When summer finally rolls around, Philadelphians divide into down-the-shaw people and up-the-mountains people. Me, I was a down-the-shaw people, and still am, only now, in south Florida, it’s a 12-month occupation.
Come Memorial Day, south Jersey overflowed with weekenders and vacationers, inspiring restaurants, bars, and clubs to ramp up their promotions. Back then, those businesses had to make their profits in this window between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends to survive the rest of the year.
In the 70s, my crowd spent days on the beach and nights wherever the music was loudest (I’m paying for all that now). We drank a lot of beer, smoked lot of dope, and sometimes we actually ate meals (thank the dope) – and we weren’t too picky about the food or the service.
A few miles inland, at the edge of the Pine Barrens, there stood a landmark restaurant everybody knew because it advertised via airplane banners over the beach. The busted-up building in which it resided had been part of the steel processing industry, once a mainstay of the economy, but long abandoned. The deal: all you can eat buffet for $3.99. It was packed all summer, especially on weekends, but if you got there relatively early, it was worth the trip.
The owner was this enormous grizzled biped with an accent we never identified, although thinking back I suspect he was Russian or Eastern European. He had held a series of local government positions, and knew everybody in law enforcement, licenses and inspections, procurement, etc. Jersey has always been a capital of corruption, and this guy was a player.
And while the food he served was horrible – deep fried everything, mountains of starch, steaming vats of oily unidentifiable vegetables – once you started in, you kept on going. We’d heard all the stories – the chicken, fish, and hamburgers were whatever everybody else in the business rejected; his MO was to beat everything into pulp, add mysterious strong spices, and bread it all so by the time you bit in you couldn’t taste how bad the dish was. He wasn’t above maximizing his entrees with seagulls, stray dogs, and Black Horse Pike roadkill. He employed an army of scavengers to visit supermarket dumpsters to salvage whatever looked edible and bring it back to his kitchen. He bribed local military establishments who sent him truckloads of pilfered rations at a discount.
You could buy beer by the can or take a chance on his draft specials, which always had names we didn’t recognize. He said he had connections with his family in the Old Country (never specified) that sent him kegs of local brewed product. I remember one, called “Warnichers,” which not only sounded like “Varnishers,” but tasted like it. The story we heard was he got his hands on stuff stolen from delivery trucks, and poured whatever he found into his own kegs, combining them, and adding shit like salt, sugar, vinegar, antifreeze, and Wildroot Crème Oil. We stupidly lapped it up, of course, toasting the times. We called it “Pabstweiser.”
Yeah, people got sick, but nobody died, and the inexpensively bribed Department of Health looked the other way. Given how diners stuffed themselves stupid, any sickness could just as well have come from over-indulgence as tainted product.
The owner raised two party animals. The hirsute son was a born loser, hanging out at Dunes ‘Til Dawn, an after-hours club in the isolated no-man’s land between Ocean City, Somers Point, and Longport, getting into scrapes in the parking lot and arrested every weekend. He got a choice – jail or the army – and was sent to Vietnam. Everybody knew the sexpot daughter, a student at Glassboro State famous for her lustful adventures at parties. That ended when entire frat house populations came down with crabs, STDs, or UTIs, and her reputation suffered. She dropped out when the action dried up. Nobody would go near her, despite her awe-inspiring boobs.
Aah, the memories. Some clearer than others.
I don’t think about these days for a while, but one lonely evening while Guido is off chanting spells with her coven, I see what I can learn on Google and Facebook. As usual, there are surprises among the fully-expected.
The restaurant is no longer around: a mysterious fire one night in the off-season burned it to the ground. Just by fortunate coincidence, the night of the blaze much of the equipment had been disconnected and sent away “for maintenance.” I never knew the owner’s name, so I don’t know his whereabouts. My guess is he and the insurance money vanishes, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he ends up in Florida. (Cue joke: “So how do you start a flood?”)
The son returns from Vietnam more fucked up than when he left. Within five years he’s dead, Jim, thanks to his healthy lifestyle and an even healthier drug habit.
But at some point the daughter gets herself an advanced degree in counseling, heads out to California, and secures a teaching position at UC Santa Barbara plus a private practice specializing in sexual addiction, deviancy, and abuse. She apparently creates a name for herself among specialists, and conducts webinars, makes radio appearances, and provides expert testimony in criminal trials. No doubt the voice of experience informs her professional status.
So all’s well that ends well, mostly, which isn’t exactly wisdom, but what do you expect from a blog? Best I can offer is, stay away from the Pabstweiser, no matter how cheap.