The Sugar Shack-Part 5-It’s Getting Hot In Here!

The early days of summer (although technically it was still spring) allowed us many slow business days during the week. Even though we didn’t have many customers, there was a lot of work to do. Because of the deferred maintenance on the Shack, there were many opportunities for cleaning. As I mentioned earlier, I never would have guessed that the grill was actually silver underneath those layers of grime. Yet due to my mother’s persistence, I was able to get it clean. The fryer had several years’ worth of fried particles accumulated at its bottom, and I felt like quite the archaeologist while peeling back the layers of fried clams, clam cakes, French fries and onion rings from previous generations. Of course, nobody would have known those treasures were down there because the oil had not been changed in a long while. It has a viscosity similar to syrup, but believe me when I tell you, it was not so sweet.

Since we didn’t have many customers during the week, I spent my time cleaning, eating, going to the beach and smoking Muniemaker cigars. Often I would borrow one of the rental canoes and just paddle in and around the neat little coves of the salt pond while puffing on a cigar, I thought I was pretty cool. However, I do have advice for any of you that attempt this feat in the future. Beware of the fact that a lit cigar is very hot at the end and that paddling a canoe requires moving your arms back and forth across your body to achieve a straight line, forward motion. Many times, your arms will need to pass somewhere in the proximity of your face. If you have an 8 or 9 inch lit cigar protruding from your mouth as you do this, you WILL GET BURNED. Of course, you may say to yourself, “Well, I won’t do that again.” You may be right, but you also may be wrong, and you may BURN YOURSELF REPEATEDLY with the cigar. You may then say to yourself, “I will put the cigar down, and then I will paddle.” You may think this is a brilliant idea. However, canoes are naturally unstable, and there are not a lot of seats on them. If you put a lit cigar down next to you while attempting to paddle a canoe, YOU WILL BURN YOUR ASS REPEATEDLY.  So, that’s my little public safety tip to you. Later I will explain to you the dangers of looking for a gasoline leak on a motorboat at night while using a cigarette lighter to see what you are doing.

The weekends would provide excitement at the Shack as visitors would come to spend time at the beach and enjoy the weather. We got into a pretty good routine when it came to serving our customers. My cousin, AnneMarie would take the orders at the window, and write up the tickets for whatever needed to be grilled, fried, or nuked. She would be responsible for handing out the drinks, candy and ice cream novelties. My mother would handle the orders for meatball grinders (if you aren’t from RI, you may have to Google that word), and chowder from the Crockpot, as well as continually prepping the batter for clamcakes, and handling any other miscellaneous kitchen duties. The grill and the fryer were my domain. Or so I thought.

As the summer wore on, we naturally got busier and busier. And as we reached the height of the tourism season, it would be very common for us to do about 40-50 lunch orders in about an hour. This peak time would be miserable as well as unbearable. But seriously, the Shack was not that big of a place in terms of square footage or cooking appliances, and there was a certain frenetic elegance to the dance we would do while fulfilling the orders as quickly as possible. As my cousin would post the tickets on the line, I would load the grill and drop the fry baskets continuously. The exhaust fan which had to be from the 1940’s, would drone deafeningly over the grill and drown out almost all other sound. My mother, who cannot hear out of her right ear, was a whirling dervish, pouring cups and bowls of chowder, making clamcake batter, getting more stock from the refrigerator, and all the while keeping an eye out for any scofflaws that tried to get past paying for parking if they weren’t going to buy something from the Shack.

During one particularly hectic day, as I was dumping onion rings and French fries into the fryer and then loading up the serving containers to get the orders out, my mother made note that I was perhaps not watching portion control as closely as she would like:

“Yaw givin’ away too many onion rings deyah. Weyah gonna go down the tubes!”

My reply, which I literally mumbled under my breath, with a huge exhaust fan running that did nothing to change the fact that it was hotter than hell, and with a stream of orders piling up on me, was (and please ask the children to leave the room for this next exchange),

“Man, fuck this shit.”

My mother, deaf in one ear, under the sounds of that obnoxiously loud fan, and in the midst of flipping some cheeseburgers onto buns, wheeled around, shook a greasy spatula with in my face and with a look that seemed to say, “I will hit you with this”, replied,

“YOU! FUCK YAW SHIT!”

Well, she did have a point there. And I conceded. For the remainder of the day, and the season, I literally counted the number of onion rings that went into every order. 8. That’s how many, and I still remember.





Next -Part 6- Winding Down

The Bizarre? No, the Bazaar.

One of the greatest aspects of my family is that no matter what has happened to us in our lives, we have been able to laugh.  This is a priceless gift  and I consider myself blessed to receive it.  We’ve never really been either rich or poor.  It has been (at least for as long as I can remember) a typical middle-class life, with its occasional ups and downs.  My brother and three sisters, however, have been around a lot longer than I have, so they are more likely to tell you the stories of hand-me-downs and sharing one bedroom.  For myself, I sometimes see my part in the family like a role in a television show.  We have quite a cast of characters, many of whom I will introduce to you as we move along, haphazardly, through the retelling of some of the more entertaining moments in our family history.

Growing up in Westchester County, New York in the ‘70’s and early ‘80’s was an experience that I didn’t really appreciate until I got a little older and was thrown into a whole new world called Tucson, Arizona.  We left New York in 1983, but the memories of the days growing up on the East Coast have not faded.

While we still lived in NY, my mom would take us us to a place called “The Bazaar Mall”  in Mount Kisco to window shop and get us out of the house for a few hours.  We would hardly ever buy anything while we were there as my mom would explain in her strong,  New York accent,

“Ooo, I nevah buy nuthin’ in them mall staws,  dey raise awll dere prices to covah deyah ovah-head.”

So, mostly we would browse.  Besides, if we needed to get clothes or anything like that, my mother knew of about a hundred different places where we could get what we needed for a lot less:

“Heeah, try this on.  For three dollahs ya can’t go wrong.”

So, we were in the Bazaar one chilly afternoon in late October because they had one of these miniature circus exhibits going on.  It was one of those deals where there were all these little figures carved out of wood to about the size of an average pinkie finger and some of them were rigged up to move around a little. There was a guy in the lion’s cage with a chair and bull-whip, and there were a couple of elephants that would rear up on their hind legs.  It was basically your typical circus scene, carved out of wood, and very small.

Anyway, we went and looked at this thing for awhile and then we did some window shopping and were on our way out of the mall when we passed by a TV and electronics store.  As we walked past the display window, one of the television sets caught my mother’s attention:

“Ooo, look! Deyah showin’ some kind of movie deyah.”, she said as she stopped in front of the store’s window. “Look, dohse people ah goin’ through a dawah way deyah. But I can’t see wheyah deyah goin’”, as she squinted at the screen. “What an odd movie dis is.  Oh, look deyah’s a man in deyah!”, and as she said this she pointed and waved at the screen, at which time the man on the television pointed and waved back to her. “Ooo, he waved at me, didyas see dat? Who is dat strange man?  He must want us to come in deyah and buy sometin’.”

By this point my sister Annie and I could not control our laughter anymore, and we  both exclaimed in unison,

“Mom, that’s you!”

My mother had been watching herself and the action around us on a TV that was hooked up to a video-camera pointed directly out of the window we were standing in front of.  That “strange man” she saw waving and pointing at us was her!  After a few more minutes of hysterics, my mother, true to form, replied,

“Ooo, it must be this jacket. It makes me look like a man.  I’m throwin’ it out as soon as we get home!”

And she did.

The Sugar Shack – Part 4 – It's Friggin' Cold!

If you have ever been to the Northeast in the months of May and June, then you’ll know what I mean when I say that it is hardly a paradise, unless you are one of those people that get a thrill from cold, wet, windy days, and an absolute probability of seeing the sun four times in sixty-one days.
-Journal Entry, May 31, 1989

Traveling from Arizona to Rhode Island in the last weeks of May had a profound impact on me in a number of ways. I am thankful that I kept a journal back then, because it has really helped me in piecing some of the memories back together. For instance, I had nearly forgotten how friggin’ cold it is in the Northeast in Springtime! Sometimes there’s a chill in the air all the way through July, and sometimes you may not get a summer at all.

I’ve been freezin’ my ass off for about a week now. I just can’t get used to the friggin’ weather….I feel like a friggin’ old man…This cold and damp climate has turned my lats into knots of rope. I bend at my lower back like a damn ape with a walking stick.
Journal Entry – May 23, 1989

The weather and my living arrangements conspired to produce a lot of time for philosophical thought. Well, my 18 year old brain didn’t really have that much of a clue about philosophy. I was pretty much spending a majority of my time thinking about girls (Shocking, I know!), but I was reading books by Vonnegut and Salinger and they had a heavy influence on me. I wasn’t Holden Caufield or Kilgore Trout, but I related to them in some ways.

I used to think I was this important cog in some universal machine that worked by some cosmic fuel which was produced by planetary and terrestrial harmony. But then I felt conceited, so I humbled myself and then I thought that I was this speck of stellar dust that was really only taking space away from more important beings, like scientists, musicians, mathematicians, you know? People that were like contributing their knowledge and trying to make everything more beautiful without changing the balance of the tides of the galaxy. But then I felt too unimportant and that I wouldn’t be here without a good reason. Now I just don’t think anymore. I prefer to just vegetate and wait for enlightenment. So far I have no enlightenment that I can recall. Maybe its been sent directly to my subconscious and will return as deja vu.
Journal Entry – Later on May 23, 1989

A number of factors contributed to my feelings of isolation and loneliness in those months of May and June by the shore in Rhode Island. Besides the inclement weather, the school year runs into mid to late June in the Northeast, and so there weren’t many people (Read girls) my age around during the weekdays and nights.

When I say there are no girls here, I mean between the ages of 16 and 22 and never before the end of June. This is one of the loneliest places an 18 year-old guy can spend May and June, but if you don’t want distractions, this is a desert island in the middle of the Pacific.
Journal Entry – May 23, 1989

Of course it wasn’t all filled with angst. I do have some great friends today that I knew back then, and we spent a lot of nights having fun and doing “teenager stuff”. I’ll tell you all about those escapades once I get all the waivers signed. Let me just say for now that I have uncovered several journal entries that allude to kegs, half-barrels, double-kegs, cases, and fifths.

It was against this backdrop that I would go to work with my mom at the Shack. She liked to be there to open for business early in the morning, and she would often say in her thick accent,

“I like to get down theyah to make egg on a roll sandwiches and coffee for the fisha-men goin’ out in theyah boats.”

And that is just what she did. So as I was spending my days and nights moping and thinking about all the things I didn’t have in my life at that time, she was getting up and walking the half-mile down to the Shack at 5:30 every morning. If it was a crappy day, she would take the car, and I would walk down when I woke up, which was usually sometime around 11:30 in the morning to prep for the “lunch rush”.

When I say “lunch rush” it means we had more orders than normal, but during weekdays in June, that wasn’t a lot of work. Those days it was common for me to eat way more than we sold. Maybe that’s why I never got an actual paycheck? I became the master of the bacon double-cheese burger. Even now, knowing how bad it was for my body to eat so many of those darn things, I can’t help drooling just a little bit thinking about it. I can tell you, I have had many, many food dreams in my life. Sad to say, but I’ve had way more food dreams than sex dreams.

The slowness of the early summer season made it a nice way to ease into the system at the Shack, but it may have lulled me into a false sense of control. Being a veteran of Bosa Donuts, Wendy’s and Subway, I had a high level of confidence in regard to my fast-food skills. I was king of the grill and the fry-o-later, but I would later find out that I was no match at all for my mother and her absolute obsession with and attentiveness to portion control.





Up Next…Part 5 – It’s Getting Hot in Here!

The Sugar Shack – Part 4 – It’s Friggin’ Cold!

If you have ever been to the Northeast in the months of May and June, then you’ll know what I mean when I say that it is hardly a paradise, unless you are one of those people that get a thrill from cold, wet, windy days, and an absolute probability of seeing the sun four times in sixty-one days.
-Journal Entry, May 31, 1989

Traveling from Arizona to Rhode Island in the last weeks of May had a profound impact on me in a number of ways. I am thankful that I kept a journal back then, because it has really helped me in piecing some of the memories back together. For instance, I had nearly forgotten how friggin’ cold it is in the Northeast in Springtime! Sometimes there’s a chill in the air all the way through July, and sometimes you may not get a summer at all.

