In Santa Cruz we have a boardwalk that's not actually a boardwalk. It's an amazing replica of an actual boardwalk. Actual boardwalks are in short supply these days.
There is a sign at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk which says "SANTA CRUZ BOARDWALK" in stark opposition to reality. Each time I go to the Santa Cruz boardwalk with a camera, I take a picture of the sign figuring showing it to others would yield me laughs. Each time I go to the boardwalk without a camera I can't stop the thought -- "Why are they saying this?"
I remember my first time to a boardwalk. It happened on a Wednesday. We took a drive in my grandfather's Buick and ended up at a place by the ocean Mark Knopfler sang about in later years. You could tell before you reached it that the road was going to end. The sky is different over the ocean. I could see it as we approached. And then suddenly * a mechanical city where everything shone before a sparkling ocean * Grandpa told me this place was called Asberry Park, and for several years I asked for Asberry jelly to be put on my peanut butter sandwiches.
My grandfather was a barber, and he worked doctor's hours, which meant he took off Wednesdays and Sundays. I don't know if anyone considers Wednesdays and Sundays doctor's "holidays" anymore. Most of the doctors I know have hours on Wednesdays. They take off regular weekends. So if my grandfather were alive and barbering today there’d be no "doctor's holiday" and I'd never have got to go to Asbury Park as a kindergarten pupil, because it was always too crowded on weekends.
Calling beach amusements "boardwalks" is an idea soon to follow extinction like, "Barbers have off on Wednesday." Reality just has to catch up and poof, it will be gone. One day someone will ask, "Boardwalk?" and nobody will remember why, and they'll change the sign to "SANTA CRUZ AMUSEMENT PLACE" or something.
There was an actual boardwalk at the beach in Asbury Park, New Jersey when I was a kid. It was open on Wednesday mornings in the summer. In fact, there is still an actual boardwalk at the Asbury Park beach but it is no longer possible to obtain entertainment there unless one is looking for narcotics or illicit sex. About a year ago I was there with doyle and the noder previously known as JohnnyGoodyear, who pretty much just wanted to get the hell out of there before we were shot and killed for our gold fillings by drug-crazed lunatics. He didn't realize that being from New Jersey originally, doyle and I had already scanned the area for lunatics, and having found only one barely conscious stoner who'd come to rest after being propelled from the Stone Pony, declared the beach safe for middle-aged drinkers. So he was nervous despite our assertions of security.
He's a nice guy, that JohnnyGoodyear. Too bad he doesn't quite exist anymore.
The boardwalk that greeted us three that evening differed from the boardwalk of my youth in terms of electricity and people, as there existed none of either. The Casino was still there. At one time a kid's parents would drag him into the Casino to get out of the heat of the sun. The kid would be loaded with nickels and sent to play Skeeball for red tickets which could be redeemed for prizes considered valuable by those born in the sixteenth century who'd never seen extruded Chinese plastic. These things seemed like treasure when behind the glass counter, but once taken home lost all importance and reduced to the significance of dust, wound up tossed in a corner, never to be thought about again. One presumes one's mother flipped them all into the trash on various afternoon cleaning runs. Or they were eaten by the family dog. Either is likely.
When Bruce Springsteen sang about the Asbury Park boardwalk it was still there, too, but in decline. He and some other NJ rockers bought a piece of it and tried to resurrect it. But fighting entropy was too hard and too expensive.
Entropy is still in massive supply in Asbury Park.
Before the entropy build up at the boardwalk, a kid's grandfather would relent and provide him with a chocolate-dipped custard cone and allow him to ride the "Round Up" under the proviso that upon throwing up, all fun time would be ended and a long smelly car ride home would ensue. But grandparents have a hard time remembering being a kid, and don't remember that being whipped in seven different directions under multiple-G force vectors is not horrific torture, but something akin to orgasmic fun. And throwing up would just be an excuse for another custard cone.
Kohl's. The best.
Before I was big enough to ride the "Round Up" my barber grandfather would buy me cones and let me ride the boats and the fire engines that went in a circle. He'd feed tickets to the takers, and let me ride twice sometimes. There were guns mounted on the fire engine with triggers you could pull that would cause lights on the ride to illuminate while you revolved at two or three RPM in a twenty-foot diameter circle.
