Jack Brian searches the Jersey shore for love, girls and a future.
September 3rd, 1992
By Jon Katz
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
JACK BRIAN PULLS OFF his black MEGADETH T-shirt and leans back in a frayed beach chair to catch the last of the afternoon sun. He has a few hours to go before work - running a softball toss six blocks down the Wildwood, New Jersey, boardwalk, which he does when he's in the mood. That is to say, when he's hungry and in need of rent money and it isn't raining and the odds are poor that he'll meet a Love Girl. That does not happen often. Love Girls are all over Wildwood in the summer, and all over Jack.
The search for the Love Girl begins daily when Jack wakes, about the time the sting goes out of the sun and the breeze off the water begins to push the thick, dense air around a bit.
It's dream time in Wildwood, the pause between beach and boardwalk, when the assembly-line jockeys and secretaries, cops and nurses who've basted to bright reds and cell-killing browns are trudging across the wide beach, kids in tow, burdened with the paraphernalia of the Jersey Shore: plastic buckets, aluminum beach chairs, beer-insignia blankets, all slicing narrow trails in the white sand, which has begun to cool.
Wildwood is calm at the end of the day. The lifeguards, bored beyond pretending and anxious to get on with the night, drag their boats up onto the beach and stretch out under their umbrellas, yawning, looking at their wristwatches, the beach bunnies gathering below them in hopeful clusters. The motel parking lots are jammed. Everybody's off the beach, having a drink by the pool, getting ready for dinner and a walk on the boardwalk. There are few Hondas or Toyotas in the parking lots: Wildwood buys American.
Like Atlantic City and Asbury Park and many of the other old resorts along the Jersey Shore, Wildwood has been devastated by air travel and interstate highways, air conditioning and TV. Some locals blame the town's troubles on the fact that everybody in a family works now, or tries to, so that bus drivers and shopkeepers can't send their families away for the summer anymore. Others say extended families - grandparents, aunts and uncles, grown siblings - don't summer together the way they used to. Maybe the old pleasures got boring. In the Eighties, it was almost as cheap to take the kids to Orlando as to shell out for a week or two at the Kona Kai or the Stardust.
Whatever the reason, much of Wildwood today seems shellshocked, a battlefield smoldering after the armies have moved on, though it isn't clear what kind of battle was waged. There's hardly an actual store on the boardwalk anymore, just rows of pizza stands, T-shirt shops, video parlors and ninety-nine-cent stores. No town anywhere is trying harder to paint over the cracks and win your goodwill: Scrawny new trees have been planted in front of motels and rooming houses, and three glittering new piers, two with elaborate water parks, pull in visitors all the way from Atlantic City. But the town is tawdry through and through, a cheap thrill, a sunburn and a stomachache just three hours down the parkway from New York and two from Philly.
DESPITE HIS AGE, which varies from sixteen to twenty depending on who's asking and why, Jack is as regular in his rituals as any Florida retiree. If he is alone when he wakes, or even if he isn't Jack rolls naked off the mattress he claimed in the middle of the boardinghouse room. He steps over John, less lucky with girls and more likely to be sleeping by himself on the floor, and then over Jimmy from northeast Philly, who sometimes has somebody under his blanket. Sometimes, Jack climbs over a few other people as well, which violates his landlady's policies but doesn't seem to concern him much.
Wildwood's landlords are tough, hanging on all summer by their fingernails and praying for Labor Day. Jack's landlady has a weary face. She hates most of the kids she rents to and has lots of reasons, which she enthusiastically lists between puffs on a cigarette stub that never seems to burn down: stolen towels, clogged toilets, piles of empty liquor bottles and beer cans. Too many near misses from burning cigarettes to count. Boomboxes rattling the floors and windows. Broken beds, ripped curtains, rotten food, vomit in the hallways. Fighting, dope, cops summoned by neighbors.
What about deadbeats? She's incredulous at the question: “They pay the first of the week, brother, no credit. This ain't Sears." She never softens or relaxes her watchfulness, at least for the weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day - the Season. You got to have a cold heart," she says.
She often catches Jack walking nude down the dark hallway to the communal bathroom and threatens to toss him out and call the police if he doesn't get dressed. Jack, though, knows when to take conflict seriously and when to laugh it off. “Coming from Philly," he says, smirking, “I am not afraid of the Wildwood police."
Besides, the landlady softens a bit when she talks about Jack. He's a pain in the ass but no real threat. “That boy is having quite the summer," she says.
It's the landlady who first mentions the ceiling. “He's got a low ceiling over him," she says of Jack. “My husband says never to talk about blacks and whites with strangers, but I think if you're a black boy, you've got a better shot than Jack in some ways. People will speak up for you. Nobody will speak up for a boy like Jack. He reminds me of my boy. He wanted to be in computers. Instead, he works three part-time jobs - a driver, a security guard, a loader on a dock. He's twenty-seven and never has had a full-time job with benefits in his life. Probably never will."
UPSTAIRS, JACK HAS launched his start-of-the-day toilette, hastened by a rancid bathroom that's equipped sparely with a sink, a john and a prison-style polished-steel mirror. His routine consists of taking a leak, splashing cold water on his face and swilling some brown stuff from a bottle of Scope. "Starts the engine and doubles as a mouthwash," he says. But isn't Scope supposed to be green and smell minty, not like Seagram's? Jack laughs. He doesn't own a toothbrush and doesn't like the inquiry either: It strikes him as an adult-kid question and makes him bristle.
He dresses as carefully as a prom queen, preening in T-shirts (choosing, on most days, between MEGADETH and THE CURE), tying back his dark hair, which falls to his thin shoulders, inserting three gold hoops in his right ear. Satisfied, he walks out onto the rooming house's second-floor patio and takes up position.
Jack stretches and plants both feet on the patio's metal railing. He hikes up his denim shorts, cut and frayed so short that the curve of his right testicle pushes out one leg hole. He splays his lanky legs far apart, so that a passerby looking up can see his crotch, single jewel and all, looming over Spencer Avenue. Then, reaching for a bottle of suntan lotion, he pours a pool onto his chest and smears it all over.
Jack hasn't been in position more than two minutes when a young woman and two friends walk by. She looks up and her eyes widen as she takes in the tan, the mini-shorts, the smile. Jack is off the balcony in five seconds, jumping over the rail onto a stone fence post below, then onto the street, where he materializes in front of her.
"Don't be shy, give it a try," he says. "Please meet me for an evening of romance across from Laura's Fudge at eleven tonight. If you come to your senses, just don't show up. If you don't I’ll see you there. I'm Jack. I’ll buy you a pretzel. 'Less you got real food. Then bring it." He grins.
The girl is no wallflower. She recovers quickly, laughs back. “Okay," she says. “Why not? I'll see you there. Maybe. Maybe not."
“You'll be there,” he says, bowing. A second later, he's back on the balcony, reclining in his chair. This, perhaps, is why God created Wildwood.
LET'S BE CLEAR ABOUT JACK. That was almost certainly his real first name, but it was almost the only thing about him that didn't change in the telling. Everything else was fluid. Most days Jack claimed he was eighteen, though sometimes older, sometimes younger. Usually, he said his last name was Brian, but once, after a six-pack, he became Jack Connolly, and once he was Jack O'Brian. He said proudly that he came from South Philly, ancestral source of Wildwood vacationers, though once, like his friend John, he was from Manayunk and once from Media, a working-class suburb southwest of the city. He would not give a home address.
Jack says he went to a Catholic high school, is the second of three children, that his mother is a laid-off clerical assistant and his father was a Philadelphia cop.
What was certain about Jack was what you could see: He had a lean rocker's body, long dark hair, dancing green eyes and a charismatic flair. He thought almost everything he saw or heard was funny. If he had expectations beyond the summer, he hid them. It wasn't so much that he didn't think about things but that he had thought about everything, seen matters quite clearly and decided that there was no point in thinking about them anymore. What he was going to deal with was this summer, his reign as the Prince of Wildwood.
The best guess is that he had dropped out of high school and was supposed to be working, not roaming the shore and camping in a rooming house packed with horny, smelly teenagers. He had baited, that's what his roommates said, but they weren't sure from what. Jack himself liked to suggest that the cops were looking for him on some minor but dramatic charge.
“It's not like I'm pessimistic or anything, you know," he explains. "I just see the way it is. I'm a realistic man, 'cause that's the only way I figure I can look at it. My father was a cop. He died ten years ago on the john, just like Frank Rim did, taking a dump. I used to feel shitty that he died that way, but Rizzo died that way, and if the mayor of Philadelphia can, it's okay for my dad. My mom's out of work, been laid off her last three jobs. I don't like to live in the house, because she doesn't have much left over. My brother went to community college, got some computer training, but that's a shuck. He's working part time down at the Italian market loading trucks and selling ham. The fuck. He can't afford insurance for a car. I got a cousin who went to Temple and graduated. You know what he's doing? He's on the waiting list to be a state trooper, but they told him to his face the heat is on them to hire women and colored.
“So I’m down here for this summer," he says. “My mom doesn't know where I am. I'm going to have this great summer, you know, this perfect summer when I have my body and my freedom, and I can screw and eat junk and sleep whenever I want. 'Cause after Labor Day, I'm Christopher fucking Columbus, man. I go back home and step off the end of the world."
That was intense talk for Jack. Like most kids, he wanted to seem adult, but he gave himself away as a kid all the time. He could talk easily about an awesome album or girl but could only dredge up flat monosyllables on most other topics. His consciousness was fixed in the present. More than five days ago was ancient Rome. More than five days ahead was science fiction.
IF JACK HAS A CLUB, it's the plastic benches above the entrance to Raging Waters, where kids with no money for admission and no interest in trekking across the vast beach can sit and watch the splashing people below.
Raging Waters is a series of breathtakingly high fiberglass flumes and slides that kids zip down before landing in a pool several stories below. A shallow river surrounds the park, and a stream of people-stuffed inner tubes lazily circles the perimeter. When the lifeguard turns to shoo some kid off another kid's shoulders, Jack can sometimes vault the low fence and jump in behind the tube of a girl who's caught his eye. He usually gets caught quickly, because the guards know him by now and also because paying guests get color-coded bracelets. A loudspeaker constantly reminds people with orange or green or blue bracelets that it's time to leave.
The club is the only place in Wildwood where Jack and his friends, like old geezers sitting on a bench in front of the courthouse, will talk jobs and futures and trade anecdotes about the hard times of friends and relatives. One sticky afternoon, as Jack sprawls in his customary girl-attracting position, talk at the club is filled with bleak predictions. John Quantero, a part-time student at Glassboro State College, and his friend Peter DiCerto, a senior at Villanova, are swapping horror stories.
"I'll have a life,” Peter is saying, “but it won't be the life my father had. I don't want my wife to work, but she'll probably have to. I won't have a house that big or two cars probably or a vacation house. But there's got to be jobs for college guys somewhere.”
“Maybe,” John replies. “Everybody who graduated last year is working as secretaries or in part-time construction jobs or for their parents. Or not.
Jack stretches his legs out and rubs on some Coppertone. He peels off his GUNS N' ROSES T-shirt and listens languidly as his friends offer one sad tale after another: this one laid off, that one driving a cement truck, another working as a receptionist. Nobody has money for an apartment, a car or insurance.
Then three girls in sandals and skimpy bikinis appear below in the Raging Waters line. In a flash, Jack makes his way into the line, his shirt wrapped around his neck.
WILDWOOD IS A WORKING-class place, an upside-down place, its very existence an assault on the whole notion of political correctness and cultural sensitivity, a finger in the eye of chic urban America, resistant to notions of multiethnic diversity, environmental consciousness, sexual egalitarianism and health food. Everywhere you look, Wildwood is in your face.
Blacks and Hispanics stroll the boardwalk at night, but Wildwood's soul is working-class white. Jack has nothing against “the blacks," as he puts it, but uses nigger, spic, wop, and pollack as frequently as hello. Women are ”babes," "chicks ," "pussies," "cunts," “bitches" and “Love Girls." Sex is quick and uncomplicated by contraception. Safe sex usually means asking your partner if he or she is healthy. Blow jobs in alleys off the boardwalk are okay if you're in a hurry; quick missionary in-and-out is more common. Alcohol is something you and everyone around you drink all the time. You start smoking in your early teens and keep at it until your first heart attack or until you die.
Anyone who thinks feminism has become an accepted part of American life should check out the T-shirts of Wildwood. Vacationers swarm into the shirt shops almost as soon as they hit town, picking out one of the hundreds of decals displayed along the walls to be ironed onto the shirt. If sexual politics aren't discussed much, they are vividly displayed. The T-shirts say, LICK IT, SLAM IT, SUCK IT; NO MUFF TOO TOUGH, WE DIVE AT FIVE; A WOMAN ONLY NEEDS FOUR ANIMALS IN HER LIFE: 1 ) A MINK ON HER BACK, 2) A JAGUAR IN HER GARAGE, 3 ) A TIGER IN HER BED, 4) A JACKASS TO PAY FOR IT ALL. Other bestsellers: SIT ON MY FACE, BITCH; JUST BLOW ME; SHOW ME YOUR TITS; TIGHT BUTTS DRIVE ME NUTS; THERE'S A PARTY IN MY PANTS.
Suitably adorned, the families begin their promenade along the boardwalk at dusk, a swelling parade that thickens to a peak between 10:30 and 11:00. The boardwalk can play tricks at night. All of a sudden, turquoise eye shadow doesn't seem gaudy. Fleshy bodies begin to look sensual. Sometimes, when the roller coaster clacks by and girls shriek as their dates win at the beanbag toss, when the wind from the ocean blows the sticky air back and the sweat chills and dries, then everyone becomes young and sexy for a few moments. But then the breeze dies, the bugs and humidity drift back from the marshes, and the neon-lit faces turn garish.
The men go first in these boardwalk promenades, walking with a macho swagger that encourages others to step out of the way. Everything they wear is too tight for their bodies or too flashy for a beach town. Their wives, wearing the tiredest faces in town, are usually pushing strollers. There's too much for kids to want in Wildwood - rides, toys, games, candy. Sometimes, if they whine too much for another video game or frozen custard, the fathers wheel around and thump the kids on the head.
Jack has noticed the men. His own father, he says, could get unpredictable when he'd had too much to drink. But Jack doesn't connect the men's coughs, bellies or bodies to the cigarettes he chain-smokes or the cold fries he plucks from paper plates stuffed into boardwalk garbage cans. Jack knows a lot, but what he knows has been self-taught. He never mentions school. Asked if he ever had a favorite teacher or one to whom he was close, he gets his stupid-question look. “The fuck," he says with a shrug. He says “the fuck" so often in response to questions about his life and the vagaries of other people's that his friend John calls him the Fuck. It has a nice double meaning whose irony is not lost on Jack.
Tonight, Jack says, he's going to “Fuck for Frank," his personal tribute to Frank Rizzo, who died last night. Rizzo was proud of his just reputation as a “stand-up" guy - openly battling to hold the line against hippies, liberals and blacks - and thus one of the handful of politicians Jack could name and admire. (Two others are George Bush, who “stood up" to Saddam, and Dan Quayle, who “stands up" to the media.)
Rizzo would have appreciated the homage later paid him in the damp sand near old Hunt's Pier, where Jack disappeared with the Love Girl he had earlier propositioned, who wasn't shy and gave him a try.
Savvy swains like Jack avoid under-the-boardwalk sex in the five minutes before and after the hour, when a Wildwood police jeep roars across the sand, lighting its spotlights and scattering the couples who are screwing along the surf, beneath beached rowboats, under the lifeguard stands. “Only total fucking morons would go under the lifeguard stands," says Jack. They can spot you way down the beach, and you have to run half a fucking mile to the boardwalk to hide." So Jack and his Love Girl tonight wait until ten minutes after midnight before descending the wooden stairs to the beach.
ON A SUBSEQUENT afternoon, I wake Jack and his roommates with cereal, a loaf of bread, a half-gallon of milk and a bag of hard rolls. He and his roommates jump on the food, stuffing bread and cereal into their mouths dry, gulping the milk out of the carton. When they're still hungry, I take them out to a coffee shop, where they order pancakes, bacon and eggs. I ask for whole-wheat toast. The waitress giggles: “This ain't New York, buddy."
Jack and his friends are convulsed, incredulous. “Whole-wheat toast?" Jack guffaws. "Whole wheat Man, you go out and chop that out of a field? With a scythe? Wheatman."
I'm abashed. I've branded myself a rube in Wildwood, a visitor clearly from the other side, the land of skim milk and Volvos. Rattled and eager to regain some stature, I tell Jack that as a newspaper reporter, I used to cover Frank Rizzo. For the first time, I have Jack's complete attention. “No shit?" he says.
No shit: The Wheatman regales Jack and his friends with stories from his days as a police reporter, when Rizzo ruled Philadelphia's streets like a Turkish bey. There was the time Rizzo's limousine had cut off the Wheatman's VW on Benjamin Franklin Parkway the day after the Wheatman had written a story Rizzo didn't like, and a dozen cops with drawn guns had circled the car. When the Wheatman, terrified, stepped out of the Bug with his hands up, Rizzo and the other cops cracked up. There was the time Rizzo took off his gun and challenged the leader of a street gang to a fistfight and the time he called up the Wheatman's wife to tell her their house had been surrounded by sharpshooters.
Beyond the Formica table, waitresses shout and blenders hum, while buses roar past outside the window - but Jack is transfixed, a child mesmerized. The Wheatman is saved; he may be a wimp, but he's hung out with the toughest cop that ever patrolled the world.
“You know," says the Wheatman, "Rizzo had a career. He joined the police department when he was a kid, and he worked his way up. He had security - a pension, medical coverage. What career do you think of?"
“I thought about the army," says John. “That's a career, but I don't think you can get in for much longer. My uncle says they're going to cut back the military. I was going to be a ranger or a navy SEAL."
Jack shrugs. He wants to hear more Rizzo stories. The Wheatman has hundreds.
THE PRINCE OF WILDWOOD shares his $200-a-week room with two, sometimes three or even four other boys from Philly. His share, depending on how many other kids are crashing, comes to $40 to $70 a week, which he raises in various ways. Girls come through with five or ten bucks here and there if he looks mournful about getting evicted. He can also rent his overstuffed room out to other kids from Philly. This makes his landlady berserk, but she can't actually catch him without entering the room and looking under the blankets, something even she is reluctant to do. Or he can go to work.
At 8:00 p.m., with several hours before meeting a Love Girl named Rosemary at Douglass Candies, Jack reports for duty. His boss says nothing as he hands Jack his change apron. Jack ties it on and jumps onto the counter of the softball pitch. "Check it out," he yells like an actor taking the stage. “Check it out, check it out."
There are a score of softball tosses on the boardwalk. This one occupies a narrow wooden storefront near Morey's Pier. Jack's supposed to get minimum wage, but he laughs when I mention that. He makes three dollars an hour under the table, plus what he skims.
For a dollar, players get to throw three softballs at a pyramid of wooden milk bottles. If you bit the pyramid between and just above the second and third bottles on the bottom row, and if there's a stiff wind blowing off the ocean, all five will go down. This happens about one in twenty times. The trick is to not let
The dickheads, as Jack calls his customers, win too often - just often enough to elicit shrieks and squeals so that the kids and girlfriends and wives of other dickheads all demand that their men win them one of the stuffed pandas hanging overhead.
But when a pyramid gets knocked over, Jack usually reaches below the counter, not above, for a key chain, plastic comb or tiny teddy bear. The prizes, says Jack, arrive in large cardboard boxes from Taiwan or Singapore and cost (he is quoting his boss on this) about ten dollars per thousand. When a dickhead wins, he is invariably shocked and disappointed by the shabbiness of the prize, and Jack quickly points out that for two dollars or five dollars, depending on how good business is, the guy can play for the big animals. Three-fourths of the dickheads walk off at this point, giving him the finger or muttering about what a fake the game is. The others go for it, some becoming obsessed enough to blow twenty or thirty dollars. If things get too slow, a couple of people from the other games the owner runs will come down and act as shills, winning frequently and loudly.
Jack talks about his work with some pride and with some mystification. “You know, from this end of the counter, you can't understand people at all," he says. “I mean, everybody has to know it's a scam. I mean, these people work for their money, it's not like they park fancy boats behind the Crest and walk over here with fistfuls of twenties. These are people I live around. They don't got much, but they'll spend anything to win something for their kids. Or if they're trying to score, you can take everything they got. But we try not to. My boss tells me, “If they start running up a big pile, then give them one of the big bears.” They only cost five or six bucks, and if the dickheads walk away with something, they'll never complain."
Jack's boss runs a half-dozen of these stands. His shuttling back and forth between them, an attempt to keep tabs on his erratic staff, is impressively energetic but hopeless.
“We take a little for ourselves," Jack says with a shrug. John or one of my friends will come down in the middle of my shift, and I'll high-five him with twenty bucks in my hands, 'cause a couple of times the boss took us in the back and made us take our shirts and shorts off. He'd caught this guy with a hundred bucks stuck in his sneaker. I wouldn't take that much. If he stuck his nose in my sneaker, the fucker would be dead. He would, you know, asphyxiate himself." Jack cracks up. “The fuck."
Jack makes between $75 and $100 a week. If he's short, he puts in a few hours at the stand where people pay $2 to fire paint pellets at kids wearing masks of Saddam Hussein, Jesse Jackson or George Bush. The target, wearing an umpire's chest protector, darts back and forth behind shields labeled IRAQI SCUDS. Jack only does Saddam. He thinks it's creepy to do Jackson, because the only reason people could possibly be shooting at him is because he's black, although they had a Ronald Reagan target for a while, he remembers.
He doesn't like the job. It's stifling under the masks, he says, and exhausting as you try to dodge the paint pellets. The other problem is that the pellets explode in red paint that seeps under your fingernails and into your hair and has to be scrubbed out. "Red fingernails are a turnoff for girls" Jack says. "Right away, they think you're infected with something.”
He makes eye contact with a heavily muscled young man with a rattail hanging over the collar of his sleeveless T-shirt and a girl under his right arm. "Don't be shy, give it a try,” he says. “You can win, ol' Jack wouldn't lie!" Jack winks. The guy thinks he's winking at him, but from across the boardwalk it looks as if Jack's winking at the girl. Probably he's hustling both of them at once. The boy hesitates, but the girl whispers into his ear, and he ambles over.
Jack shouts that if three more people join in, they can go for the medium-sized bears right behind him. He snares two dads, their sons pleading for Mutant Ninja Turtles. The dads are good for three tries before they give up, disgusted; their kids, thrilled, get tiny water pistols.
The teenage boy wins a comb, and his machismo is clearly stirred. Jack lets him lose twenty-five dollars, then sets up the milk bottles slightly off center so that even an indirect hit will bring them all down. The boy wins on the next pitch. His girlfriend kisses him, then points at the panda she wants. Jack hands it to the boy so that he can bestow it on his date. “He oughta kiss my ass,” Jack mutters. “I bet I got him laid tonight."
AT 10:30 P.M., ROSEMARY, POPPING GUM and swinging her string purse, cruises past Jack's carny stand with two friends, both of whom, whispering and snickering, clearly approve of Jack. Rosemary finally allows herself a glance at Jack and, with an exaggerated wave of surprise, calls out that she'll be at Douglass Candies at the appointed time. Jack has special plans.
According to Jack, the key to a woman's heart lies in attention to detail. Although he admits to being sexually active, hyperactive, even reckless in an age of caution and fear, Jack also fancies himself a romantic. Each Love Girl is different, beautiful and, within the limits of his finances, entitled to something special. Jack is not a meet-and-flick man, like, he says his roommates are. “You should always plan something that lets them know you think they're human beings, not just holes to stick your dick in." He pulls a blue elastic bracelet with bunnies on it out of his rear pocket. He bought fifty of them at the ninety-nine-cent store at the beginning of the summer, and by late July he only has eighteen left.
Rosemary, a bit upscale for Wildwood in snug denims and black flats, is sitting in the covered pavilion across from Douglass Candies, where during the day kids sleep on the benches and old people rest and escape the sun. At night the pavilion swarms with kids. Rosemary sees Jack, whispers to her friends, then walks across the boardwalk to meet him. Without a word, Jack ties the bracelet onto Rosemary's wrist. Her surprise and pleasure ratify Jack's notions of romance. They stroll north toward Mariner's Landing and the giant, brilliantly lit Ferris wheel, which dominates the boardwalk.
Long rows of couples stretch ahead and behind them - parents in their twenties and thirties dragging or herding small kids; middle-aged and elderly couples taking the air; and kids by the thousands, in pairs, packs, double-dating foursomes and gum-chewing lines of singles.
But Jack stands out, not just because of his looks but his presence. He is, in fact, the Prince of Wildwood. He knows the place, has charmed and conquered it and in some way rules it. Maybe the fortuneteller whom Jack waves to, a permanent clichéd fixture in song and reality at every Jersey Shore boardwalk, one whom Jack takes some of his girlfriends to, knows that Jack's reign is in powerful contrast to what seems fated to follow.
Jack guides Rosemary toward Super Star Studios. “Pick your favorite song," urges its flyer. "Sing along with the helping voice in your headset. We'll mix your voice professionally, with the instrumental tracks and backup vocals. And you take home a cassette of your recording debut." Jack and Rosemary stop to study the lists in the window. There are scores of songs listed under POP, ROCK, COUNTRY, OLDIES, SOUL/R&B, RAP.
"It's as easy as singing with the radio,” yells a man into a microphone at the cash register. Jack goes up to pay, seems shocked by what he hears and fumbles in his pockets in the unmistakably mortified way people do when they don't have enough cash. Rosemary nods reassuringly and waves her hand at the studio as if to make it disappear. Jack must have, well, forgotten to bring enough money, since he's been to the studio before and surely knows what it costs. They back out onto the boardwalk.
But the Wheatman comes up behind Jack. He taps him on the shoulder, holding up a twenty: “Excuse me, kid, you ought to be more careful with your money. This fell out of your pocket"
Jack doesn't miss a beat: “Thanks, man. I wondered where it got to.” Rosemary nods appreciatively. Jack smiles and turns back toward Super Star Studios, where he and Rosemary record Van Halen's "Why Can't This Be Love.”
It's nearly midnight, and the crowds are beginning to thin. Little kids loll asleep in their strollers or hang dazed from their fathers' shoulders. At Laura's Fudge, Rosemary buys a coconut square, Jack a pecan roll. They drift onto Morey's Pier, ride the Zoom Phloom Log Flume, the Condor, the Break Dance Whip-Around. Holding hands, kissing every now and then, they float back down the boardwalk to Mariner's Landing.
Sometime after midnight, Jack and Rosemary dip under the boardwalk below the old Hunt's Pier. Later, Jack and Rosemary are back on the boardwalk, nuzzling on their way to Laura's Fudge, where Rosemary's loyal pals, growing fidgety, are being hassled by a small group of shave tops who pick fights and hassle tourists. Jack and Rosemary kiss for a long time, then he walks home.
BY LATE AUGUST, MORE AND MORE OF the kids who work the food stands and rides are abandoning their posts to head home and get ready for high school or college. Jack has come to the bus station to see Rosemary off. She's the only Love Girl he's seen more than once.
The bus station is tucked back on the west side among decayed rooming houses and fraying shingled cottages. Every place else in town has been dressed up in light bulbs, prettified with baby trees or fresh paint, but the bus station remains the naked city. The trash cans outside overflow with half-eaten snacks, newspapers, soda bottles. They overflow inside, too, where a dozen ceiling tiles are ripped out and a teenager curses and kicks a Ms. Pac-Man, which beeps erratically.
Rosemary's bus to Philly is being called; she kisses Jack goodbye and walks through the back door as Springsteen sings about hungry hearts on the radio behind the ticket seller's counter. Jack borrows forty-five cents, sprints to the vending machine for cheese crackers and dashes out to hand them to Rosemary. She holds up her bunny bracelet and waves. They don't trade addresses.
Outside, Jack is melancholic. It isn't, he says, that the summer hasn't been as good as he had hoped, just that it is winding down so much faster than he had expected. The girls are growing distracted and less interested, their thoughts turning to community college or beauty school. The sun is already giving off paler fall light, and the evening breezes off the ocean feel chillier. It is time to stop screwing around.
But what is he going to do?
“I still don't know, man," he says. “I just have no idea. I don't even know what the choices are. I can't afford college. The army is laying people off. I hear there's jobs out West. Maybe I'll go out West, I don't know." He shakes his head. “I feel like I've had all this time to think about what happens next, and I'm supposed to deliver. But I don't see anything."
SCENES FROM WILDWOOD: These pictures were taken over a weekend last summer; Jack and his friends were not photographed.