Boardwalk Empire

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Inexplicably tucked into a corner of Texas is the Kemah Boardwalk. This is a relatively recent edition to the Nation’s strategic boardwalk stock, and a compact operation. Kemah is something like Rehoboth Beach, I can’t stand it, my cultural informant told me. She did not care for the “sort of people” one finds down there. Having worked in Rehoboth (Delaware) as well as vacationed in Lewis, a charming beach town of historic vintage where as soon as the settlers stopped dying from starvation, disease, and being massacred by Indians [feathers], a pleasant little village was constructed to which the middling classes continue to visit on hot summer days, I had to visit this Kemah Boardwalk if only to confirm the “sort of people” I would find.

The road to Kemah was determined by the guidance system that came with the rental car so I cannot speak of this in any detail as to other potential scenic routes or some turn the locals would know in order to avoid the traffic since for the most part I was stuck in traffic crawling along to the coast. The summer heat had made a tea of the air and while I pride myself on being one of those people who “don;t use air conditioning” (nor can afford the electricals bill), the car had the windows tight and the cold stale Legionnaire’s Disease air was filling the car in order to bring some relief.

The high lit towers of the fun park were visible before the remainder of the complex which included a roller coaster of some grand magnitude. Being a weekday and the end of summer, the establishment was not full however being a Tuesday, there were a great number of people milling about and the rides were churning away to make young and old scream, squeal, and have their spines knocked out of whack for pleasure.

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I wondered what it was about waters, about the sight of the open ocean that leads to people creating boardwalks and that fun parks spring up here as part of the package deal. I considered some others I had been to. Long ago, before I was even an adult, I had traveled to Blackpool, England. This boardwalk was build on one of the rare stretches of sand found in the British Isles and had all manner of exactly what you would expect to find in and English+English Weather+English Food resort. Plunk in the middle of this – and this location exists in my memory and not fixed in any actual coordinates found on the Googles Maps – was a replication of the Eiffel Tower. There were also carnival rides, and plenty of toss the brick at the bulls-eye in order to win a Teddy stuffed with toxic rags or some slab of plastic carved into a frightening happy face on a stick. The air was filled with the aroma of the carnival refineries rendering grease and sugar and starch into chunky cellulite, artery plaque, varicose veins, and bad teeth. In the distance blind pit ponies gave rides on the beach to sad crying orphans dressed in rags with shoes woven from birch bark and smelling like coal tar and molestation. At least that’s how I remember Blackpool.

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In the unlikely reaches of the East (not that carnal directions exist in this age of airships) of Vladivostok, Russia there is a small boardwalk that has the requisite rides and attractions and some structure to walk on by what is considered a beach. The first time I had ever seen the pacific ocean was from Russia. I was in the moment and the beaches could have been broken glass I would have still loved my experience. I was surprised at the cluster of development on the water not yet taking shape as a full boardwalk yet one may exist there today. The rides then were simple affairs that would perhaps be those sort rented for family parties in Amerika but here were the carnival rides. The Russian love of grease was there but the primary form of sea side delight was “Snacs” and ice cream (Мороженое). This ice cream is indeed memorable since it may have been left over from the SOVIET strategic reserve of ice cream. The ice cream was something pushed hard into a cone made of perhaps paper and some sugar enough to make the cardboard coalesce into a “cone” form as well as encourage the buyer to consume this fiber since it may have then counted as 30% of an average Russian’s intake. Then this unsightly mess rather than being wrapped in some hermetically sealed package was just plopped on to a slip of wax paper in order to prevent it – for the most part – from sticking to its comrades in the ice cream storage unit. The ice cream was then, I can only assume, was shipped across the tundra and stored in a vault since 1978 somewhere in the Omsk region – we cannot yet have those documents declassified- before being brought to a small stand and then sold at the beach by a young girl board out of her mind (this was before iDevices) doing a crossword puzzle. At the time this author was so inclined to travel and eat SOVIET ice cream, conversion of the degraded Ruble just having collapsed under the weight of the benefits of capitalism and the free market (this is when Russians were selling their pets for meat in the streets of Moscow) fetched about 27 Rubles for one Amerikan dollar and at 10 Kopeks (with 100 to the Ruble) the ice cream was costing me somewhere between .0003 – .003 cents. Cardboard or not, I loved this crap and since for a dollar I could get 250 or more, I bought my friends and random people a few and for a moment felt like a very, very, very rich philanthropist if not with a very, very, very limited charitable mandate. The “board”walk at the time, as I remember, was more a series of cement chunks tossed into the angry sea upon which some scattered boards existed to cover the soft spots. Vladivostok had been until a few years prior a closed city and yet caught up with Starbucki and McDonaldi let alone manicured vacation centers. The train return to city center was empty except for me and my Russian friends and I imagined that this rail car had been in service since Stalin first closed the gates on this jewel city of the SOVIET Far East.

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In contrast Atlantic City does not have any rides to speak about, but I am tossing it into the mix nevertheless since the casinos are themselves some form or excitement that for many leads to the same broken spine even if this is not from being tossed about a tea cup ride. It is also the famous boardwalk that has, for at least fifty years, been under a revitalization, the same way Grannie Witherspoon has been improving upon her shattered hip since she turned 89 and now at 92 is fully healed even though her mind is totally gone and she had to eat through a tube in her nose. Atlantic city is eating through a tube in its nose. When this gambling fool was last there the casinos had yet to start shuttering down in bankruptcy but were in full operation if by operation one means having half the people they had in years prior since more Americans avoid gambling…. avoid gambling other than at the liqueur store scratch-off counter, gas station Lotto(tm) machine, Native American Reservation blackjack tables, online poker games, and Uncle Walter who still runs a numbers syndicate in Boca even if now its just between he and a few friends. Even back then – 2009 – there was a sense that these huge tacky emporiums of one-lungers skidding about drunkenly on Jazzy scooters was about to start tottering into the ocean. I had little experience with these palaces where time is excluded and the slots and drinks are 24/7 or as the Europeans used to say, Nonstop. Again, miles of trees had been set down as boards upon which to walk. In the setting sun the sky lit up, and the lights of the various hotels and rides were illuminated and the beach goers returned to their hotels – may of them perhaps there as I, on some deeply discounted trip subsidized by the Gambino Crime Family or whomever owns the casinos which considering today’s impersonal world is perhaps a conglomerate of Chinese investors who bought the Gambino Crime Family in 2002 and switched its name to GaMeLy when it merged with its Hungarian counterpart that handled Canadian human trafficking.

No survey of boardwalks could dismiss the Mother of them all, Coney Island. There has been enough ink spilled, enough selfies taken, and several authors with more craft and skill that this blogger have dissected Coney Island, discussed the changes as gentrification retakes the Island, or mused on the “sort of people” who have gone and continue to go to Coney Island. My family has a history with the Island as my grandparent’s generation used to play there in the early 1920s and we have many pictures of them in various antics about the boardwalk and what was then a stupendous assortment of rides and attractions before they were 1. burnt 2. torn 3. rotted down.

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I have been to Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade, been on the beach lifted on various intoxicants at a concert, journeyed there with friends and along to think and try to get there at least once a year (while now that I am older this is very difficult to keep up). It is to Coney Island where my mind went as I wandered about the Kemah Boardwalk enjoying the little chaos and listening to the sea birds. Like Coney Island, Kemah boasts a wooden roller coaster and while the footprint is one of the smallest in the nation, the ride delivers some great thrills to rival that of the Cyclone and were it just this one ride (The Bullet), a visit to Kemah would still top my list of attractions and should make this small park a part of anyone’s list of “to dos.” I did not have time to attempt additional rides nor the wallet to sample the other eateries nor the walking distance hotel I would need had I attempted to view the night life, which the bar tender told me was quite substantial even on Tuesday which was “their busy day” in the summer for some strange reason (Monday was often quiet the rest of the week was more families, so I was told).

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After eating my allotment of grease and taking a few drops on The Bullet to see if I could evacuate the contents of my stomach, I had to return to the non-boardwalk world and to continue to ponder why we build boardwalks. As a child screamed on a swing and some young guy won an inflatable space alien he immediately presented to his female companion to squeaking laughter, a grown man handed a pimple-faced youth a wad of cash in exchange for tickets to rides, another man with a group consisting of a woman and three children yelled at the kids “sticktogetherimnotrunningafteryouall,” and the sun set ever down making the whole world glow strange. My mind tried to turn over some clever finding, some unique lesson I could text a friend but I had still nothing other than this respite from the work-a-day world and that I was the sort of people who come to these places. I stared into the strange logic of the boardwalk and came back will little but a slight whiplash. What is it that makes us feel that no ocean experience is complete without the clack clack clack of a roller coaster or the grinding of gears of some ride of questionable safety or the stale smoke lifting off corn dogs roasting since June or a $15 Miller Lite served in a plastic cup or games of chance that we all know are fixed but play anyway or that sunburn on the face feeling even after applying lotion or stepping about trash to lay on the beach or walking along the water safely lifted from the sand on boards, numerous trees set down in an endless road for us to walk upon with bare-feet still stinging from stepping on that bottle top back there by the deep fried butter stand…

What is it about this experience that were we not able to do it at least once for the year, it just wouldn’t feel like summer?

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