Meghan and I dined on store-bought steak that evening – the first time either one had ever cooked a proper meal for someone other. Shortly after, the two of us settled in to drink cold beer and listen to music.
My apartment offered very little in the way of posh amenities. The only station that came correct on my black and white TV was the local NBC affiliate – a Southern Jersey mainstay that offered Rush Limbaugh, Pinky Kravitz, and The Golden Girls in constant rotation. What’s more, there were no classic games nor picture frames to be found upon my bookshelf; just one wrinkled bag of crosswords and a chess set that was missing half its infantry.
Fortunately, Meghan brought along an old Monopoly set she’d found buried deep inside her bedroom drawer. The only problem being there was no fold-out board inside. I mean, all of the pieces were in there, sure; along with all the major bills and real estate. But a split-second inventory of the remaining contents revealed there was no plastic board to speak of.
And so my Jersey girl and I, we sat … and drank … and we subsequently rummaged through an entire laundry list of alternatives, the least popular of which involved wandering back to Meghan’s house in dogged pursuit of the lost board.
Thinking better of that option, the two of us decided to construct our very own game board, using an 18×24 sketch pad, one 12-inch wooden ruler, and a dried-out set of magic markers, all of which we found languishing in the darkest recesses of my closet.
Joint progress came in drabs, as Meghan and I both struggled to map out a working scale. From that point, it became a matter of listing all the properties in order – a task which proved rather simple, given every deed card listed a corresponding value. Finally, we used a combination of rote memory and preference to determine where each railroad, utility and card space might fall.
When at last the work was done, the two of us fell back around the table, stone-marveling at what our night indoors had wrought. I mean, granted, all four panels ran askew, and the overall scale was off at best. But the feeling sure was there, and so too was the overriding sense of joy.
And so we drank a toast to Baltic Avenue. And then we drank a toast to Ventnor. And before the jaunt was said and done, we drank a toast straight round to Jail and back again, which is precisely how these off-season nights along the coastline were originally meant to go – just one slow-burning load after another, with the tide rolling in just outside your front door, and the distant, fading memory of summer set adrift a million miles at sea.
I was still living on Magnolia Avenue at the time, having moved from the rear unit I previously shared with Bobbi Jean to a ground-level flat that wrapped around the starboard side of the building. I’d been out of work for well over a month at that point, scraping to get by along with more than half the island. In the nine short weeks, the City of Wildwood’s central population had plummeted from a robust 220,000 to an anemic 5,200 – nearly a third of whom were now living on unemployment.
All along Atlantic Avenue, traffic signals rose and fell like blinking buoys. The boardwalk planks, they coughed and wheezed an ashen gray. Barren streets ran dark and intimate; charcoal embers filled the air. Every business from West Anglesea to Jefferson entered into abject hibernation.
The entire city lulled itself into an uncontrollable malaise.
I was not collecting unemployment that off-season, based largely on the fact I lacked the base weeks necessary to qualify. And yet, I was still privy to any number of false claims being registered via grifters.
One guy I knew managed to collect despite living in Ireland that winter. Another enlisted the aid of an accomplice so he could collect while slinging drinks down in Ocala. In fact, there was an entire subculture devoted to working menial jobs while collecting full benefits. Not to mention local business owners, many of whom staked their claims just to revel in the fuck-you of it all.
The stark reality was that not a-one of these cheap scams could’ve ever yielded traction had it not been for the utter lack of opportunity sprouting up across the island. As a public official, the choice was simple: either compel your year-round base to seek its fortunes elsewhere, or make peace with the fact certain small-time misdemeanors were feeding your economy.
Like it or not, you were at the mercy of staunch vices.
