Moving On: The Sightseer

Hopper Rooms for TouristsI was sitting on a worn-out carpet, leaning my back against a bed frame for lack of any chair. I was reading a Rolling Stone cover story about the final episode of Seinfeld. This story’s layout featured the show’s primary cast members, made up to look like their imaginary counterparts from The Wizard of Oz. There was Julia-Louis Dreyfus (as Dorothy), Jerry Seinfeld (as the Tin Man), Jason Alexander (as the Cowardly Lion), and Michael Richards (as the Scarecrow). All four of them were skipping off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Seinfeld’s finale was scheduled to air later that evening, capping off a five-month build that was reminiscent to that of Cheers, an NBC sitcom that had run for 11 seasons (275 episodes) to Seinfeld’s nine (180). Seinfeld was no longer as entertaining as it had once been, due in part to Larry David having departed. Regardless, the show’s popularity remained high. Seinfeld had pervaded the culture, representing the prestige of Must See TV. Without it, Thursday nights would soldier forward, NBC touting the likes of Friends and Frasier and Veronica’s Closet, two out of the three of which wouldn’t have existed without Cheers.

These were my thoughts as I sat reading in a single room along the third floor of the Mag House – a massive boarding space for Morey Organization employees. Located on Magnolia Avenue between Atlantic and Ocean, the Mag House operated like a dormitory. There was a GA on the ground floor, and he recorded the names of any guests who weren’t employed by Morey’s Piers. Rents ranged from $50-75 a week, a fee which was deducted from one’s paycheck. There was a bathroom at the end of every hallway; a dank domain of phantom razors and caked-up soap dishes. Mosquitoes magically appeared out of the spigots; any functioning light bulbs were immediately stolen. The carpet in my room showed cigarette burns and its texture pricked the skin like naked wires. Along one wall, there was a bunk bed; along another, a wooden bureau. One could borrow metal chairs from any common area. There was a kitchen on each floor.

And then there was that sound: ch-chit-ch-chit-ch-chit-ch. It had a rhythm like maracas – tight, and droning on for hours. That sound came wafting up through the rafters, either putting me to sleep or plaguing my subconscious. I grabbed my Walkman and threw on a denim jacket. I left my room and wandered east.

Along the promenade I passed wet paint. I passed proprietors who were filling shelves with last year’s stock. I passed some tourists down by Mariner’s. They seemed perplexed a giant pier would still be closed. I passed the Whaling Wall along East Garfield; I passed Atlantic Books where thinning blocks ran droll. I passed it all until I reached the boardwalk’s edge. I lit a smoke and turned around.

Looking north from here it became apparent how much of a monopoly the Moreys had built up along the east side of the strand. In addition to owning three of the five amusement piers within an 18-block strain, the Moreys were entering negotiations to assume ownership of a fourth. Dinosaur Beach, which had shouldered previous incarnations as Ocean Pier, Hunt’s Pier, and Conko’s Party Pier, respectively, currently belonged to  the Catanosos – a family that leased the Steel Pier in Atlantic City (via Trump Entertainment). Conceptually speaking, Dinosaur Beach appeared dead on arrival. The $20-million enterprise had hitched its fortunes to a fad. This despite lacking the specificity, product licensing and accompanying scope that rendered Jurassic Park such an indomitable draw. Adding insult to injury, the Catanosos had transformed The Golden Nugget, Wildwood’s most beloved dark ride, into some suspense jaunt involving T-Rexes, all of whom kept terrorizing archaeologists on a dig. The Golden Nugget Mine Ride, as it had come to be known, was situated adjacent to Escape from Dinosaur Beach – a fairly similar dark ride that carted patrons through a warehoused grove.

In the offices above Surfside, one would hear discussions as if the acquisition of Dinosaur Beach were already complete. There were allusions to a monorail, to installing gates “across the front of all four piers.” Dinosaur Beach represented the lynchpin, providing as it did an open path from Surfside Pier to Morey’s Wild Wheels (just off Spencer Ave.) The eventual purchase appeared a given, and yet the question of how to proceed beyond that had precipitated a recent splintering between factions. On the one side, Bill Morey, Sr.’s offspring (Bill, Jr. – the acting President of the Morey Organization – Joan, and Jane), who maintained their headquarters in the offices above Surfside. On the other, the late Will Morey, Sr.‘s progeny (Will and Jack), who had consolidated their power in the offices above Mariner’s. The smart money lauded Will and Jack, particularly because their approach seemed less draconian, a bit more cognizant of the municipal risks involved with sequestering a region’s businesses at a remove from the town. Beyond which, there remained a question of governing ordinances: What would justify any for-profit organization’s obstructing a public mile’s worth of beach?

It was twilight now, the magic hour, and 90% of the boardwalk was closed. In years past I’d be transfixed by the stillness of the promenade on any afternoon like this – the awkward presence of a place that has been stripped of all its sights and sounds. Instead I found myself considering what I should do about the Seinfeld finale. I had watched the Cheers finale at a friend’s house on West 13th Street back in 1993. The morning after I couldn’t remember anything except for Sam uttering, “We’re closed.” I saw no point in house-party television. It divorced the social contract that accompanied enjoying movies in a theater. I would buy a six-pack, I decided, and watch the crowning episode on my own.

Mack’s Pizza was open, and I ordered a pair of slices to go. Upon my return to the Mag House, I could hear that fucking noise again: ch-chit-ch-chit-ch-chit-ch. I followed that noise down to the second-floor corridor, where I came upon a stream of light, an open door. That’s Brian’s room, I noted.  Brian was a ride operator. He had once recovered $1,300 in cash that I had lost on Surfside Pier. I felt indebted to Brian, and for a time I’d be receptive whenever he stopped by on the pier to say hello. That dynamic shifted, however, after Brian – a 33-year-old local – presented me with a copy of The Tao of Pooh. “To a great man,” the book’s inscription read – a sentiment that hit me somewhere between a come-on and a joke. I was thinking about such matters as I tiptoed close to Brian’s room. Brian had his back to me. He was sitting Indian-style. He was wearing a pinstriped engineer’s cap. He was fiddling with a control box on the floor. That control box was connected to a train set. That train set featured a metal caboose. That metal caboose had hitched its coupler to a boxcar. Several tiny wheels went ch-chit-ch-chit-ch-chit-ch.

Day 1,395

(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB.)

©Copyright Bob Hill

Member, American Authors Guild