| WE THE LOSERS|
by Matthew Conte I was standing by the oven when I saw them, clamped together tight as lovers on a station platform, beating each other. It was a midsummer Saturday at the boardwalk restaurant I’ve worked at off and on for the past decade, meaning there were a lot of people in the building. It’s a counter service joint filled with bennies and families during the day and drunks and weekenders at night—my shift. A graveyard shift if every night were All Saints Day thanks to the summer rental houses and the two bars across the street. A shift for those with a little tougher skin, as steady streams of jukebox hijackings, over-orders, and fist fights could get taxing.
I quit my job as a reporter with a newspaper so that I could time things right to come back to Gee-Gee’s, where I could work as many hours as possible. Back living in Katie’s grandma’s second floor thanks to the fire that took our first apartment, I decided to buckle down for the summer and spend the four months or so trying to make enough money to move to Philadelphia. I would put in around 50 hours a week plus another 20 or so at Brielle Recreation’s summer camp program in the mornings. Both the job I left and the one I left it for were hectic at times, with deadlines at the paper and long lines at Gee-Gee’s. Both could feel trivial, had a way of making the worker feel like they were meaningless and shouting into something that could just swallow them up if it wanted to. Whether I was writing a thousand words on an uncontested school board election or making a pizza that someone was going to pay for, throw up on, and then leave for me to clean up, I was typically asking myself why any of this was happening in the first place. But one was a lot of sitting, a lot of manners, a lot of middle-aged suburbanites yelling at me for this or commending me for that. Meanwhile, at Gee-Gee’s I lifted things, I fought with teenagers over the auxiliary cord, and I ended most days with a beer. At the end of holiday weekends I slept on the beach, woke up with a swim, and brought the beach home in my shorts. I ran into the paper’s manager at the annual week-long fireman’s fair, one of the biggest weeks of the year in Manasquan. She told me at least I had the summer to prepare and relax before I moved. I didn’t bother to tell her how unrelaxing it was.
One night, a Fourth of July weekend night during my last summer there, Hazy Davy and his girlfriend Crazy Janie came in, yelling back out the doors. I had played Little League baseball with Davy and he was a year below me at Manasquan High School. His dad was one of two people in my life who called me “Matty.” I didn’t know him too well but when we drunkenly bumped into each other at the senior formal at Roger Williams University, me as a guest of a student and he as the guest of a senior, we were so shocked at the sudden familiar face that we, the polite party fringes, the beach bums who still recognized each other in ties and clothes with buttons at this fancy-ass, seafood-serving ball hugged and danced together and got each other drinks at the open bar.
This particular holiday weekend had so far seen its fair share of wild conversations with customers. One told us she had been running a one-woman drink chip-for-pizza slice deal with various employees for years and needed a new trading partner. A pair of 25-year-olds made their way up onto the grill stage to try to coerce the college-aged boys on the fryers into some free food, slipping on a pair of greasy aprons. A former employee stepped behind the counter to pound out some dough. After closing, we watched from our encampment on Riddle Beach as a man stumbled from a house with the sunrise, fully clothed with beer in hand, and walked straight into the ocean without stopping. When he came out sopping wet and continuing to drink from a 50-50 split of Bud Light and saltwater, we asked how long he had been drunk. He asked us what day it was, which is sort of all the answer you need to that question.
Modern day jukeboxes are controlled mostly via iPhone apps and touch screens. At Gee-Gee’s, I witnessed joyous Elton John sing-alongs, intoxicated faux-karaoke battles, and birthday wishes granted. But there’s always someone with the mindset of teenage John Mulaney, a comedian with a story about playing the same song over and over again to see what would happen. I once heard “Higher” by Creed playing, and thought that was kind of a funny song to put on. People like to shit on bands like Creed and Nickelback because they’re not good and they’re very successful, but I learned to let go of any music snobbery I might’ve had back in college. It’s stupid and useless; Creed is harmless and even though it’s probably playing through a jukebox ironically, I don’t really care. In the hectic workplace of the pizza ovens, it wasn’t until a few minutes later that I realized that “Higher” by Creed was still on. When I came up to the counter, I didn’t even have to say anything before the cashier girls said, “You have to do something.” Apparently it had played at least four times already, so I found the remote and turned the jukebox off. A few minutes later, a guy came over to me and yelled over the counter that the jukebox was broken.
“Oh, yeah,” I told him. “I don’t think it was broken, somebody just put on the same Creed song over and over again, so I turned it off.”
“Yeah! I put in $5 and I didn’t hear all my songs.”
I then realized he was the Creed guy, so I tried to change my tune hoping that someone who was drunk enough to spend $5 to hear “Higher” that many times was also drunk enough to lose himself in this conversation. “Oh, yeah, it’s broken, sorry,” I said.
“This is horseshit!” he said before turning on his heels and stomping out the double doors.
He and his friends came in again on different nights, mostly playing the same song. One time, I turned it off and they just gathered around and sang the song acapella. It became a tolerable and sometimes welcome distraction. The story got around, with the Creed guys gaining a little mythic notoriety amongst those clocking in and out. At the end of the summer, the last late shift of the Labor Day weekend, in the flimsy barrier of moments between the end of summer and the beginning of Local Summer, we closed the place down—swept and mopped the floors, plunged the toilets, shooed the nappers from the porch, tossed or boxed up or ate cold any remaining pizza. We left the jukebox on, paused, with the volume all the way up. We parked ourselves on the sand near the water and sat there with the case of drinks the bartenders had traded us for boxes of pizza, going for a swim when we had to piss, passing around joints and stories and insults, dodging the tractor sweeping the beach, waiting for the lights to come on. We gave the openers a little time to settle in and turn some appliances on before we, a ragged group of beards, teenage-boy dishwashers, college-girl cashiers, single moms, calloused burnt hands, ex-Navymen, sand-covered calves, teachers, struggling artists, bloodshot eyes, Soundcloud rappers, rent-a-cops, bartenders and backs, moonlighters, addicts, dropouts; we of the night who make your food and take your shit and thank you for it; we who fall asleep to the robins’ dawn chorus, who huddle in the fringes of big nights out for sleeveless New Yorkers and rich young professionals, for tight dresses and popped collars; we who’ve been told by our wages are minimum; we the fiery, the sleepless, undereducated, greasy, we the losers slow-motion rolled in before service to the sound of a maxed out jukebox playing “Higher” by Creed and the exasperated sighs of the still sleepy eyed breakfast crew.
Davy and Janie were basically regulars. On a normal night we might have exchanged casualties or a story or two about his brother, Killer Joe, who was my wife’s sister’s husband’s best friend. I didn’t know Janie well but had seen her name occasionally in the sports section of the hyper-local newspaper I worked at her success with lacrosse in college beyond the borders of Manasquan. On this night, I came over to see what the commotion was, as the job of makeshift bouncer often fell to me. Once he calmed a bit, he told me of an encounter just outside the doors with a few guys who had just walked out, which began when they called him a “faggot.”
“Which like, I don’t really care, whatever,” he said. “But then they kept calling her a slut.” Apparently these guys could only insult someone in some relation to the variety and frequency of their sex lives.
He steamed there in front of the pizza display, his hands in fists and his face deep red. Janie wiped tears from her eyes. I asked them what they wanted to eat. This was a couple that came in often, almost never too drunk, and never caused a problem. They were locals who were usually alone, occasionally with a few friends. He got a grilled cheese. She got a ‘tie-dye’ slice, which is a disgusting concoction of fried chicken, buffalo sauce, barbecue sauce, and ranch dressing that inexplicably flies off the pan once the calendar turns with the stroke of midnight. I told them it was on me. A pizza pie only needs to sell about two slices before it becomes profitable, and bread and melted cheese isn’t exactly breaking the bank either. We give out free slices all the time late at night. To former employees, to people we’re flirting with, to friends or family or other service workers or cops or people we’re just trying to impress. Sometimes even strangers with drink chips. Davy and Janie were both so happy, they thanked me over and over again and left a nice tip for the girls at the counter.
It was post-2 a.m. when I stood up on the pizza station and hollered down at the two combatants in my substitute teacher voice. Only these weren’t grade schoolers, they were a 32-year-old man and the 17-year-old he was apparently too drunk to know better than to fight, who had most likely been smoking weed on the beach under cover of the darkness. I went up and over the pizza display window, down the steps, and through the circle of seconds and sidekicks to try to grip onto him. He was using his fist and the shaggy-haired kid, a local for sure, was using his elbow. They were both bleeding from their faces, dripping onto the pavement. With his belt buckle in my left hand and his arm in my right, I was pulling and prying when an officer came running down the macadam and took him straight from my arms. When the officer who took my statement—a former cook at the same joint and my wife’s co-sibling-in-law—I told him the big guy was on top and the kid was defending himself. I don’t know how it started but for some reason, maybe because he was punching below his weight class, or maybe because of a misguided need to protect my home and people from the rowdy three-to-four-month invaders, I found myself slanting the details to put the big guy in the wrong.
He wrote it all down in a little notepad while I got down on my hands and knees with a bucket of soapy water and a hot rag and washed the blood from the pavement. About the Author:Matt Conte is a New Jersey-born writer with an MFA from Rosemont College. He lives in Philadelphia and makes pizza dough.