24 Jun
2014

Chowder, Clam Cakes, and Cigarettes: Rocky Point Shore Dinner Hall

The Rocky Point Shore Dinner Hall in the 1950's.

The Rocky Point Shore Dinner Hall in the 1950’s.

Note: The 2014 BioBlitz was held at what’s left of one of Rhode Island’s legendary attractions: Rocky Point Amusement Park.  That story is in a different post.  What follows here is a memoir of my time spent  working as a busboy at my first job, at the Shore Dinner Hall.

The story goes that river boat captain William Winslow brought the genteel set to Rocky Point in the 1840’s for Sunday school picnics. Women in long skirts carried parasols and men wore suits and straw hats, even while strolling the beach awaiting the smoky, salty flavors of a clambake. Rocky Point was a delicate young girl then, in the first blush of femininity. Since those days, and especially in the decades since the park closed, a mythos has arisen about the family wholesomeness of Rocky Point.

That’s not the Rocky Point I know. The park I know had long since ceased to be a blushing young girl. In the mid 1970’s, she was a bleach blonde, with a cigarette dangling from her lips, sagging breasts in a low cut shirt she was too old to wear, and a tattoo of a tear at the edge of her eye. She smelled of Cachet or Charlie perfumes, frying grease. She sounded like Deep Purple, Donna Summer, cheap P.A. systems, loud mufflers. She tasted of Coke in waxed paper cups or warm beer.

The brackets that held the letters above the hall still stand, though the letters are long gone.

The brackets that held the letters above the hall still stand, though the letters are long gone.

The Shore Dinner Hall that was one of the most famous elements of the park was a dark, cavernous, noisy beast. Wooden floors, wooden tables, wooden chairs that seated a thousand at a time. The floors creaked constantly as the wait staff paraded around carrying heaping bowls of clam cakes and tureens of red chowder. The clientele talked loudly in order to be heard above the din of scraping chairs and overhead fans, and because that was the only way they knew to behave. Before one herd of diners left, wait staff would pass around a wicker basket lined with a red and white cloth napkin, into which diners might deposit a gratuity. Then it was time to clear the table for the next seating. That’s where I came in.

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Billy, a schoolmate of mine who was a year older than I was, called me in early June and told me he had gotten a job as a busboy at the Shore Dinner Hall. The season was still young, and they were hiring at the Hall, so why don’t I stop by and fill out an application? Aside from mowing neighborhood lawns, I had never had a job before, and even though the place was intimidating, I was excited at the prospect of making money. I filled out the paperwork. There was a bar at the front corner of the hall, behind which stood a burly man, balding with dark hair slicked back. Conrad Ferla, an Italian immigrant, ran the Shore Dinner Hall, and looked me up and down as I passed him my application. “Okay, you come in Sunday,” he said, though it sounded more like “you comb een soneday.” Say it out loud, and you’ll see what I mean.

Sunday was the busiest day of the week for the park. I showed up at 10 a.m. wearing the white shirt, black pants, black bow tie and black dress shoes that were required of both waiters and busboys. Waitresses, outnumbered at least four to one, looked a bit like nurses in plain white dresses that buttoned to the neck and reached below their knees. Setup was first, as tables were readied with metal utensils, paper cups for soda or water, napkins. Plates were brought down the 50-foot rows of tables and put in place. Chairs were pushed in tidily, and the place would look the best it would for the rest of the day.

At 10:30, it was time for lunch. Fifteen or more of us sat at a table, and were served roast meat whose parents had given it up for adoption, mashed potatoes, and canned green beans. It tasted like it looked, but as it would be the only meal for nearly 12 hours, I forced some down anyway. Waiters and waitresses, having worked at the hall for years, chatted. They were young people like John, who sported a bushy mustache and a smile, thirty-somethings like Dan, whose red eyes and pinched face spoke of heavy drinking, and Mike, a gent in his seventies who wore his gray hair in a crew cut, with a scab on his face where had nicked himself while shaving, and who looked much too old for the grueling work ahead. When they finished the grub, they smoked and talked some more, using the dinner plates as ashtrays and putting their cigarettes out in their mashed potatoes.

Ahead of the wait staff were people like Doc, gray and black hair also sleeked back and wearing a bristling mustache. No one seemed to be able to say exactly what Doc’s job was, but he was Conrad’s right hand man, with a booming voice and wearing a Hawaiian shirt every day. We thought the latter was simply a bad fashion choice, especially for the time period. That is, until I saw him reach over to fix a table and I spotted a chrome plated .38 pistol in a holster on his hip, usually covered by the untucked shirt. His reason for carrying a loaded gun in an amusement park was as mysterious as his job description, and we busboys knew enough to keep busy when Doc was around.

