Stories from the Midway
Teenage Carnie Lust
"Down the shore" is as much a what as a where. Down the shore is the second part of the compound verb answering the question asked in South Jersey and Philly between Memorial and Labor Days: What are you doing this weekend? Going down the shore.
Down the shore is where -- after living a childhood more overprotected than a pre-adolescent masturbating with three condoms on -- my parents, curiously, deemed it perfectly reasonable for me to spend entire teen summers sans supervision. Suddenly, Miss 10pm curfew was working the boardwalk 'til 2am.
Down the shore is where I learned a little sport I'll call "Irish Baseball." Never a home run. That was the main rule.
I was 17 and working in a candy store run by insane identical Russian twins who alternately fist fought each other on the sidewalk out front and spied through a peephole in the backroom wall on us teen girl "fudge-cutters" serving up 2-for-1 pounds of allegedly homemade fudge in our required polyester nurse uniforms. (Mine had a sexy zipper up the front.)
Stella, my roommate, had the better job, running the merry-go-round on Fun Pier, the most rickety amusement pier on the boardwalk, the sort of pier where a huge chunk of the waterslide might (and in fact did) fall off, sending riders shooting like cheap firecrackers landing broken-necked on the hard sand below, destined for a life of quadriplegic regret.
In a town filled with rough characters, Fun Pier sported the roughest, a cast of carnies who'd take your grandma's last dime, happy to spit in her glass eye while doing it.
These were the men who showed us the ropes and anything else they could get us to look at, or at least touch. Late at night on the Atlantic-soaked salt sand beach I might grapple with the penis of a 5-foot-tall, tattoo-covered manchild who ran the Fun House. Or make out with Go-Kart Darren, netting lessons in French kisses and greasy engines, riding free anytime.
But my heart belonged to the illegal Irish guys, over in droves for fast jobs, no questions asked, down the shore. Their brogues caused at least as much pliancy upon my soul (and the zipper of my jeans) as 10 cocktails down at the Garden State Lounge, my favorite watering hole for drunken teenage carnie lust.
Owen, strapping Emerald Isle lad, had me up against a wall one night. Working those magic fingers down inside my fake designer jeans, pulling me forward, first base now second begging and lying in a whisper urgent as a Springsteen character: "Please? Ya know I wouldn't leave ya with a wee one."
How I escaped that summer virginity intact is, perhaps, cause for future recognition. (Headline, 3064 A.D.: Pope Declares Intact Teen Virginity Down the Shore Genuine Miracle. Spike Sainted.)
I go back sometimes. Those Irish kids still go down the shore, come over in droves, burnt freckles and Ferris wheels, red curls and soft serve. They take my ticket or my order, then say thanks very much in that magic way of theirs.
Ears perk, memories roar, and I'm sliding, giddy, out of control, first, second, headfirst for third, wincing at what might have been, grinning at what wasn't, as history's umpire calls it: