Here is that essay I said I was going to write.
Summers in Philadelphia during my childhood burn in my memory, hot and sultry. As cold as the winters were, snow piled high against the sides of the house, the summers were at least as extreme. Green leaves, so lately unfolded, wilted on the branches. The place smelled of fermenting garbage and dog manure.
The humidity dragged the clouds down like shirts left too long on the line. Rain would sometimes fall sporadically, but it wasn’t much of a relief. Yet it provided drama to otherwise hot and monotonous days. Dark clouds would gather like a gang up to nothing good, scowling down on the ground below. The air would become unbearably heavy, like a sodden towel, and the big, slow, heavy drops would start, building up momentum until they hammered down thrillingly.
As a small child, I would run up the driveway in my bathing suit, arms wide open and face to the sky, just to feel that blessed wetness for a moment, and to see jagged fingers of lightning probe the darkened sky. I hoped with a desire for novelty that every child feels that the electricity would go out, just so I could sit with a flashlight and read in the darkened living room. In an hour or less, the storm would be over, and the heat back, even more oppressive than before.
In this kind of weather, the only relief a person could hope for was to head for “the shore,” usually Atlantic City, in our case, about an hour or so drive from Philadelphia.
For a small child, the ride seemed to go on forever. While the rest of the cars, low and sleek, with wings extending half the width of the car, blew by us, tinted windows closed to the heat and humidity, our two-tone snub-nosed Chevy sat high on the road. Since we had no air-conditioning in our stolidly unfashionable car, we rolled the windows down as far as they would go, so the breeze, pitiful though it was, could blow through the car. Even my mother, who was always cold, would not complain on days like these. Instead, she closed her eyes, the better to let the cool air circulate over her eyelids, as her hair swept off her forehead in lacquered arcs.
I knew we were almost there gulls flew overhead, and the land flattened out appreciably, as though some giant hand had smoothed it. The shrubs growing by the side of road grew short and windblown, instead of the trees I was used to, and billboards for motels, restaurants, and Coppertone suntan lotion sprouted on the highway like weeds.
Places to stay at the beach were plentiful, but instead of the giant hotels imperiously fronting the boardwalk or the low-riding motels, with their garish signs, exclaiming “Vacancy! Salt water pool! Color TV!” my thrifty father opted for old boarding houses with worn cane rockers on the front porch. Though we generally had a kitchenette, we would sometimes have to share a bathroom, and the suite, though it was certainly clean, if a bit threadbare, smelled slightly musty.
These places, which would in a dozen years be torn down to make way for the casinos and lavish hotels to come, were bad news for me because they required some blocks walk to the boardwalk, and I was impatient to see the ocean and to feel the wet sand between my toes. But the good thing about this is that if we were far enough away from the beach, we might be able to take a jitney, a small bus, bearing the names of places straight off a Monopoly Board—Park Place, Boardwalk, Oriental Ave..
The Boardwalk assaulted the nostrils well before it met the eye. A thousand odors, many of them pleasant, like the sweetness of cotton candy, the tantalizing lure of roasting peanuts, and the smoke from charbroiling hotdogs, mingled and met with the suspect hint of cigar smoke, half empty beer cans, and sewage. Hundreds of people traveled the boards by foot and by the small, half-moon shaped wicker conveyances, topped by fringed sunshades, that I have seen no other place since, a relic of the good old days of my grandmother, when Atlantic City was the exclusive haunt of rich Philadelphians, who might otherwise be found promenading in their straw boaters, white linen suits, and long stiff skirts, parasols held high overhead.
All the while, hucksters of various kinds called out their wares. Atlantic City was the home of the original infomercial. The Vitamix, an early blender, produced, in the hands of the salesman demonstrating its healthful benefits, a wonderful drink composed of fruits and vegetables. However, once we took the blender home, the best we could do was to produce a noxious sludge the color of a bad bruise. Half the charm of these items was the amazing sleight of hand the salesmen would demonstrate, calling in the aid of shills in the crowd. Without fail, once my parents took these things home, they would prove disappointing and ineffective and would be consigned to the junk drawer in perpetuity.
The shrine to all things Atlantic City was the amazing Steel Pier. It was a long walk down the boards, but it was worth it to watch the prancing white horse, with its intrepid rider, tricked out in a spangled swimsuit, dive from a platform tottering high overhead into an inadequate and somewhat rickety swimming pool perched on the pier below. And the freak show both repelled and drew me, with its inevitable shrunken mermaids in a jar, two-headed calves, and the obese bearded ladies, looking dreadfully bored, with their multiple chins like untended suburban lawns, sprouting an occasional spiky tuft, consuming frozen custard cones in the shade.
But I still hadn’t dipped my toes into the ocean. Truthfully, the beach at Atlantic City is no great shakes. I have seen many other far more beautiful shorelines in Massachusetts, Florida, California, Oregon, and Baja California since then, but for me as a child, with nothing to compare it to, this beach was heaven. The wide blue sky, full of looping skywriters trailing bright advertising banners, stretched out above me as I lay baking on the scratchy brown sand, where one might, with a little effort, unearth coins, rings, and other untold treasures and trash (including used hypodermic needles and condoms).
