Moving On: Games People Play

CircusHe was standing there, along the southeast corner of the Ring Toss, peeking out from just behind a wooden column, slow-burning cigarette barely dangling from his hand. He was tall and skinny, tattooed and shirtless, with much more hair upon his chest than he had upon his head. He looked to be somewhere between 18 and 20, with very little need for education beyond high school.

He’d been up and down the midway several times that afternoon, drinking liquor from a squirt bottle, sweat-stained T-shirt slung haphazardly across his shoulder. For the past 15 minutes he’d been idling, pasty frame pressed up against that wooden column. He was waiting, and watching, clocking every movement as he held out for an opening.

He leaned forward and then down, placing that bottle sure atop a Siamese hydrant. He craned his neck toward the sky, focus fixed upon a six-foot purple ostrich hanging loosely from a box nail overhead.

There was a 14-year old named Jeremy working the Ring Toss game that afternoon, and he was standing with his foot propped up against the counter, completely oblivious to what was happening behind him.

“Jeremy,” I snapped from a Milk Can game across the way. “Jeremy!”

But it was too late. That drunk asshole had already made his move, catapulting the six-foot ostrich high and free into the air, its weight shifting like a birdie as it fell into his arms. The asshole composed himself just slightly. Then he swung that purple ostrich like a rug over his shoulder. He turned back to look just once, at which point he spotted me across a clearing, hurtling the Milk Can counter with intent. It was at this point that the asshole broke full-stride, a six-foot lump of plush leaking confetti in his wake.

I untied my apron, pitched it underhand to Jeremy. Then I took off like a shot, storming south along the midway. I’d been in this situation before – several times, in fact – which is how I knew the odds were in my favor. I had the speed and the endurance, if not the added weight of jurisprudence. This was the Wildwood boardwalk, after all – a low-rent tourist hub where any full-time employee’s word would trump the ramblings of a shoebee. What’s more, it was invigorating, pistons churning down that promenade, giving chase to some repugnant thug who could just as surely beat me senseless, assuming the proving grounds were equal.

Merchants were rushing to their storefronts now, cheering wildly as I sought to close the distance. I could see that six-foot ostrich bouncing back and forth in time, semi-blinding reams of stuffing streaming past on either side. I leapt full-borne into the air, lunging wildly from behind. Only I timed my jump all wrong, and – as a result – I came down hard against the surface, left bicep locked around the gullet of that ostrich.

I was flat now, on my back, engaged in a full-contact scrimmage for possession. There was spit flying and sweat smearing and I could make out the overwhelming scent of Muscatel. I wrapped all four limbs around that ostrich, holding on with all I had as that drunk fucker drug me slow across the planks.

“You want to go to jail?” I called out, arms and legs tethered together like a prisoner.

“Fuck you,” that drunk motherfucker then shot back. “I fucking won this thing. It’s mine.”

“Oh yeah,” I shouted. “I bet. I suppose you fucking won it with a piece of rope tied around its neck and a metal hook rammed through its head.”

I felt the lump of plush go limp now, the sudden shift in weight causing me to buckle back against the wood. I rolled over on my chest, left bicep locked around that ostrich. There was a police cart speeding toward me in the distance, and that drunk asshole was making a break for it, stutter-stepping down Magnolia with a black high-top in his hand.

To my immediate right there stood a trio of Israeli dudes, all three of them clapping in unison as I lie there, body propped up on sore elbows.

It was unclear which one of the two of us they were actually cheering for.

***

Somewhere along the line, I had developed boardwalk eyes – an unnatural instinct for seeing the wayward angles forming clearly. I knew how to pinpoint which game ops were skimming money, which ride ops were skimming tickets, and which small business owners were selling street drugs straight out of their stands. I could spot a counterfeit 20 on spec now, having handled enough large currency to recognize the unique texture of a bill. I knew how to seek out the red and blue fibers, the federal watermark, the security strip and the shape-shifting ink. I knew the lay of the land, who worked where and for how long. I knew who owned every block of boardwalk real estate, who rented each lot and which contracts would soon be available for bidding. I knew the Class II Cops and the Kohr Brother girls, the Gateway boys and the tram car birds. I waved good morning to all the small-town curiosities – Elvis and Tippy and Fire Marshall Brian, Frankie the Sun Man and Boardwalk Lou Delvechhio. I had become an integral part of their network, both experienced and inexperienced enough to remain trusted by the rank and file.

I hung out with the Bill’s Concessions crew, a tight-knit group of game ops that worked 5-6 doubles every week and drank till well past dawn during the hours in between. We shared a fierce sense of collegiality, intricately bound by similar schedules, shared experiences, inside jokes and trumped-up stories. Very few of us ever spoke in terms of grand ambition. Our day-to-day existence revolved around a seasonal amusement pier, and the structure of our default social circle reflected that same hierarchy.

I was the full-time microphone man at Morey’s one-win Can Game, much like I had been the previous summer. Three seasons deep, I had proven quasi exceptional at drawing – and maintaining – a considerable crowd. Unlike the majority of game ops, I felt it was my duty – if not my joy and privilege – to be out there every night, entertaining the masses. I understood the importance of hitting my numbers, sure. But I never spent a great deal of time focusing on that. Nor did I go in for treating average customers as if they were marks.

My sense of compassion was largely based upon something I had experienced during childhood. Growing up, I spent the majority of my summers looking forward to the one week every year when we’d vacation in Cape May. Three generations of my mother’s side of the family would cram themselves into a two-story rental on the corner of Corgie and Madison. The house, which was designed to sleep six, would shelter somewhere between 18-25 of our closest relatives, with kids and cousins sleeping on chaise lounges and on floors. We were a cohesive unit back in those days, so much so that the constant run on hot water and privacy never seemed to be an issue.

Well, at least not for the lot of us, that is.

My father, on the other hand, would blow a gasket a few days into each vacation, allowing matters to escalate onto a point where he would drive back home in order to spend the remainder of that week alone. My assumption is – subconscious or not – this perennial cycle was little more than a matter of design. On some level, it was clear my father resented the harmonious relationship my mother shared with her four siblings. As such, familial occasions like these would often turn into a massive tug-of-war. Vacations were bad. Christmas was worse. Neither one ever ended without some form of dust-up.

And so, shortly after our first full weekend in Cape May, my father would storm off in disgust, portraying himself as the victim even as he set a course toward the one thing he’d been craving all along – 4-5 days of unlimited silence, during which he could enjoy full run of both the TV and the refrigerator.

***

One night during each vacation, the majority of my relatives would form a caravan on the short road over to Wildwood. We’d strike out early, before dusk, enjoying dinner at Menz Restaurant before continuing north along Route 9, going miles out of our way just to ensure a trip across the Beach Creek Bridge. The original Beach Creek rumbled narrow and loud with ragged piles and splintered planks. The entire deck was stressed to the extent that you could feel the weighted shift of wheels on wood. You could smell the salt air rising from out of Hereford Inlet. You could see the giant Ferris wheel climbing high out of the sky.

This … This was Wildwood, New Jersey – a gilded pleasure dome of ribaldry and magic.

It was the most anticipated moment of the year for me, one that I would prepare for several weeks in advance, riding my purple Schwinn off to the local Acme, where I would stand outside for hours, asking patrons if I could help them with their bags. Every time someone accepted, I’d earn a nickel or a dime, perhaps even a quarter. I’d average two-to-three customers an hour, slowly building toward the overarching goal of $40. I kept this money in a tube sock, hidden deep inside my dresser drawer. And every day when I’d return home from work, I’d dump that sock onto my bed, counting out the growing bank inside.

When it came time for us to strike out for Cape May, I’d transfer all that change into a canister, and – every day during that week – I’d ration myself an allowance of $5-7, more than enough to finance bouncing back and forth between the two arcades on Cape May’s promenade. Meanwhile, I’d set aside at least $15 for the one night when we would travel north to Wildwood – some of which I would put toward cotton candy and amusement rides; most of which I would put toward carnival games … any and all manner of such that I could find along that boardwalk.

As a kid, it was always the allure that drew me in – the off-hand possibility that I could outsmart the game or outduel the competition. To that end, I would force my mother to stand there alongside me, waiting impatiently as I observed what all the previous players were doing. Which balls were they using? Which targets were they aiming for? Which horses were winning the majority of races? Even as a child, I assumed that there must be some requisite science involved. It never actually occurred to me that the odds were irretrievably stacked against me; that it was the operator – and not the mechanism – I was actually grappling against.

And so I’d count out several quarters, hand them over to the operator. And then I would lose. Time and time and time again, I would lose. Sometimes I wouldn’t even comprehend that I had lost. I would simply stand there, looking on, as if assuming the nice man would get around to me.