See, I was little in those days and the idea was not evident to me that there was a certain non-logic to using a fire engine as a gun platform. I was viciously happy sitting in the fiberglass fire engine, slewing around in a slow speed making lights flash every time I pulled the trigger of the little gray gun mounted on the fire engine hood.
And then there were the radio controlled boats that cost a quarter to run and inevitably would become jammed in the corner for most of the duration of your turn at the helm. This happened because you were a kid and the idea of reverse on a boat was as strange as the incongruence you should have felt shooting at people from a fire truck. A grandfather's frustration would overtake him, occasionally, and he'd swat your hands from the steering wheel, back the boat from the corner, and then let you have at it again, only to ram the tiny craft nose first into the corner like an errant sperm trying to fertilize an egg the size of a medium-sized beach community.
The custard cones can make you forget splinters and homework and striking out at the plate. Half would melt and fall onto the boardwalk before you could eat it. Grandpa would never let you pick up the fallen parts, even though most of it never touched the wood.
There's the irony. Wood.
There isn't a single plank on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. It's concrete.
Sure, they have a sky ride and a spook house. Sure there's a beach, even though it's the wrong ocean that's cold even in the summer. And they have deep fried Twinkies, which nobody on the east coast would ever think of. And in places, it smells sweet and greasy like an actual boardwalk.
The sign promises: "BOARDWALK!" the same way an Italian restaurant in Tokyo promises "LASAGNA!"
It's okay as long as you don't expect it to be what it says. See, I grew up with Italian people all around me, and I've eaten "LASAGNA!" in Tokyo, and there's no similarity between LASAGNA! and the gray haired lady who put a square of cheesy pasta dinner that's as good as dessert on your melmac Fireball XL-5 supper plate.
I have a boardwalk in my heart. It stretches across an amber sand beach where my father makes a cast with his surf pole and my mom washes the grains from between my toes before I put on my sneakers. My grandfather speaks English with an accent so thick nobody taking ride tickets understands him. My hair is blond, yet to turn brown, yet to start graying.
Even in the heat of the sun, after a few steps, you can actually walk on the soft wood without scalding your feet.
There hasn't been one of these for a long time.
Once I took my children to a real boardwalk. They were young. Bruce had written his songs and the arcades had fallen into disrepair. The wood was gray and lined in thick grain as the softer parts had all worn away.
I bought them custard cones. The fire trucks with the gun mounts were still there, though the fire engine red had faded to dull brown, and I had to wipe something tarry from the seat before I put in my daughter.
She spun and pulled the trigger on the little gray gun.
"I rode that ride," I told her. "I was as small as you."
I might as well have been trying to teach her vector algebra in Greek.
"Daddy. You are not little."
"No, but I was little like you. My grandpa brought me here. A long time ago."
"Daddy, you too big."
"Once I was little," I said, and then pleading, "I really was. I was little."
"A long time ago you were little."
"Yes, a long time ago."
"But Daddy, now you big."
Time is irrelevant to someone who hasn't had much of it. And children deserve their childhoods to be unimpeded by their parent's past.
And the past doesn't actually exist.
And so boardwalks are a contraption of fiction, invented by feeble minds trying to reclaim something possibly remembered, something possibly dreamed.
Last Sunday a friend from Antarctica was supposed to arrive at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk after running 200 miles from Calistoga to benefit organ donation. We went to the boardwalk and waited for her to arrive. While waiting we strolled the short route and eventually came to the realization that she was not going to appear. So there we were.
The Santa Cruz Boardwalk is concrete. The nearest board is a continent away.
The thick sea air smelled of salt and sweet and grease. Children with mustard spotted shirts munched hot dogs on sticks. Teenagers dared each other to keep their arms raised on the first drop of the wooden coaster.
The boardwalk is celebrating its 100th year of operation.
While there's no longer a single actual board in sight, I am happy to report that men still fling baseballs at stacked milk bottles, the coaster still rattles to the apex of the big drop, and the custard still melts and drips onto your knuckles -- all as it has been for a hundred years.
And while we walked past the hawkers and ticket takers I fell into a depressive fit of gut shattering nostalgia, and I realized how a life can be punctuated by such places. In the grip of such an epiphany, a person can see his future quite clearly. I was certain I'd one day sit my grandchildren on the fire engines and watch them spin in twenty-foot circles at three RPM, feeding tickets to the takers.
It's all been a fire engine ride.