The sea, with its unpredictable moods, met this blue field of sky at a line I imagined as accessible to the surf skimmers and riders who, unlike me, the non-swimmer, strode and bobbed purposefully into the waves toward the farthest buoys. My father, hairy and smiling in his baggy blue bathing trunks, was one of these, and he wanted me to enjoy this pleasure as well, touting salt water as the best remedy for the eternal poison ivy from which we both suffered every summer, so he would scoop me up and throw me into the biggest waves, while my mother, another non-swimmer, wept and begged him to stop it before I drowned. I screamed, half-laughing, half panicking, swallowing water, as the glassy green tunnels closed over my head.
Sometimes, escaping from my father’s eager grasp, I would slip down the strand, in search of an ice cream cone or some other children to play with, trying to keep my parents’ blanket and umbrella within sight. I would line it up with a landmark on the boardwalk, like a particular hotel or restaurant, occasionally glancing back, like Hansel and Gretel leaving their trail of crumbs, but just as with these two unfortunate denizens of the fairytale, when I wanted to head back “home,” the landmarks seemed to have slipped entirely from my sight. I wandered in circles, weeping and calling, trying to spot their umbrella and towels among the thousands exactly like them.
By the time I finally found my parents, the salt water had dried on my skin, leaving it tight and crawly. Sand flies lighted on my legs, biting the tempting calves and feet. It was time to change for supper.
This was perhaps the most embarrassing and unpleasant part of the day. Though I was only a small child, I was not happy about the prospect of stripping out of my bathing suit behind a towel, as my mother pulled the damp, salty mess from my body, wiped me down with cold water and a washcloth, and dried me with another clean towel. The scratchy dried on grains of sand covering every inch of my body would scrape my legs and back like some form of exotic torture, as the children the next blanket over would smirk at me smugly. Though I squirmed and whined, my mother remained undeterred, and soon I was clean and dry again, ready to go eat dinner on the boardwalk.
Going out to eat for our family was a very momentous and rare event. My parents seldom splurged on restaurants, believing that home food was best, as well as cheapest. We always traveled with the same safe and boring roast beef sandwiches and watery salad mom made for us at home. So when my parents deigned to go to a seafood restaurant, since after all, we WERE at the beach, where the fish was bound to be fresh, it was something special. Though I was small and extremely skinny, I had a very large appetite, especially after a day of playing on the beach.
One particular time, the forbidden, and because of that attractive, shrimp and scallop plate, breaded and fried and piled atop a greasy sheaf of French fries, looked good to me, so I begged and begged my parents to order it. Although they could hardly claim to keep Kosher at home or anywhere else, they still felt queasy about me ordering such flagrant treif. But they relented, and even nibbled a bit themselves, admitting that the shellfish tasted rather nice, but stuck to good old cod or flounder for themselves, no different than mom would have fixed at home.
For me, vacations have always been about doing something out of the ordinary, seeing new sights and people, eating new foods. But for my parents, who had traveled the world before I was born, this novelty apparently held little charm. The idea for them was to make one’s temporary digs as much like the home they had left as they could. For this reason, they packed enormous amounts of things— beach bags, towels, clothes, pots and pans, food, and other goods they found to be necessary. There was always so much of this stuff in the car that I could barely be packed myself into a tiny square of seat, unable to move my legs. Though I always wanted to bring a friend with us on vacation, it would have been impossible to fit anyone else into that car.
We spent evenings on the Boardwalk, where the salt water taffy looped in unending pastel parabolas, and snacks on a stick beckoned from every storefront. Since I was already full, what spoke to me most was the gigantic stuffed animals on offer at the games of chance, where, for a quarter, one could attempt to toss a half dozen ping pong balls into a far off bucket in an effort to win a prize. For the most part, my father forbade such gambling, admonishing me each time with tales of my notorious great-grandfather, who, he claimed, had lost the family farm playing poker, leaving his family homeless.
To reinforce the lesson, we would always stop at the spectacular toy store on the boardwalk, its show windows full of stuffed animals of every description, a cadre of creatures arranged around a synthetic waterhole: a nearly life-size Stegosaurus, an antelope, and two exceedingly realistic lions, resting by a stuffed palm. Magnanimously, he would allow me to pick out a stuffed animal (though not a tremendously large one—where, after all, would we put it?), and this generally silenced my pleas. It is worth noting that years later, my father bought a lottery ticket every day, breaking his own rules, nothing if not inconsistent.
Finally, we tired of eating, walking, looking, our senses frayed. Beneath a featureless silver moon, the ocean, as full of phosphorescent sparks as the night sky, thundered and thudded. We sat on a bench, silent, sated, satisfied with our day at the beach, a brief escape from the city’s heat.