Lee and, come mid-August, there was me.
At the center of it all was Gerry, whose family owned a second-generation house along West Glenwood. That house ran air-force blue with Gothic features. The first time I hung out there, I woke up in the living room, wearing an over-sized pair of women’s cutoffs. The second time I hung out there, a pair of Kenzos came to blows inside the kitchen.
Growing up, Gerry’s nickname was Uncle Fester, due to surface similarities too uncanny to dismiss. He also went by Skippy, and sometimes even Jif. In fact, I happened to be on-hand one summer evening when a young girl called him Satan.
“You look just like the devil,” is what that six-year old told Gerry.
“I look just like the what?” Gerry responded.
“The devil,” that six-year old repeated. “You look just like the devil.”
Gerry shrugged the whole thing off, but it did cause me to wonder: Assuming one grew up hard, and grew up right, and one’s looks were such that total strangers said he looked just like the devil, how could one escape the urge to kick somebody’s ass?
(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB)