Thursday, June 16, 2011

Mr. Nelson.

The summer after I turned 18, I got a summer job at Playland Amusement Park working at a game room that was situated on the boardwalk that ran alongside the Long Island Sound. I suppose it wasn't much of a job but this was 1976 and summer jobs were hard to come by. While this one paid minimum wage--$2.30/hr.--I was fairly happy to have it.

The basics of the job were pretty easy. I was to arrive at 9:30, open the steel gates that shut the game room, turn on the machines and sweep the place out. That took about ten minutes or so. Then I had to go to the back and open a safe where they kept the change and stock my cash till and my apron with change.

My game room opened at 10, whereas the park proper didn't open till noon, so for the first couple hours of the day, as buses arrived from the Bronx and Westchester with summer camp kids, my game room was pretty much the only show in town and we we're very busy. However, my game room was in the scheme of things, a bit of a dog. It wasn't as centrally located and popular as the main one in the park, as a consequence it held about 30 or 40 pinball machines that were fairly long in the tooth. I didn't watch over the new electronic machines, rather I was responsible for the last of the old mechanical ones. That was fine with me. I recognized their charms.

Over the course of the summer I had a lot of down time, because once the main section of the park opened my place was empty. The owner of my game room, Mr. Tolve, was fine with me sitting in my change booth and reading, just so long as I kept the area swept and free of cigarette butts.

I read a lot of books that summer but I also got to "know" the machines in my room. I was given a little stainless steel trip--a slug at the end of a thin rod. This allowed me to give someone a game if the machine ate their dime or quarter and clear the coin slots if someone stuffed something in them. Of course it also allowed me to play games pretty much as much as I wanted.

Pinball didn't hold much interest for me, and the baseball-type games where a metal ball would be pitched at a mechanical bat that you'd swing to swat the ball into a slot that read "out" or "single," "double," "triple" or "home run" as little tin players rounded the bases, was too unrealistic for me. It was easy to rack up 40 runs in one at bat and that amount of offense had no appeal.

The game I really loved was Skeeball, a loose variant of bowling. There's a short, maybe 15-foot lane that slopes at the end and then four concentric rings. If you bowled the softball-sized wooded ball into the outermost ring, you'd gain ten points. As the rings decreased in size their worth went up ten more points. The innermost ring, roughly the size of the ball itself was worth 50 points.

I must have played an average of 30 Skeeball games a day that summer. On some days, when things were really slow, I might have played more.

Consequently, I got so good at Skeeball, I proclaimed myself the "Skeeball Champion of Southern Westchester County."

The other thing that happened while I was working in the game room involved my high school math teacher, Mr. Nelson. "Nellie" as we called him behind his back, was just about the oldest thing any of us teenagers had ever seen, including the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum. We used to say he was so good at teaching math because he was around when it was invented.

Mr. Nelson must have lived near Playland. Every afternoon, after my game room had emptied, he would amble over and hang out with me. We'd talk about sports, mostly, and whatever else we happened upon. I was kind of a fuck up as a math student and goofed around in the classes I had with Mr. Nelson way more than I should have. He never really busted me for being a jerk. He liked me. He knew I was smart but wayward and probably had the good sense to know I'd grow out of it.

Mr. Nelson and I would play some of those endless games of Skeeball, each of us acting as a sports announcer broadcasting some seminal event. "Adolph steps up, he rolls, it looks like a 30. Oh, no, it bounces out and Nelson ends up with a 20."

This is the way we passed a summer. Me 18, Mr. Nelson probably 80.

My family moved to Chicago after this summer, and I never went back to my old neighborhood, never saw Mr. Nelson again. It's been 35 years since that summer. I can only assume Mr. Nelson is still alive.

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