Atlanta, Georgia, 1930
Hoboes called them “side- door Pullmans,” empty boxcars with one door standing open like an unblinking eye— God’s eye, maybe, daring the brave or the desperate to trespass, knowing their journeys could end as easily in jail or in a hospital as in Chillicothe, Ohio, or Casper, Wyoming.
Eddie took the dare and ran to the back platform, planting his foot
in a metal stirrup and hoisting his six- foot frame up onto the ladder. But before he could step up to the second rung, he felt something grab hold of his shirt collar from behind and pull him, with a violent jerk, away from the car.
Eddie lost his grip and tumbled backward, landing on the ground
with a jolt. As he lay there in the dust, stunned and winded, a boot came crashing down on his chest, knocking the remaining breath out of him. He opened his eyes to fi nd a nasty- looking railroad bull glaring down at him.
“You ain’t goin’ nowhere, bud,” the bull declared.
The train whistled twice— a highball— signaling imminent departure.
Eddie held up his hands in surrender. “Okay,” he told the railroad
cop, “you got me. Serves me right for being sloppy. But I can pay my way, all right? How much is a ticket to New York— fifteen bucks? I can pay.”
The bull’s eyes gleamed with interest. “Show me.” The boxcar lurched forward as the train began chugging out of the station. Eddie had no doubts that this thug was going to steal all his money as a main course, then give him the beating of his life for dessert.
Eddie said, “Wallet’s in my rucksack. I dropped it over there.”
The bull, still keeping his foot on Eddie’s chest, reached down and picked up Eddie’s rucksack. He began to rummage through it for the wallet.
Eddie grabbed the man’s foot and yanked it out from under him. He toppled like a felled tree. Eddie scrambled to his feet, snapped up his rucksack. “Sonofabitch!” the bull yelled, but as he started to stand, Eddie jerked up his knee and connected with the bull’s chin. Th is hurt Eddie almost as much as it did the cop: he hoped the satisfying crack he heard was the bull’s jawbone breaking, not his own kneecap. Th e bull quickly crumpled.
Eddie made a run for a passing boxcar. His heart hammered as he ran to keep pace, threw his rucksack inside, then grabbed the door latch and pulled himself up and in. It wasn’t until he was safely aboard that he looked back, relieved to see the bull still beside the tracks, out cold.
Soon the car was rattling out of Inman Yards, one link in a long chain of rolling freight headed north. Eddie hadn’t lied: he had cash in his pocket for once and could have been eating roast chicken in a posh dining car instead of the bread and bologna in his rucksack. But it was early April and the weather was mild, and after three years of riding the rails, he had grown used to the percussion of the wheels reverberating deep inside him, even the coarse perfume of pine tar and creosote inside a boxcar.
But mostly he liked sitting near the open door, feeling the wind on
his face, watching the countryside roll past without walls or windows between. At night, out here in the great empty spaces between towns, the only illumination came from the moon and stars, the train’s running lights, and the occasional farm houses along the way. Whether lit with the warm flicker of kerosene lamps or by steadier, cooler electric bulbs, their windows always looked inviting, and Eddie imagined families sitting down to dinner or to listen to Guy Lombardo on the radio— fathers reading the paper as mothers sewed, girls played with dolls, and boys shuffled baseball cards. Th e glowing windows, and the images they conjured in his mind, were both warming and painful. He curled up under a cardboard blanket, dozing to the clattering lullaby of the train’s wheels and the mournful sigh of the steam whistle.
By the following afternoon Eddie was crossing the Delaware River, back in New Jersey for the fi rst time in three years. Rolling hills gave way to roadside commerce, and then the train was swallowed up by Newark’s canyons of concrete and steel. Soon they were passing through Eddie’s old neighborhood, the Ironbound, a patchwork of ethnic enclaves girdled by the foundries and railroad tracks that gave the area its name. Eddie longed to jump off — to walk the streets with their smorgasbord of cooking smells, kielbasa on one corner, spaghetti and meatballs on another, borscht on the next. But he didn’t, and all he could see from the train was a soup kitchen doling out bread and stew, a long line of haggard men curling around the block like the tail of a starving dog.
Not until they reached the outskirts of Jersey City— the terminus,
where cargo was off - loaded onto barges bound for the New York docks— did Eddie fi nally hop off and begin hoofi ng it up River Road. On his right the Manhattan skyline greeted him like an old friend he hadn’t seen in years; on his left rose the stony grandeur of the Palisades.
Eight miles later he entered the borough of Edgewater, home to companies like Alcoa, Valvoline Oil, and Jack Frost Sugar— the usual harborfront smells of salt and diesel fuel sweetened by the scent of burning sugar and molasses. In the distance stood the latticed steel towers of the new Hudson River Bridge, as yet only a single cable strung between them. At the Edgewater Ferry Terminal, ferries arrived from 125th Street in New York and trolley cars took ferry passengers up the steep cliff s and into Bergen County. Eddie looked up, pleased to fi nd, still crowning the
bluff s, a majestic if motionless Ferris wheel; the twisting wooden skeleton of a roller coaster; and a huge metal sign with towering block letters that announced:
PALISADES AMUSEMENT PARK
He took a trolley car up winding iron tracks stitched into the granite face of the cliff s, paying a nickel for the short run up to Palisade Avenue and the main gate of the park. Th e entrance, with its triangular marquee, still retained its capacity to evoke wonder in him. Since the park had yet to open for the season, there was no rumble of roller- coaster cars, no delighted
screams or calliope music, just the hollow echoes of construction work from inside. But it still brought a smile to Eddie’s face.
A single security guard manned the gate. “Excuse me,” Eddie said. “I’m here to see . . .” He consulted a fraying page torn from Th e Billboard, the outdoor entertainment industry’s trade magazine. “John Greenwald?”
The guard gave him the once- over. Eddie supposed he must have looked (and smelled) pretty ripe after his travels; only now did it occur to him that he might’ve gone fi rst to the nearest YMCA for a hot shower. But the guard didn’t run him off the grounds, just asked, “You got an appointment?”
“No, I’m looking for work. Mr. Greenwald, he’s the park manager?”
“Yeah, come on in.” Th e guard unlocked the turnstile to admit Eddie, then gave him directions to the administration building. Eddie thanked him and started walking toward the main midway.
It seemed strange to see the park so empty of crowds and laughter, but it was far from deserted: everywhere there were workmen wielding hammers, saws, or paintbrushes as they repaired and renovated rides and concessions. He passed the merry- go- round Viola had ridden, where workmen were stripping away the old paint from the Arabian horses and oiling the working parts of the magnifi cent Dentzel Carousel. Instead
of the enticing aromas of lemonade, cotton candy, and French fries, he took in the tart odor of varnish, paint, motor oil, and fresh sawdust. He wondered where his sister was today, what she looked like now.
The nondescript offi ces of the administration building were at odds with the colorful world outside; the men at work inside wore suits and ties, the women conservative dresses. The amusement business was still a business, after all, and it helped to remind Eddie that he was here on business. Approaching the first desk he saw, he told a young man wearing a white shirt and dark tie, “Excuse me. I’m looking for Mr. Greenwald?”
“He’s not in right now. I’m Harold Goldgraben, I’m the assistant manager. Can I help you with something?”
“Eddie Stopka. I’m looking for a job.”
“Well, you’re in the right place, but not the right time. We open in three weeks, and we’re pretty much staff ed up for the season. Do you have any experience working at amusement parks, Mr. Stopka?”
“Not parks, no, sir. But I’ve worked plenty of carnivals. I spent the
last two seasons with the Greater Sheeshley Shows, a railroad carnival.”
“That’s Captain John’s outfi t, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir. We traveled all over the Midwest and South— Ohio, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida . . .”
“You don’t sound like you’re from the South, Mr. Stopka.”
“South Newark is more like it.”
Goldgraben laughed. “So what brings you back to Jersey?”
“I got homesick, I guess. And tired of traveling.”
“Fair enough. What kind of work did you do for these shows?”
“Little bit of everything. Started as a roustabout, lifting and loading
the carnival equipment for the jump to the next town. Worked my way up to concessions— Penny Pitch, Skee Ball, Hoop- la . . .”
An older man in dungarees, on his way out of the office, overheard this last exchange and asked Eddie, “You ever done any ride maintenance?”
“Yes, sir. I’ve torn down Ferris wheels and put ’em back up again.
Coney Island Flyers and carousels, too. And I’m good at carpentry.”
“You afraid of heights?”
The man looked at Goldgraben. “I could use another hand to sweep the Scenic. For a few days, at least.”
Goldgraben said, “Okay, tell you what, Mr. Stopka: we can offer you two, maybe three days’ work. Meanwhile I’ll ask around, see if any of the concessionaires can use an extra hand. Can’t guarantee anything, but come back fi rst thing in the morning, you’ll report to Father Cleary here.”
Eddie looked at the older man. “You’re a priest?”
“Oh, Christ, no. Th at’s just a nickname, everybody here’s got a goddamn nickname.” He off ered his hand, which Eddie took. “Joe Cleary, I manage the Big Scenic Railway. See you tomorrow at nine, sharp.”
Eddie was very happy when he left the offi ce: he had a job at Palisades, even if only a temporary one.
On his way back to the front gate he passed a lemonade stand and thought of the sweet but tart drink he’d enjoyed on that long- ago night. Sure enough, there were those giant lemons hanging in the window, big and close enough to touch. Well, hell, why not? Eddie went up to the stand, reached out to take one of the lemons in his hand . . . and he laughed.
The lemons were made of papier- mâché and plaster.
So that was how they got them that big.
After spending the night at the YMCA in Hackensack, Eddie got to
Palisades a good half hour earlier than even the security guard. The Big Scenic Railway was an old wooden coaster, its assistant manager a short fellow with a receding hairline named John Winkler, who explained Eddie’s job: “You walk the tracks, and wherever you see dirt you sweep, and wherever you see rust you oil down the track with this”— he handed him some rags and a bucket fi lled with a liquid corrosive—“remove the rust, then sweep it off . You sure you’re okay with heights?”
“Yeah, sure, I don’t mind.”
One of several workers “oiling and sweeping” the Scenic, Eddie ascended the mountain of lumber like a climber scaling a wooden tor. But the harder thing was going back down the other side— walking backward down a steep grade a hundred feet or more above the ground. He would soak the rags in corrosive, then scrub at what ever patches of rust he found on the tracks. After a winter of snow and rain there was a lot of oxidation, but the “oil” loosened it suffi ciently that it could be swept away.
Following behind was Winkler, inspecting the tracks. He sounded out the planks, uprights, and timbers with a pick, looking for soft, spongy sections that might have rotted; checked the tracks for warps in the wood, broken screw heads, loose bolts, or worn pins in the chains that dragged the cars up the slope. If he found something not up to par, he marked it with a piece of greased chalk for the mechanics to replace or repair.
At the summit, Eddie paused to rest a moment and let his gaze wander across the thirty- eight acres of park, straddling the towns of Fort Lee and Cliff side Park, spread out below him. The silence up here was profound, broken only by the tinny voices of hammers and saws floating up from below. The great saltwater pool was empty, its green cement bed being thoroughly scrubbed with lime by a squadron of workmen. Across the main midway stood a coaster called the Cyclone, a colossus made of all black metal, its steel peaks steeper than those of the Scenic; Eddie noted that its tracks also seemed to twist like licorice sticks as they ascended and descended. What must it be like riding one of those cars, he wondered, twisting from side to side even as it plummeted to earth?
“Taking in the sights, Eddie?”
Eddie turned to see John Winkler a few yards below him, a bemused smile on his face. “Sorry,” Eddie said, quickly dipping a rag in the corrosive.
“S’okay.” Winkler climbed up to join him. “It is a helluva view.”
Eddie nodded. “And that Cyclone looks like one helluva ride.”
“Yeah, too much so. It’s all steel, so it has absolutely no give, not like a wooden coaster. People are actually scared to ride the damn thing. And all that steel is a pain in the keister to maintain, we’re losing money on it hand over fi st.” Th is was the first, but not the last, intimation that Eddie would receive that all was not well at Palisades.
By lunchtime Eddie had worked up a substantial appetite. Sitting at a picnic table with other workmen on break, Eddie turned his attention to the ham- and- cheese sandwich he had brought to work. After one bite he heard a plaintive “miaow” from behind him and turned to fi nd a skinny little tabby cat, its big yellow eyes staring soulfully at him, ribs visible beneath its striped fur. Eddie’s heart got the better of his stomach; he tore off a piece of ham and held it out to the cat, who scurried over and gulped
it down. Then there was another “miaow” to his right, and one to his left, and Eddie found himself at the center of a pride of kitties all begging for parts of his lunch.
A tall man with an amused twinkle in his eye sat down beside him. “Don’t let these little moochers fool you,” he told Eddie as he unwrapped a pastrami sandwich. “They do okay, cadging meals off the steady staff . I haven’t seen one starve to death in the twenty years I’ve been working here.”
“Where do they all come from?”
“They live in the woodshop, curling up between the piles of sawdust. Breed like rabbits. The office staff adopts one or two each season, the rest are on mouse patrol.” He extended a hand. “Roscoe Schwarz. I blow air up women’s skirts for a living.”
Eddie laughed, remembering the Funhouse and how his mother’s and sister’s skirts were hiked up around their waists like umbrellas blown inside out by a storm. “Yeah? What does your wife think about that?”
Roscoe shrugged. “She’s not overjoyed. But she knows it pays the bills.” He took a bite of pastrami. “Before managing the Funhouse I worked the Ferris wheel for sixteen years. I like the Funhouse better, you’ve got an audience, you get laughs. Only once a lady got huff y with me, hit me with her purse.” He smiled. “She was a natural redhead, by the way.”
They shared a laugh. Eddie surrendered the last of his ham and
cheese to a calico cat and resolved to pack an extra sandwich tomorrow.
By the end of the day Eddie’s legs ached like a mountain goat’s, but the next day he fi nished ahead of schedule and did a good enough job that he was assigned to the park’s second biggest coaster, the Skyrocket. In the middle of his third day, Eddie was called down by Harold Goldgraben, who told him, “I just spoke with Chief Borrell, he can use an extra man on his candy concession. Meet him at his hot- dog stand near the pool.”
Eddie had worked enough carnivals that he wouldn’t have been fazed to be meeting with a full- blown Indian chief decked out in war paint and headdress, but at the stand he found a tall, avuncular man around forty, wearing a police uniform. “Hi. Frank Borrell,” he said, off ering his hand.
Borrell smiled. “I see you’ve noticed the uniform. No, it’s not for show. I’m the police chief here in Cliffside Park.”
Confused, Eddie asked, “And you own a hot- dog stand too?”
“This is just kind of a sideline, you know what I mean? I also sell
candy fl oss, soda pop, apples on a stick . . . we got no crime to speak of in Cliffside Park, but a hell of a lot of tooth decay.”
Eddie laughed. “So how did a cop wind up selling hot dogs?”
“Lotta cops moonlight here as security guards, but me, fifteen years ago I was walking a beat on Palisade Avenue. I got friendly with the Schencks, the owners— helped them out with traffi c and whatnot— and they off ered to let me buy into some concessions as an investment.” He looked Eddie up and down. “The Goldgraben kid says you’re a damn good worker. You’ve worked carnivals?”
Eddie rattled off his experience, and Borrell took it in with the close attention one would expect of a policeman. Then, “I need a grind man to sell candy floss and popcorn,” not exactly police parlance. “You interested?”
“I can pay fifteen dollars a week plus two percent of the take. But
that might not amount to much.”
“We’re all holding our breaths to see how this stock market crash affects gate receipts. As it is, I’ve been just breaking even. The Schenck brothers aren’t doing any better— I’m not sure how much longer they’re going to foot the bill to keep this place open. They got bigger fi sh to fry in Hollywood.”
“I’ve worked other shows that were getting by on the skin of their
teeth,” Eddie said, though saddened to hear of it. “I know what it’s like.”
“Okay, one more thing. Palisades has an employee dress code: men have to be clean- shaven and wear coats, ties, and collared shirts during the week, a full dress suit on weekends. I’m looking at you and thinking maybe you don’t own a suit, am I correct?”
Eddie flushed with embarrassment. “No, but I can—”
“Don’t sweat it, I’ll front you the cash. Go over to Schweitzer’s Department Store in Fort Lee, get yourself a nice suit, couple ties, two or three dress shirts. You could use a haircut, too. Phil Basile’s got a barbershop here on the park grounds, tell him the Chief sent you and to shear off some of that hay on your head, put it on my tab.”
“Thanks, that’s really swell of you.”
“You got a place to stay, kid?”
“Yeah, a room at the Y.”
“My cousin Patsy’s in real estate, I’ll see if he knows of a place. No, wait a minute. Hey, Duke!” he called out across the pool area. “Duke!”
About fi fty feet away, one of the men helping to clean up the pool
area looked up. “Yeah?” he called back.
Borrell said, “You know the guy, don’t you, that manages the building where Lightning lives? Over on Anderson Ave?”
“So get your wop ass over here, there’s somebody I want you to meet.” The Chief turned back to Eddie and gave him a good- natured slap across the shoulders. “We’ll get you fixed up with something, kid.” Borrell then spoke three words that thrilled Eddie more than he could admit:
“Welcome to Palisades.”
Johnny Duke was not a sentimental man. “Sure, I’d miss the park if it shut down,” he told Eddie. “It’s a great place to get laid.”
John “Duke” DeNoia, one of the lifeguards at the Palisades pool, was six feet tall, husky, with curly black hair— a rugged thirty- year- old with only his scarred, pockmarked cheeks to detract from his good looks. According to him, that didn’t matter much.
“The pool is like a giant magnet for pussy,” Johnny expounded as he and Eddie made their way across the park. “Blondes, brunettes, redheads, big tits, little tits, what have you— they all come to the pool. And if you’re a lifeguard, sitting on one of them big red chairs, you might as well be a king. Well,” he added with a laugh, “a duke, at least.”
“Yeah, I was gonna ask,” Eddie said, “why Duke?”
“The Duke DeNoia was a nobleman from Naples, sixteenth century. His given name was John Carafa. I’m John DeNoia, ergo, Johnny Duke.”
“Does the park let you take girls on the rides for free?”
“Wouldn’t know. Never been on one.”
“You’ve never been on a ride here?”
“Never been on one anywhere,” DeNoia said.
“Really?” Eddie said in disbelief. “Not even as a kid?”
DeNoia shrugged. “They go up, they go down. What’s the point?”
Eddie was at a loss to reply to that.
The “Duke” grinned. “Only one thing I’m interested in riding, and it
ain’t no friggin’ Ferris wheel. Though one gal I knew was kind of a cyclone.”