Boardwalk Empire: Part One

Taken from a deck open to guests staying at the newest casino in AC, The Revel Casino.  You can see the “new” Steel Pier and the recently renovated Garden pier – ghosts of their former selves.

I love this shot and it makes me yearn.  I love it for many reasons, and here’s the first: Robin, Dale and I walked into Revel by chance (so Robin could use the bathroom), and once in there we kept heading on up escalators.  Revel is pretty extraordinary in the world of Atlantic City casinos.  There’s nothing honky tonk about it – no loud music trying to drown you out on the boardwalk, no typical AC chintz, it’s a beautiful Frank Gehry-like expanse of a building near the inlet, north of Steel Pier.  Back in-the-day, a place where one wouldn’t venture.  And it’s pretty vacant outside of Revel, but the boardwalk has been spruced up nicely and there we were.  And we were  feeling back, back, back in an AC groove.

Yes, there we were.  We had been in AC for a couple of hours, having parked the car in a lot by the infamous White House.  Now I remember the White House also being in a no-man’s land, behind the bus station (and I remember as a youngster taking the bus down from Philly to visit mom-mom and pop-pop,  Taking a Friday night bus down the shore, then walking to Ventnor Avenue to catch a local bus to their house in Margate).  But the bus station is gone.  We parked in the huge municipal lot where the bus station used to be.  But the White House is still there, and you can smell it long before you realize “that’s it!”

You smell it before you see it. There’s a lot of signage around the White House, possibly THE BEST hoagies anywhere.

Some people truly know how to write about food: I’ve never even tried.  You walk into the White House and it’s brighter than you remember (new lightbulbs in the 35 years since you’ve eaten there?  Cleaned the windows?) The smell is incredible: Overwhelming wafts of pure and powerful hoagie and cheesesteak.  All around you are framed pictures of happy eaters over the years, some from your day!  There are the Miss Americas! There is Jerry Lewis!  You and your sisters place your order (an Italian hoagie cut into thirds and a chicken cheesesteak, all to share) and you wait and talk about memories and much more because Robin and Michael still come here.  You take a picture while you’re waiting, and here it comes, and it’s now in front of you and

I didn’t take this shot, but I should have. This is what you’re faced in when your order comes. A White House hoagie will cure depression, anxiety and despair, and give you a renewed belief in humanity.

OH MY GOD, the sandwiches are overstuffed and the hoagie rolls are the best ever (the White House gets fresh delivery of its rolls 12 times a day, and while we were eating a delivery guy came in delivering more rolls).  It’s probably much more than our family who has always said that the best rolls come from Atlantic City.  That is why the hoagies are so good down there and (usually) the pizza.  I am now typing this in Teaneck New Jersey and it’s so unfair.  I want to be at the White House right now having a date with a hoagie.  It’s an insatiable attraction.

You get a sense of the space, but what’s missing is the food. (see hoagie shot).  I’ve got to get back and take a picture with our sandwiches!

So we finish lunch (and I have to admit it, we couldn’t eat everything.  Oh, what I wouldn’t do for those final bits of hoagie and cheese steak that we couldn’t do, that we left abandoned on our paper plates.  Oh the sadness and futility of leftovers).  We start our walk to the boardwalk (in my memory the White House was in a different world than the boardwalk; in reality it was three blocks away.  But walking through the heart of Atlantic City can be de-spiriting.  There are a lot of massive casinos, and quite a lot of empty lots and decaying buildings that surround them.

Walking to the boardwalk you can see the rear of Convention Hall and too much vacant and decaying space.  The weeds win.

For Dale and me it’s all about the past, but for Robin it’s also about the present.  She and Michael took Carlie to see Jennifer Lopez (Carlie has a major JLo fascination) in concert at Convention Hall just a few months back.  Me? I don’t know if I ever set foot in the place.  For years the Miss America Pageant was held here, but they didn’t invite me.

Opposite Convention Hall, the Jail Bus would have been situated in front of the columns. Big bathroom structures bookend these Romanesque columns here from back in the day.

So, we’re walking up and Dale says, “Do you remember the Jail Bus?”  And a memory hit me like a freight train.  The Jail Bus? Of course I remember the Jail Bus!  I hadn’t thought of the Jail Bus ever… why should I have??  But I remember going into it over and over.  It was a bus, but with all the seats removed.  Instead, there were displays about life in jail.  You simply walked into the front of the bus, spent time looking at the displays and walked out the rear entrance.  And in the rear – which flipped Dale out – was an electric chair (with a dummy all strapped up and ready to spark).  And I had completely forgotten about this; it was because of Dale that I remembered this, and it all came back to me.  As a kid, this was something I remember doing often (and it probably didn’t cost our folks anything; it was there to teach you that a life of crime ends up terribly; their tax dollars at work).

The whole expanse of the space where the Jail Bus used to be parked. It was there to scare the kiddies so they don’t lead a life of crime.  Look at all that wood!  I still love the boardwalk.

The boardwalk has always been an incredible place, and no matter how many changes have occurred (and in the heart of Atlantic City, the city-side is almost unrecognizable), it still lures me.  For this trip, I had brought my bike with me, so I woke up early and biked the entire stretch, from Ventnor through to the end of the current-day incarnation (by Revel) and back. The early morning hours on the boardwalk have always been special.  I worked the 7am to 3 pm shift at Juice-a-rama, a tiny orange juice stand right on the boardwalk.  I’d ride my bike from Margate early in the morning, but my bike in the back, then ride home at the end of my shift.  The early morning hours were busy with bikers and people out for a morning walk – all wanting some of the liquid sunshine I was selling.  But after the morning left and the hot afternoon kicked in, the customers stopped coming.  I would love to know the cross streets, to see what casino took the place of Juice-a-rama, but I think I’ll never know.

The nature of the boardwalk changes.  In Ventnor, the sense of the boardwalk is how I remember it.  It starts out with the houses far away, but as you get closer to AC, there isn’t much separation between residence and boardwalk.  The houses, by and large, are huge and new.  Though some grand homes remain, bringing me back to an earlier era, most of the homes facing the beach and boardwalk are newer.  It is on Atlantic Avenue in Ventnor and the early blocks of AC that you still see the magnificent older homes.  And in Ventnor, the boardwalk is fairly narrow – it widens in stages in Atlantic City until it becomes the NJ Turnpike of boardwalks by what used to be Million Dollar pier.  These great family shots (below), taken over 51 years ago by Bartram Avenue (I imagine) in AC, where the boardwalk was (and still is) residential rather than commercial.

July 1961. I was two and Dale one. Mom and Dad and cousin Terry. On the boardwalk by Bartram Avenue? Shot probably taken by Pop-Pop, pretty good photographer! And check out the antennas sticking up on all the roofs; we are still two decades away from cable tv.

July 1961 walking the boards with mom and cousin Terry.

July 1961.  What a shot! I look at Pop-Pop and I can see Walt (who probably took the shot)? Mom-mom probably stayed back at Bartram and cooked.


Journey through the Past: Bartram Avenue, Atlantic City

One glance was all it took: This was the house.

There will be many posts related to the three-day trip that Dale, Robin and I took to Atlantic City and Margate to revisit past haunts.  I have ghost memories of this house; we spent summers there (two? three?) up through 1964, the summer I turned five and Dale four (the summer of 1965 we didn’t go down the shore because Robin would be born in June).  I remember the cement back yard and a tricycle I would ride in circles.  I remember a big porch in the front where we used to sit.  And I remember all sorts of family, not just the four of us (mom, dad, Dale and me), but my grandparents, Mom Mom Liz and Pop Pop Harry who lived with us.  And I’m sure we were constantly visited by all sorts of other relatives (who wouldn’t jump at the chance of visiting family who is renting the top of a big house in Atlantic City?)

