This story is in the Growing Up New Jersey collection, a series of vignettes slouching their way into becoming a book. See more vignettes in this collection at the Short Stories &c. link above.
“Try it, don’t take it.”
That’s what the man renting the bicycles on the boardwalk at Atlantic City said as I straddled the wonderful piece of machinery he handed off to me.
An adult might know what that meant. The man renting the bicycles for sure knew what he meant. But to a rambunctious 8-year-old boy about to set off on a peddling adventure on the open boardwalk, it didn’t mean a damned thing.
All I knew was that I had a bicycle and that the boardwalk, uncrowded at that early hour, stretched out in front of me, and I was off. What was there to try? It was a bike, and it worked for me.
By that time both my parents were teachers, my father joining my mother’s life-long profession after his heart attack. So each November we’d go down to Atlantic City for the annual convention of the New Jersey Education Association, which as it turned out was the country’s biggest teacher gathering. The convention was interesting enough and it provided the opportunity, as conventions do, of filling bags with various goodies and flyers and things that will never be looked at again, and it even got me out of school for a day or two. But mostly it was fun getting away and spending a few days in Atlantic City.
Now A.C. in November tended to the cold and gloomy side, but that particular day, the day of the bicycle on the boardwalk, it was bright and sunny and, if it was cold, I don’t remember that part. I just remember being set loose on a bike on the boardwalk. That was the part that mattered.
I’m not sure exactly how long I peddled down the boardwalk, but riding that bike down it, the beach and the ocean off to my left, strings of stores, not open yet, touting souvenirs and salt water taffy on my right, gave me a sense of freedom and adventure. To me, it was how the motorized bikers in Easy Rider – a movie not to appear for more than a decade – must have felt. Board by board, I was heading south at breakneck speed, and fortunately there still weren’t many pedestrians out on the boardwalk, so I didn’t need to dodge them.
By the time I got to Ventnor, the next town south of Atlantic City, the sun was a lot higher in the sky and the boardwalk was getting pretty crowded. By then I had to steer right and left around clumps of people to miss running them down, and I had a sense that maybe I should turn back. Well, it was a passing thought, so I pedaled on. I was sure getting my parent’s money’s worth out of that ride.
That was when these older kids on bikes overtook me, shouting a bunch of things obviously aimed at me. Mainly that I needed to turn back. Now. It was a wing of bikes, sent by the bike rental guy, to intercept me out on the boardwalk. The guy, they said, thought I had stolen his bike, and my parents – especially my mother – were frantic and had called the police. I don’t know how many kids got kidnapped off the boardwalk at Atlantic City in 1958, but it didn’t really matter. My mother would have been frantic if I had just gone around the block and didn’t come back in short order. That much I knew.
As much as I wanted to press on, I figured I better turn around and hope things hadn’t gone too far crazy with my parents back at the hotel where we were staying. I wasn’t particularly afraid of the police since, after all, I wasn’t stealing the bike, and I was bringing it back, but I wasn’t keen to deal with the emotional frenzy my mother would have worked herself into. After peddling like madmen we got back to the starting point of this adventure, and by then the bike rental guy had already left and gone home. And when I finally found my parents, my mother had, indeed, worked her way into notable hysteria, which was as much, or more, the source of my father’s fury as my escapade down the boardwalk.
My mother, it should be noted, was always ready to assume I was dead, no matter what it was. Disappearing down the boardwalk at Atlantic City? He must be dead. My sister dropped a can of peas on my head? He’s dead, he’s dead. Whatever it was, there was only one logical outcome, and that was that I was dead. It became tiresome to have to repeatedly assure her that in fact I was not dead and then to confirm it by showing clearly I was still breathing.
In the summer of my eighth year we crossed the Atlantic on an ocean liner, the now sadly missed S.S. Independence, and in a week wound up in Italy. In Naples we rented a car, a Fiat Millecento, piled all five of us – mother, father, sister, grandmother, and me – into it, baggage strapped to the roof of the diminutive vehicle, and worked our way north. When we got to Rome, it was deemed a tourist necessity to explore the vast gardens of the Villa Borghese. And so we did. It was an exceedingly hot day, as July days in Italy are, when we visited the Villa Borghese. Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was just general malaise, I can’t really say, but the rest of the family took their sweet time wandering through the gardens. Which didn’t exactly fit my pattern.
If you’ve ever been to the Villa Borghese, you know how the gardens are kind of terraced, descending gradually from a high spot to lower and lower levels, with pulverized gravel pathways wending through the sculpted grounds. And all through the gardens are various fountains and pools. It’s a nice enough place, for sure, but the challenge was to get through it and not to drag ass around the grounds, as the rest of the family was doing. I didn’t have patience for that, and besides, how can one get lost in a closed garden? So off I went.
I don’t really know how long I was gone, it couldn’t have been more than an hour or so, but it turned out I was way out in front of my family, and out of their view, as they were out of mine. When I got to the bottom of the gardens I just kind of waited around, and eventually the others showed up. And that’s when the full impact of the drama I had unintentionally and unknowingly stirred up became apparent. Yup, especially with my mother, who had drawn the logical line from her panic of not seeing me to me lying face-down and drowned in the bottom of some Italian fountain. Of course, that had to be where they’d find me.
This incident was painted as me “getting lost” at the Villa Borghese. To this day, that is how my sister paints it. But to set the record straight, I knew exactly where I was every step of the way. And pretty much knew what the destination was. I wasn’t any more lost than the rest of them were. Maybe they were more lost. In fact, they had to be since they thought someone – namely me – could get lost in the gardens. It would be like getting lost on the boardwalk.
My tendency to get off on my own and see things through my own eyes led to a number of revelations I almost certainly would have missed out on had I stuck with the family pack. And some I just made anyway. For instance, there was the naked girl bathing in the Tiber as we crossed over it on some bridge. That sure got my attention. Not something one saw much of back in New Jersey. And there were other things, too. Most of which were illustrations of American Puritanism running smack up against a more relaxed European attitude toward such things.
On that first trans-Atlantic trip, the Villa Borghese one, we got to Paris and were faced with another of those “must-do” tourist things, at least as my father saw it: Attending the Folies Bergère. So, one night early on, my parents and grandmother were off to Pigalle. This was deemed an adult thing, so I was not invited. Anyway, when they got back later that night they were all abuzz about the general lack of clothing on the dancers. I had to ask my grandmother about it, whether the girls wore anything, and her answer was, “Well, they had shoes on.” That responded to the question and satisfied what I needed to know.
Then there was the time four years later, when I was 12 and again traveling with my parents and grandmother in Europe. By then my sister had been off to college and married, so she missed all these later fun times. I guess my parents got tired of the Fiats with the luggage lashed to the roof, so we were traveling as part of an organized group, school teachers, no less, which are probably the worst people in the world to travel with, and this always struck me as a bad idea.
Anyway, during that trip, which lasted a couple of months, I palled around with the teenage daughter of some people in the group my parents had taken a liking to. These people had one annoying habit, which was that they incessantly brushed their teeth before and after every meal since their son was a dentist and had apparently trained the family to do this, though I think it might have been a tactic to avoid engaging in lengthy conversation with us at meal times.
Americans tend to think of themselves as being in a rush, but compared with most people in the world they are like snails when it comes to walking. Well, this girl and I couldn’t bring ourselves to walk as slowly as our parental types did, so we were always way ahead of everyone else as we explored various cities. In the case at hand, Copenhagen. And that’s why we were first to come across the way-more-than-life-size poster of the totally nude – we’re talking full-frontal, fully uncensored nude here – man and woman holding hands. It was probably an advertisement for some Danish film, Danish films not known for being particularly restrained at that time. Or, I guess, now, either.
Well, we were both pretty abuzz about the poster when the folks finally caught up with us, and we were eager to point out our discovery. I’m not sure how any of our elders felt about the poster, except they all seemed rather embarrassed about the whole thing and did their best to downplay it and move us along. Suddenly they were in a rush. Well, the Danes didn’t seem particularly embarrassed by it, and I think my friend and I were a lot less put out by it than our parents. Looking back, I think we both thought it was pretty cool, even if we had never seen anything quite like it before. I know I hadn’t.
Later, when I was 15, on yet another overseas trip and sharing a hotel room with my grandmother in Stockholm, I opened the shutters of our window, right onto a scene of two gorgeous blond Swedish teen girls sunbathing topless on the roof next to our hotel. I knew right then I was going to like Sweden. And I did. Always have.
Many years later I was back in Paris, now on my own. That year there was a popular advertising poster – I think it was for perfume – featuring a topless woman. I guess the idea was that all she was wearing was the perfume. The poster seemed to be everywhere, on the street, on the side of bus stops, in the trains on the Metro. The poster was amusing enough on its own, but what got me was how the French school kids, boys and girls, seemed to pay it no attention. I had no doubt that American kids would be all ga-ga over such a poster, but the French kids didn’t even seem to notice it and just kept on with their school-kid conversations. Maybe they did notice it, but they never let on, if they did.
I don’t know why we have to leave sex ed. up to the Europeans. Does it have to be the Italians, Danes, Swedes, French, or whoever, to open American kids’ eyes to things that should just come naturally?
As for me, I eventually came to learn what “try it, don’t take it” means. Not that it much mattered anymore.
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