Friday, March 23, 2012

Chapter 1: One of These Nights

July Fourth 1975

With the windows down, I forget about my broken air conditioner, until I careen to a stop at the bottom of Old White Plains Road’s rocky curves. That’s when the heat thuds into my baby blue 1967 Oldsmobile, instantly gluing my hair to my neck. Crap, I forgot to bring a rubber band.

I turn up the music to keep my mind off the temperature. At traffic lights, my radio joins with others, all of us synchronized. If our songs clash, a punch or two of the radio buttons and I can find whatever they’re playing. Tunes surge and fade with the heat and breeze. “Love Will Keep Us Together.” “Philadelphia Freedom.” Oh good, my current favorite, “One of These Nights.”

Heading toward my summer job at Playland, I navigate barefoot, Kork-Ease sandals by the door, right foot toggling between accelerator and brake. Passing Hess Gas, I merge onto 95 North, then the leafy Playland Parkway in Rye, singing along to the radio the whole way, dropping my voice at red lights.

I’m in a great mood, which used to be rare but now happens regularly. After only a couple of weeks at Playland I feel like I’m on the cusp of everything. I sense a total shift in my life, my demons scattering, my desires about to be fulfilled, the promise of normalcy ahead. This feeling should last right up until I arrive back at my driveway. But that’s hours away. For now I block out the thought of home and focus on my new life on the outside.

I might actually be a member of the cool crowd at Playland. I’m not sure, I’ve never been popular, but I think this must be what it’s like. All I know is I feel completely different than I did before. The job is just a job, with rude customers and a humorless boss. But the people are brand new, and mostly guys. After years of wretchedly unfulfilled crushes, I’m suddenly being noticed. I’ve already had a brief fling with Jon, the guy who cleans the bathrooms. He smelled like ammonia and had a pimply back, but it’s a start. One advantage to discovering his ultimate loathsomeness is that I don’t miss him now that it’s over, and I know that feeling is mutual.

It could be the fact that no one at Playland knows I was an unpopular loser in high school, or maybe it’s the contact lenses. After a lifetime of glasses, I finally don’t have to be defined by my frames: granny, librarian, four-eyes, nerd. I look in the mirror and actually like what I see. My long brown hair is split down the middle like everyone’s yearbook photo. The braces are off and my skin is clear. I don’t stand out as a loser, so hopefully that makes me a winner.

I pull into the employee lot, park and get out of the car. Without the wind on my face, it’s steamy and gross. As bad as it is, though, I still have to add a layer. From the back seat I grab my freshly washed red-and-white striped uniform shirt. Slipping its stiff fabric over my favorite embroidered peasant top, I turn to look at the opposite end of the parking lot. Ugh. About two dozen yellow school buses sit like emptied, taunting jail cells. Most of Playland’s patrons are not the local suburbanites who know how to behave in public. They’re hooligans bused in every morning, I think from New York City detention centers in some kind of play-release program. Somehow I thought a holiday would be different, but apparently not.

Walking to the side entrance gate, I pin on my white plastic nametag. A seagull soars over the word "Playland" and a blue Dymo label reading “Karen” is stuck on underneath. The scent of cotton candy and garbage, with a touch of Jon’s ammonia, fills my nose. I can hear the clatter of the Dragon Coaster on its wooden tracks, the screams of its riders, the endless loop of carnival music, almost drowned out by the roar of thousands of people yelling, whining and talking with their mouths full.

I enter the game area of Playland, a green-and-cream-painted row of animal-themed races and tests of “skill” owned by my employer, Funtime Inc. My next-door neighbor Patrick Dowd is manning Shoot Out the Star, the most macho game in the row. BB riflemen must completely obliterate all traces of a red star on a white paper target to win a giant stuffed toy. Disputes break out all day as guys with girls wearing “I’m With Stupid” T-shirts insist the red is gone, despite evidence to the contrary. Working “The Star” takes an even firmer demeanor than average. Patrick doesn’t really look tough enough, but so far he’s managed to handle the conflicts.

“Hey,” Patrick says, turning slightly but keeping an eye on his current shooter. Sweat drips out from under sideswept brown bangs and down his round, downy cheeks. “Welcome to hell.”As if to reinforce his statement, a pack of pre-adolescents runs past screaming.

“Did you see all those buses?” I ask. “Looks like the entire city showed up!”

Patrick counts on his fingers: “Crowded, check. Inferno, check. Meaningless, repetitive work, check.”