Junior was Conrad’s son. He rolled up in a black Cutlass SS, wearing a silk shirt with the first three buttons open. He had hair and sideburns that looked a lot like Elvis in his final Las Vegas days. He was a spoiled ne’er-do-well who hung around the bar bullshitting with Doc and flirted with the waitresses when they came to fill a drink order. On rare occasions, his younger brother Alan showed up. If Junior’s job was difficult to distinguish, Alan’s was invisible. One day, as we were finishing our lunch, I saw Alan pass his elder brother something across the table. “Will I still be able to work?” Junior asked. “Definitely, don’t worry about it.” Junior put whatever it was into his mouth, washing it down with water.

A ramp leading to the hall.

A ramp leading to the hall.

At eleven, the hordes descended. The sight of people lining up at that hour of the morning for clam cakes and chowder was puzzling, but line up they did. Who knows how many of them had skipped breakfast, knowing that they could have all the combo they could eat for the price of admission. After the napkin-lined basket had been passed, like the offering plate in a clamcake cathedral, the patrons trundled out. They squinted at the sun, shading their eyes with their hands as if in bewilderment that it could still be daylight after their lunchtime debacle. Then it was the busboys’ turns.

We pushed a heavy stainless steel “bus truck” up and down the aisles between the tables, taking the plates and emptying them into a kind of built-in slop bucket attached to the end and putting the dirty plates on the shelves in the truck. The mixed odors of clamcakes, chowder, cigarette butts, and booze was nauseating as it wafted up each time a dish was scraped off. The final touch in the clearing process was removing the table “cloth”, made of white paper. As was the policy, wait staff took the chowder tureens off the table and dumped whatever remained back into the great vats of chowder in the kitchen, ready for the next onslaught of customers. These vats were tended to by Manny and Jack, two Cape Verdeans who spoke no English. They stirred the vats, four or five feet deep, with wooden oars. A clamcake machine, which looked a bit like a gallon can hung upside down with a funnel on the bottom, spat out gobs of batter and clams into a somewhat smaller vat of grease, later to emerge as clamcakes.

Once the table was cleared, it was time to set up for the next wave. The “table cloths” came on four-foot, heavy rolls of paper. At times, the diners would pause their feasting to watch this phase. A seasoned bus boy would see to it all wooden chairs were pulled out. Standing at one end of the table, he would lay the roll on the top, making sure the sides were lined up evenly. Then, he would give the roll a mighty shove, sending it rolling down the length of the tables, bumping along as it passed from one table to the next. He would steer it by holding the paper at an arm’s width, pulling on one side or the other if the roll should begin to travel off course. That was a skill best acquired at the back of the hall, when there were fewer customers, since a rookie trying the trick would often send the 50-pound roll crashing through the chairs onto the wooden floor with a thud that shook the hall.

So it went. With each pass of the bus truck, we grew dirtier, sweatier, more exhausted. By the time closing hour arrived, my feet were blistered from the dress shoes and I could barely see straight. My white shirt was stained with red tomato chowder, and my hair was plastered on my forehead from the sweat and grime. When I finally arrived home, I peeled off my clothes and treated myself to a long shower, despite my exhaustion and the lateness of the hour. Finally, I crawled into bed.

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In my comatose state, I flew. I flew out of my bed and began to fly back to work. And as I did, I dreamed that forty years passed. The hall I had thought I only just left was a wreck. The hard bitten carnie woman that was the park where I spent the summer learning about the seamier side of life was gone. All that remained of her was skin and bone. The enormous windows that made up one wall of the place had been destroyed by storms and vandals, and this made her look for all the world like a cadaver, mouth agape and missing teeth. I dreamed that pigeons flew in and out of her, and the only sound was the clickclickclick of a fan somewhere whose blades turned with the wind. And when I saw all this, I felt a blend of emotions that was difficult to sort out: sadness that the corpse was still rotting above ground. Disbelief that living through so many years could be real. All blended with the sights, sounds, smells and experiences of a confusing adolescent summer when I was so far from figuring out who I would be.

 

The Midway sign, with the shore dinner hall in the background.

The Midway sign, with the shore dinner hall in the background.

4 Comments

  • Yep, that’s about right, Dave!

  • Love your writing!

    I too worked at RP in the 70’s and I remember those you mentioned very well…..especially “Doc”, whom I believe is a man whose name you changed. 😉

    • Robyn – Thank you so much for the compliment! The story came from a recent visit to the place, for the first time since I worked there. Lots and lots of mixed memories!

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