2018-07-04 / Columns

Remembering Atlantic City the way it used to be


I was recently “walking the boards” in the “new” Atlantic City, standing with my husband in the vast lobby of The Borgata, another of the town’s eighth wonders of the world, with its sweep of marble, its heavy-duty glitz and glamour.

But I was not “in the moment.” I was remembering another Atlantic City, the one so familiar to legions of Jewish Delaware Valleyites, the one my maternal grandmother called “Tlontic City.”

There were no glittering casinos back then. There were no bus tours with day-trippers, no dazed-looking wanderers bearing plastic cups of quarters. No marble, no glitz.

Just that salt air to ruin your hair; the smell of Boardwalk junk food wafting over the teeming teen mobs who gathered outside The Chelsea Hotel; and the dressed-to-the-nines grown-ups in their stationary rolling chairs—the ultimate oxymoron—lined up against the boardwalk railing.

By mid- June, July and August, everyone was “down the shore.” But not Avalon. Not Long Beach Island. Not Stone Harbor.

The denizens of neighborhoods on both sides of the river were in Atlantic City. It was a pre-ordained rite of passage.

If you were between 12 and 20, and you were lucky, you spent your days on the beaches near the old President Hotel. We girls were in our one-piece latex bathing suits that left marks on our bodies, while the guys were trying hard to look cool at a time when cool meant slicked-back hair and a certain beach strut more easily remembered than explained.

If you were lucky, your parents took you to Lou’s for dinner. For the uninitiated, Lou’s was the gathering place, the shrine to overeating, at the edge of Ventnor. Lou’s was where you stood in line desperate to see and be seen. Once inside, it was time for serious post-beach eating that would make today’s food police faint.

Blintzes, corned beef sandwiches dripping with Russian dressing, sour pickles that would make your lips pucker, and waitresses who called everyone “Hon”—all are woven into my Atlantic City summer tapestry.

To my eternal shame, I was spotted smoking my first forbidden cigarettes on the Atlantic City boardwalk. It was one of my mother’s friends, a woman I called “Aunt Vivian” because she was as close as any blood aunt, who turned me in to my parents.

I fell in love for the first time on that boardwalk. His name was David, and he was from Camden and an “older man”— 18 to my 15. It was all so dizzying, so romantic, so sophisticated to hold hands near Steel Pier. The entire romance lasted for two weeks, and then David spotted my beautiful friend Helen, and that was that.

Looking back, it was all so innocent in the era when caution and conformity were our twin cultural pillars, when Jewish girls dated only Jewish boys and everyone somehow managed a few weeks—or days or hours— on the Atlantic City boardwalk.

From that to the present Atlantic City, and The Borgata…All around us on the night of our visit were and men and women who looked vaguely like rock stars. They seemed to love being stared at. And I did plenty of that.

But I still missed the good old Atlantic City.

I would have given anything to see those throngs of kids huddled around the Chelsea Hotel, trying to look and act cool, and the women in their rolling chairs wrapped in mink stoles in July.

The happy ghosts of those years live in some out-of-the-way memory cells, capable of being summoned back in an instant. But they are just that— ghosts.

I took it all in, studying the scene like some pseudo-anthropologist.

And I left knowing with absolute certainty that this was definitely not the Atlantic City that I knew so well. The one that lived in me.

And now that I think about it, it somehow still does.


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