The Reason I was Speechless at Work

The Reason I was Speechless at Work

It was the summer of ‘84, the Tuesday after Memorial Day, my first day at a new job. Standing in my boss’ office, soaked to the skin, hair matted down on my forehead, shivering and unable to speak. Why was I soaked? A thunderstorm raged outside and, being an ill-prepared young man, did not own an umbrella, let alone a raincoat to protect myself from the elements. Why was I unable to speak?

Glad you asked.

That summer my friends and I rented a shore house in Belmar, New Jersey on 16th Avenue, about a half-block from the beach, the upstairs of a two-family house. Incredibly small for the amount of people renting it, but had a bathroom and a refrigerator filled with beer, so it was perfect.

Being our first year in Belmar, having recently graduated from our summers in Manasquan and Seaside, we were not familiar with the local bars. That problem was quickly resolved.

That first Sunday afternoon we walked into a bar that became our second home. We would spend every weekend there, surrounded by like-minded idiots, content to spend those beautiful summer days bathed in floodlights, while the smell of stale beer and sweat hovered in the air. I spent that entire summer down the shore and never got a tan. I would be paler when the summer was over from the absence of vitamin D, due to my total lack of direct sunlight.

This was Mary’s Husband’s Pub, and it turned out to be the greatest bar I have ever been in.

That first Sunday we moved through the crowd, getting a feel for the place, spotting some familiar faces. The music blared through the speakers; Screwy Louie, the bar’s DJ, a small man with bushy hair, aviator sunglasses, clam-digger pants, and a perpetual “I don’t give a fuck” grin, played the best music I ever heard.

We soon discovered drinks unheard of back home. I was accustomed to shots of whiskey or tequila quickly followed by a swig of beer. Here, however, they had drinks named “apple pie” and “woo-woo.” Turns out, you didn’t just order a “woo-woo” — you needed to know the proper way to drink it as well. To begin, put your index and middle fingers inside the rock glass, thumb on the outside. Lift the glass to your mouth, down the sweet, sticky liquid, and quickly return the glass to the bar. Then, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, stick your fingers in your mouth, suck them clean, and pull them out with a “pop”.  Then, throw your hands into the air, and shout, “Woo-Woo!” (Don’t judge me.)

At some point in the afternoon, the crowd parted, and several bouncers, clad in their identical red shirts, carried something from the back of the bar. It was several wooden pieces they assembled into what appeared to be a small stage. The music was so loud, it was hard to talk to each other. I turned to a girl next to me and asked, “What is this?” She responded, but I could not make out what she said. I asked again as the bouncers methodically completed their structure. Again, I could not make out what she said. I leaned down and put my ear right by her mouth; she screamed the answer once again.

“Turtle Races!” she shouted, deafening me before she melted back into the crowd.

I turned back to the completed structure and, sure enough, it had several neatly numbered lanes, partitioned by long strips of Plexiglas. Suddenly, the rafters shook when Gary Glitter’s Rock and Roll (Part 2) blasted from the speakers.  Everyone cheered. Turtles appeared, and were placed in their respective lanes. A barrier kept them from rushing off before the official bell. I did not realize until after this first race (yes, there were several that day) but people could bet on a numbered turtle and win shirts, bandanas, even free drinks. Within minutes, the official announcement was made, the barrier was lifted, and the race was on.

The Roman Coliseum had nothing on this place; people screamed and shouted, their faces red as poor befuddled reptiles, their feet slipping in the beer and spit that flew from the crowd, moved patiently forward. Some patrons lowered their faces, nearly eye-level to a competitor’s turtle, and shout, “Go back you piece of shit, go back!”  Others provided encouraging remarks to their favorite, “Go faster, you piece of shit, go faster!”

It was the most ridiculous thing I had ever seen in my life.

Until the third race.

“What the fuck is wrong with you, move!” I shouted at number three who, for some reason, decided to just sit still and watch the world go by. I screamed and threatened, but he acted as if he didn’t understand a word I was saying. Red in the face by the time it was over, my shirt soaked with sweat and beer (neither of which were necessarily mine). After several more races the bouncers returned, rewound what they had done earlier, and the individual sections of the racetrack disappeared into the darkness that was the back of the bar.

I never yelled so much, and so loud, at a poor, helpless, defenseless creature (unless you count watching the Vice-Presidential debate).

That night I went back to the shore house, exhausted, exhilarated, my throat shouted sore and unable to speak.

Two days later, as my new boss walked me through the cubicles, I mimed my introductions to the repeatedly confused looks on my future co-workers’ faces.  During those introductions, one thought kept going through my mind:

Damn turtles.

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