Over Patrick’s shoulder, I see a short, balding, heavyset man inspecting the game booths. “Satan, check. Yep, it’s hell. And I signed up for overtime!”

Folding down a fifth finger, Patrick notes, “Eternity, check.”

I speed up and pass him, asking, “Have you ever thought about another line of work, like motivational speaking?”

“Hey,” he calls after me. “Hell is what you make it! Go grab some gusto!” He turns back to Shoot Out the Star, shooing away an acne-blasted teen trying to remove one of the dusty teddy bears from a hook where it’s probably been skewered since the first lunar landing.

The heavyset man is Henry Drake, boss and fashion plate. He’s one of the new people I’m not happy I met. He wears tight brown polyester pants with a slight flare at the bottom, a multicolored thin-striped shirt and a clashing red tie. On his left hand is a large brown wart, which he rubs distractedly with nicotine-stained fingers. The dark circles under his eyes match his pants almost perfectly. He creeps me out, but I have no choice: I have to pass him to get to the time clock behind his office.

“Good morning, Henry.”

Henry looks at his watch. “Hello, Miss Maguire. How nice for you that you’re not hung up on obeying authority figures. Very Sixties. Too bad it’s the Seventies! Your game is the only one not ready.”

“But we don’t open for half an hour! I’m early!”

“Do you see customers? Consider yourself late! What did you expect on a holiday?”

He turns and waddles away. I hurry to punch in behind the Pokerino parlor, where cartons of stale cigarettes – the game’s prizes – line the shelves above the tired machines. I head to my boarded-up game, pull a key from my pocket, unlock a padlock and roll up the peeling wooden shutters. My new home away from home: the Monkey Race, where players compete to make their monkey climb the tree fastest.

After clambering over the counter I turn on the lights and start setting up my ticket-taking system. Young kids immediately appear and ask how to play the game, while older kids make threatening comments implying I should let them play for free. I try to move quickly and keep them around so I’ll have a full race of 12 people when it’s all set up. I look over to see Henry glaring at me from the Rabbit Race across the way, where his pet Carl Thomas is attracting large audiences with a clever sales pitch involving word play on rabbits, bunnies, hares and hopping. Patrick, in the booth next door, has a long line of waiting gunmen.

Finally, in a voice barely louder than conversational, I call out, “OK, grab a spot! Four tickets or 40 cents! Here we go!” This is the limit of my patter. I’m uncomfortable with the public speaking aspect of my job. Most of the time I operate quietly, turning up the volume only when Henry is nearby. On busy days, the games are usually jammed anyway. And this is the busiest day since I started here almost two weeks ago.

I move feverishly back and forth across the booth, taking fistfuls of damp 10-cent tickets and dimes and depositing them in a muslin bag and the ancient pewter cash register. I make change for dollars, wipe food scraps off the counter, try to remember to smile, step on the levers that release each player’s wheel. Spin the wheel at just the right pace and the monkey climbs steadily. Get impatient and spin too fast and the monkey drops. First one to the top wins a prize worth bragging rights, but probably not even the 40-cent price of play: a tiny address book, a flocked plastic gorilla. Insider tip: wheel number 8 can be made to go just a little faster than the others.

The time passes loudly and quickly. Buzz, a floater who has earned his name and wears it proudly, on his nametag and in his dilated pupils, arrives to relieve me for the mandatory 30-minute lunch break. But by then it’s almost twelve hours later and thirty minutes to closing time. I’m desperate for a bathroom, starving and almost out of prizes. Somehow Buzz never got around to restocking; somehow my earlier breaks got bypassed. I’m annoyed but what the hell. Buzz can close up.

I take off my striped shirt, stuff it under the counter and jump out of the Monkey Race. Lighting a long-craved Marlboro, I punch out, then race to the bathroom. I buy a hot dog and 7-Up and wander around the crowded park. Activity is even more frenzied since fireworks are about to begin. Families and groups of kids swarm the wide pathways, heading toward the beach, but I swim upstream toward the slow merry-go-round, where my friend Gwen hasn’t yet shut down her ride.

Gwen and I have been partners in crime – literally – almost five years now. We started down the road to ruin freshman year by shoplifting together – once we stole six Kit Kats and a Creem magazine from a store in Scarsdale Village and took them to a spot by the Bronx River Parkway to devour: a thousand shared calories and the latest on Eric Clapton and the Who. It beat paying, so we got in the habit.