And renters we were.  Like many owners of shore properties, the owner of the house on Bartram Avenue paid a lot of their yearly mortgage by renting their house out in July and August.  In our case, the owners had crafted an apartment in the basement in which they lived, and we had full run of the main two floors.  The toys we played on were not our toys, but the toys belonging to the children whose house we rented.  In the picture above you can see a small blue door with a mailbox signaling a basement apartment.  Dale remembered that little door, the entryway to their basement world.  Didn’t remember the apartment (did we ever go in there? Probably not), but she remembered the door.

Bartam Avenue is in Atlantic City, but it’s not where the action is (or was).  It’s the residential side, drive six blocks further and you’re in Ventnor.  We had spent the day on the boardwalk in the heart of A.C., and driven down Atlantic Avenue, past the circle, then continued on Ventnor Avenue (the names themselves reminding me that I’m on home turf).  Robin was driving, and we started to slow to read every cross street: Trenton, Harrisburg, Raleigh, Columbia).  We came a street without a sign and I knew.  I knew by the baby blue house on the corner (in my mind the color has not changed).  I knew by the fact that there was a store that took up the ground floor, its entrance on Ventnor Ave (what kind of store was there 49 years ago? A bakery?) And I knew the first house past this store on Bartram was our house.

I look at this house and I feel the years disappear. You can see the rear of the corner store as well as the residence above it to the left.  

We park between Ventnor and Atlantic Ave and the three of us walk up to the house.  I am so sure, Dale not as much, but as we stand in front of it, the certainty seems to come back to her too, especially the aforementioned door.  Here the three of us are, in September 2012, paying homage to a house in which two of us spent a few summers.  Robin can only listen; there was no “Robin” yet when we lived here.

A family of four, soon to be of five.

Looking at the above snapshot, taken in 1964, there’s so much I see now.  Look at the railing that we are leaning against, then look again at the railing in the photo taken last week, 48 years later: it’s the same railing.  In a world in which the old is quickly demolished and/or remodeled, it is the exact same! I look at the photo taken last week, and can see the four of us there posing for the picture (who took the picture?) When we walked on Bartram last week, we remarked how old the street felt; some houses have been updated, but nothing drastic.  The middle-class street – to us – felt dipped in amber in a way.  Not that much changed.  I love this family portrait because we were there then, and the same railing today signifies that the past truly exists. (The blue car – might be a Chevy ? – parked on the street… our old blue Chevy).

Mom Mom Ruth hugging her grandkids

It’s 1964 and we’re heading toward the beach.  One quick snap before we go.  It’s a three block walk, so we all have flip flops on our feet.  Mom Mom Ruth and Pop Pop Henry probably were visiting for the weekend.  She would have been maybe 41 or 42 in this shot.  You look down the street, and it is the same street, the same sense 48 years later.  The cars have changed, but sense of the street seems to have stayed the same.  Folks are gone, and we’re much, much older, but we are here.

Having fun in the backyard.

We can see the alleyway to the backyard on the side of the house, but we can’t go down there.  It’s not our house.  After a few minutes gazing, photographing and talking, we walk up Bartram to the bay.  Neither Dale or Robin thinks there’s a bay, but there’s a bay, only a block away.  The island is narrow at points, and where Bartram is it’s only about three and a half blocks wide.  It’s a beautiful day and we hang by the wooden retaining wall, looking out over the water, marshlands, and all that’s been “newly” built in the past 48 years.  After about ten minutes, we walk back down Bartram and stop again in front of our house.  Our house.  A house we rented almost half a century ago is still “our house.”  A man stops us.  “Do you want to buy it?”  It turns out he is the current owner, having purchased the house in 2001, the height of the market, for $500,000.  He is struggling to keep up with mortgage payments – nearly four grand a month.  He’s working two jobs and has five kids, the oldest on a full scholarship to Yale.  We talk for a few minutes, tell him our history with the house.  He noticed us lingering and taking pictures and was hoping we were there for more investment purposes, not this journey through the past. He may have been disappointed but we weren’t.

Signage by the bay


Connecticut College: Life was Elsewhere

Walking on the south side of campus.