My relationship with both parents remained severely strained throughout this period – an unfortunate, albeit necessary, reality which is reinforced in spades via this excerpt from a letter written to me by my mother, dated November 10, 1993:
Bob, one thing I want to mention to you on the side is how bad Dad feels about the way you treat him and talk to him. You know, Bob, Dad probably gave you more time and effort throughout your lifetime than he did any of the other children. I know you say you were just running track for Dad’s sake, well … I think if you really stop and think about it, all the time and effort he put into it, if you had just stuck with it, I am sure you would have won a scholarship to some college and would be in your Junior year by now, completing a college education for FREE! Then, in another year or so, you would be coming out of college owing nothing on student loans! I realize you didn’t want to run track anymore, but don’t you think at 20 years old it may be time to stop and reflect on all your Dad did for you and how much it hurts him when you are constantly “put out” and make both him and I feel like we are just butting into your life? None of the other kids make us feel this way. They may not always agree with our suggestions, but at least they listen to us and think about what we say without being so put upon as you seem. After your birthday when we were coming home from the shore, Dad said he couldn’t understand what he’d ever done to make you so hostile toward him. He was so worried about the heating situation in your apartment, and when he asked you about it, your answer was always, “Don’t worry about it.” All I am asking, Bob, is that you treat Dad a little nicer – take time to talk with him and be in the same room with him. He cares so much about you and feels like you just don’t want to be bothered with him at all. It is a very hurting situation. You will never know the way you talk sometimes, how it hurts a person. I’m sure you wouldn’t talk to any of your friends that way, or you wouldn’t have them very long.
Track. Cross country. Student loans. Engineering … The whole goddamned thing sounded like one big ball of hooey to me, perhaps even more so given the pre-packaged way it was being presented. The more I insisted upon straying from that path, the more my father reinforced the notion I was shattering every dream he ever had for me. And eventually, that shit took its toll, grinding me down to the extent I spent several years believing I was a total failure – a wholly vile and worthless individual, completely undeserving of long-term love or compassion.
All of which might explain why it was I sought solace in the arms of a 16-year old girl – one who was categorically succeeding in all the places I once failed. Meghan was an honors student, class treasurer, stable, well-rounded and well-liked; a 5’10 forward, attractive, hard-working, a loving daughter, a cherished sister. Meghan was already half a dozen admirable things I could never really see myself becoming. And yet, she seemed so horribly wounded – bleeding in dark places she kept hidden from the world.
Meghan was a child of divorce; a long and nasty affair that eventually resulted in one sister going off to live with their mother. Meghan never forgave her mother the trespass. Nor did she forgive her sister Lauri for slowly detaching herself from the rest of the family, especially their father, who had legally adopted the girl from a young age, raising her as if she was his own.
Meghan was the primary reason I decided to remain in Wildwood, New Jersey that off-season.
Well, Meghan and the fact I really had no other place to go. I mean, sure, both parents kept extending a conditional offer for me to come back home and live with them. But the simple fact was, I no longer had it in me. Y’see, the thing about Delaware County – and there really is no easy way of getting around this – is that any worthwhile native who ever aspired to make a name for him- or herself needed to leave that place in order to do so.
Case in point: Had Tina Fey actually decided to stick it out in Upper Darby all these years, she might very well have grown up to become the most entertaining Civics teacher any classroom’s ever known.
Jamie Kennedy, on the other hand, would still be Jamie Kennedy.
None of which is to say that Wildwood, New Jersey represented a place where stardust dreams were given to orbit. But it is to say that Wildwood represented one very necessary step in the wrong direction for me … the first of many, truth be told.
The weekend after I turned 20, Meghan and I attended our very first high school mixer together. I spent most of that evening in the cafeteria kitchen, helping chaperones prep and pour RC Cola into Dixie cups – all the while staring out upon a dance floor I had no real business crashing.
I seemed so out of place, in fact, that at one point Mr. Turco, the Wildwood Catholic Vice Principal, sidled up alongside me and said, “Do you mind if I ask exactly what it is that you’re doing?”
“Oh, yes … I mean, no,” I said, glancing round to find the other chaperones had vanished. “Not at all, sir. Y’see, I’m, umm, Meghan’s boyfriend?”
I said this while pointing with my thumb toward the dance floor, where a loose configuration of high school juniors bounced and ricocheted like gas molecules in a compound.
“Meghan Mac?” Mr. Turco said, upper-brow furrowed foul with skepticism.
“Umm, yes, sir,” I said. “Meghan Mac. That’s right, sir. It’s just that, well, umm, y’see, she’s all the way out there dancing with her friends right now, and I, umm, well, the ladies who were back here a minute ago, they all said it’d be OK for me to help, and …”
“No need to explain,” Mr. Turco said, as he scraped a plate of leftovers into the garbage. “It’s just we get a lot of kids from Middle Township trying to sneak into these events. When I swung around the corner there and saw you standing all alone, tinkering with the bevearges … Well, let’s just say I wasn’t quite sure what it was that you were doing here. That’s all.”
Mr. Turco and I, we had ourselves a good laugh over that one.
(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB)