Keansburg Amusement Park has all the  qualities a great little boardwalk needs, except one: There's no boardwalk. The midway is more like a large church carnival dropped off permanently next to Raritan Bay. Keansburg is a collection of smoky arcades, greasy eateries, tinker toy rides, plus a go-kart track & the obligatory fortuneteller. The amusement park has spruced up over the past few years & even added a very good waterpark, but it remains a town without pretense; perhaps a bit sinister at times.  & it attracts a clientele much like itself. I take a certain measure of people by their attitudes toward Keansburg.  I like when they  smile, their eyes light up, they know the  kiddie ride bargain days, Club Miami, the ancient pinball machines, the wussy steel roller coaster, the year-round skee ball addicts.  & if, like me, you think a beautiful woman is a thirtyish, blonde, slightly tough looking divorcee in a black halter top having fun with her kids, you'll certainly enjoy passing the time on a bench there with a cup of tasty iced tea.
by Bob Rixon

The Shaque O’Neill pinball game was driving me crazy.

It had a small basket that moved back & forth above a spinning disk. A voice
from the back of the machine with a movie Brooklyn accent - those accents are pretty accurate - kept yelling, “Shoot da basket” & I kept trying, levering ball after ball off the flippers. I had dunked a few balls & I no longer cared about my score. The machine demanded billions of points for a replay.

 My wrists finally got sore, so I surrendered the game to a guy who wanted to show off for his girlfriend. It wasn’t like Atlantic City before the casinos happened, when some local shark would have slammed his coins on the top glass & challenged me. Good thing, too, because I always lost the machine.

“Shoot da basket,” I said to the guy.

I walked through the arcade toward the midway exit. A high school girl sitting in a booth overlooking the skeeball lanes was shouting into a microphone something about double points for the next fifteen minutes. Skeeball & poker slots are where you invest $50 bucks to earn a five dollar WrestleMania  insulated beer can holder. It’s Atlantic City on a minimum wage income.

The midway was packed, noisy & humid. Wheels were spinning everywhere like demented clocks. You could win a carton of cigarettes, a big candy bar, your choice of heavy metal compact disk, a Chicago Bulls tee shirt, a Chinese vase, a stuffed animal, or a bicycle.

Eventually you win something

Even the fortunetellers were busy, reading palms or tarot cards in mysterious curtained cubicles. During slack hours, the fortunetellers sit on folding chairs outside & read the minds of people walking by. & the minds whisper. "Take my money, please.” This fortuneteller had her daughter working in the business. If you saw the young woman at the mall, you might think she was a tad trashy. But once you found out she was a fortuneteller's daughter, you would know better.

Bumper cars  careened around a metal, oval track like midnight on a Newark street intersection.  Elvis loved the bumper car madness best, & make no mistake about it, these people know who Elvis is. Half of them believe El is still alive, & the other half think he’s stored in a cryogenic tank near Roswell. The King would have rented the whole place,  including free burgers & Cokes for all.

The kiddie rides were working overtime; they close early if the customers aren’t there. Some children who aren’t afraid of anything they see on a TV screen freak out when placed in tiny boat slowly circumnavigating a one foot deep swimming pool.  Round & round they go, wailing each time they float past mommy.

The scaled down adult thrill rides confirmed the relativity of fright. A small, slow, steel roller coaster has the capacity to induce screams when nothing scarier if  available. Many people have a deep need to scream.

I purchased an excellent iced tea at a popular stand & sat down on a bench.

 Women have better tattoo art than men. These women favored delicate designs; flowers & mystical symbols on their arms, ankles & backs. Many had Celtic knotwork encircling wrists & ankles. A few wore dragons. Men generally preferred blood 'n' guts images inspired by comic books. It's all comic book stuff, really, for the level of comprehension  involved.

The evening was cresting like a wave. Kids were entering the stage of hyperactive irritability that comes from pouring high fructose corn syrup over fatigue. I felt a few spritzes of rain.

I wandered up the midway, dodging baby strollers hurriedly pushed by teenage mothers with catatonic eyes.  I climbed the dunes overlooking Raritan Bay, behind the amusement area. The wind was blowing hard up there. Boat lights dotted the bay. The Verrazano Narrows Bridge was  a constellation of twinkling stars on the horizon. Eastward, beyond the glow of  the Earle Naval Ammunition Dock, thunderstorms flew over Sandy Hook, headed straight for Coney Island. Distant lightning surfed from cloud to cloud, followed long afterward by the low rumble of  thunder.

A beating of drums accompanied a flash of sparks escaping a driftwood bonfire, maybe on this spot, four hundred years ago. Then, I noticed the white specks of tiny sandpipers darting along the beach at the edge of the water.


© 2001 Bob Rixon

An earlier version of this piece was published by Worrall Community Newspapers, August 1996