Nostalgia…the old days. Boardwalk Stories brings to memory childhood days on the boardwalk…at least for those of us over 50. For me, it was days in the early ’30s at Coney Island with wool swim suits that sagged and got itchy when they were heavy with salt water. For Bernstein, it’s the ’50s and the colorful characters who made a meager living from Skeeball and kid rides and hot dog stands. It’s redolent of salt water and sun and hot dogs tainted with the grit of blown sand. She brings to us an awareness of “hidden” people, those we would not notice: the hot dog lady, the Skeeball attendant, an orphan eager for a little job and a little affection.
Bernstein’s stories bring us the interior lives of these hot dog ladies and pitchmen whose world revolves around the water’s edge. Jolly Trixie got her name from the famous Trixie who weighed over 600 pounds. Trixie only managed 300 pounds, but she still has hopes and eats in happy expectation. And her mustard…ah…she knows mustard. Beverly has the unique skill of weighing nickles. A handful, she can tell you how much value. Her life is nickles and Skeeball. Sol, who owns the concession, wonders if he should leave his wife. Arnold, who runs Playworld, meets a young orphan who languishes in a “home” and yearns for a father. Small lives with big dreams, and Bernstein brings them to life. Bernstein’s observant eye and compassionate interest bring us into lives that ordinarily would escape our attention. Dr. Kenneth Tydings’s remarkable photos give immediacy to the stories and draw us back to that moment in history.
Along with the colorful folk who make lives from the boardwalk are the children from the lower end of the beach community. Jewish kids who admire the Catholic kids who are identified by dog tags which list religion since an A bomb might fall, and oh how they covet those Catholic tags. And the poignant story of the girl who is taken in by McCarthy propaganda and is “engaged” as a spy to root out her best friend’s father, the sad innocence and subsequent painful awareness of exactly what she has done.
The heart of all these stories is the recognition of the large dreams and painful disappointments of these “beach people” in their struggle to survive in meager, unadorned worlds. Maybe a lost boy will find a loving father. Maybe a weigher of nickles will inherit a Skeeball concession that will secure her a nickle-and-dime living. Maybe Trixie will eat herself into a prestigious 600 pounds.
Roslyn Bernstein is a poet and journalist, professor of journalism at Baruch College and director of the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence Program.
Boardwalk Stories is published by Blue Eft Press.