Memoir: Excerpt One

May 31, 2013

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If I concentrate hard and focus my thoughts, I can see my mom and me clearly, sitting in her Volkswagen Beetle, which had crapped out under a small overpass on our quiet street in Hampton, New Hampshire. We were a year or two into the 1970s and my mom was 22 or 23 years old — a kid, really.

My mom wears her waitress uniform — we are probably on the way to Mahoney’s, the greasy spoon restaurant that my dad owned at Hampton Beach, a tourist destination on the small coast of New Hampshire. It was a warm day, a breeze blowing as we sat in the unmoving car and waited for…what? It was decades before cell phones, so I suppose we were waiting for someone to see us and stop. Were we too far from the house to just walk back? I don’t remember the resolution — just us sitting in the car with the breeze and the smell of my mom’s Wrigley’s Spearmint as she chewed and occasionally snapped her gum.

Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” is the soundtrack in my mind for this moment, despite the fact that a quick Internet search shows that it wasn’t released until years later. It could also have been the Carpenters, John Denver, or even Grand Funk Railroad doing “The Locomotion” — all songs from the soundtrack to my childhood.

I’m sure many of the details of my memories are mixed up — the interior of a house from my infancy may be mixed up with our next house, or car colors may all be wrong, but I know the memories themselves are true. Oddly — or is it? — the memories are neither happy nor unhappy; they just are.

Because my parents worked so much I spent a lot of time with babysitters and my great aunts, Helen and Mary McKeon, who lived together their entire lives, neither one ever marrying. Summer days were spent at North Beach in Hampton with Helen, searching through warm tide pools for the occasional crab or starfish. The actual ocean was ice cold, of course; even on the hottest days of the summer the beach was packed with people, but only a few brave kids swam in the Atlantic, while everyone else would just walk around in the shallow water to cool down.

Sometimes, when I was lucky, I got to visit my parents at the restaurant. A line cook named Kenny who was straight out of “Easy Rider” with his handlebar moustache, leather vest, and tattooed arms parked his motorcycle outside the back door of the restaurant, where I would sit on the dirty cement steps and wait for him to bring me a cheeseburger. He always left the top bun off and put the ketchup on in a smiley face for me.

In between the breakfast and lunch rushes, I snuck into the restaurant and spun around on the orange vinyl stools which followed the brighter orange counter around the restaurant in the 1970’s-style curve, which was echoed on the wall by a huge graphic swirl in orange, yellow, and brown. A take-out window ran almost the whole length of the front of the restaurant, the open window offering a view of the beach and ocean right across the street. The floor was dusted with sand from patrons’ flip-flops. With the back door propped open in the kitchen, an ocean breeze blew through Mahoney’s on almost any day.

Besides waitressing, my mom’s job was to call down to the restaurant in the early morning, where the main cook, Henry, would dictate the specials of the day — things like meatloaf with gravy, or an open-faced turkey sandwich.My mom typed these up on an old typewriter at our house and ran the sheet through a manual mimeograph machine, her arm pumping to turn the handle. Lastly, she cut them down to a 5×7 size on our paper cutter. With the pile of freshly mimeographed sheets, still smelling of ink, my mom would drive to the restaurant and attach one to the paperclip at the top of each menu. Later, when I encountered these same warm-feeling and inky-smelling sheets of paper in school, I would always inhale deeply and think of my mom.

*      *      *      *      *      *

When I was three, my brother, Rob, showed up on the scene. My mom continued to work at the restaurant — my dad now also owned an arcade a few doors down — and my brother and I spent days with a babysitter who sat in our living room and watched television for five to six hours a day. She started with “Wheel of Fortune,” then “The Price is Right.” After the game shows, her soaps came on. I don’t know which ones she watched — by that time Rob and I had gone outside to see what we could do to amuse ourselves.

We now lived in a middle class neighborhood with lots of kids who spent entire summer days outside, jumping rope, riding bikes and skateboards, running through the woods to the pond to find frogs, and trying to get invited to swim in one of the two pools in the neighborhood. I’m not sure what the babysitter got paid to do, other than open a can of Spaghettios for us when we came back starving.

On days when the sitter was, for some reason, unavailable for her TV-watching gig, my dad brought me to the beach to hang out in the arcade, which had a creaky old wooden floor and garage-style doors that my dad pulled up each morning so that the whole front of the building was open. Skee-ball was the main attraction, with pinball machines and air hockey right behind. I loved Skee-ball, and whoever was managing the arcade would give me free tokens to play over and over as my long train of prize tickets folded onto the floor.

Despite the fact that I played for free, I was also allowed to cash in my tickets for actual prizes, the best of which were the 45-records of hits like “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree.” I added them to my collection at home, which also included “The Morning After,” by Maureen McGovern, and “Drift Away,” by Dobie Gray, two songs which still give me the sting of pre-tears. I am unable to hear these songs without also hearing the sounds of the arcade and smelling the salt from the ocean across the street, mixed with coconut suntan oil and the fried dough and salt water taffy from a few doors down.

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