On day 11 of my trip back east I took the Long Island railroad from Montauk to Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan, then walked to the Port Authority and caught a casino bus to Atlantic City.
The bus dropped me off at the Tropicana and I hauled my luggage along the famous boardwalk to Caesar’s, where I met my parents under the naked statue by the nickel slot machines.
The Atlantic City boardwalk is old and wide and the surrounding air smells like salt water, funnel cakes, hotdogs and homemade fudge. Seagulls and pigeons hover overhead. As I walked the boards I recalled one of my earliest memories: dancing with Mr. Peanut in front of the old Planter’s Peanut shop at the end of Georgia Avenue. My parents watched me as I twirled, dipped and bowed with the large, bow-legged, bespeckled creature.
Later, as my folks and I reminisced about family summers at the Jersey shore, my father recounted some of his childhood memories of Atlantic City.
“When I was a kid your grandfather rented a unit in a boathouse along Gardiner’s Basin at the corner of Casper and Rhode Island avenues. Do you know what a boathouse is?” he asked.
“An expensive piece of real estate on the Sausalito waterfront.”
“No,” said Dad. “These were rickety wooden structures built on a pier. There were 10 units, five on each side lining a wooden walkway that led to the water. We were in the middle unit; three small rooms, one on top of another. There was no electricity. We had gas lamps and an icebox. Everyday the iceman and the numbers man came by.”
“A numbers man?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “He was always dressed in black and he rode a bicycle. Your grandmother played the numbers. Everybody did. If you won, he came back the next day with your winnings. If you didn’t win he came back anyway so that you could place another bet. Back then Atlantic City was run by Nookie Johnson.” My dad looked at me meaningfully. “He wore a top hat and he had a lot of girlfriends.”
“We walked everywhere,” continued Dad. “To the beach and the boardwalk. I made fun of the ‘pickle juicers’ and ‘shoobies,’ people who came to town for day trips.”
I interrupted again. “Pickle juicers and shoobies?”
“Yes,” said Dad. “People who packed lunches in shoeboxes and took them to the boardwalk with them. When they bit into their pickles, juice splashed all over. My friends and I were summer people, a big step up from those damn pickle juicers.”
“Go on,” I said.
“Every Saturday your grandmom packed me a lunch and sent me to Steel Pier where I saw Abbott and Costello so many times I knew their jokes by heart. I watched Olga Katrina do handstands on top of a high pole and I musta seen that beautiful blonde girl on the horse dive into the ocean a million times.”
“You saw Abbott and Costello live?”
“Of course,” he said. “On Saturday nights my father would drive down from Philadelphia. He parked our old Ford at the boatyard and walked to our unit. I could hear him whistling before I could see him. But I always knew it was him because the tune was the same: Nelson Eddy’s Indian Love Song. You know who Nelson Eddy is, don’t you?”
“No,” I answered.
“What?” shouted Dad incredulously. “Nelson Eddy was the handsome dude who played a Canadian Mountie and Jeanette McDonald was his girlfriend.”
“That’s too bad,” said Dad. “Nelson Eddy is dead, Jeanette McDonald is dead. Abbott and Costello, Olga Katrina, the blonde girl and her horse, Nookie Johnson and his girlfriends, the iceman, the numbers man, even the boathouses are gone.”
“But not Mr. Peanut,” I say. “Mr. Peanut is alive and well, dancing in Beach Blanket Babylon and living at Club Fugazi in San Francisco.”
“Figures,” said Dad.
Oakland resident Susan Parker is spending the month in Montauk, New York as the guest of the Edward F. Albee Foundation. For information on this artist residency program visit www.pipeline.com/~jtnyc/albeefdtn.html