Monday, April 12, 2010

When the Boardwalk Came to Life

The metal gates on storefronts from Chelsea to Virginia Avenues rattled up with a crash. Concession works slowly pushed couples in high-backed wicker rolling chairs. And for the kids in town, the amusement piers reopened: Painted horses bobbed on the carousel. Hawkers at the arcades dared people to Teeery yer luck, only a quarter while the Lucky Wheel clickety-clacked around and around. The air was filled with the toasty aroma of popcorn and peanuts. On Easter Sunday, after its winter nap, the Atlantic City boardwalk turned magical for another tourist season.

Too early for "summer people," the Easter Sunday celebration was like a cocktail party for the locals before the big banquet began. Every year, through junior high and high school, my best friends--Linda, Susan and Diane--and I saved our allowance and baby-sitting money so we could buy a new blouse or jacket from Lit Brothers to wear to the boardwalk on Easter Sunday. We set our alarms to get to an early mass and be out in time to get to one of our houses (usually Diane's) to get dressed and put on enough makeup to brighten our faces (but not too much for our mothers to notice). Then we made our way to the corner of Ventnor and Jackson where we caught the jitney that took us uptown to the boardwalk.

Now, if a boy liked you, he'd never ask to spend the entire day with you because he was there with his pals, too. This was a friends day. Instead, he'd arrange to meet you at a set time at the Orient Express on Million Dollar Pier. The two of you would climb into one of the red torn chairs that jerked along tracks through a dark labyrinth. A mechanical dummy rose out of its sarcophagus. You'd scream. He'd laugh--or maybe he'd take your hand and still be holding it when the car rolled out into sunlight again.

Anything was possible the day the boardwalk opened.

I am the child of newlyweds who honeymooned in Atlantic City, then decided to stay and raise a family there. When grand hoteels with names like Marlboro and Blenheim framed the boardwalk like an ornate setting around a jewel. When biplanes flew up and down the shoreline, beckoning beachgoers to visit the "World Famous Steel Pier," then to dine at Captain Starn's on the inlet. Visitors came from all over to our city by the sea from Memorial Day to Labor Day, when the Miss America Pageant provided a stunning epilogue to summertime.

But by the late '60s, when my friends and I were starting to meet those boys on the pier, the crowds had stopped coming to town. Air travel was less expensive and families were choosing more "exotic" destinations than the Jersey Shore. Over the course of the next decade, dozens of business failed. My dad sold his discount drug store and took a job delivering liquor and groceries. Still, every Easter Sunday, our families hoped that the new season would be better and pull us out of the downward spiral. Wasn't it possible?

Then, in November 1976, the year that we graduated from high school, the referendum was passed that would bring casino gambling--and a livelihood--back to Atlantic City. Most of us were thrilled with the prospect of a business boom, of construction jobs for our fathers and brothers, perhaps not fully realizing that before something new can go up, something old must come down.

Bally's Park Place, a casino hotel, stands where the Marlboro-Blenheim once surveyed its domain. And if Captain Starn's hadn't been torn down and you got a coveted window seat, the view of the open bay would be obliterated by the Borgata. Although many ma-and-pa stores still operate, they are a tiny batallion that fights for territory. The boys from Ireland who came to work the piers summer after summer are long gone, the piers destroyed or converted to serve new functions: a shopping mall, a helicopter landing pad for high-rollers. And though the echoes of laughing and shrieking children--of us--are dim, I can hear them between the thud of the crashing waves.

Today Atlantic City is a year-round resort. Even in winter, hordes of people pull their coats tightly around themselves as they stalk the boardwalk from casino to casino, in and out of the of neon tabernacles. But I remember winters when the only hue was the gray of the sky and the pigeons that scavenged for food. But just until Easter Sunday, when the boardwalk would come to life, full of sights and sounds and smells...and everything was possible again.

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