It was the summer of '84, the Tuesday after Memorial Day, and it was my first day at work. I was standing in my new boss' office, soaked to the skin, my hair matted down on my forehead, shivering and unable to speak. Why was I soaked? There was a thunderstorm raging outside and, being an ill-prepared young man, I did not own an umbrella let alone a raincoat to protect me from the elements. Why was I unable to speak?
Glad you asked.
That summer my friends and I rented a shore house in Belmar, New Jersey on 16th Avenue, about a half-block from the beach, the upstairs of a two-family house. It was incredibly small for the amount of people renting it, but it had a bathroom and a refrigerator filled with beer so it was perfect.
This was our first year in Belmar, having recently graduated from our summers in Manasquan and Seaside, so we were not totally familiar with the local bars. That problem was quickly rectified.
That first Sunday afternoon we walked into a bar that would become our second home. We would spend every weekend there, surrounded by like-minded idiots content to spend those beautiful summer days bathed in floodlights while the smell of stale beer and sweat hovered in the air. I spent that entire summer down on the shore and never got a tan. I was probably paler when the summer was over from the absence of vitamin D due to my total lack of direct sunlight.
This was Mary's Husband's Pub and it was the place to be.
That first Sunday we moved through the crowd, getting a feel for the place, spotting some familiar faces from back home. The music blared through the speakers as Screwy Louie, the bar's DJ, a small man with bushy hair, aviator sunglasses, clam-digger pants and a perpetual "I don't give a f*ck" grin, played the best music I had ever heard.
We soon discovered drinks that I had not heard of before. I was accustomed to shots of whiskey or tequila quickly followed by a swig of beer. Here, however, they had drinks named "apple pie" and "woo woo." You didn't just order a "woo woo" -- you needed to know the proper way to drink it as well. First you put your index and middle fingers inside the rock glass and your thumb on the outside. You'd then lift the glass to your mouth, down the sweet, sticky liquid and quickly return the glass to the bar. Then, as if it was the most common thing in the world, you'd stick your fingers in your mouth, suck them clean, pull them out with a "pop" and then throw your hands into the air and shout, "Woo-Woo!"(Don't judge me.)
At some point in the afternoon, the crowd parted and several of the bouncers, clad in their identical red shirts, carried something from the back of the bar. It was several wooden pieces that they started to assemble into what looked like a small stage. The music was so loud, it was hard to talk to each other. I turned to a girl next to me and asked, "What is this?" She responded, but I could not make out what she said. I asked again as the bouncers methodically completed their structure. Again, I could not make out what she said. I leaned down and put my ear right by her mouth and she screamed the answer once again.
"Turtle Races!" she said, deafening me before disappearing into the crowd.
I turned back to the completed structure and, sure enough, it had several neatly numbered lanes partitioned by long strips of Plexiglas. Suddenly the rafters shook when Gary Glitter's Rock and Roll (Part 2) blasted from the speakers and everyone started to cheer. Turtles appeared and were placed in their respective lanes. A barrier kept them from rushing off before the official bell. I did not realize until after this first race (yes, there were several that day) but people could bet on a numbered turtle and win shirts, bandanas, even free drinks. Within minutes the official announcement was made, the barrier was removed and the race was on.
It was like the Roman Coliseum as people screamed and shouted, their faces red as those poor befuddled reptiles, their feet slipping in the beer and spit that flew from the crowd, moved patiently forward. Some patrons would lower their faces, nearly eye-level to a competitor's turtle and shout, "Go back you piece of sh*t, go back!", while others provided encouraging remarks to their favorite, "Go faster, you piece of sh*t, go faster!"
It was the most ridiculous thing I had ever seen in my life.
Until about the third race.
"What the f*ck is wrong with you, move!" I shouted at number three who, for some reason, decided to just sit still and wait it out. I screamed and threatened him, but he acted as if he didn't understand a word I was saying. I was red in the face by the time it was all over, my shirt soaked with sweat and beer neither of which were necessarily mine. After several more races the bouncers returned and rewound what they had done earlier, and the individual sections of the racetrack disappeared into the darkness that was the back of the bar.
I had never yelled so much and so loud at a poor, helpless, defenseless creature (unless you count watching the Vice-Presidential debate).
That night I went back to the shore house, exhausted, exhilarated, my throat shouted sore and unable to speak.
Two days later, as my new boss walked me through the cubicles and I mimed my introductions to the repeatedly confused looks on my future co-worker's faces, I only had one thought that went through my mind: