The Soda Jerk
by Tom Spader 8/2015
The Soda Jerk by Tom Spader 8/2015
The boardwalk was foul that morning. The garbage and stench from last night’s crowds was heavy in the summer air. An hour after sunrise and the old boards were always in need of a good cleaning ... just another day.
By eight, this place would be clean again and ready for the next assault of day-trippers and summer tourists. The sweepers and guys with long hoses had yet to do their morning ritual. These low-men on the totem pole would emerge from each business like a rodent leaving it’s burrow and clean the boards in front of their place. The greasy French fry stands would have the worst of it. The wood was actually stained darker near those places. Even the harmless postcard shop would have its work cut out for them. It didn’t matter what you sold, you were responsible for the wood in front of your place.
At fifteen, when most of my friends were sleeping late, I was walking through garbage and stale smells. Kicking through the empty cups, half eaten slices of pizza and the flattened remains of cotton candy I wondered how so many people could miss so many trash cans. Puddles of melted ice cream with the swirled colors of some sticky topping had oozed through the cracks onto the sands below like some surrealistic painting.
I was on my way to open the restaurant on the north end of the ocean-side boardwalk. I had spent my last two summers there as an underage prep chef and part time counter person. I was working a double shift that day and was not looking forward to it. I had agreed to cover a fellow soda fountain counter service person a.k.a. “Soda Jerk” on his closing shift, but also had to work my own shift all day in the kitchen. This meant that I’d be opening and closing the place. These were the years before the modern child labor laws. Those laws never seemed to apply to the boardwalk workers anyway.
As I neared the end of the half mile long walk I ran into Howard. Howard was a giant of a man in his late forties with a big smile and even bigger heart. As I greeted him with a morning hand shake I watched as my small white hand disappeared into his dark giant fist. His size made me very glad that we were friends. He was affectionately known as “Baby Huey” after the cartoon character. Gentle as a baby, but could squash you like a grape. Howard worked for the same people that I did. He didn’t work in the restaurant, he was more of a behind the scenes guy. This was a left over attitude from the owners father’s fathers. Whites out front in the public eye, and blacks to the rear.
Jenkinson’s, the company we worked for, was more than the restaurant. They owned a half mile stretch of beach, two restaurants, a bar, two candy stores, various prize wheels, a double Olympic size saltwater swimming pool, a miniature golf course and a beach train. The train ran the length of the half mile beach with a loop for turning around at the north end near the inlet where the Manasquan River spilled into the Atlantic Ocean.
Occasionally the beach train would derail. I once watched four strong able-bodied lifeguards attempt to put the train back on the tracks, but they couldn’t even budge it. Howard was called in and put the thing back on track by himself. I was very glad we were friends.
As I entered the restaurant ducking under the oversized garage doors, that later would be opened to create a open air dining room, I got a big hello from Buddy, my boss, whose big round faced smile greeted me every morning. Buddy, was the guy that gave me my chance the year before to prove that I could handle this job. I was two years younger than anyone else working there. Kids my age worked the beach - Umbrella boys. Buddy was a friend of my father’s from way back. I worked hard, kept my mouth shut, and did not make either Bud or my father regret the day I was hired.
The morning ritual after turning on the lights and pulling strings to the large wooden ceiling fans, was to make the beer run for Buddy and Baby Huey. Buddy would give me the keys to his pick-up truck camper and tell me to make a “vegetable run”, which meant to get the day’s worth of fresh produce from the walk-in refrigerator and while down there get the beer that he had tucked away in his pickup truck camper. Our walk-in refrigerator that held the bulk of the produce was actually down the block from the restaurant and under the big pool’s decking. His camper was always parked nearby. If Buddy arrived to work at 5:30 am with a six pack tucked under his arm it wouldn’t be viewed very productive to the straight-laced owner, so what better smoke screen than to send a kid down for the day’s veggies and have him return with six beers tucked in amongst the celery, onions and peppers. I also knew that sometime after lunch I’d be offered a cold one once they’d switched from beer to gin and tonics. By the time I got back from the veggie run, Howard and Buddy would both be waiting for me. Just another day.