It was a beautiful Monday morning in early September when I drove from Teaneck to New London, CT to visit Connecticut College, where I spent my freshman year.   A picture-perfect day for walking around the leafy campus taking in a world I tried to embrace and make my own 35 years previously.  I had previously returned about 25 years ago, for a stop a WCNI, the Connecticut College radio station, during one of the Whooping Cranes road trips up 95 to Boston and points in between.  It wasn’t very memorable – a quick jaunt to the radio station (which I registered had a complete makeover in the ten years I had been gone).  Aside from that quick visit, this was my first time back.

I’ve been to many college campuses throughout the years.  I teach at one (whose campus is probably the same size as CC, though without the endowment/budget/dorm living.  Still, it is a suburban campus).  I did college tours with my kids, and have spent time moving them in and out of Drexel University since the fall of 2008 (we’ll return to take Kevin back to Drexel in about a week).  I purposely chose early September to visit because it’s when the school year is new, when all the possibilities are in the air, where summer is still a part of everyone’s being, but where autumn, with it’s back-to-reality nibbling, is starting to settle on everyone’s skin.  I arrived onto the campus and slowly drove around the campus, looking at this somewhat familiar world through my windshield.  I wanted to park by the dorm I lived in as a freshman, knowing where it was but not remembering the name.  I worked my way, recognizing some buildings I knew from way back when, feeling ready to park the car and start exploring and photographing on foot.

Most kids enter their last year of high school in daze of not-knowing, of realizing that things are changing whether they want them to or not.  I was lucky enough to have entered my senior year of high school having gone through the same school suburban school district since I was in first grade.  Even though my folks split up and my mom got remarried and we moved, we stayed in the same general neighborhood.  So the faces I saw around me throughout elementary school were the same faces growing up with me in junior high and high school (obviously people moved away and new people came, but certainly not at a furious rate). But where do you go from here?  The school calendar forces you to change, to graduate, and even if you decide not to go to college (which was never a thought for me), even if you decide to stay home and work, the people you have known will have scattered.  There will be a core who will have remained, but most will have gone, and you’ll see new kids walking the halls of your high school where your people had been.  Ghosts start leading the charge, whether you leave or you don’t.  You can’t stay in high school forever.

My step-brother Jay was a sophomore in CC when I was a h.s. senior, and I went up to visit him a few times with my friend Mike.  Those times were tremendous.  The mid-late 70s was a time of the 18-year-old drinking age, so CC had a pub in the student union because

I found out that Connecticut College started in 1911; I assumed it was older.

everyone could drink.  Beer flowed in parties throughout the dorms.  And the campus was unlike anything I had ever experienced.  The thought came quickly to me through the beer, friendship, and step-brotherly love: I could go here.  Of course, this was the only campus I ever really experienced.  Didn’t put much deep thinking into it, only it felt right.  Don’t really remember any other school piquing my interest.  If I applied and got in, Jay would be at CC, and I found out that his older brother David would be the assistant crew coach (I had been rowing for my high school team my senior year, and I would row for CC in the fall of my freshman year of college).  There was a free-form radio station I could dj for, a coffee house to play guitar; it seemed right.  And as I settled into the spring of my senior year of high school, I had a serious girlfriend, Corey,  who would be going to Boston University, only two hours away by train (from the nearby Amtrak station in New London).

The day leading up and the drive to college are still memorable 35 years later.  The night before mom and Jack took me out to dinner to the San Marco restaurant on City Line Avenue, a place I had walked by throughout my entire life and had never been to.  The next day dad picked my up in his recently borrowed Lincoln Continental (from Joe Stafford’s Auto body; he possessed that car for a few years, or rather the car possessed him.)  We packed that car: crates of record albums, guitar, clothes and bedding, stereo, typewriter.  My entire life was cruising up 95, waiting for this next chapter to begin.  I was feeling awash with the excitement and potential of new opportunities, and dad had his own sense of bewilderment.  He had recently been renting a place in Santa Monica in Southern California, wondering if his law firm could establish a branch out there. Eileen had been spending a lot of time out there and the two of them were at a critical juncture in their relationship.  I remember the talking during the long car ride: Eileen wanted a baby, and he didn’t (he would have been …46,  she 31?).

We weren’t going to the move in the dorm on the same day of the drive (it was a five hours drive – now I think of that as an easy jaunt.  You leave in the morning and you get there.  But this wasn’t the case driving from Philly to New London.  We pulled

The Mohican Hotel. Opened in 1898 and at one point was one of the finest hotels in Connecticut. Dad and I stayed there after it bottomed out. In the 1980s it was converted into housing for the elderly (source:

into the seedy Mohican Hotel in New London, and parked the Lincoln with all my stuff clearly visible right on the street.  Throughout the night I kept waking up, wondering if someone was breaking into the car at this very minute.  To this day, I am shocked that the car was still there and untouched the next morning.  That car looked like such an easy target.  Maybe because it was so badass with its white wall tires and gold trim that no low-rung wannabe criminal would fuck with it?  But the Mohican Hotel was its own badass.  Newspapers serving as window shades, if my memory serves me well. The next morning we cruised into the college and dad was truly amazed.  He talked about his own college years, living at home on Georges Lane in West Philadelphia where he grew up and commuting to Temple University.  This college, with all these young people walking around without any regard to  their youth and freedom was like visiting a foreign country.  Club Ed.

This must be the place. Though cosmetic renovations have happened, this is the entrance to the dorm I spent my freshman year.

This was my entryway into my college life.  I remember walking down the hall to a big living room that held a piano (!).  Windows against a wall looked out onto a field which was bordered by a dorm on the other side.  My dorm room was a triple, shared with John Ehrlich from Connecticut (who had the top bunk on top of me), and Lyons Bradley from Alabama who had the other bed.  We were quite the threesome.  Everyone else in the dorm was in a single or double, but the three of us – all very different, but friendly – worked it out.  In the spring semester, when a single opened up on the first floor, the college gave it to us, and rather than one of us moving into the single, we decided to use that as an

This parking lot shouldn’t be there! Behind the dorm were woods. Stepped into these woods at times at night and during the day – it felt like they went on forever. I lost my wallet in there during the first few days of school – how the hell did that happen??

auxiliary room – for studying, for when one of us wanted some privacy.  We truly worked as roommates.  I would play records, and Lyons would play his cassette tapes.  He had a little cassette player and a set of huge earphones that he placed on his head.  I remember him listening to nothing but Oscar Peterson.  To this day (and I listen to Oscar Peterson much more now than I ever had) I always think of Lyons when Oscar is playing.  Thanks Lyons.  I still think of friendships made, of playing my Yamaha guitar in the cinder block stairwells because the the echo (Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” comes to mind), playing the piano in the lobby when no one else was around (Neil Young’s “Borrowed Tune” comes to mind) – intense friendships considering I was only there for a year, and I spent some weekends in Boston with Corey (and she spent some here).

The two windows all the way to the left on the third floor was the dorm room John, Lyons and I shared. It looked over the open quad (there were other dorms on the other side. Music was continually blasting out of dorm windows in the warm weather, an absence I felt walking around on a Monday afternoon 35 years later. The big stereo has gone the way of the record collection, relics of a different age.

What a line of students waiting to enter the Harris dining hall, which is part of the same complex as Johnson Hall.

The students lining up to get into lunch brought me back in a way I hadn’t expected, and affected my thoughts as I walked around the campus.  As a student 35 years ago, there was always a line to get into lunch and dinner, and Harris was the main dining hall on campus.  Waiting for meals seemed to be a highlight of our days because there was really a lack of much to do.  You took four classes per semester, which didn’t seem to eat up that much time during the day.  After class, before and after meals, you returned to your dorm room and hung out with anyone available, did some work, but there seemed to be a lot of waiting.  For me, I felt as if I were waiting for something to happen that wasn’t happening.  Most of my classmates seemed to feel  accustomed to this lifestyle; many had gone to private schools or boarding schools.  I was itching to do something more, to be somewhere else.  To paraphrase Tom Petty, the waiting was the hardest part.  Growing up outside of Philly spoiled me… there were record stores, book stores, hobby shops, concerts, great radio stations, my girlfriend, my high school friends.  At Connecticut College there was nothing.  As the months drifted by, I settled into a Connecticut College groove – sort of.  But I kept fighting it.

A drab building built in 1959 (see the commemorative marker on the corner)… on one hand yes, but this is where WCNI was (and still is). The building has been remodeled, but walking inside it felt the same. The large staircase up to the second floor which housed the radio station was still there.

A powerful interest to break the tedium: I started working at the WCNI and had an early Saturday morning show which I truly enjoyed. I’d show up for my shift early and pick out the records from the shelves on the wall (as well as the new record bin; I needed to play a few new releases per hour).

Notice the WCNI sign? The station used to be one floor above. It’s still there!

I’d sit in front of the console with a turntable on either side of me and feel one with the world. From years of listening to the radio and a high school internship at WYSP in Philly, a rock station, I was inspired to become a dj.  In Connecticut College, I was able to make this happen.  An people listened: from the college as well as the outside community (probably a dearth of other options).  I’d sub for other dj’s who couldn’t make their shifts. I sat at the console, both the dj and the engineer, a turntable to my right and a turntable to my left.  Cue up the music.  Play three new tracks from the new album bin per hour.  Speak into the mike (how awfully embarrassing it would be to hear extant tapes from my shows).  But dj-ing on WCNI gave me a purpose, and I felt an identity being part of the radio station.

I am a dj, I am what I play: Spinning the records circa 1977, taken by mom on a visit to the college (how devoted was she… getting up really early to take this shot during my early morning gig).

Back to the present: The library. I’d spend many hours there studying, writing, reading, and dreaming. It was so quiet and I’d be there usually by myself. I missed my old life and felt my new life didn’t seem to be centered here.

The music building at the other end of the campus from the dorm. Lyons used to come here a lot to use one of the studio rooms to practice his piano.

The front of the building which housed the auditorium. I took a film class there, which I remember better than any other class. I think of that often when I teach film classes, trying to get students to engage with films other than passively viewing them. Beautiful building, adjacent to the music building. Had one concert the year I was there: Livingston Taylor, brother of James. Livingston Taylor also played one night at Lower Merion during my senior year of high school. Urgh. Cemented the feeling that there wasn’t much happening here.

I remembered night-sledding on plastic lunch trays during the blizzard of 77 (I am so happy I am a fan of Nada Surf).  School was closed for two day, which was pretty wild because almost all the students lived in dorms and we were all there anyway.  The snow kept coming and coming and accumulating.  It happened all throughout the northeast, except we were in our own world in CC.  The night time sledding was awesome, and it seemed as if 50 kids took part in it.  Maybe we were all stoned, or most of us?  I remember it all as being otherworldly, and I found the spot on my visit.  By walking around the campus, by visiting places that at first blush did not seem important to my memory, I found that unexpected spot, and the memories came flooding back.  I had time: I walked to the arboretum located just outside one of the side gates to the college, and on this beautiful September afternoon I was in the midst of a vista that I last visited one snowy evening over a third of a century previously.  As I walked down the wide grassy lane bordered with shrubs, it hit me: this was where we sledded!  The hill was much gentler than I remembered, but it evened out and ended in a pond (I think the lurching over the snow that our lunch tray sleds had provided had petered out in plenty time before icy wet disaster would have happened).  Standing on that wide lane I felt it all – it was an exciting moment.

I only spent a year at Connecticut College.  And it wasn’t a “real” year but an academic year.  However, I lived in that school.  Lived away from Philly or Atlantic City for the first time in my life.  September through December, then home (I would work back home in the Drexel University bookstore during the ridiculous six-week winter break), then back February though May.  1977-1978.  That was it.  But powerful memories remain of friends, relationships, and that tremendous feeling that adulthood and life was beckoning, but it wasn’t to reach its essence on this beautiful campus.