The week before we barely heard what any of our teachers was saying ‘cause we were busy making checklists in our notebooks. The night before, we were on the phone with one another coordinating our wardrobes, many of us having spent our allowances and babysitting money in the girls’ department at Lit Brothers the weekend before. And when the morning of that day finally arrived, we put on enough eye shadow and rouge (that’s what they called blush back then) to brighten our faces but not too much that our mothers would barricade the doors – and walked to the corner of Ventnor and Jackson where we caught the jitney that took us uptown. This was the day the hawkers were back and the Lucky Wheel clickety-clacked, and popcorn and peanut smells filled the warming salt air. On Easter Sunday, after its winter nap, the Atlantic City boardwalk turned magical again.
Next to the prom, this was the biggest date event of the year. You’d meet on Million Dollar Pier and climb into the scarred chairs of the Orient Express, your legs bumping together as the ride jerked through a dark labyrinth and scream when the mechanical dummy rose from its sarcophagus. Maybe the boy would take your hand and, maybe, still be holding it when the car banged through the red exit doors and rolled out into sunlight again. Anything was possible the day the boardwalk opened.
I am the child of newlyweds who honeymooned in Atlantic City, then returned to raise a family there, when grand hotels like the Traymore and Marlboro-Blenheim stood like sentinels guarding a treasured jewel. But by the late ’60s, tourists stopped coming, and the economic downturn soon turned to depression. My dad sold his drug store and took a job delivering liquor. Still, every Easter Sunday, our families hoped the next season would be better. Wasn’t it possible?
Then, in November 1976, the year we graduated high school, the referendum was passed that would bring casino gambling – and a livelihood – to Atlantic City, not knowing then that progress has its price. Gone are the Steel Pier, Captain Starn’s, and the rest of the wonderful, kitschy features that made our town a character. Because when something new goes up, something old – and often extraordinary – must come down.
Today, the Expressway brings hordes of day-trippers and weekend warriors, who, even in winter, turn up their coat collars as they stalk the neon tabernacles. I remember winters when the only color was the gray of the sky and the pigeons scavenging the mountains of broken shells the waves deposited at the shoreline. But only until Easter Sunday, when the boardwalk came to life, full of sights and sounds and smells…and everything was possible again.