My morning chores were lighting the large cast iron griddles, firing up the deep fat fryers and pulling the strings that lit up the neon signs that read “Drink Coke”, “Fresh Squeezed Orangeade” and “Use Coppertone”. The neon made for a colorful back drop mixing with the early morning light filtering through the paneled windows facing the ocean.
Looking out onto the empty beach I could see the lifeguards setting up their stands. Perched high above the shore break so their line of sight was set out past the breakers, they’d jam their orange floats into the sand a few feet in front of the stand. If needed, they could hit the beach from a leap off the seven foot stand, grab the float and hit the waves without breaking stride. Graceful as this move was it was hardly ever needed. Most of the time they’d sit day after day, wandering eyes hidden behind their Ray Ban shades, checking out the teenage girls, their noses smeared white as if wearing war paint for some possible battle. The thing they battled most was boredom.
Looking further north, I could see the commercial fishing boats heading into the Inlet from a night out netting whatever was plentiful and marketable. As they were coming in, the Party-Boats were going out.
Turning my attention back to the restaurant, the set-up quickly turned to the breakfast rush. Three cooks were manning the griddles. One on eggs. One on Meats. One on everything else (Pancakes, French toast, etc). I can still hear the “Egg-Cook” Jim singing, “I am the Egg man, I am the walrus, koo koo ka chu.”
Six waitresses moving fast and looking pretty at eight in the morning which was no easy task considering half of them closed the bars the night before.
Three guys were working the counter yelling their orders back in code, instead of using the paper slips the waitresses used. “Two stacks and scram working.” “One down, SPK with shoes.”
I prepped them all. It was like being the stage manager of some weird avant garde Off Broadway play.
The rush was usually over by 9:30 and lunch didn’t start for another two hours, so there was time for most of us to regroup ... except me, I’d be off on some other covert mission like smuggling beer over to the black guys washing dishes or scanning the beach with Bud’s military binoculars, powerful enough to see goose bumps form from a cool breeze from a hundred yards away - an interesting tool for a fifteen year old.
I’d also take lunches, full-tilt lunches, over to the bartenders that were setting up for their own rush to come later in the day. These lunches of giant burgers or club sandwiches would be exchanged for gin and tonics. These would be in plastic quart containers with limes floating. Buddy and Howard would then be set for the afternoon. My reward and incentive to keep quiet would be a mid afternoon cold beer set aside from the morning veggie run.
All this and at a buck sixty five a hour.
Lunch came and went without much fanfare. By noon, all the behind the scenes stuff that I was responsible for was done and the kitchen was set through dinner.
Breakfast was the busiest time of day for us, with things tapering off after lunch and literally dying by dinner. We were the only restaurant on the boardwalk that served Breakfast, but by eleven o’clock the other food stands were opening and the 1974 version of fast-food “boardwalk-style” would have the most draw. A slice of pizza or a quick burger vs. our sit down style set up. By dinner, the beach crowd had thinned out and most of the vacationers were hitting the fancier sea food restaurants down by the wharf or heading into town. The day trippers were heading home.
By dinner our staff was down to one waitress, one counter guy, one cook and me. Buddy would be long gone. He would just disappear around three or so. No announcement. No Good-byes. Just gone... back with the sun, seven days a week.
Howard never seemed to leave. He was always there when I arrived in the morning and always there when I left.
At six, the one remaining cook and last waitress called it a day. With them also went the last counter guy. Their exit left me alone.
The lone Soda Jerk. Soda and egg creams, 1930's style with long handles shooting soda water into syrups at the bottom of long glasses was about all we had to serve for the rest of the night. We had a full ice cream set up with twelve flavors and all the toppings, but the more famous name soft frozen custard place down the boards was the big crowd pleaser.
The night wore on painfully slow. It was still light out when Robyn bounced her way up to the counter. She actually bounced when she walked. The bouncing was something she called the “Bayonne Bop." A kind of exaggerated step with her hands in the back pockets of her jeans.
Robyn and I had been casually dating through the summer. By dating I mean we’d meet on the boardwalk and hang around until she had to go home. At fourteen she was not allowed to have guys come to the house. At ten o'clock, I’d get to walk her home and we’d sneak a long good night kiss a half a block away from her grandmother’s house where she spent the summer. She was a good Catholic girl with three very big brothers.
