It began as a series of dots, each of them free-falling toward earth, a static shroud of gray behind. There was music, rounds of clapping, clasping hands despite no sun. There was the buzz, and then the cut, of engines; a chartered plane, a stretch of sand. There came the first of 30 parachutes, ballooning forth like blobs of dye. There came white bell-bottoms, whistling creases; trails of smoke from every thigh. There came fake rhinestones, gold sunglasses; a tower of speakers, “Suspicious Minds”.
There came the first of 30 Elvi, all sideburns and bouffant, maintaining pace as he detached himself in stride. There came a retinue in tandem, thumbs up, heads down, trailing off into a tent along the sand. The action shifted, west toward a stage, where the Flying Elvi took their marks. There was a rush and then a whistle, an off-key round of “Burnin’ Love”. It was an atrocity, and it was perfect – part of a burgeoning campaign to bolster Wildwood’s future by paying homage to its past. Cape May had made good bank on this for years. Wildwood, by comparison, remained uncharacteristically apart.
It was Saturday, June 15th, and a swath of banners ran from light posts down the strand. “Fifties Fest” those banners read, in Dancing Southern script. I was standing near the foot of Surfside Pier, stocking outlets for the evening, slow-struggling to get by until my dinner break at five. I had been living in a boarding house less than one block off the boardwalk, and, as such, I’d spend my dinner breaks in bed, sleeping off the previous night’s hangover until seven.
I was the emcee at the Surfside Dime Pitch, excelling at the only position I had coveted since arriving back in 1992. Prime-time, a headset mic, a three-sided outlet located at one of the busiest thoroughfares in town. I was running a game so enticingly winnable it attracted first-name regulars by the hour. There was Monkey and The Joker, Forehead Joe and Boardwalk Greg, Italian Joe and Puerto Rican Benny, Cocaine Bruce and Bushel Basket Bill … two dozen of them in total, some of whom indulged just for the sport of it, most of whom were in it for the money – a meager profit based on reselling merch to deadbeat owners down the boardwalk. Demand was such management had imposed a two-prize limit (per-customer, per-day). Savvy regulars responded by coming back shift after shift, donning a baseball cap, perhaps a partial change of clothes.
They were mechanics, these Dime Pitch regulars, more skilled and precise at the game than employees. They honed their craft, becoming intimately familiar with a variety of angles. Their approach was simple: lean forward, then skip each dime toward the nearest row of targets. Land a close dime, finesse it closer, then drive it home with savoir-faire. The key was physics, understanding when to bounce your dime and when to slide it; when to tempt the pile and when to slam it. The board was slick, waxed down to a shine, and its surface was swept clean every time there was a winner. During prime-time, the stakes were heightened, as the Dime Pitch was given over to a different set of rules. “The Horseshoe Special,” as it had become known, was originated by John Chamberlin, an ex-employee who had run the Surfside Dime Pitch toward the end of the seventies. Chamberlin’s rules were explained via the microphone as follows:
“Usually at the Dime Pitch, you have to show us a thread of red around your dime in order to win. But we know that’s hard, so we’re going to change the rules now, and run what I call a six-minute Horseshoe Special. What that means is that over the course of the next six minutes, an ashtray will be jumping around my table, from close dime to closer dime. The closest dime to the center of any red circle at the end of time is walking away with choice of the house – any prize, any size. If you think you have a close dime, think you have an almost dime, at least touching any one of the red circles, yell out, scream out, tell us to check out your dime. If we place an ashtray over it, what that means is that you now own the closest dime to the center of red around my table at that time. If, on the other hand, we ignore your dime, tell you to keep throwing, or simply shake our heads no, what that means is that somebody around the table has a closer dime than your dime, but you – or anyone else – can still knock that not-so-close dime closer in, or even all the way in, for the guaranteed win. Keep in mind, there is no such thing as a tie and I will be the final judge of all dimes. You have six minutes, and it looks like everybody around the table has change, so it’s time to stretch out, reach out, and … ‘Go!’ Go means throw.”
Over and over and over again, 20-30 times throughout every evening, onto a point where the crowd petered out and there was no chance of profit.
As a microphone operator, the cardinal rule was to avoid dead air. Dead air on a microphone had the same effect as dead air on a radio. After a second or two, the spell was broken, and most captive listeners took their business elsewhere. New Jersey’s Legalized Games of Chance Board required emcees to recite the rules prior to every organized special, which, in the case of Surfside’s Dime Pitch, meant four prime-time minutes out of every 10 devoted to transition – sweeping the board, giving out a prize, reciting the rules, then ensuring every customer had change.
I held court from a bucket seat in the corner, a vantage point which allowed me to see the entire board, while simultaneously controlling the music, sound, stock count, and aprons (each of which arrived carrying $100 worth of change). There were two collectors, three during a rush. During peak hours we’d remove a 6 x 10 piece of carpet, increasing the board’s overall size by a third.
Endurance was my business, an unparalleled ability to draw power as every night wore on. There were moments when I felt in perfect concert with the audience, encouraged to take chances I otherwise wouldn’t. One second I might be hopping off the counter onto the hood of a tram car, the next I might be trading barbs with a customer. “He just said ‘whore’,” an onlooking tourist might yell; “He told my boyfriend to go fuck himself,” a Surfside comment card might read. Regardless, a majority of patrons tended to side with me, if for no better reason than I happened to be the one with the amplified mouth.
I had grown shy since graduating high school, disinclined from making eye contact for rabid fear of what the others might see. I had a chipped tooth and a bad complexion. I regularly passed out along the beach to maintain some sort of base tan. My hair was long, pulled back into a ponytail, with sun-dyed streaks of blonde throughout. Everything about my appearance was meant to distract from what I could not sanction. And yet, somehow, whenever I strapped on that microphone – thereby guaranteeing myself a certain barrier of distance – all those layers seemed to disappear. Assuming an irate customer began to scream at me, I’d take to my feet, firing back as I went caroming around the stand. Assuming an attractive woman caught my eye, I would not hesitate to tell her so from a considerable remove. That microphone became my capote and my bully pulpit; my security and my truth.
A lot of the boardwalk emcees who possessed considerable ability – Ricky Nickels, The Dougherty Brothers, Bill Salerno’s younger sister, Dana – shared multi-generational ties to North Wildwood. They’d been embroiled in the culture, sharpening their trade from a very early age. The only way I knew to compensate was by becoming a student of the history – Vaudeville, the European Pleasure Gardens, the Piccadilly Circus, the Coney Island Freak Show. Over time I began to view the boardwalk as being more indicative of P.T. Barnum than it was some backwater scum. A sucker was born every minute, sure, but it was a pin-striped businessman who had originally labeled him that way. It seemed relevant the Catholic Church had initially decried Barnum’s exhibits, informing my perception of irreverence as a necessary component of the trade. I approached my role as that of picador, a provocateur, an entertainer and a mensch. After several straight hours spent working on the microphone – six nights a week – my voice had grown scratchy, my throat, a patch of sandpaper. I was drinking every evening, dehydrating my body to exhaustion.
Meanwhile, it was still two weeks shy of July, a point at which the summer would settle into full-swing. Down along Atlantic Avenue, 1950s aficionados came spilling out of populuxe hotels, summarily avoiding the lower-income center of town, where a great deal of Wildwood’s history resided. The Holly Beach Mall, located along a red-brick stretch of Pacific, was now home to the George F. Boyer Museum (dedicated to the island’s history), the Holly Beach Train Depot (dedicated to the island’s Transit Age), the V.F.W. Post (dedicated to the island’s storytellers), and the storefront of Woolworth’s (dedicated to the island’s consumer). This strip, countless eons past its prime, once played host to Artie Shaw and Chubby Checker, Eddie Money and Kansas. Throughout the eighties, the clubs between Pine and Schellenger collectively referred to themselves as the Block That Rocks; a tag marketing that stuck until the bottom fell out just short of the nineties.
Up along the boardwalk, annual receipts had been suffering, as well. The west side of the promenade, particularly those blocks between Surfside and Mariner’s, played host to a cadre of barkers, wolf-whistling to passers-by: “Hey Romeo, come win Juliet a prize.” Mindless blather, every word of it, delivered by middle-aged men, the lion’s share of whom shared no compassion; their sense of empathy fried. Hustling was their trade, the only profession they indulged. As such, they reveled in it, bragging in tight circles about their ability to rob. Five seasons deep and I was on a first-name basis with the majority of these cretins. I had bummed as many cigarettes from them as they had previously bummed from me. I knew their back stories, I rued their pain. I had met their children, seen pictures of their exes. I knew enough to lean in close whenever they spoke, to hold my breath for fear of trench mouth. In quieter moments, I would lie awake in bed, the pulse of that night’s party still slightly lingering in my skull. I could not seem to shake the sense that I was floating up toward the ceiling. I could not seem to shake the sense that this was how it all began.
(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB.)