Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"Passover and Easter In Atlantic City"

In my various travels – to Tahiti, Hawaii, a photographic safari in Kenya – I always run into the same person. Not the same person literally, but the same type – older than me, and with a greater experience of the place I’m visiting. And they always say the same thing. We’re standing near each other, gazing at a gorgeous sunset or a breathtaking view and I say,

“This place is beautiful.”

to which the stranger inevitably replies,

“It’s not like it was.”

For five years in a row, starting when I was eight, my maternal grandfather and grandmother, my mother, my brother and I would travel to Atlantic City for the Passover holiday. We drove there in my grandfather’s “Gunmetal Gray” Plymouth, a car with which, on an earlier driving trip to Florida, my Orthodox Jewish grandfather had run over a pig. Religious doctrine requires that the offending vehicle be buried in the ground for purification. My grandfather settled for a car wash.

My family was unable to eat at the restaurants along the way, because they weren’t kosher. That meant eating food we brought from home. My grandfather, not partial to stopping for picnics, munched hardboiled eggs as he drove, the odor from which was a major challenge to a queasy a car traveler like myself. My grandmother, riding shotgun, sipped tomato soup from a thermos. She’d then throw the remnants out the front window. The soup would immediately come spraying in the back window.

The distance from Toronto to Atlantic City was about seven hundred miles. We couldn’t make it in one day. Before they built the New York Thruway, which would take you directly from Buffalo to New York City, we were required to take smaller highways, passing through towns like Corning and Poukeepsie. We’d spend the night at a “tourist home”, which basically meant you were staying in the spare room of somebody’s house.

I found the whole “tourist home” experience not to my liking. I’d walk into my assigned room and find pajamas folded on the pillow. What the heck was that! Whoever’d stayed in that tourist home before me, had slept in those pajamas. And now it was my turn? Why did they think that was a selling point?

“Bed. Breakfast. And previously worn pajamas.”

One morning, I woke up, and found a cat on my chest. Was that somebody’s idea of a “homey touch”? Did my family have to pay extra that cat? If it scared their kid to death, did they get your money back?

After the Thruway was built, our family could bypass the small towns and spend the night in a hotel in New York City. We didn’t have a lot of money; we’re not talking The Plaza here. If the hotel said, “Clean” outside, we’d stay there.

I had one memorable New York hotel experience. My mother, my brother and I were being escorted to our room by a well past his prime black Bell Man. (Some of this is bound to sound racist. Just remember, this was the Fifties, and as a Canadian, my experience with black people was negligible.)

The Bell Man reminded me of black men I’d seen in movies. He had a relaxed way of talking and a shuffling kind of gait. Maybe he was originally from the South. He seemed to be channeling a slower place.

We reached out room, and the Bell Man opened the door. Inside, aside from assorted furniture, was one large bed. We’re standing in the hall, and we don’t go in. One bed for my mother, my brother and me to sleep in together was not an arrangement our family was comfortable with.

“We’re going to need a couple of cots,” my mother announced.

The Bell Man reacted to this instruction with a look that seemed genuinely perplexed.

“There’s only one bed in there. We’re going to need three.”

The Bell Man maintained his bewildered expression. Finally, he spoke. (Please forgive the dialect. I’m just telling it like it happened.)

“Is dese your chillun’?” the Bell Man asked.

Yes, replied my mother. There was a long silence. Then, the Bell Man asked again,

“Is dese your chillun’?”

Yes, they were her children. But we were not going to sleep in the same bed.

“Dese is your chillun’”, responded the Bell Man, his brow deeply furrowed. He clearly didn’t see our problem.

My mother was losing patience. The room, as it was, was unacceptable; she needed two cots brought in for her sons. Finally, the Bell Man heaved a deep, weary sigh, or a sigh of resignation, I’m not sure which, I am no expert on sighs. Whatever, he made his peace with the situation. Referring to our unwillingness to sleep in one bed despite being members of the same family, he concluded,

“Well…some does. And some doesn’t.”

I can’t tell you how many times, through the years, when confronted by others’ behavior that was different from my own, I’ve accepted it with the comment,

“Some does, and some doesn’t.”

It was the clearest expression of non-judgmentalism I have ever heard. And it stuck in my mind. I’ll bet you’ll be using it soon too.

On the second day of our travels, we finally arrived in Atlantic City, our home for the next eight days: The Breakers Hotel – right on the Boardwalk. To our family’s modest tastes, The Breakers was a palace. I remember the names of the owners: Malamed and Meltzer. Every so often, one of them would be paged to the Front Desk. I thought they were gods.

I don’t know what it was like the rest of the year, but at Passover, The Breakers was arranged to accommodate the Passover requirements of Jews. Formal seders were conducted in the Dining Room, the meals and table settings were “kosher for Passover”, and of course, there were no bread or bread-like equivalents anywhere on the menu. Some extremely dry cake, I remember, but no bread.

Outside, the Boardwalk was a kid’s paradise. Rows and rows of arcades. The old-fashioned kind, with pinball machines, shooting galleries and games of skill and chance, where, when you won, you accumulated tickets, which you could later redeem for prizes.

My favorite game was Pokerino. To play Pokerino, you sat up high in front of a polished alley. You rolled a rubber ball down the alley, trying to get it to drop into holes at the other end, each hole designating a different playing card, four suits, ranging from nine up to Ace. The objective was to produce the highest poker hand possible, your reward – in tickets – reflecting your success. At the end of one Atlantic City trip, I cashed in my tickets for a set of steak knives that my mother continued to use long after I’d grown up and moved out of the house. Pokerino steak knives. They lasted forever.

