At the heel of our hill at one end of Nantasket Beach, just beyond Hurley’s bathhouse, was a small take-out refreshment stand that served the usual summer fare: fries, onion rings, fried clams, burgers and dogs, sodas and, because this was a beach in New England: Frappes. Known nearly everywhere else as milkshakes, a frappe is a whipped drink made with milk, syrup and ice cream. (In New England, just because we can, we call the same drink minus the ice cream a milkshake, which makes perfect sense. Rhode Island is another New England anomaly, I guess, with their version of the frappe being called a cabinet, for whatever silly reason.)
Much smaller in size, Hoppy’s had a fair amount of competition, with The Ledges, a more fully stocked refreshment stand with seating in an indoor bar, right on the beach nearby, run by a Greek family that also operated a D-grade hotel there; and Russell’s, another Greek family-run stand just across the road leading up the hill. Later, there was a Howard Johnson’s built diagonally across the avenue from Hoppy’s. Its orange roof drew people to it merely due to its familiarity — if not its cuisine — as they rounded the bend on Nantasket Avenue just before reaching the beach parking lot.
Despite the competition, Hoppy’s became our go-to place every evening before heading to Paragon, the amusement park down the avenue, in search of fun and adventure (which mostly consisted of people-watching — and laughing inappropriately, whenever appropriate.)
Hoppy was a gentleman of a certain age, while his wife, Mary, an Inuit, was a bit younger. They both worked the stand, and it was comforting to know that no matter which one of them was grilling your burger or dog, or frying your clams (which were full, belly clams; unlike the rubber-band strips served at HoJo’s across the avenue) or whipping up your frappe, they would taste as good as ever.
Their son Noel, too young to work the stand, was never out of his stroller or carriage, not solely due to his young age — in fact, later on, he would have been old enough to stand, had he not had some kind of chronic debilitating motor deficiency. We never thought to ask about it, but most of us probably wondered about it.
As we did about their lives, packed into that small 25-by-25-foot hut that was their livelihood and their residence. A room in the back (it couldn’t have been more than one small room and a bathroom) was where they “lived.” The stand was open for long hours in season, serving breakfast, lunch, dinner and, for us nearly every evening, after-dinner and late-night “snacks,” totally unnecessary, but we were teens and teens eat a lot. It was nothing for us to finish dinner, brush teeth, use the john, and then descend the hill en masse, round the bend to the heel of the hill, and order up a mess of fries, rings, clams, whatever, before ambling down the strip to Paragon.
Somehow we most often seemed to end up near the back of the park, by the Red Mill, a tunnel-boat ride that mounted a hill at the end and then splashed down into a pool. It seemed the best place to people watch. It was also where George the Greek tried to guess people’s age and weight for a fee. If he missed, you won a prize, such as they were: maybe an actual kewpie doll, a holdover from the ‘30s or so, her head molded of that light plastic that you could easily poke a finger through if you weren’t careful; or a plastic cane with a bright, day-glo feather attached to the handle; or a comb or a mask.
The park was always crowded, so there was a never-ending parade of strangers to gawk at. It was the late ‘50s, early ‘60s, and The Fonz was a popular persona emulated by many walking by, as were Laverne and Shirley types. (We were those as well. It was ‘a thing.’) I will not say it was an age of innocence much more so than now. But it was.
On not a few occasions after having enough of making clandestine but good-natured fun of passers-by, we’d head back to the hill and stop at Hoppy’s for a nightcap that could again consist of an order of fries or clams or another frappe. Can’t go to bed hungry, after all.
And Hoppy would still be there, open for business, and happy to see us. That was the thing. A lot of shop owners don’t care for gangs of teens hanging out in their establishment, fearing it would drive away other potential business. But we were good kids, and Hoppy appreciated our business. He might have felt a crowd doing business there showed that his was a good place to eat. He always had a smile, as did Mary. Now that I think of it, whenever Noel was inside the stand where we could see him, he also always had a smile too.
It made me realize there is no way to judge other people’s happiness.
In time, gradually all our homes atop the hill were sold and we stopped going to that beach. A lot of years passed and a lot changed. The amusement park closed down, with some of the amusements being taken apart and sold off or just destroyed, while others were sold off whole to other parks in other parts. Our beloved coaster — the Giant Coaster, it was called — now resides intact in a park in Maryland. It has even been restored to a previous configuration before a fire that removed an important part of it: the corkscrew near the final landing. I swear we will make a pilgrimage there at some point and ride it again.
After nearly 50 years of absence, we convened once again two years ago in Nantasket for a cousins reunion that has already become an annual event. Some of us stayed at the now significantly upgraded small motel across the avenue from where Hoppy’s stood. Hoppy’s was long gone and the empty lot bore no resemblance to the way it looked in those days. A chain-link fence that wasn’t there before stretched halfway across the lot line, its purpose a bit of a puzzle, and its presence engulfed by vine and ivy growth. Nature already reclaiming the “new” fence. The pavement behind showed no hint whatsoever of any foundation that might have given Hoppy’s stand any support. If you stood in front of the motel and hollered “Hi, Hoppy!” across the avenue, an echo would be the only answer.
The pavement was ringed with crabgrass and weeds: common chicory with its pale blue flowers and the vine and ivy on the chain-link fence being the only inhabitants of the space. It would have seemed a bit bleak and it was not without its nostalgia, but the bursting green of the surrounding trees on our hill behind it still spoke of life going on, always, if ever changed.