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.


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