We got caught at Woolworth’s in White Plains sophomore year with a purse overflowing with cheap makeup we planned to divvy up later. They took us in a police car to the dreary station where we had to sit for hours since neither set of parents was home. Gwen was fuming the whole time; I wept. The prison matron they left in charge of us said to me kindly, “I know I won’t see you here again.” Then she narrowed her eyes and growled at Gwen, “You’ll be back.”

That sucker-for-tears battleax was half right. Gwen did get caught again – but then so did I. I was hooked on “purchasing” (our code word for stealing) and kept right on going. Less than a year later, I was caught taking a plastic bracelet and a Mary Quant eye shadow kit from Lord & Taylor in Eastchester. In a windowless room in the basement the store detective, indicating her desk, said, “You see there are no sharp objects here? That’s because shoplifters have a tendency toward violence.” Then she told me that I could never be a nurse because I had proven I couldn’t be trusted around drugs.

I’m sure I’d make a terrible nurse, but having any career choice denied me at 16 was pretty scary. Even scarier was when she told me since I didn’t have a previous record they were going to let me go and my mother piped up, “What do you mean first offense? She and her friend were arrested for shoplifting last year!” Thanks, Mom. By the way, you’re banned from visiting me in jail.

I always need money, so I stole for the savings. But Gwen’s family has plenty. She just has poor money management skills. She spends every penny she gets and is always negotiating with her little brother to borrow at usury rates. She’s hoping this summer at Playland, her first job, will keep her in cigarettes, vodka, Kit Kat bars and Alice Cooper albums.

We’re past stealing now, and on to trying to rack up some notches in our belts. We don’t like the same guys, luckily. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever liked anyone she’s ever been with and vice versa. We have a weird mix of competitiveness, disdain and jealousy. We never discuss it, but it comes out in comments about each other’s usually poor choices.

Like me, Gwen struggles with her weight, but in her case weight has the upper hand. I always want to lose five pounds, preferably ten, but Gwen could probably stand to lose forty. Everyone, even her mother, is always telling her how much prettier she’d be if she lost weight. What a slap. At this point she doesn’t even seem to care and has accepted heavy as her “style.” I think the weight might even make her more self-confident, like she knows who she is and the hell with anyone who doesn’t like her. She comes across as tough, maybe a little defensive – sort of an “I’ll hurt you before you can hurt me” attitude. I’m more “please like me!”

Finally Gwen chases away her last riders and closes up shop. She lights a Kool – she switched from Marlboros last year, after going out with one of the only black guys at Scarsdale High, an exchange student from Malawi. It pissed me off because now I can’t bum cigarettes from her when I’m out. Menthol is just nauseating.

Together we walk through the throngs toward the beach, hopefully looking cool and jaded. Gwen flips her long blond hair and starts bitching. “I can’t take much more of this shit. Today was like some awful combination of time passing quickly—’cause it’s so busy—and dragging forever because I hate these people!”

“It’s worse for me,” I point out. “You mostly get little kids and their moms, and you don’t even have to talk to them. I get assholes who think they’re clever and are basically looking to either steal prizes or get laid.”

“Hey, speaking of assholes who want to get laid, what happened to you last night? Who was that guy you left the Candlelight with?”

I shudder. “His name was Alex and he was a complete waste of time. Plus he had a two-door car, which is always a pain.”

Shaking her head, Gwen says, “Sometimes I wonder why we bother.”

“Because one of them might be ‘the one’?” I ask.

“Ha! If you’re hoping to meet ‘the one’ at a one-night stand, all I can say is I know I’ll never be a bridesmaid. Which is fine with me, by the way.”

“Yeah, well, talking to guys in bars is more fun than an awkward dinner where you both discover you have nothing in common and try not to drop your bread in the fondue.” At least I think it is.

Gwen snorts. “You mean a date? How would you know what that would be like?”

“Hey, I read Cosmo!” I say. I sure do. I even keep the Cosmo Bedside Astrologer by my bedside.

Walking in silence among the mob, we pass the ice skating rink, site of birthday parties of yesteryear, toward the arcing swoosh that is Playland’s small beach. Gwen sighs. “I thought graduating would be the start of something big, but this summer sure ain’t cutting it. It’s the same old crap as high school. I can’t wait to get to college.”

“Don’t rub it in. You’re getting out of Podunk and I’m still stuck at home. The only difference for me is that you won’t be there. God, I hate my parents for getting divorced. How’s it fair that my father gets to escape, but not me?”