There were no customers that night, just me and Robyn. The live band that played in the bar could be heard from the counter, but hadn’t started yet and probably wouldn’t for another hour, so I turned the radio on that we kept near one of the cash registers. It was an old tube model with one big speaker. I found a station that she liked and the slow night just got a little better.
Song after song came on the radio that set the mood. Songs like Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” and “Rock and Roll Heaven” by The Righteous Brothers... top forty noise. When Roberta Flack’s bedroom voiced “Feel Like Making Love” my fifteen year old mind smiled.
At around 8:30 an older couple came in and sat at the first two stools nearest the boardwalk. Robyn was on the extreme other end. They ordered a couple of drinks and it was painfully obvious that they were going to stay for a long while to sip and chat.
About that time the radio started blaring some breaking news about an upcoming speech that was about to be made. I made for the knobs on the radio attempting to salvage the mood. As I turned the dial the same announcer was on every station. In frustration I turned it off, but the announcer was still announcing.
I spun around to look at Robyn. At the old couple. At the people on the boardwalk. Everyone had stopped. It felt like a bad version of the Twilight Zone.
It was then that I realized that the sound was no longer coming from the radio, but from the overhead speakers that were usually reserved for public service announcements and the likes of lost children. Now, they were broadcasting my mood-killing drone out to everyone, everywhere.
“What the Hell” I said and was met with a volley of “Shhhhhh’s” from everyone, including Robyn.
“Good evening. This is the 37th time I have spoken to you from this office, where so many decisions have been made that shaped the history of this Nation...”
It was President Nixon! Tricky Dick himself. So, he was the culprit. I never liked him anyway and now he was the reason why Robyn was cooling off very quickly.
“In the past few days, however, it has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to justify continuing...”
Stop, please STOP!
“I would have preferred to carry through to the finish whatever the personal agony it would have involved,”
Your agony?...You're killing me!
“I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body.”
Quit! Oh, please quit. Now...just quit!
"Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. “
What?! I looked out onto the boardwalk and everybody had stopped dead in their tracks to listen. He quit! Our president just quit. I couldn’t believe it. And with his final words I let out a cheer as if I was sitting in Yankee Stadium watching Graig Nettles hit a home run. I clapped and whistled and cheered some more. It was then that I realized that I was the only one yelling. I stopped, in case my cheering was so loud that I couldn’t hear everyone else cheering too. All I heard was silence. I looked at the crowd on the boardwalk. They were staring at me. I looked at the old couple sitting at the counter and the look of disgust on their faces as they glared at me was dark.
I looked at Robyn. There was a single tear rolling down her tanned cheek. For an instant I thought that maybe it was a tear of joy, but that soon faded as I walked towards her. I saw the same look of disgust that I had seen on the old couple. Her too? Was I the only one? Didn't they get it? He quit!
A few minutes passed and the owner of the restaurant came over to say that we were closing early for the night. He also said that he had had a complaint about some sort of cheering during the presidential speech. When I said, “the former president?” he too looked at me with disgust.
I said “Good night” as he pulled the garage doors down behind me. He looked at me and shook his head. I looked past him to see Howard, standing in the shadows, smiling and nodding. I smiled back and threw him a wave good-bye.
Robyn was half way down the block on her run home...home to tell the story. I could see the fists clenching.
I sat for a long time on one of the many benches that lined the boardwalk and thought about all that had happened.
Sometime well after midnight I got up to walk home. The boardwalk had been closed for a while. As I walked through the empty soda cups, the half eaten slices of pizza and the flattened remains of cotton candy, I again wondered how so many people could miss so many trash cans.
Just another day...
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Labor Day 1973
(Part III of the adventures of Haiku Lou)
Observations/true story while bar tending in Baltimore 1984
The night Nixon quit through my eyes at 15
Chance meeting in a snow covered city park
Observation at the all night mini mart
Adventures of a street poet
Lou and Omba in Washington Square
God's ant-like face shines
Changing roles in a city library
Coming soon ...