I’ve been freezin’ my ass off for about a week now. I just can’t get used to the friggin’ weather….I feel like a friggin’ old man…This cold and damp climate has turned my lats into knots of rope. I bend at my lower back like a damn ape with a walking stick.
Journal Entry – May 23, 1989

The weather and my living arrangements conspired to produce a lot of time for philosophical thought. Well, my 18 year old brain didn’t really have that much of a clue about philosophy. I was pretty much spending a majority of my time thinking about girls (Shocking, I know!), but I was reading books by Vonnegut and Salinger and they had a heavy influence on me. I wasn’t Holden Caufield or Kilgore Trout, but I related to them in some ways.

I used to think I was this important cog in some universal machine that worked by some cosmic fuel which was produced by planetary and terrestrial harmony. But then I felt conceited, so I humbled myself and then I thought that I was this speck of stellar dust that was really only taking space away from more important beings, like scientists, musicians, mathematicians, you know? People that were like contributing their knowledge and trying to make everything more beautiful without changing the balance of the tides of the galaxy. But then I felt too unimportant and that I wouldn’t be here without a good reason. Now I just don’t think anymore. I prefer to just vegetate and wait for enlightenment. So far I have no enlightenment that I can recall. Maybe its been sent directly to my subconscious and will return as deja vu.
Journal Entry – Later on May 23, 1989

A number of factors contributed to my feelings of isolation and loneliness in those months of May and June by the shore in Rhode Island. Besides the inclement weather, the school year runs into mid to late June in the Northeast, and so there weren’t many people (Read girls) my age around during the weekdays and nights.

When I say there are no girls here, I mean between the ages of 16 and 22 and never before the end of June. This is one of the loneliest places an 18 year-old guy can spend May and June, but if you don’t want distractions, this is a desert island in the middle of the Pacific.
Journal Entry – May 23, 1989

Of course it wasn’t all filled with angst. I do have some great friends today that I knew back then, and we spent a lot of nights having fun and doing “teenager stuff”. I’ll tell you all about those escapades once I get all the waivers signed. Let me just say for now that I have uncovered several journal entries that allude to kegs, half-barrels, double-kegs, cases, and fifths.

It was against this backdrop that I would go to work with my mom at the Shack. She liked to be there to open for business early in the morning, and she would often say in her thick accent,

“I like to get down theyah to make egg on a roll sandwiches and coffee for the fisha-men goin’ out in theyah boats.”

And that is just what she did. So as I was spending my days and nights moping and thinking about all the things I didn’t have in my life at that time, she was getting up and walking the half-mile down to the Shack at 5:30 every morning. If it was a crappy day, she would take the car, and I would walk down when I woke up, which was usually sometime around 11:30 in the morning to prep for the “lunch rush”.

When I say “lunch rush” it means we had more orders than normal, but during weekdays in June, that wasn’t a lot of work. Those days it was common for me to eat way more than we sold. Maybe that’s why I never got an actual paycheck? I became the master of the bacon double-cheese burger. Even now, knowing how bad it was for my body to eat so many of those darn things, I can’t help drooling just a little bit thinking about it. I can tell you, I have had many, many food dreams in my life. Sad to say, but I’ve had way more food dreams than sex dreams.

The slowness of the early summer season made it a nice way to ease into the system at the Shack, but it may have lulled me into a false sense of control. Being a veteran of Bosa Donuts, Wendy’s and Subway, I had a high level of confidence in regard to my fast-food skills. I was king of the grill and the fry-o-later, but I would later find out that I was no match at all for my mother and her absolute obsession with and attentiveness to portion control.





Up Next…Part 5 – It’s Getting Hot in Here!

The Sugar Shack -Part 3- The Preparation

My mom had run the Shack before. In 1980 and 1981 she ran it along with my older brother and three older sisters. She had a pretty simple formula for business: Stay open on a regular schedule, give the people what they want, and most importantly: use portion control. We sold hamburgers, hot dogs, french fries, clam-cakes, chowder, ice cream novelties, candy and soda.

In the years between the first and second time we ran the Shack, it had fallen into moderate disrepair and disarray. Some college kids ran it a couple of times, each with the same result: They were rarely open for business. It is difficult to make money when you aren’t open, but it is also difficult for most 19 and 20 year-olds to resist the allure of partying all night and sleeping in the next day. On other occasions, people that tried only to gouge customers on price ran the Shack. This system had it’s own set of flaws. Namely, if the food sucks, and its too expensive, you aren’t going to sell very much.

The Shack was a popular place for kids to hang out at when they got tired of sitting on the beach, and especially at night, when they were looking for a place to meet before going back to the beach, to build bonfires out of the fences used to keep people off of the dunes. My mom knew this, and she ran the place accordingly. In return for a place to hang out, the kids would spend their money on cheap fried stuff and sodas. The renters (people who would come the Charlestown for a week or two in the summer) would provide the main source of income. They typically had at least two or three kids in the family, and so they could easily go through a half-dozen bowls of chowder, two-dozen sinkers (a name we often used for clam-cakes) and 6-10 hot dogs and hamburgers. Throw in a dozen sodas, and you’re all set. If we could do 15-20 orders like this in a day (and we did), the Shack would be profitable.

The other part of my mom’s formula that I forgot to mention earlier, was that the only help you hire is family. You don’t have to pay them and you can pretty much guilt them into doing what you want. With that kind of overhead, it had to be a pretty crumby summer to not make money. Even when the weather was bad, we’d stay open. Rainy days were “clam cake and chowda days” to my mother. And she was right. It always amazed me how well she understood people’s habits. I guess looking back on it now as an adult with a family; I can see it more clearly. Renters down for a week, paying nearly $1000 bucks for the place they’re renting are not going to miss out on their vacations just because of a little rain. Even more so, having shared a 900 square foot house with up to 25 people staying in it (this is not an exaggeration I can give you a complete list of names) I can certainly understand the importance of “getting out”. If you don’t, you’re liable to say something hurtful to somebody, and then the tension just mounts until everyone’s had enough wine, and then the comments really fly. OK, so I’m digressing a little. I’ll definitely give you more insight into that later, though.

So, we had a concession stand right near the beach from Memorial Day through Labor Day. It was rewarding, challenging and exhausting. And that was before we even opened for business. My mom still used many of the same purveyors she had relied upon in 80 and 81. As the deliveries came in, we stocked the freezers, refrigerators and shelves. We also spent a lot of time cleaning about 7 years worth of grease buildup off of the grill. I kid you not. I could’ve been knocked over with a feather when, after going through about two-dozen steel wool pads and a full spray bottle of degreaser, I actually saw the shine of silver beneath the crud. I seriously thought it was supposed to be black, and that my mom was crazy for thinking it wasn’t. That was the first of many times I was to be proven wrong. However, that only means I was wrong for thinking she was crazy for that particular moment. As I shall clearly demonstrate later, she really is crazy. So, after cleaning that grill until it shined, and scraping the equivalent of muddy grease from the exhaust fan, and removing about ten pounds of sludge from out of the bottom of the fry-o-later, we were ready to get cookin’. If I had known what was to come during that summer, I might not have been so quick to clean that equipment.

Coming Soon: I’ll tell you about the hazards of crossing my mother, not exercising portion control, and the dangers of working a fry-o-later while wearing only a pair of boardshorts. Oh, did I mention there would also be some swearing? Don’t let kids under 12 read the next post!

The Sugar Shack – Part 2-The Drive East


The fun in that summer of ’89 began before we even got to the Shack. When I say “fun”, what I really mean is “torturous journey”. At the start of our trip, after I completed a fifteen hour driving shift, (Hey, I was young.) my mom took over.  My mom was born and raised in New York City. She has a very distinct accent and it is heightened by the fact that she cannot hear at all out of one ear, due to a fever she had as a young girl. Also, having grown up in NYC, she doesn’t have a lot of driving experience.  I must admit that even phonetically spelling the words as they sound when my mom speaks does not convey the true texture. You’ll have to use a little imagination and it helps if you’ve ever seen, “My Cousin Vinny”.

