February 14, 2012 6 Comments
Did you ever use a flavored ChapStick and it reminded you of grape soda when you were a kid and that got you thinking about reaching up into the old soda machine in front of the gas station on Old York Road to liberate a bottle without the bother of paying, how much was it, 35¢? All because Eddie, the bad kid down the block, thought it was a good idea and you didn’t know how or even why to say no. It was a small thrill on a hot and humid suburban summer night; right up until the cops skidded to a halt. We bolted but I couldn’t make it over the wall so I slid under a parked car, gravel buried in my skin and held my breath so tightly that my chest hurts just telling about it.
Memory is peculiar isn’t it. And the more remote the memory the more peculiar it gets. The things that surface from distant memories are the things that didn’t even bear mentioning back when the dormant past was the urgent present. The subject of Monday morning’s meeting will be lost forever by Thursday afternoon but something about Miss Dulcet’s lipgloss, her perfume and the way she looked, reflected upside down in the polished surface of the conference room table, those details will revisit you on your deathbed.
And in every instance we are reminded that memory is the echo of five senses. The smell of roasting peanuts can trip trap doors to anywhere. A bus ride can abruptly transport you decades. Every song triggers a memory and the quality of light, at any given moment, can let loose a snowfall of associations. Memories are such tangled and sentimental creatures. The point is, we are constantly reminded that not only is the distant past not so distant, it hasn’t even passed.
I guess you can see where I’m headed with this.
When I was a kid my mom would stick me on the Greyhound Bus to Atlantic City to spend a few days with my grandparents. I went during Easter Vacation, well before the summer season started, so the place was pretty much abandoned. I barely recall a thing about my grandfather except that he loved to play Solitaire. Solitaire isn’t the kind of card game that invites a lot of company. My grandmother, my Bobba, didn’t like to do anything as much as she liked to walk. She also liked to watch soap operas in her birthday suit but again, not an activity that benefits from company. They lived on the boardwalk at the Vermont Arms in an apartment overlooking the ocean a generation after Atlantic City’s heyday and a generation before gambling arrived.
What I did there on my visits was walk the boardwalk with my grandmother. And I don’t mean stroll. We walked with the purpose of refugees fleeing an active volcano. We would go from Captain Starn’s Seafood Restaurant with its giant curio shop at the north end by Absecon Inlet, to as far south as we could go before running out of boardwalk or daylight. Even then she would take a moment to look further south; consider her options. I don’t know what was calling to her but she always listened to it before we turned back. Perhaps it was some inner voice urging her on to conquest and adventure. Whatever the case, I have no doubt whatsoever that if the boardwalk extended to Cuba we would have attempted breakfast in Havana.
The Atlantic City of the 60’s was an open air museum. A run down version of the Atlantic City of the 40’s, 30’s and 20’s. Those marches took us through a landscape of oddities and a near endless stream of my grandmother’s memories. My grandmother was deeply self centered but, to my memory, her reminiscence were not about herself so much as they were about the landscape. What pier used to be here and what entertainments used to be there. It may have been through her that I learned that every place has a story and every object in that place also has a story. There were rolling chairs. An oversized one or two passenger wheeled high-back chair made of wicker and pushed by a hired hand. As a child I remember that it was not at all clear which direction was forward or even what their function was. There were hundreds of them lined up, sometimes stacked up as though ready for a bonfire but I never once saw a person ride in one.
We would stop at Steel Pier and Steeplechase Pier which were open but just barely. They weren’t so much open as they were simply unlocked. Mr. Peanut would be wandering around like a movie extra outside the store at the formerly world famous Haddon Hall Hotel. Everything was moldy, faded, and decrepit. Everyone I saw was old. Of course when you’re eight almost everyone really is old but that feeling remains stuck to the memory even after I have joined the ranks of the walking dead.
While I appreciate the forces that were in play that turned Atlantic City into a gambling Mecca I think it’s a shame that no one seems to have given any thought to turning the entire place into a Zombie Theme Park. Where were the big thinkers, the visionaries, when such an opportunity knocked? They were there of course, just like they always are but nobody listened. Money replaced memory. History and therefore meaning were the casualties.
Though my grandmother and I traveled miles in both directions, the place I liked best was the pinball arcade right next door to their building. It was an arcade out of The Twilight Zone. A genuine time warp where you got to kill an enemy that was already dead. Every machine was a relic of the second world war. At least one would hope so with names like Zap the Jap and Kill the Kraut. Every kid could contribute to the war effort by dropping a coin, looking through the periscope, knocking over the drop target destroyer and sending a thousand men to a watery grave. Preferably with sharks.
Those machines and their murderous innocence are gone now, along with the ramshackle structure that housed them and along with my grandparents who lived next door at the Vermont Arms.