Bestseller Alan Brennert's spellbinding story about a family of dreamers and their lives within the legendary Palisades Amusement Park
Growing up in the 1930s, there is no more magical place than Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey―especially for seven-year-old Antoinette, who horrifies her mother by insisting on the unladylike nickname Toni, and her brother, Jack. Toni helps her parents, Eddie and Adele Stopka, at the stand where they sell homemade French fries amid the roar of the Cyclone roller coaster. There is also the lure of the world's biggest salt-water pool, complete with divers whose astonishing stunts inspire Toni, despite her mother's insistence that girls can't be high divers.
But a family of dreamers doesn't always share the same dreams, and then the world intrudes: There's the Great Depression, and Pearl Harbor, which hits home in ways that will split the family apart; and perils like fire and race riots in the park. Both Eddie and Jack face the dangers of war, while Adele has ambitions of her own―and Toni is determined to take on a very different kind of danger in impossible feats as a high diver. Yet they are all drawn back to each other―and to Palisades Park―until the park closes forever in 1971.
Evocative and moving, with the trademark brilliance at transforming historical events into irresistible fiction that made Alan Brennert's Moloka'i and Honolulu into reading group favorites, Palisades Park takes us back to a time when life seemed simpler―except, of course, it wasn't.
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ALAN BRENNERT grew up in Edgewater, New Jersey, at the foot of the Palisades. He won an Emmy Award in 1991 for his work as a writer-producer on L.A. Law, and was nominated for two other Emmy Awards as well as a Golden Globe. He won a Nebula Award for his story "Ma Qui." The author of the national bestsellers Moloka'i, a "Bookies" award–winner for Book Club Book of the Year, and Honolulu, winner of Elle's Lettres 2009 Grand Prix for Fiction, he lives in Sherman Oaks, California.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Atlanta, Georgia, 1930
HOBOES CALLED THEM “side-door Pullmans,” empty boxcars with one door standing open like an unblinking eye—God’s eye, maybe, daring the brave or the desperate to trespass, knowing their journeys could end as easily in jail or in a hospital as in Chillicothe, Ohio, or Casper, Wyoming. Eddie took the dare and ran to the back platform, planting his foot in a metal stirrup and hoisting his six-foot frame up onto the ladder. But before he could step up to the second rung, he felt something grab hold of his shirt collar from behind and pull him, with a violent jerk, away from the car.
Eddie lost his grip and tumbled backward, landing on the ground with a jolt. As he lay there in the dust, stunned and winded, a boot came crashing down on his chest, knocking the remaining breath out of him. He opened his eyes to find a nasty-looking railroad bull glaring down at him.
“You ain’t goin’ nowhere, bud,” the bull declared.
The train whistled twice—a highball—signaling imminent departure.
Eddie held up his hands in surrender. “Okay,” he told the railroad cop, “you got me. Serves me right for being sloppy. But I can pay my way, all right? How much is a ticket to New York—fifteen bucks? I can pay.”
The bull’s eyes gleamed with interest. “Show me.”
The boxcar lurched forward as the train began chugging out of the station. Eddie had no doubts that this thug was going to steal all his money as a main course, then give him the beating of his life for dessert.
Eddie said, “Wallet’s in my rucksack. I dropped it over there.”
The bull, still keeping his foot on Eddie’s chest, reached down and picked up Eddie’s rucksack. He began to rummage through it for the wallet.
Eddie grabbed the man’s foot and yanked it out from under him. He toppled like a felled tree. Eddie scrambled to his feet, snapped up his rucksack. “Sonofabitch!” the bull yelled, but as he started to stand, Eddie jerked up his knee and connected with the bull’s chin. This hurt Eddie almost as much as it did the cop: he hoped the satisfying crack he heard was the bull’s jawbone breaking, not his own kneecap. The bull quickly crumpled.
Eddie made a run for a passing boxcar. His heart hammered as he ran to keep pace, threw his rucksack inside, then grabbed the door latch and pulled himself up and in. It wasn’t until he was safely aboard that he looked back, relieved to see the bull still beside the tracks, out cold.
Soon the car was rattling out of Inman Yards, one link in a long chain of rolling freight headed north. Eddie hadn’t lied: he had cash in his pocket for once and could have been eating roast chicken in a posh dining car instead of the bread and bologna in his rucksack. But it was early April and the weather was mild, and after three years of riding the rails, he had grown used to the percussion of the wheels reverberating deep inside him, even the coarse perfume of pine tar and creosote inside a boxcar.
But mostly he liked sitting near the open door, feeling the wind on his face, watching the countryside roll past without walls or windows between. At night, out here in the great empty spaces between towns, the only illumination came from the moon and stars, the train’s running lights, and the occasional farmhouses along the way. Whether lit with the warm flicker of kerosene lamps or by steadier, cooler electric bulbs, their windows always looked inviting, and Eddie imagined families sitting down to dinner or to listen to Guy Lombardo on the radio—fathers reading the paper as mothers sewed, girls played with dolls, and boys shuffled baseball cards. The glowing windows, and the images they conjured in his mind, were both warming and painful. He curled up under a cardboard blanket, dozing to the clattering lullaby of the train’s wheels and the mournful sigh of the steam whistle.
* * *
By the following afternoon Eddie was crossing the Delaware River, back in New Jersey for the first time in three years. Rolling hills gave way to roadside commerce, and then the train was swallowed up by Newark’s canyons of concrete and steel. Soon they were passing through Eddie’s old neighborhood, the Ironbound, a patchwork of ethnic enclaves girdled by the foundries and railroad tracks that gave the area its name. Eddie longed to jump off—to walk the streets with their smorgasbord of cooking smells, kielbasa on one corner, spaghetti and meatballs on another, borscht on the next. But he didn’t, and all he could see from the train was a soup kitchen doling out bread and stew, a long line of haggard men curling around the block like the tail of a starving dog.
Not until they reached the outskirts of Jersey City—the terminus, where cargo was off-loaded onto barges bound for the New York docks—did Eddie finally hop off and begin hoofing it up River Road. On his right the Manhattan skyline greeted him like an old friend he hadn’t seen in years; on his left rose the stony grandeur of the Palisades.
Eight miles later he entered the borough of Edgewater, home to companies like Alcoa, Valvoline Oil, and Jack Frost Sugar—the usual harborfront smells of salt and diesel fuel sweetened by the scent of burning sugar and molasses. In the distance stood the latticed steel towers of the new Hudson River Bridge, as yet only a single cable strung between them. At the Edgewater Ferry Terminal, ferries arrived from 125th Street in New York and trolley cars took ferry passengers up the steep cliffs and into Bergen County. Eddie looked up, pleased to find, still crowning the bluffs, a majestic if motionless Ferris wheel; the twisting wooden skeleton of a roller coaster; and a huge metal sign with towering block letters that announced:
PALISADES AMUSEMENT PARK
He took a trolley car up winding iron tracks stitched into the granite face of the cliffs, paying a nickel for the short run up to Palisade Avenue and the main gate of the park. The entrance, with its triangular marquee, still retained its capacity to evoke wonder in him. Since the park had yet to open for the season, there was no rumble of roller-coaster cars, no delighted screams or calliope music, just the hollow echoes of construction work from inside. But it still brought a smile to Eddie’s face.
A single security guard manned the gate. “Excuse me,” Eddie said. “I’m here to see…” He consulted a fraying page torn from The Billboard, the outdoor entertainment industry’s trade magazine. “John Green-wald?”
The guard gave him the once-over. Eddie supposed he must have looked (and smelled) pretty ripe after his travels; only now did it occur to him that he might’ve gone first to the nearest YMCA for a hot shower. But the guard didn’t run him off the grounds, just asked, “You got an appointment?”
“No, I’m looking for work. Mr. Greenwald, he’s the park manager?”