The Boardwalk also featured other wonders. Shoeshine guys calling,

“You can’t look neat if your shoes are beat.”

Pigeons, you could feed out of your hand with purchased bags of seeds.

Rickshaws, which you sat in, and people pulled you along. That felt creepy, even then.

And Mr. Peanut.

There was a Planters Peanut store on the Boardwalk, where, standing out front, shaking hands, was a person attired in a large peanut shell, top hat, white gloves and a monocle. We weren’t allowed to buy those hot, roasted peanuts – for some unexplained reason, peanuts were not “kosher for Passover” – but no one could stop us from smelling them.

Invariably, Passover week coincided with Easter. Easter, on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, was huge. As big as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is today. Networks came there to film Easter “specials” for TV.

On Easter Sunday, they had a big parade, not with floats, just people. Hundreds of thousands, we were informed. Woman dressed up in extravagant outfits, topping their ensembles with lavishly decorated straw hats. Paraders also dressed up their dogs. This, I never understood. I can’t imagine a dog ever thinking,

“My life would be perfect, if I only had a sweater with four sleeves.”

A Doberman, passing a mirror, thinking,

“That’s what I was missing. Booties and a bow tie.”

Easter Parade Day was the most exciting day of our trip. It was also the day I was picked up by the police.

Let me explain. Every morning of our stay, my mother gave me a dollar, and I went off, usually alone, to spend it on the Boardwalk. I was free to spend the money any way I wanted, and at the end of the day – and a dollar spent wisely could last a whole day – I would come back to the hotel.

That Easter Sunday, I received my dollar and I hit the Boardwalk. I played some games, I fed the pigeons, I looked at the ocean, and I didn’t buy peanuts. A typical day.

Then I noticed a crowd. Aside from the arcades, the Boardwalk also featured these stalls where – this being before cable – fast-talking Pitch Men would hawk products that would later be offered on infomercials. I went to see what the crowd was watching.

There, shaking hands, was Robby the Robot. Robby had starred in a recent movie, playing, not surprisingly, a robot. I was immediately enthralled, working myself to the front of the throng. As soon as I got there, I saw the Pitch Man who was standing beside Robby remove his wristwatch, place it on the table, point to his watch, and say,

“In exactly fifteen minutes, Robby the Robot will return and do a little dance for you.”

At that point, Robby the Robot left the stage. I decided to wait for his return. In the meantime, he motor-mouthed Pitch Man started demonstrating amazing products to the steadily growing crowd. The Chop-O-Matic. Glass knives. Pens that wrote under water.

And Athlete’s Foot powder. I remember the Pitch Man showing us a photograph of a poor fellow who had to be restrained in a hospital bed, because Athlete’s Foot had caused him to rub the bottoms of his feet raw. The powder would have prevented that.

The Pitch Man talked and talked, flakking one miraculous product after another. I stayed and watched, waiting for Robby the Robot to return, though the “fifteen minutes” promise had long since expired. But Robby wasn’t the only reason I didn’t leave.

I was totally mesmerized by the Pitch Man’s performance. It was magical how he could hold and retain the audience’s attention. Without my noticing, the minutes turned to hours, the hours, to the whole day. Then, suddenly, I was surrounded by two, huge policemen.

The policemen escorted me back to the hotel, and my frantic mother, who had apparently called them, reporting a missing Jewish boy with glasses. I was furious at the humiliation of being brought back to my mother by the police.

“You were lost,” my mother explained.

To which, I replied one of my favorite lines of all time.

“’Lost’ isn’t when you don’t know where I am. ‘Lost’ is when I don’t know where I am.”

Thirty years later, I returned to Atlantic City to meet with Bill Cosby, whose sitcom I was working on, and who was performing in one of the casinos. When my co-writer, John, and I arrived, at, like, two in the afternoon, Cosby was still asleep and nobody was willing to wake him up. We decided to kill time by taking a walk on the Boardwalk.

Atlantic City had radically changed. Almost every landmark I remembered was gone. Except one. A store selling Fralinger’s Salt Water Taffee. Fralinger’s, a Boardwalk tradition, was the last surviving remnant of a bygone time.

We went in. There, behind the counter, stood two sweet, little old salesladies, exactly like the ones I remembered from the Fifties. I couldn’t help myself. I needed a little piece of the past. I bought a number of boxes salt water taffee, for my family in Toronto, and my family in L.A., paying the sweet, little old ladies with my credit card.

A month later, I received my credit card bill, and I noticed a charge on it for eight hundred dollars from a place called Mr. M’s in Atlantic City. I had only visited Atlantic City that one day, and I’d never heard of that place.

It seems the sweet, little old ladies had ripped off my credit card number, and had enjoyed a night on the town – on me – at Mr. M’s.

Atlantic City.

It’s not like it was.

Tomorrow: "How the Jews Lost the Lead"


cjdahl60 said...

Earl: I just wanted to let you know that there's someone out here religiously reading your blog (pun intended).

Seriously, I make it a point to visit daily to enjoy your writings. You always have something entertaining or thought provoking to say and I've introduced a number of my friends to this site.

Anonymous said...

Well, if you keep getting up at 7am every morning to write your blog, you'll soon restore their place!

Anonymous said...

And I meant that quite literally (how else?)