Summer of 1953. The Pike.
When I was 13 years old, no other place was as mysterious or exotic. My good friend, Glen Jones and I got the job of running an arcade on the cement 'boardwalk' just to the east of rainbow pier. I took the day shift from 8 am to 5 pm, and Glen took the night shift from 5 pm to 1 am. However, Glen seldom worked his shift because at this time he was well into his show-biz career with Ferber Studios. So I usually worked from 8 am to 1 am. Often, the beat cops would give me a bad time because I was only 13, and I guess they didn't have a lot to do, anyway. I knew these guys by name, and they knew me too, but it didn't stop their taunting of me, when I was there late. Glen and I filled the jukebox with our own records, most of mine being Earl Bostic super sax, but also a lot of swing big band and R&B hits by Bo Diddley, BB King, and Muddy Waters. We turned that place into the most popular arcade on the Pike, for HS kids! On weekends, when we were the busiest, both Glen and I would work. I would take the normal change-making and machine maintenance, while Glen, with his natural show-biz personality would bark out on the mike to the passing crowds to play the huge 'penny pitch' at the front of the arcade. He would always draw giant crowds. He told me later that the secret was in psychology. "If a young kid walks by with his girl, you call to him to bring his WIFE in to have some fun pitching pennies. If an old couple walk by, you tell him to bring his girlfriend in." And the kids would FILL that arcade! The dudes would all be all be yelling and competing at the many pin-ball machines, while the chicks would just be hanging around, talking and flirting. Usually in wet bathing suits. I must have done something really great for God to have given me this job! Glen and I would often take turns taking 'ride breaks', when we would take one of the girls to the ride center of the Pike, while the other watched the store. Neither of us were ever turned down, but I must admit Glen took a lot more 'ride breaks' than I did. But those fabulous rides! The 'Cyclone Racer', that rickety roller- coaster where more than one drunken sailor plunged to his death. The double ferris-wheel, where the spine-chilling altitude combined with making-out with that beautiful girl you just met, was a thrill that I've never again found. The bumper cars, that screaming abandon that the word FUN cannot begin to describe. The freak shows, when sometimes the freaks, those really great people trapped in ridiculous bodies, would recognize me in the audience and say,"Hi Johnnie", to the astonishment of the girl I was with. And all those Pike 'floozies'. You might see them with a different sailor every night. But when they stopped into the arcade just to talk, they spoke of their folks, where they grew up, their old friends, and all the things that all of us talk about. I loved the Pike. And today, I love the memory of it. It did not corrupt me. It enhanced me.
"the Pike, a Closer Look"
It was 1953. I was 13. My job at the Pike was running a large arcade on the cement 'boardwalk', just east of Rainbow Pier, and the main Archway Entrance to the ride center of the Pike.
I got there every morning around 8 am, wiped down all the machines before opening the massive roll-up door to the bathing suit clad teens waiting to get in. Most were soaking wet from early morning swims in the surf. As the crowd entered, the local kids, whom I knew, would come up to greet me, and I graciously acknowledged their friendship and patronage. Then I would always start off the Juke Box with the R&B sounds of Earl Bostic, or Bo Diddley, or Chuck Berry, some other super idol of that time. The kids would often dance in the tiny aisles between the pinball machines. We didn't have a license for it, but I never stopped them. I loved it!
As I watched the action from the elevated box cubicle, which was closed off from the arcade floor, Andrea, a pretty, freckle-faced local girl of twelve, always waited at the gate, until I let her into the 'employee' area. She was there every day, wearing the same blue bathing suit, and I always let her in because she was really nice and I liked her. Not in a romantic or sexual way, because she was too young for me, even though I was only 13, myself. I was flattered by her interest in me, but the relationship was strictly platonic, at least from my viewpoint.
One day the blonde girl from Paramount that I was going with, more or less, came into the arcade to, I guess, to see where I worked and just to talk. Andrea, the pretty 12-year old was sitting beside me in this elevated booth. As I began talking to my girlfriend, young Andrea moved close to my side, put her arm around me, hugging me close to her totally inadequate bosom. She never had done this before, and I was quite surprised, although thinking back, I really did nothing to stop her. My girlfriend, as taken back as I was, said,"Isn't she a little young for you?" It took me a minute to evaluate the situation, but I finally said,"Oh, I don't think so." And I felt kind of ashamed, although today I don't know why. I was 13, my girl was 14, and Andrea was 12. Why was I ashamed? Maybe because today I don't even recall my girl's name, but I remember Andrea's.
Anyway, I continued my arcade job as usual, never acknowledging any change in my relationship with Andrea, although she and I both knew it had changed. Every day I would count my money, to see if I had enough for the $.75 shrimp basket from the seafood place next door. I rarely did, and usually ate nothing for lunch. My Mom would have given me a sack lunch or money, but I left the house each morning about 5 am to catch the bus for Long Beach. On two occasions, when I was short 20 or 30 cents, I took the difference from the till. The shrimp was sooo great, but my conscience would bother me, even to this day!
Then one night, a big, heavy dude came into the arcade saying that machine in the back took his money. I was very suspicious, but I followed him to the back of the arcade, where he was talking gibberish about nothing. I ran to the front, and saw his accomplice running around the corner with the cash from the till. We kept a lead-filled hose near the till, but I was 13 and weighed 120, and I just let the other guy run out the other way. The beat cops that came by every hour or so were totally useless. To them I was the criminal. "What's a kid like you doing, running this place after curfew?" was their only response. The owner, when I told him the next day, didn't really care either. He only lost about $30. Was I learning how to compromise my integrity? Not a chance! I fell back on what my folks had taught me! But I was starting to wonder about everybody else, though.
And I was starting to learn many things while working there at the Pike. I loved that place, the atmosphere, and the people I met there.There were retired guys, professional women from 16 to 60, panhandlers, con-men, booth operators, sailors and limeys, and even some of the freaks from the side shows. And I found I liked them all. And I found they all liked me, too. I told my folks about them, as some were really wierd. And my folks encouraged me. They told me these were all people, just like us, but with different lives. My folks actually relieved my mind. I thought I was wierd too, because I really liked these people. The tattooed man, the bearded lady, the sword swallower, were some of my friends, that I would talk to everyday.
And then the endless stream of bikini-clad chicks who invaded the arcade, and would always accept an invitation to hit the ride center and ride free, as I knew most of the ride operators. And when we went into the freak shows, sometimes they would nod to me and say, "Hi, Johnnie." And the girl I was with would go bananas! This always seemed to be the ultimate compliment, to have a freak know you.
Actually, which person is more unique? A physically different person with friends that honestly like them, like everyone else, or someone who feels it is strange for odd-looking people to have friends.
One time, a girl from Yorba Linda showed up at the Arcade. She was the same age as I was, and she had ran away from home. We made out on the beach one night , after I closed the arcade. She was very nice. I missed the bus that night, and didn't get home until 7 am. I told my Mom some cock & bull story about why I missed the bus. I later learned that Glen, my partner in managing the arcade, had let the girl sleep in the arcade back room. Glen and I were close friends, and always respected each other's decisions, especially about girls.
A few days later, while our cute girl was still spending her nights in our back room, the beat cops came in and asked me for my help in locating this run-away girl.And to quote Jackie Gleason, "HOOOWWW sweet it is!" They described her, showed me a photo, and told me how anxious her folks were to have her back. "I BET," I thought to myself, as I recalled how she had told me her stepfather had raped her.
"Nope", says I. "Never saw her, never heard of her. Now you're scaring away business. Please leave!"
The Pike went on. Long after those cops and I were gone. To me, the Pike is not so much a place, but a mental attitude. If you accept the people, different as they may be from you, and the sometimes really 'questionable' atmosphere, you can boast an open mind. If you feel it is too wierd to tolerate, then you are like those beat cops, who had no concept of what they strolled by, every day.
I know that precious part of life they discarded. It is part of my very soul.
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