The Paperboy Incident
Humanity is a funny thing. We give ourselves this spunky, collective nickname to make us feel better. To fool ourselves into thinking we are more civilized than the mindless, drooling apes from which we sprung. But we all know it’s mere illusion because, when it comes down to it, humans, like most other organisms, are self-serving creatures. We do stupid things to fulfill our singular, personal desires. The Cold War? The Crusades? That time you kissed your best friend’s girlfriend? No different than a black bear with his paw stuck in a beehive, or two antelopes colliding headfirst in a grassy meadow. The motivations are the same. So, I guess that means the humanity of an individual—either man or beast—is strictly determined by how far one will go to achieve a desired end.
I was introduced to this brutal truth at an early age—seven years old, to be exact. The summer of 1985. Ronald Reagan was trickling it down in the oval office. Back to the Future was capitalizing on the stardom of one Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties. My shorts were barely longer than the tips of my fingers.
But something much more important was bubbling beneath the surface—the launch of a revolutionary new arcade game, one curiously missing the traditional joystick and two-button gameplay system of the behemoths of its day (like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man and Centipede). This new game was barely a game at all. It was more of a profession—or, at least, as far as I could foresee in my seven years on the planet. It stood tall in its particleboard cabinet with a teenage bike rider decaled on the side, his yellow hat flipped backwards and a devilish grin on his lips. A pair of handlebars with real BMX grips and functioning handbrakes reflected tiny flashes of light from the video screen, while digitized music backed by a drum machine blasted from a pair of onboard speakers.
That game was the Atari classic, Paperboy.
Okay, so I knew the thing wasn’t reality. But it was cool. There was no denying it. And I figured, hey, if I was too young to deliver actual newspapers to my actual neighbors, at least I could gun a few cartoon newspapers through the pixelated windows of some unfortunate slobs in an imaginary town. All I needed was an in—one that would somehow fool my parents into thinking they’d actually enjoy spending any amount of time inside the cavernous walls of an arcade.
“It’s still kind of early,” I heard Mom whisper to Dad as we piled into our 1978 Volvo 240 Series, burgundy with camel-colored seats. We were on vacation in Wildwood, NJ, and had just finished a glorious round of putt-putt at Duffer’s in the Crest. The place was always packed with family types—the moms still sporting their summer maternity clothes and pushing whining babies around in strollers, and the dads grumbling as they tried to figure out how their beer-guzzling and motorcycle-riding had swiftly morphed into diaper-changing and rounds of miniature golf on Friday nights.
The place boasted an ice cream parlor straight out of the Roaring 20s, and there was a small arcade around back. A really small arcade. So small there was never any room for the newest, most cutting-edge games of the day. All they had were a couple of pinball machines with stupid clowns or circus themes—like I was walking into some two-year-olds nursery. That’s not what I was looking for. I was looking for Paperboy, and to find it I’d have to lure Mom and Dad to one of Wildwood’s lowliest places, the 26th Street Arcade. Jonny’s Arcade. On the Boardwalk. Where teenage girls in low-cut tops welcomed grubby hands in the back pockets of their jean shorts. Where gangly young men with patchy facial hair stacked coins on the ledges of pool tables and exhaled puffs of cigarette smoke in the density of storm clouds.
My parents would never go for it. That is, unless I could come up with the craftiest of diversions.
“I could go for some Curly’s Fries,” I blurted out, trying to strike while the iron was hot. I knew Mom and Dad were suckers for the Jersey Shore’s premier French fry joint, which was nothing more than a five by ten hut on the side of the tramway tracks. Bags of russet potatoes and fresh lemons hung in burlap bags from the rafters, and you could stand outside and watch your fries and lemonade squashed, cut, and squeezed to perfection from scratch.
“Curly’s?” Dad asked. “We ate two hours ago. What, do you have a tapeworm?”
“Frank! Don’t say that.” Mom, the ever-protective master of censorship, somehow thought my pristine eardrums were no match for even the least derogatory comment. Dad would grumble stuff under his breath and squeeze his Tom Selleck mustache between his thumb and forefinger when she shut him down like this. “We can definitely go to Curly’s, Frankie. There’s always room for fries.”
“I thought that was dessert,” Dad grumbled. “There’s always room for—”
“Shut up, Frank. We’re going to Curly’s.”
The plan was in motion. Now all I had to do was take advantage of the French fry coma Mom and Dad would drop into after consuming no less than twenty-two thousand calories.
We placed an order at one window—three large lemonades and a family bucket of fries—and watched our ingredients squish and slosh through gears and corkscrews and presses. Then the whole mess popped out in all its fast food glory at another window a few feet away. Dad grabbed the cardboard bucket and his gallon of lemonade and Mom passed mine down to me. We sat at a picnic table on the edge of the boardwalk and listened to the waves whisper. And we smothered ourselves with French fries, never once stopping to breathe in the mixture of fresh sea air and spent peanut oil that hung over the pier, or to wince at the searing lash of hot oil scorching the roofs of our mouths.
About the only things that could break my trance at that moment were the ringing bells and clickety-clack of the ticket dispenser on a nearby Skee-Ball game. Or the muffled pops and bops of a mallet aimed squarely at one of those pesky moles on the Whac-A-Mole. Or the flashing, Edison-style light bulbs that hung in the front window of Jonny’s Arcade. With Dad’s hand digging deeper and deeper in the fry bucket, I knew the time was now or never.
“How about I treat you both to a few games,” I said, surprising even myself for a moment. Then I collected myself and I thought of this Mafia boss I’d seen in some gangster movie my Dad was always watching. He never seemed excited about anything, like if he just found out he won the lottery or if he found out his house had exploded it was all the same. So I continued like him, all suave-like. “You know…over at Jonny’s. The arcade.” I finished it off with a flourish of raised eyebrows and a final vibrating slurp of lemonade that bottomed out the cup.
Mom was first to respond. “You drink that lemonade too fast and you’re gonna have to pee, Frankie. Do you have to pee? Because we can take you to—”
“Mom!” This wasn’t the moment of triumph I had expected, and the moment was being shared with half the boardwalk. “No, Mom. I don’t have to pee. I’m fine. I just want to play a game in there.”
“And you’re treating us?” Dad said through a mouth full of fries. “This I have to see.”
“So we can go?”
“No,” Mom said. “We’re not going in that place. Would you look at it, Frank?” Dad barely raised his eyes from the fry bucket. “You should have played one of the games at Duffer’s.”
“The stupid clown game? It’s for babies.”
“I seem to remember, just a few years ago, having to carry you out of that carnival at the first sight of a clown. I don’t know why all of the sudden—”
“All right, all right.” Thankfully, Dad always knew when to come to the rescue. He made me sweat a little, but he never let me roast. “You can go and play your game. One game. And then we’re heading back to Uncle John and Aunt Jo’s.”
I knew enough not to say a word at that moment because Dad was famous for changing his mind at the drop of a hat. I reached in the pocket of my Wranglers and jangled around all the loose quarters I had saved since my birthday—which amounted to six, a nice haul. Then I popped up from the picnic table and took Dad’s hand for our trek across the boardwalk. The air was warm and sticky, and the boards were bustling with enough people for two Saturday nights. Dad guided me through a tangle of arms and feet and strollers and shopping bags. At one point, he threw an arm across my chest and halted me as a moving tramcar blared its automated message in my ear—Watch the tramcar, please!
All the bouncing around and sidestepping made one thing rapidly apparent: Mom was right. I had to pee. All the signs were there. Weird sloshing sound in my stomach? Check. Odd compulsion to dance around uncontrollably? Check. Pressure and discomfort in the unmentionable area? Double check. But Jonny’s was in sight, and the electric glow of an imaginary paper route beckoned me forth.
When we reached the entrance, Dad stopped walking. He gave a scrutinizing look to a teenage boy in a leather jacket with all sorts of patches stitched to it. Then he knelt down in front of me. “I think this is something you can handle on your own, sport. You made your pitch like a man, now it’s time you finish the job like one.”
I didn’t know how to respond. It was the first time Dad was letting me go out on my own. He trusted me to take care of myself. If Mom were here, I thought, she’d kill him. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen my dad do, up to that point. So, I knew I had to take him up on the offer.
“Go ahead,” he said. “I’ll be right here.”
Without thinking, I pushed straight ahead, through the open-air entrance at Jonny’s, and into the thick of the arcade. Plumes of cigarette smoke swirled in the dim light like wayward ghosts, illuminated only by flashes from the video screens. And, amid the darkness, like a pillar of light rising up from the cavernous floor, was my holy grail.
I ducked and dodged my way over to it with an ocean’s worth of lemonade still sloshing around down below, and I had my quarters out and nearly in the slots when a thick hand wrapped in a studded leather bracelet gripped me by the wrist. I looked up into the face of a bearded teenage ogre, replete with oozing pimples and mangled teeth. The stench of rotten fish heads trailed from his mouth when he spoke.
“There’s a line here, rug rat. Didn’t your mommy tell you about them?”
His grip on my wrist grew a little tighter. A little too tight, if you must know. And I saw my Dad moving a few steps closer to the entrance. I grabbed my quarters and backed off, and Dad let me do my thing, which was to haul myself to the back of a line that snaked its way through half the arcade and ended somewhere near the air hockey tables.