“Yeah, come on in.” The guard unlocked the turnstile to admit Eddie, then gave him directions to the administration building. Eddie thanked him and started walking toward the main midway.
It seemed strange to see the park so empty of crowds and laughter, but it was far from deserted: everywhere there were workmen wielding hammers, saws, or paintbrushes as they repaired and renovated rides and concessions. He passed the merry-go-round Viola had ridden, where workmen were stripping away the old paint from the Arabian horses and oiling the working parts of the magnificent Dentzel Carousel. Instead of the enticing aromas of lemonade, cotton candy, and French fries, he took in the tart odor of varnish, paint, motor oil, and fresh sawdust. He wondered where his sister was today, what she looked like now.
The nondescript offices of the administration building were at odds with the colorful world outside; the men at work inside wore suits and ties, the women conservative dresses. The amusement business was still a business, after all, and it helped to remind Eddie that he was here on business. Approaching the first desk he saw, he told a young man wearing a white shirt and dark tie, “Excuse me. I’m looking for Mr. Greenwald?”
“He’s not in right now. I’m Harold Goldgraben, I’m the assistant manager. Can I help you with something?”
“Eddie Stopka. I’m looking for a job.”
“Well, you’re in the right place, but not the right time. We open in three weeks, and we’re pretty much staffed up for the season. Do you have any experience working at amusement parks, Mr. Stopka?”
“Not parks, no, sir. But I’ve worked plenty of carnivals. I spent the last two seasons with the Greater Sheeshley Shows, a railroad carnival.”
“That’s Captain John’s outfit, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir. We traveled all over the Midwest and South—Ohio, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida…”
“You don’t sound like you’re from the South, Mr. Stopka.”
“South Newark is more like it.”
Goldgraben laughed. “So what brings you back to Jersey?”
“I got homesick, I guess. And tired of traveling.”
“Fair enough. What kind of work did you do for these shows?”
“Little bit of everything. Started as a roustabout, lifting and loading the carnival equipment for the jump to the next town. Worked my way up to concessions—Penny Pitch, Skee Ball, Hoop-la…”
An older man in dungarees, on his way out of the office, overheard this last exchange and asked Eddie, “You ever done any ride maintenance?”
“Yes, sir. I’ve torn down Ferris wheels and put ’em back up again. Coney Island Flyers and carousels, too. And I’m good at carpentry.”
“You afraid of heights?”
The man looked at Goldgraben. “I could use another hand to sweep the Scenic. For a few days, at least.”
Goldgraben said, “Okay, tell you what, Mr. Stopka: we can offer you two, maybe three days’ work. Meanwhile I’ll ask around, see if any of the concessionaires can use an extra hand. Can’t guarantee anything, but come back first thing in the morning, you’ll report to Father Cleary here.”
Eddie looked at the older man. “You’re a priest?”
“Oh, Christ, no. That’s just a nickname, everybody here’s got a goddamn nickname.” He offered his hand, which Eddie took. “Joe Cleary, I manage the Big Scenic Railway. See you tomorrow at nine, sharp.”
Eddie was very happy when he left the office: he had a job at Palisades, even if only a temporary one.
On his way back to the front gate he passed a lemonade stand and thought of the sweet but tart drink he’d enjoyed on that long-ago night. Sure enough, there were those giant lemons hanging in the window, big and close enough to touch. Well, hell, why not? Eddie went up to the stand, reached out to take one of the lemons in his hand … and he laughed.
The lemons were made of papier-mâché and plaster.
So that was how they got them that big.
* * *
After spending the night at the YMCA in Hackensack, Eddie got to Palisades a good half hour earlier than even the security guard. The Big Scenic Railway was an old wooden coaster, its assistant manager a short fellow with a receding hairline named John Winkler, who explained Eddie’s job: “You walk the tracks, and wherever you see dirt you sweep, and wherever you see rust you oil down the track with this”—he handed him some rags and a bucket filled with a liquid corrosive—“remove the rust, then sweep it off. You sure you’re okay with heights?”
