Margate Now Margate Then, Part 1

Lucy might be an oddity but she’s Margate’s oddity.  How many towns can boast of a 19th century elephant-shaped hotel.  This was a dump when I was a kid in the 60s, but sometime in the last 70s the powers-that-be decided to save her.  They moved her a few blocks (and all day ordeal involved many Tonka-sized trucks and trailers) and completely refurbished her.  She is still here today, thanks to those folks.  She’s about a mile away from where we lived, but her presence was always felt during long walks on the beach.

I’m crafting this text on a snowy November afternoon, looking out my office window in Teaneck, NJ watching the big wet flakes swoop down.  I look at the falling snow, and I know that our Honda Civic needs tires.  But Beatrice St. is starting to get white, and I don’t think today’s the day to go get them.  Inside for a while, and I put up the thermostat from its normal daytime of 62 degrees to a much more toe-warming 68 (maybe I’ll even go higher).  Gov’t Mule has a six CD box set that I heard a cut of this morning, so I’m streaming that, which is warming me up as well, their cover of Blind Faith’s “Presence of the Lord.”  A six CD set of shows from April 11-13, 1996.  They are completists aren’t they?  Snow falling, new yet familiar music playing, and a trip down memory lane courtesy of the Atlantic City trip that Dale, Robin and I took two months ago, at the end of the September when we were enjoying a warm weekend, knowing full well – thanks to the calendar – that summer was over.  But it felt so good to be back there, to spending time at places that we haven’t spent time in or by in at least 34 years.

standing across the street, you can see the brand new house that has taken the place of 8206 Atlantic, as well as the pink apartments next door that are no longer pink. I realize this is a terrible identifying caption.

We have known for years that our house at 8206 Atlantic Avenue was no longer.  After Mom Mom Liz died in the summer of 1978, dad kept the house, and rented it out for years.  In all those years I never ventured back.  He then, sometime in the late 80s, decided to sell it.  He put some money into the project, putting in new windows, fixing up the plumbing (I have memories of him crawling in the tiny crawl space underneath the house to do God-knows-what with pipes and stuff).  But he sunk some money into the place to make it sellable, and what did the buyers do? Tear the beloved house down.

Not that it was a place that anyone would ever say “wow” to.  It was a simple house.  Big eat-in kitchen (big selling point, I imagine, to my grandmother).  Served as both the kitchen and the dining room.  The room where everyone gathered.  Meals were served.  Much poker was played (I have vivid memories of Mom Mom’s friends gathering there, playing cards, smoking, filling up the room with chatter, chips and smoke.  One of my “jobs” as a kid was going to the 5&10 to buy her four brand new packs of playing cards for each night she would host the game.  She told me that the oils and food from everyone’s fingers stained the cards, which is why she always needed new ones.  The old ones were kept in paper shopping bags in the closet, and they all looked great to us; they were plastic coated, so they didn’t really need to get replaced every night – or so I thought.  But I was always happy to get new supplies because I always got to keep the change.  I always thought of it as normal to have hundreds of decks of playing cards sitting in one’s hall closet.  We used to build mammoth castles and one-story structures out of all the cards.  And the rest of the house?  Two bedrooms downstairs, one for my grandmother and one I shared with my grandfather facing Atlantic Avenue.  Upstairs my folks’ bedroom with a balcony facing the backyard and a bedroom for my sisters.

I used to love the bedroom facing Atlantic Avenue.  There was a rocker that I used to rock in for what seemed like hours at night, listening to ball games on the radio, listening to music on the radio or records on my cheap plastic portable “stereo.”  sometimes staring out at the traffic quickly moving by on the street and slowing down at the traffic light on the corner.  As a young kid, I thought I was so lucky to have a window facing a busy street with a traffic light.  These were all simple pleasures; Mom Mom would be up all night watching tv in the living room with her sister, our Aunt Dora, who lived in the pink apartments right next door (she had moved in with her husband, our Uncle Harris, who to us always looked over a hundred years old – I don’t remember when he died but he seemed that one day he was just no longer there).

Dale and Robin pondering “our house” that is no longer there. The drive way and garage are still there!

Not only did the “new” buyers have the audacity to tear down our house, but they changed the house number as well.  We were 8206 Atlantic Avenue; the replacement house is 8228 (if you’re able to close in at the house number in the above shot you can see it).  So not only is the house gone, but the house number as well.  It’s as if it never was.  But the new folks left the garage, which is the same.  And the long cement driveway (I seem to remember a grass island originally there as well, but dad cementing it all over at some point).  And the pink apartments to the left of the house? They’ve been remodeled and sided with white vinyl.  But for us, and forever, they’ll always be the pink apartments.

pondering the deck in the backyard. If you ask me, this is way too big. It overwhelms the backyard. This never existed before. Now there’s no room for any backyard fun.

The front of the house faced the avenue, but it was beach block, which was a huge selling point for dad.  When we moved into the house there were big holes in the backyard.  Dad sent the three of us on multiple trips to the beach with our buckets, shovels, and wagons to bring him back sand for the filling of such holes.  It wasn’t a big backyard, but it was a backyard.  A garage with an outdoor shower.  A small backyard that led to a narrow side yard, then to a front yard.  I remember setting up croquet courses throughout the tight yard, making it all happen.  I hadn’t thought of that in a long time.

from our driveway, Robin and Dale looking over the fence at the backyard of the pink apartments.  I think the old fence was a chain link.

I could understand some of the problems my students have – there is so much to write about with a project like this.  I look at these recent pictures, or consider the family snapshots that I can include with this post, and I am overwhelmed with thoughts and stories.  The house in Margate, the shore life during my adolescent and teenage years, are filled with memories.  It’s not my job here to write about all of them or most of them, but to, for now, focus on some triggers, to let things come back.  To think of things I hadn’t thought of in a long time.  But a bigger point I would make to myself and to my students is to start small.  You can’t write of a ten year experience in a short essay, but you can find gems and truths that can be expanded much further.  Focusing in.

Each paragraph could serve as its own version of “focusing in.”  I have a lot of information – too much information – but the pictures help me focus in.  I could craft a tryptic and focus an essay on morning, afternoon and night – at 15 or 16 in Margate and Atlantic City.  The ghosts of all that have gone, the ghosts of all who have gone.

For as long as I remember, there was a life-guard station here on the street, a structure more like a small house. This is just down the street from the pink apartments.

Mornings and afternoons: the beach.  I knew how lucky I was then to be able to live a short walk away from the beach, to have the beach be your proverbial back yard.  Of course everyone loves the beach in the summer, but I loved it year round.  There has always been something magical about the sea shore in the off-season, after all the tourists and shoebies have gone.  There was nothing to do and yet so much to do.  The beach always beckoned.  It might be cold and windy, but walking on the wide empty beach could clear your mind.  And then it felt so good to come inside where there was always something cooking (literally).  Being that dad had us on weekends, and lived for a while in a studio apartment, his parents house was a natural destination on some weekends.  I felt easily amused: I could stay anywhere, but I loved being where I knew I was loved.  It gave me room to think, a foundational place to ponder all thoughts.  The beach still does that for me.

I love the honeyed tone of this shot. This is 8206 Atlantic Avenue, taken in 1976, 8228 may exist in its place, but I will always see this house, with its chain link fence, with the pink apartments next door, and with my bedroom at the front of the house, facing the street



At home on Iroquois Avenue, Margate, NJ

17 Iroquois Avenue in Margate, September 2012

17 Iroquois Avenue in Margate, circa 1967. Notice the “Sale” sign in the front of the house.

Some places undergo much change and some places seem to stay the same.  Upgraded, but gently upgraded.  This is true about 17 Iroquois Avenue in Margate, where our grandparents moved to in 1967 (or maybe 1966).  They made the big move from Georges Lane in the Wynnefield section of Philadelphia to Margate, and this was a big win for Robin, Dale and me.  Come to think of it, dad probably bought the house for them, but they didn’t move in right away.  Maybe it existed as just a summer home for a year or so before Mom Mom and Pop Pop were ready to leave Philly.  We now had a place down the shore.  We could continue our tradition of spending our summers in Atlantic City (Margate being a “suburb” on the same Absecon island), and we could now visit our grandparents

the current owners take great care of “our” house. The sign for the house number looks unchanged from the old b&w shot. The windows are new, but keep the integrity of the original design. It all looks so inviting.

year round (on the weekends).  I shared a room with Pop Pop: two twin beds.  I have distant memories of the house: building a Frankenstein model on the dining room table; getting “Sgt. Pepper “- my very first album – for my eighth birthday in July 1967 (It remained my only album for about a year until I got another one); finding a toy machine gun in the garage shortly after we moved in.  It had some kind of rubber band device that replicated a bootleg “ratatatatatatat” sound.  Dad quickly disabled it, but let me keep the gun.  I think it was the only toy gun I ever owned.  Yea for me.

I’ve always found the grassy center strip in driveways appealing. Maybe it all stemmed from this house? In fact, the day of this visit – before we came upon the house – I photographed a driveway a few blocks away for the simple reason that it had a grassy center strip!  Some things linger. 

The house looked relatively unchanged as Dale, Robin and I approached it.  Except for the beach block, a lot of Margate and Ventnor has stayed the same.  On this block on Iroquois, there are some new homes (and one thing you notice is that the homes of newer construction have their electrical wires submerged).  Being by the house brought the three of us a lot of joy: it looked so particularly like the Margate we remembered.  Many houses had the awnings covering their porches – and lots of porches!  We thought back to those few years we lived here.  Robin was a baby, but Dale and I went to day camp, “Camp by the Sea,” which was located on Jerome Avenue a few blocks away (maybe it’s still there?)

Robin, Dale and mom in the front of the house, in the enclosed porch-like room (with windows on three sides). Looking at this shot, it all comes back (especially the chairs). Black & white tv was all there was.  This room always felt very cozy to me. 

I love this shot of Dale and the record player and stacks of records behind her. Allen Sherman records? Eddie Fisher? Mitch Miller?

I never remember playing baseball, but here I am wearing this dorky get-up Why do all boys this age act like they hate their picture being taken?

Memories of the house linger, but what is more memorable is time spent out of the house: on the beach, on the boardwalk, riding my bike on the sidewalks around and around and around the block.  These memories will continue onto our next move to 8206 Atlantic Avenue, just a few short blocks away.

The current owners seem to have a great sense of humor. The Lazaroff spirit still prevails. Mom Mom used to get so annoyed when dogs would poop on the lawn of their next house at 8206 Atlantic.

Boardwalk Empire: Part Three

from the Atlantic City Press, January 9, 1978. Original caption: “He may have been looking for silence and solitude, but even on a rainy winter Sunday this jogger has company as he pounds the boards.” (photo by Gregg Kohl)

I remember the story.  It was a cold Monday morning in early January 1978.  Mom Mom Liz was sitting at her kitchen table (where else?) in Margate, reading the Atlantic City Press.  She keeps turning the pages and this image on page 30 catches her eye. A lone jogger on the boardwalk taken the day before.  What she specifically notices is the hat.  That’s the same hat that her son, Walter, wears, the only person who would be meshugenah enough to go running on the wintry boardwalk the day before.  I think of the punch line of the old joke: “he had a hat!”  And that’s how she recognized him…by the hat.  And, as Eileen reminded me, she also said, “A mother always knows her son.”

It was dad of course, running in an era when few were running.  There were no fancy running sneakers, no magazines, none of the accoutrements that runners have today.  He was decades away from Ipods, even a few years shy of the first Sony Walkman.  He ran for the exercise, but he ran to think things through.  The caption of the picture was right, he ran for “silence and solitude.”  He would tell me that his best thinking, his best moments of clarity, happened when he was pounding the boards (or  pavement.  In the years to come he would run the Philadelphia Marathon and the New York Marathon, each time claiming it was absolutely his last.  Yet he would be back again the next year).

Dad had a love for running, a love for the boardwalk, and a love for Atlantic City.  His love for AC would change the following summer when Mom Mom Liz died.  The following summer he and Eileen would venture south on the Garden State Parkway, and for the first time come upon the very tip of Southern Jersey, Cape May Point, and find a new, completely different Jersey shore experience, that he could embrace and make his own.  And he would find new favorite, quiet places to run.

Looking south from Ventnor pier, September 2012

I never jogged on the boardwalk, but I loved riding my bike.  My most pleasurable memories of Atlantic City deal with the boardwalk, yes, but deal with bike riding on the boardwalk.  Waking up early in the morning and riding from our house in Margate to where the boards began in the very beginning of Ventnor.  Up the beach block to the ramp, then riding another 100, 200 feet of narrow boards to where the entrance meets the boardwalk.  Every street has its own entrance.  The early morning in Ventnor and Atlantic City have their own energy, or lack of it.  And maybe it’s the lack that is so enticing.  As a teenager I would ride my bike to my jobs on the boardwalk, stashing it “in the back.”  Early morning ride to open up Juice-a-rama.  Memories of returning home in the afternoon in rain storms wearing garbage bags in lieu of any proper rain gear (usually the cops kicked bikers off the boards by ten, but if it was raining it usually wasn’t a problem).

My recent big rides brought me back.  I’m acknowledging the past and I’m here completely in the present.  I’m riding my bike I brought down from Teaneck, the bike I bought with my share of the money that President Bush gave to all tax payers in the spring of 2001 to help stimulate the economy.  It is a beautiful late summer morning.  I try to notice it all: Ventnor is just residential.  Big houses set far from the boardwalk, but as the blocks keep ascending the houses get closer and closer to the boardwalk itself.  But they don’t get smaller.  They’re houses on a grand scale.  It was that way then, it is that way now.  Apartment buildings face the boardwalk.  There used to be motels, but they’re all gone.  Some still stand, but they’re condos.  Things get a bit more dense as Ventnor leads to AC.  The boardwalk becomes wider.   big hotels in AC are gone.  The Deauville, The Strand.   I stop at some kind of boardwalk quick stop, maybe I would have worked here if I were 17?  It’s part of some casino complex, but once you get into the heart of AC on the boardwalk, it’s all part of some casino complex.  I get coffee and sit, drink, watch, and listen.  Some night people still getting by on the fumes of the night before, struggling down the boardwalk like zombies, like weakened vampires afraid of the light.  Some homeless, or people who look homeless.  And the joggers, the bikers, the walkers, the strollers.

Finished my morning joe and took this shot of the early morning boardwalk in Atlantic City

There is so much energy in the night, and even during the day, that the morning is the catch-up time.  In AC, there are sea gulls and pigeons circling, searching for the best garbage that hasn’t been picked up yet.  Nothing’s open, so the stores lining the boardwalk have this lazy intensity of all that happened the night before and all that is possible during the current day.

But the casinos change everything.  First of all they’re big.  You can’t even get the right sense of scale since you’re right on top of them from the boardwalk.  Second of all they are NOISY.  You pedal past and they’re blasting god-awful music to lure you in.  At nine o’clock in the morning!  IT’s like the soundtrack to my biggest nightmare:  Hootie and the Blowfish… Hoobastank… Nickleback… I’m peddling through an alternate universe where not only was my visual Atlantic City kidnapped, but I am forced to listen to the worst possible music!  No!!!!  It’s “good times” music for the desperately unfortunate or for those who don’t give a shit.

I think back to dad running by North Carolina Avenue on the boardwalk in Atlantic City in 1978.  When his mom was still around.  Before casinos took over.  Before Ipods.  Before Walkmans.  Before Hoobastank.  He could jog along a pretty vacant boardwalk and only hear the gulls, the pigeons, and the patter of his own sneakers.

Probably taken in the late 1930s, here’s a young Walter posing on the boardwalk. Little did he know he’d be running those boards 40 years later.

Boardwalk Empire: Part Two

It’s a strange new world. Robin and Dale walking up from Convention Hall toward what once was Million Dollar Pier (and is now a glitzy shopping mall)

It is late September 2012.  Robin and Dale walk ahead as I take pictures, trying to see what I used to see so many years ago.  The boards have been replaced many times, but still feel original.  They’re still wood.  They splinter and rot (especially evident while on a bike).  They smell.  There are still seagulls and pigeons flying around and landing practically at our feet.  There is still the beach and ocean to our right as we are walking heading uptown.  So what is to our right feels the same as it was, what is below us feels the same as it was.  But the heart of the boardwalk has been usurped since 1978, the last summer I spent living and working in Atlantic City.

The places I worked. Juice-a-rama: Gone.  Hi Hat Joe’s: Gone.  King Kone: Gone. The Steel Pier: Gone. Well, technically not gone, since there is a “pier” called Steel Pier

across from Trump’s Casino.  But it’s not my Steel Pier.  That Steel Pier burned to the ground (sand? ocean?) in 1982.  No, the “new” Steel Pier” was built over the ashes of the previous one in 1993, and it’s about 1/4 the size. But before I moan, imagine what the “sealine” of Atlantic City looked like in those ten years before it was sort of rebuilt? Kind of like the west side of Manhattan with all of its ghost piers.  The new Steel Pier is a pygmy, but at least something is still there.  It doesn’t stretch a mile into the ocean.  There’s no diving horse show at the long end of the pier (you’d have to walk past a mile of honky tonk to get there), where a woman on a horse rode up a ramp to the top of a platform, then the horse and rider “dove” into a pool of water while the crowd gasped and cheered (my first job at age 15 was selling peanuts to said crowd).  There’s no diving bell, an iron lung of a contraption that would slowly take you a mile down (it felt that way) into the briney depths of the Atlantic, then after a minute or two on the sea bed, would whoosh back up to the surface.  There’s no double movie theater where I remember seeing “The Day of the Triffids,” a movie about trees (or tree-like creatures) that ate people (and I was really scared).  There’s no musical attractions – I visited Steel Pier on my own in 1969 and saw a brand new group, the Chicago Transit Authority, whom I though were tremendous.  And all of this – all of this – for one “low” admission (but I think the diving bell was additional).

Connected to Trump’s Casino is the “new” Steel Pier. On the pedestrian bridge that allows customers to gain access to the pier without setting foot on the boardwalk is an illustration of what my grandparents would have seen in their youth.

Steel Pier is near the “end” of the boardwalk as I remember it.  Not technically the end; Garden Pier came after (as a youngster: zero interest.  There were no rides nor amusements to be had.  It was a garden.  On a pier).  But the fun of the boardwalk, the lights, the dazzle, the riff raff, the smells, ended after Steel Pier and it was just just residential urban Atlantic City until the inlet where Garwood Mills and Captain Starns restaurant was.  The inlet was only visited early mornings on my bike (or when we used to shop at Garwood Mills, probably the original dollar store.  I seem to remember buying my very first 45 there, Crazy Elephants’ “Gimme Gimme Good Loving” (though maybe I bought it at our local Woolworth’s in Philly.  Not sure.  Damn).  The inlet had lots of docks.  Sea lions used to perch on the docks.  But this was all a long time ago.

Many other boardwalk memories come back along the walk

Approaching Peanut World. Planters Peanuts was always a stop for us as kids on the boardwalk. This wasn’t Planters, but it looks like it could have replaced it in the mid to late 70s.

Dad used to love taking us into Planters Peanuts.  There were huge replicas of Mr. Peanut throughout, probably someone dressed as Mr. Peanut as well.  When I look at Times Square today, with all the Trademark stores (for example Hershey’s World), I think back to the boardwalk of yesterday and Planters Peanuts.  Dad would always buy a bag of freshly roasted peanuts (in the shells of course), then go wait outside on the beach side of the boardwalk to watch the parade of people walking by.  Letting the peanut shells fall wherever and just watch the throngs.  I’d join him, which is where I too learned the joy of people watching.  And the AC boardwalk was always ground zero to see the tide of humanity in all their summer glory strolling by.   Inside the store – for some reason – there was a water bed on display, and customers were invited to plop down for a slurpy moment on it, and Dale, Robin and I did just that.

A postcard from 1957, before my time, but you can see Steel Pier in all its glory, Planters Peanuts on the other side of a boardwalk, and one of the movie theaters.

Our Atlantic City trip happened five weeks ago.  And, in the life of the Jersey shore, it was a lifetime ago.  Last Monday, October 29, Hurricane Sandy rearranged it all.  The pictures I saw were of devastation.  The boardwalk north of Revel was destroyed.  The streets by the bay were flooded.  Dale, Robin and I were hanging by the bulkhead on the bay on our visit to Bartram Avenue (previous post).  How did it all fare?  Mike sent a picture of their vacation home on the bay in Ventnor, and it looked like it is now existing as part of the bay.  Lots of images floating (no pun intended) on the web for all to see.

Summer of 1962, opposite Million Dollar Pier