The farther I walked, the heavier my stomach felt, and the more I had to strain to prevent the inevitable. My perch at the end of the line was somewhere in the range of Tanzania. I could barely see Paperboy from there, let alone play it. But I had come all this way, and Dad was watching. There was no way I was going to let something as meaningless and stupid as my bladder prevent me from glory.
So I waited.
Ten minutes became twenty.
Twenty became a half hour.
The line moved a few feet at a time, until I could almost make out the writing on the side of the game panel. All the while, and unbeknownst to me, my kidneys continued to process molecule after sweet molecule of Curly’s lemonade, depositing it drop by drop in my bladder until it was roughly the size of the Hindenburg.
About forty minutes into the excursion, I was dancing out of my socks. There were only three people in front of me in line, and I could see Dad scoping me from the entrance. I started to count down from twenty. Anything to keep my mind off of my bladder. Twenty…nineteen…eighteen…seventeen…I looked to my right and a gamer sliced through the waves on a robotic jet ski. Water splashed and trickled and spilled all around him on screen. Twenty-nineteen-eighteen…I looked to my left and a girl with silver bangles the size of hula hoops guzzled from a glass Pepsi bottle. Twentynineteeneighteen…I looked straight ahead and noticed the arcade manager approached the machine. He’s taking out a key. He’s opening up the safe. This may take awhile. I’m dancing some more. I’ll burst before I make it to that machine. I’ll never get there. But I have to. Dad is watching and I want to play the game. But it’s too late.
The patrons in Jonny’s Arcade have already jumped back to form a semi-circle around me, and the warmth is spreading across the front of my jeans, leaving the denim darker and bluer in its wake. There’s a trickling sound down near my feet where liquid drips from the bottom of my pant legs and patters on the concrete floor, and in the background I hear that squiggly sound Pac-Man makes when he runs head first into one of those red, goblin-looking guys. Then a shadow looms over me, followed by the clinking of change. The manager.
“What the hell are you doing, kid?” His voice was low and snarling, and his bushy eyebrows twitched around on his face like a pair of angry squirrels. “What the hell is this?” I was frozen in time, unable to move or breathe or speak or do much of anything. “Is this piss, kid? Well, is it?” There were a few muffled laughs from the spectators. “Well are you gonna say something or are you just gonna piss and run?”
All I could think to say was, “I just got done swimming in the ocean. Can’t you see that?”
I doubt the gangster guy from my dad’s movie would have been impressed. Neither were the spectators in Jonny’s Arcade, for that matter. They howled and laughed and wagged their fingers at me until I felt a different warmth welling up. This time behind my eyes. Believe me, the last thing I wanted was to be bawling and standing in a puddle of my own urine next to the best video game I’ve never played. But that’s how it happened—at least, until Dad swooped in and carried me off to the sanctuary of my Aunt and Uncle’s shore house.
He always lets me sweat but never roast.
The next day, I just wanted to forget about everything—about embarrassing myself in front of everyone at the arcade; about trying to outsmart my parents; about that stupid game, Paperboy, altogether. But kids often have a way of finding out needless information, and such was the case with my gangrenous group of goofy cousins. They’d somehow found out about my little incident at the arcade—presumably before the first drop had even hit the floor—and they were primed to spend the entire day on the beach reminding me of the fact.
Thus came the nickname “Frankie Pee-Pee Pants,” which they used ad nauseum as we rode body boards and built sandcastles and played paddleball. You’d think they would have come up with a better name. Maybe add a touch of alliteration in there for good measure, like “Flowing Frankie” or “Frankie Fire Hydrant.” “Frankie Pee-Pee Pants” is what they went with.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst came in the form of outright slander. And my oldest cousin, Joseph, was the primary culprit.
“This is my cousin, Frank,” he said to a girl as we pressed wet sand into mud castles at the water’s edge. There was something about this girl, in her pink one-piece and her straw hat. She reminded me of the girl on the Coppertone bottle. It was the first time I ever entertained the thought that girls might not be so icky after all. Then my stupid cousin opened his fat yap one more time. “He peed his pants in the middle of the arcade last night.”
And that was that. Coppertone girl shook her head, grabbed her plastic bucket, and went in search of more refined mud castle builders. But, before she was out of earshot, I thought of pulling the old gangster routine one more time. Maybe a little something to hit my idiot cousin right where it hurt most. Something like, “Yeah, those rubber sheets you have on your mattress aren’t that mysterious there, cuz.”
But I didn’t. Because I guess we all have a line we won’t cross...even to get the things we want most. Even when we’re seven years old.