I was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey. My father, my mother, my three brothers, my six aunts and six uncles on my father’s side, and my two aunts and two uncles on my mother’s side were all born in that same town. And when each of us slipped or struggled out of the womb, the place on Earth that all of us called home was indeed a town, in spite of its name.
I left my hometown before the strongest storm of the twentieth century blew through her streets and avenues and left her earliest monuments behind as a mountain of rubble. I went to university in Philadelphia, PA. There I learned how to trim my beard neat and don the disguise of a professional. I fell in love with love, married too young, divorced too late, rode the trolleys through Germantown in the year of a blizzard, made love with a young Italian maid inside a colonial-style tenement apartment in South Philly, ate pizza at Leonardo’s on Ninth and Christian, drank syrupy Chianti at a favorite bar on Two Street, attended graduate school at Temple University, snapped sunset photographs of autumn trees in Fairmont Park, and departed that coast for a distant one when my sense of adventure called me to say, “Come here to a different home.”
And all the while, as I played magic tricks with my life, the power brokers in AC cleared away the rubble they’d made and built new monuments to scrape the sky and steal the tourist’s buck. High-rise, high-price houses of prostitution. Jing-a-ling coin machines. Painted cafe crooners from times gone by.
Maybe twenty years ago, before my dad died, I flew back to Atlantic City for a visit. By that time my father had retired and taken a part-time job at one of the major casinos in town, a town that no longer looked like a town. Dad insisted on driving me to the casino. I didn’t want to go. I’ve always felt bored by the idea of gambling money by laying tokens on a table or sliding quarters into a slot machine.
But Dad loved the place. After a lifetime’s worth of wearing paint-splattered work boots or grease-stained railroad overalls, he now put on a uniform that sported brass buttons. So I joined him inside his ancient Chevy Impala, the model with flared rear wings and three tail lights blinking underneath each wing, and he drove us at fifteen-miles-per-hour to a parking lot that used to be a highway. From there we hopped a jitney that swept us fast through a tunnel that in turn led to the underground garage of a concrete and steel casino shaped like a cruise ship. From the garage we boarded an elevator that lifted us upward and released us onto the casino floor. Lights blinked, machines jangled, an ersatz Sinatra wailed out a slippery version of “My Way,” and fat old ladies swooned to the tune of distant memories and swayed to the rhythm of too much alcohol.
I watched my father’s face. False teeth, crooked and in places banded together with wire braces, made for him after the War at the VA Hospital. Only a wisp of white hair lay across his shiny scalp. But his brass buttons shined, his smile spoke of happiness, and his colleagues called him friend.
I wanted, though, to recall the days when I was a boy and my dad and I strolled the famous boardwalk. Cotton candy on sticks, like large soft lollipops, the sticky syrup leaving bright-colored stains on our lips. The heartwarming aroma floating from the home of the original Belgian waffle, gooey fruit between two checkered tiles, powdered sugar sprinkled on the top. Caramel-covered popcorn. Wicker chairs rolled along the boards, black men pushing laborers pretending to be aristocrats. The Diving Horse shoved down a long metal sliding board, the audience applauding the horse’s ability to fly. Lime-flavored snow cones. Crowding our bodies into cabinets shaped like telephone booths, there to print our voices onto pliable plastic records.
At end of day, my dad and I sat on a dark-green wooden bench, waiting for the bus to take us home, home where my mother always expected us to consume a multiple-course feast of Italian delicacies on the shallow end of swallowing sweets all afternoon.
I breathed in deep the smell of black exhaust fumes spit by the bus, as we drove down Atlantic Avenue, turned right onto Albany, passed the Doghouse Saloon and Nicki’s Pizza Parlor. The engine revved and roared its way across the bridge that some days opened and folded upward at its middle to let a high-masted boat sail by unharmed.
On the other side of our journey we met the muddy marshland, tall reeds waving with a summertime wind that tasted inside my nose like hard-boiled eggs. At the intersection of Albany Avenue and Main Street sat Lou & Walt’s Sunoco Station, a few used cars parked on the corner lot, For Sale signs reflecting orange evening sunlight.
We turned right again onto Main, huffed and chugged along for maybe two miles, then I stood up and yanked the string that made the bus bell tinkle, a signal for the driver to press the brake pedal, swing the lever and let us out.
Dad held my hand as we walked slow and tired down East Lindley Avenue, to number 35. The porch light turned on, my mother’s face a shadow behind the screen door, my brothers clutching at her skirt.
And that home now lives only inside my dreams. Mother and Dad are gone, and so is one of my brothers.
The good old days. People tell me the good old days do not exist, that today is the best day of a lifetime. But in my mind I disagree with them. My today will no doubt become one of another person’s good old days.
Or perhaps genuine Jersey boy Bruce is right when he sings, “Maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”