We’re at Geneva-on-the-Lake, a chintzy little resort town along Lake Erie in eastern Ohio that looks like it has aspirations to be Coney Island. The hyphenated name is, perhaps, an attempt to give the town added ritz, but not even hyphens can dress this place up. It’s as if this is the place that carnies come after they retire: they cash in their life savings, leftover game tokens, and unused ride tickets so they can set up shop.
We’re in Geneva-on-the-Lake for the water slides. My mother, who lives not far from here, has brought my son and his buddy over to spend a couple hours staying cool and having fun, and I’m along for the ride. Only after we arrived did we discover that we’d all forgotten to bring the sunscreen even though we all reminded each other to grab it. I head off to find some while my mother supervises the boys, who’ve already grabbed inflatable tubes and made a dash for the long flight of wooden stairs that leads to the top.
The strip feels like a boardwalk without the boardwalk or the ocean. Or the fun. Mom & Dad’s Rainbow Putt-Around is now a deserted concrete slab. A karaoke singer belts out “You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille” to an empty food court. A restaurant across the street offers an ominous invitation: “Play the Corn Hole Game Here.”
In front of The Oak Room, a “family-friendly” lounge, hangs a sign with a pair of acorns that look like testicles. I’m not sure my family wants that kind of fun. I’m equally leery of a place called The Fascination—especially when, on closer inspection, I notice the sign says “The Exciting Fascination.” A name of an antique shop a couple doors down strikes me as something a bit more appropriate for the whole experience: These Foolish Things.
I pass a psychic’s shop. “One visit will convince you,” the sign boasts—except the shop is closed. I’m convinced. Must be the psychic didn’t know I was coming.
Eateries of all varieties beckon to hungry passers-by: pizza, ice cream, gyros. There are a surprising number of donut shops. The Firehouse Winery and Restaurant offers “wine slushies!” Yankie’s Country Bar & Grill offers an unconventional way of spelling “Yankee,” with unconventional “country music” blaring at full volume: Tom Petty rocking through “You Wreck Me.”
“Grumpy’s Ole’ Fashioned Lemonade” surely offers the real deal because, as everyone knows, anything spelled “ole’” has to be ole’r than old, which makes it authentically ole’ fashioned. It’s so ole’ it predates what should otherwise be a grammatically correct hyphen in “ole-fashioned.” All the hyphens must’ve been reserved for the name of the town, Geneva-on-the-Lake. That would explain why there are no hyphens, for instance, in Grumpy’s name or in “Vegas on the Lake,” an adult gaming parlor across the street from the water slides.
I walk past a fireworks stand and a big open-sided tent pitched under the shade of a towering oak that offers air-brush tattoos. I hear Bob Marley singing “I Shot the Sheriff” off in the distance. The air smells like lighter fluid; I wish it smelled like barbecue instead.
At the far end of the street, I pass a bar called The Cove. “It’s a hot place for the young people on the weekends,” my mother had told me earlier. “Twenty-six dollars to catch a cab back into Ashtabula.” I don’t ask her how she knows this. The building features hideous portraits painted on the outside wall: Tommy James and the Shondells, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Donnie Iris, the James Gang, Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Geraldo, Benjamin Orr, Chubby Checker. It’s like The Cove offered fifty-cent drafts all night long and then gave everyone a paintbrush after last call.
No one sells suntan lotion. “Wish I did,” a couple salespeople tell me, each sounding as if it would be the Best Idea Ever.
I have to give up my parking space and drive beyond the end of the strip, past Adventure Zone and the Ashtabula County Historical Society, where finally I find Club Ned’s Lake Erie Beverage and Sub Shop. The girl at the register sells me a small tube of suntan lotion that she gets from behind the counter as if it’s contraband.
Back on the strip, my same parking space is miraculously still available. The flea market, advertised on one of the overhead banners that stretches across the strip, is right across the street from me, and it’s drawing a lot of customers. I notice another banner farther down that advertises “Thunder on the Strip,” a motorcycle rally coming up in September, but already I notice an increasing number of bikers rumbling through town—a rumble that only increases as the afternoon wears on.
To get to the water slides I have to pass through Woody’s World, a dismal arcade that features a mix of video games like Buck Hunter and eighties-era contraptions like Surfin’ Safari and Dinoscore. There’s one of those claws-on-a-crane games called Big Choice that offers keychains, disposable lighters, bandanas, and other knick-knacks. “All disputes settled with 1 free play,” a sign says.
Many of the overhead fluorescent lights are burned out, and the ones still lit shine through plastic covers faded to amber, so the room’s whole atmosphere feels brown. The place smells musty. A row of skeeball alleys takes up half a wall, and a Dance Dance Revolution Supernova footpad takes up a good chunk of floor space. A shooting gallery takes up the entire back corner of the room where a dusty wax-figure, arms bandaged in tape and gauze, leans over a player piano. The whole scene looks like Deliverance-meets-Wild-West-meets-Lester’s Possum Park, all covered in dust and all dimly lit.
The water slides around back, however, are remarkably clean and modern, and by the time I return, the boys have already made several descents. I pull them over so they can put lotion on themselves. My mom, sitting in the shade with her big brown sunglasses on, watches us, smiling. I turn the boys loose again, then settle into a chair to relax, and Mom and I start to chit-chat.
The small pool at the foot of the slides looks inviting on this hot afternoon, and the unrestrained laughter of kids lightens my mood. I realize how glad I am just to have the chance to spend some time with my son, just as my mom seems glad for the chance to spend some time with hers.
For just a little while, Geneva-on-the-Lake doesn’t seem so gaudy, after all.