“Yeah, sure, I don’t mind.”
One of several workers “oiling and sweeping” the Scenic, Eddie ascended the mountain of lumber like a climber scaling a wooden tor. But the harder thing was going back down the other side—walking backward down a steep grade a hundred feet or more above the ground. He would soak the rags in corrosive, then scrub at whatever patches of rust he found on the tracks. After a winter of snow and rain there was a lot of oxidation, but the “oil” loosened it sufficiently that it could be swept away.
Following behind was Winkler, inspecting the tracks. He sounded out the planks, uprights, and timbers with a pick, looking for soft, spongy sections that might have rotted; checked the tracks for warps in the wood, broken screw heads, loose bolts, or worn pins in the chains that dragged the cars up the slope. If he found something not up to par, he marked it with a piece of greased chalk for the mechanics to replace or repair.
At the summit, Eddie paused to rest a moment and let his gaze wander across the thirty-eight acres of park, straddling the towns of Fort Lee and Cliffside Park, spread out below him. The silence up here was profound, broken only by the tinny voices of hammers and saws floating up from below. The great saltwater pool was empty, its green cement bed being thoroughly scrubbed with lime by a squadron of workmen. Across the main midway stood a coaster called the Cyclone, a colossus made of all black metal, its steel peaks steeper than those of the Scenic; Eddie noted that its tracks also seemed to twist like licorice sticks as they ascended and descended. What must it be like riding one of those cars, he wondered, twisting from side to side even as it plummeted to earth?
“Taking in the sights, Eddie?”
Eddie turned to see John Winkler a few yards below him, a bemused smile on his face. “Sorry,” Eddie said, quickly dipping a rag in the corrosive.
“S’okay.” Winkler climbed up to join him. “It is a helluva view.”
Eddie nodded. “And that Cyclone looks like one helluva ride.”
“Yeah, too much so. It’s all steel, so it has absolutely no give, not like a wooden coaster. People are actually scared to ride the damn thing. And all that steel is a pain in the keister to maintain, we’re losing money on it hand over fist.” This was the first, but not the last, intimation that Eddie would receive that all was not well at Palisades.
By lunchtime Eddie had worked up a substantial appetite. Sitting at a picnic table with other workmen on break, Eddie turned his attention to the ham-and-cheese sandwich he had brought to work. After one bite he heard a plaintive “miaow” from behind him and turned to find a skinny little tabby cat, its big yellow eyes staring soulfully at him, ribs visible beneath its striped fur. Eddie’s heart got the better of his stomach; he tore off a piece of ham and held it out to the cat, who scurried over and gulped it down. Then there was another “miaow” to his right, and one to his left, and Eddie found himself at the center of a pride of kitties all begging for parts of his lunch.
A tall man with an amused twinkle in his eye sat down beside him. “Don’t let these little moochers fool you,” he told Eddie as he unwrapped a pastrami sandwich. “They do okay, cadging meals off the steady staff. I haven’t seen one starve to death in the twenty years I’ve been working here.”
“Where do they all come from?”
“They live in the woodshop, curling up between the piles of sawdust. Breed like rabbits. The office staff adopts one or two each season, the rest are on mouse patrol.” He extended a hand. “Roscoe Schwarz. I blow air up women’s skirts for a living.”
Eddie laughed, remembering the Funhouse and how his mother’s and sister’s skirts were hiked up around their waists like umbrellas blown inside out by a storm. “Yeah? What does your wife think about that?”
Roscoe shrugged. “She’s not overjoyed. But she knows it pays the bills.” He took a bite of pastrami. “Before managing the Funhouse I worked the Ferris wheel for sixteen years. I like the Funhouse better, you’ve got an audience, you get laughs. Only once a lady got huffy with me, hit me with her purse.” He smiled. “She was a natural redhead, by the way.”
They shared a laugh. Eddie surrendered the last of his ham and cheese to a calico cat and resolved to pack an extra sandwich tomorrow.
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