North Wildwood's Boardwalk was deserted on a November morning, which began under hazy skies with the sun a blur behind a shroud of fog. During the summer months, the Boardwalk is choked with people, tourists from Philadelphia packing into honky-tonk shops and eateries serving fried delicacies and sweets. The amusement rides fill with screaming children and muscle-bound men win prizes for their girlfriends at game booths. They spend $20 to pop balloons or squirt a water pistol into a clown's mouth for the reward of an ugly stuffed animal. Yet after the summer fades into autumn, the crowds vanish, the lights dim and the rides are shut down. The once vibrant carnival atmosphere transforms into a ghost town, a garish village of leering clowns, shuttered storefronts and rusty padlocked gates. Rollercoasters resemble the backbones of gargantuan prehistoric snakes left to bleach in the autumn winds. The stores and shops empty and bereft of life, and the curious painted signs appear dull and grey in the cold winds.
Ten years ago I wrote for a small newspaper in North Wildwood. It was a career low point, because nobody there really respected each other much less me. How frustrating it was to go to work and know that you're in a grinding job where you're verbally insulted by the people you work with. The newspaper building is long gone, turned into condos during a better economic time.
Despite having worked in a toxic atmosphere, North Wildwood proved visually interesting and stimulating. The Boardwalk is a combination of low-rent Coney Island and Venice Beach, a mish-mash of junk food, amusements and entertainment, packaged and sold in a loud, colorful array that's both tacky and traditional.
The clown sat on the platform, precariously perched over a dunk tank. A wire mesh cage separated him from a crowd he incidentally insults and berates. Hotheads, mostly working class men with chips on their shoulders and general insecurities, pay to lob softballs at a target, which will send obnoxious clown tumbling into the tank. In that stupid game, with its insults, sophomoric humor and vehement anger, one can see America's social structure playing out under the carnival lights. It just takes one wiseass in greasepaint and baggy pants to set off a nerve, and violence borne out of frustration results.
Now the cage stands empty in the grey midmorning, devoid of animosity and cutting jabs delivered from a fat clown.
The amusement piers resemble scenes from a post-apocalyptic disaster film: abandoned, empty and silent. The aroma of funnel cakes, cotton candy and French fries aren't in the air. The only sounds are music from arcade games standing behind shuttered stores, their jaunty melodies muffled but recognizable along the barren Boardwalk.
The automated, muffled calls of "Watch the tram car, please," coming from the tram car's speakers, is silenced as the tramcars themselves are in storage. Only a few joggers and a lone cyclist traverse the lonely Boardwalk as I take photographs.
So many memories in a shore town during the summer, yet on the off season, with go-kart tracks desolate and water slides dry, the Boardwalk elicits feelings of odd tranquility.
Visiting this place again, under these conditions reminded me of my reporting beat there ten years ago. Those were unhappy times, working for a place where I went unappreciated and undervalued. Yet that's in the past, and the present is just a series of rides, booths and stores in deep hibernation, waiting to ride out winter's frosty grip, and longing for warm weather when the Boardwalk comes alive again with colorful laughter.