The thing that I remember most – the thing that somehow stuck with me for years to come – was the look of disappointment on my mother’s face. She knew I only had a pocket full of quarters to my name. And, as such, she would constantly discourage me from squandering my money on such nonsense. I mean, my parents had very little, as well. They were struggling to put four kids through Catholic school. Over time, it had become a stretch for them to afford any type of vacation at all, even one via which they were only footing one-quarter of the whole bill. And so my mother, perhaps unable to contend with seeing her son come up so empty, would call the operator aside, pleading with the guy to “at least give him something.” The two would volley back and forth for several minutes, my mother insisting there must be something small beneath the counter the operator could allow me.

It was heart-wrenching, watching my mother plead on my behalf that way, if for no other reason than it demonstrated how much it hurt that woman to see any of her children being hustled. And yet, I was aware that there were probably a thousand other mothers on a thousand other nights, making a thousand other likewise pleas to a thousand other operators. This despite the fact most career carneys had long since given up on compassion. Compassion was the vestige of the weak, so far as lifelong carneys were concerned – an inexcusable chink in the armor that worked against their nightly percentage.

“He lost, lady,” these game operators would say, or “What do you think, I’m runnin’ a goddamn charity over here?” or, worst of all, some flat-out version of “Fuck you,” before walking away while my mother was still speaking.

Regardless, I still found myself completely fascinated. Come the end of those evenings, I would climb over the backseat into the rear hatch of our Aspen, staring blankly out the window as we headed back through Rio Grande, soaking in those sparkling party lights until they disappeared beyond the Grassy Channel.

***

The boardwalk carneys – they were an ignorant lot, driven by some awkward notion that the world at large had done them wrong. Having worked amongst their ranks for three summers, I knew the majority of these scoundrels took great pride in sticking it to the public, especially those customers whose station in life was considerably more desirable. Career carneys experienced the same perverse rush from bilking unsuspecting customers that a finance banker might experience from signing off on a subprime mortgage. So far as either party was concerned, two wrongs invariably made a right. The eternal shame of it being the longer either one of them had been at it, the more easily that bitter taste gave way to hunger.

One night during the last week of July, 1994, at a point in the season when every day bleeds almost seamlessly into the next, I wandered down to Fisher’s Restaurant to grab a slice of pizza on my break. It was late, well past 11 pm, and the lion’s share of tourist traffic north of 25th Street had given way to dust and fog. It was during these hours, hours when the crowds ran thin and the lights hung low, that the majority of boardwalk arguments would ensue. A lot of late-night tourists were drunk, after all, and a certain percentage of the boardwalk employees were as well.

On that particular night, Lucky Lou happened to be one of those employees.

Lucky Lou was a veteran bushel basket owner who’d been working on the circuit for two decades. Lou spent the majority of his winters hustling fairgrounds, barnstorming every festival from Oklahoma to East Memphis. The lion’s share of his brethren were lonely drifters of men, vagrants who had long since given up on healthy living or strict hygiene. Theirs was a lonely, campfire existence – an ongoing back-and-forth between straight liquor and infection, one staving off the other until the latter swallowed them completely.

Lucky Lou stood 6’2 with a gut like a kettle and a face like a walrus. He knew me from my first summer working on the boardwalk, and he’d approached me several times during the pair of summers since then, proposing a mutually beneficial arrangement via which I could short-sell him some of Bill, Jr.’s stock – the unspoken assumption being I would pocket any and all of the proceeds.

It was a slippery slope, agreeing to do double deals with a career carney like Lou, which is precisely why I turned him down. And yet, I never held the effrontery against him. Lou was a business owner, after all – one with extremely limited resources. Analytically speaking, if he was willing to pay cash money to some low-level employee who had no problem with two-timing his own boss, which party should really be held more accountable?

Lou was standing high atop the west side ramp at 24th Street on that evening, looking on as a Class II Officer interrogated some short Italian kid by the railing. I couldn’t make out one word that the Italian kid was saying, but I did notice he kept referencing a three-foot wooly mammoth underneath his arm. As I approached from the north, Lucky Lou sauntered over, reaching clear across the Class II Officer’s shoulder in order to cold-cock that young kid. The sudden impact forced that kid back on his heels, and he continued reeling for several seconds, trying desperately to gain his balance.

It was stunning … absolutely stunning. Even more stunning was the aftermath, during which that short Italian kid set his frame against a nearby wall, gathering his wits as the Class II Officer instructed him to exit the boardwalk immediately. Lucky Lou, on the other hand, had already made off for his outlet, having snatched that wooly mammoth in the fracas. He tossed the reclaimed plush inside his stand, then stood stoically behind the counter. He was drinking from an open container, daring anyone to challenge his judgment.

Day 538

(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB)

©Copyright Bob Hill