Carl from the Rabbit Race comes running up behind us, forcing his way through the hordes. He’s tall – basketball player tall – and hefty – football player hefty. He’d be cute, except for the crazy eyes. Unlike us, who took off our striped shirts the first moment we could, Carl wears his whenever he’s in Playland, like an off-duty cop who still wants the public to know they can call on him if they need to. “Hey, gals—wait up!” he calls to us.

Gwen says to me, “‘Gals.’ Now that’s how I like to think of us. Old-fashioned, with some bumpkin thrown in.” I make no comment – she sounds so mean and I don’t want to wound Carl, annoying as he can be.

“Aw, come on, give me a break,” he complains, taking a deep drag from his cigarette. “Didn’t I invite you to the most phenomenal party of the summer tomorrow night?”

“Now, how the hell do we know if it’s ‘phenomenal’ if it hasn’t happened yet?” Gwen asks snidely. I don’t like Carl, but I can’t imagine being rude to him. Or anyone else, for that matter.

Carl exhales cigarette smoke loudly, his trademark. “It’s a 1967 party! You dress in a 1967 costume and let it all hang out.”

This makes no sense to me. I say to Carl, “In 1967 my car was new, but I was nine years old. Why would I want to relive that?”

“Hearken back to yesteryear! It was the Summer of Love!” Carl bellows, before breaking into a few notes of “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).” “You’re not supposed to relive it like it really was for you, it’s like a chance for you to be 18 and have it be 1967.”

“Yeah, yeah,” says Gwen. “Very cosmic. Where is it again?”

“At my friend Mark’s house, right behind mine. We can meet at my place.”

I throw a quick look at Gwen. Do we want to encourage Carl by going to his house? She shrugs. I guess a party’s a party. There will be guys there, even though one of them will be him.

“Where do you live?” I ask.

“Mamaroneck,” he says, and all of a sudden he has a pen in his hand and he’s writing his address on a crumpled napkin from his pocket. He smiles at me almost shyly and my heart sinks. I’ve caught him staring at me from his Rabbit Race. I know he has a crush on me and I feel guilty that this only makes me feel one overwhelming emotion: pity. Why him?

Gwen snatches Carl’s address and starts to walk away quickly. “Hey, we have to duck into the gals’ room for a minute. We’ll catch up with you later.” We run into the bathroom and hide behind the door until finally he checks his watch and scurries away, heading toward the sound of exploding fireworks. We come out and stroll to the edge of the boardwalk. There we gaze down at Rye Beach, packed with people, and up at the fireworks overhead.

I ask Gwen, “Why has this guy latched on to me? I don’t want to hurt his feelings, but how could he possibly think I’m the one for him?”

“Well, you’re always bitching about how you want a boyfriend.”

“Yes, but a cool one! I want someone who rides a motorcycle and has good taste in music and wears cowboy boots and has a mustache and isn’t looking to get high all the time.”

“I think the Marlboro man is a bit out of your league. Plus the fact that he’s a fictional character!” She points her cigarette at mine, which just happens to be a Marlboro. “An excellent salesman, though.”

“I’m serious. The only thing I want by the end of the summer is to be in love.”

“Karen, that’s all you wanted by the end of high school, remember?”

“Gee, thanks for reminding me! At least when I get to college I can start from scratch with some new friends who won’t constantly tell me what a loser I am.”

“Oh, you’re not a loser,” Gwen says quickly. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. You know I’m always making wisecracks.” I shrug. It’s true, she’s always making wisecracks, but somehow they’re much easier to take when I’m not the subject.

We watch the fireworks bursting over Playland’s small beach. “That’s the Way of the World” by Earth Wind & Fire plays faintly on a transistor radio held by the guy standing next to me. It’s meant to be upbeat but I fixate on the last lines about a child being born with a heart of gold, but the way of the world making his heart grow cold. So true. I want to believe the world is good but all signs point to the contrary. I’ve been hoping that the end of high school means I won’t have to feel angry and unloved and poor all the time, but even though my life is definitely improving, it seems like a long shot.

The fireworks are punctuated by oohs and aahs from the families below. The crowd is racially diverse in a way that’s rare in Westchester. Some of the black customers act a little menacing but they don’t really seem dangerous. And the kids are just adorable, like Michael Jackson of the Jackson 5. Sometimes they even seem to be dancing in formation. When I pointed this out to Carl, he told me I was racist but I don’t see how it’s racist to notice how cute little black kids are. He thinks he’s so smart, with his scholarship to Georgetown and a vocabulary straight out of an SAT study guide.

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