So, after taking over behind the wheel for me and about 15 minutes of driving she made the following comment in her thick, loud, Bronx accent :

“Ooh, da road and da sky look the same, I can’t tell da difference between dem. It awl looks gray deh. My eyes ah getting’ tie-ud”

“OK, mom, pull over. I’ll drive.”, I replied.

After relinquishing the wheel, she immediately went to sleep in the passenger’s seat. She awoke only after I had been stopped by the Oklahoma State Police Officer who was now asking me questions and looking into the car at my mother, who said from her fully reclined seat,

“Ooh, officah, I told him not to drive too fast. I only closed my eyes for a minute.”

A $98 dollar speeding ticket later, we were on our way, and mom was asleep again within minutes.

After that, the trip was somewhat uneventful. I had the opportunity to sleep while my cousin Anne Marie drove for awhile and we were making pretty good time (At least until we got into Missouri). After a rest stop and driver change, I was behind the wheel again. While driving through a severe thunderstorm that evening on I-44, the Sunbird went through a most unfortunate chain of events. First, the radio began to fade in and out. “OK, no big deal”, I thought, figuring that the station we were listening to was being interfered with by the storm. Shortly after that, however, the headlights began to flicker. Not good. 2 a.m., desolate stretch of highway in a Missouri thunderstorm. Not a good time for the headlights to go. Unfortunately, I had no final say in the matter, and the lights and the radio and the dashboard lights all  went out.

“Ooh, it must have been da storm. It knocked out da lights. Pull over deyah and we’ll have to wait for da sun to come up.”, my mom said, awakening in the passenger seat.

“Huh? Are you out of your mind?”, I replied.  It’s 2 a.m. in the middle of nowhere. We have no lights. 18 wheelers are barreling past us in a thunderstorm at about 85 mph and I don’t know if they can even see us!”

We had no choice, however. My mother was not going to take a chance on finding a motel that we would have to pay for. We slept in the car on the side of the road. I swear to this day that someone came and knocked on the window in the middle of the night. My mother didn’t hear it because she is completely deaf in one ear, and she sleeps on her good one. I just pretended I was asleep. As soon as the sun came up, we were gone. Five miles up the road we found a service station that replaced our wiring harness for $100 and we were back on the road. For the moment.
We made a stopover in Avon Lakes, Ohio to visit with my sister and brother-in-law.  But before we arrived, the Sunbird was getting cranky from being ridden so hard and it was beginning to overheat. We were only about 30 miles from Avon Lakes, so there was no chance we were going to stop. So, the quick fix was to turn on the heater in the car to vent some of the hot air away from the engine. Ah! hot and muggy on the outside, even hotter and muggier on the inside! It was a great time. It was worth it when we got to Avon Lakes, though. We slept in beds and had an excellent time at Cedar Point Amusement Park. We rode all the roller coasters in the park except for the Magnum because it was either under construction or repair. All I know is that I had a lot less stress and fear while riding those coasters than I had when my mom was driving.
When we left Ohio, I drove for another 12 hours before my mother took a driving shift going through the mountains somewhere in Pennsylvania. I don’t remember exactly where. All I remember before I fell asleep is reminding my mother to take exit number 19. When I awoke, I watched as we passed exit number 26. “OK”, I thought to myself, “we‘re almost to our exit.” Imagine my surprise when we reached the next exit sign and it was number 27!

“Mom, what’s going on? Why didn’t you take exit 19?”

“Ooh, theyah was all dese  big trucks, and I couldn’t get over theyah to the exit. Dey were passing me on da right theyah.”

“So you just kept driving? Where are we?”

”I don’t know. Someweyah  in da mountains. I can’t see with all dis rain. My eyes ah goin’ crazy here. I can’t see anything.”

Can’t see anything? While driving? That can’t be good.

“Pull over, mom. I’ll take it from here.”

After another 10 hours of driving, we finally arrived in Rhode Island. The very next day we began to prepare the Shack for the Memorial Day opening. It wasn’t easy.  My mom can be a tough boss.

Be sure to check back here for Part 3 – The Preparation to find out what it’s really like working for my mom.