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.
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.
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.