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.