Note from Amy: The following is an excerpt from my memoir, “Honey.”
Mother had given me the precious photograph, and I lost it. Many things disappear from the life of a gypsy. Mother remarked she had used up an entire page of her address book just for me.
The photograph was long gone. Maybe that’s why the image became more fixed in my mind. I had memorized the direction of the light and the perspective of the buildings. Each figure stayed in perfect position. The colors remained vivid, the water and sky, forever blue, balancing the warm tones of flesh and wood. Some of the details were hard-edged and crystal clear, while other aspects remained soft and blurry like an oil painting.
It was taken one year after Daddy died, the summer we stayed at the Duke Hotel in Atlantic City. There were nine of us that day, posing on the boardwalk for an unknown photographer.We had just come off the beach. I know this because my brothers were shirtless and my sister Moogie held a beach towel draped over her arm. Grandma Hannah was there, imploding with age but still spry, clutching an oversized tote bag.
Janet, the eldest sister, stood in the back center, wearing bookish glasses. To her right, stood Rita and Moogie, always a pair. Rita smiled broadly while Moogie looked pensive. My brother Michael had his hands deep in his pockets, skinny arms framing a round boy belly, punctuated by a pop-out belly button. Doris looked shyly at the camera, Mother stood in the back guarding over her brood. Only four years old, and the youngest present, I was placed in front holding my yellow bucket.
Our figures formed an intimate grouping with the exception of Ralph, who stood apart, arms folded across his chest.
It was a rare occasion that Mother was able to scrape up money enough to take us on a holiday. She’d read an advertisement in the Philadelphia Inquirer for the Duke Hotel. It was cheap and boasted of a “chef’s kitchen,” available for the use of the guests. With a large and hungry family to feed, having cooking privileges would save the considerable cost of eating out.
She sent in a deposit of ten dollars and we were officially booked for three days and two nights.
What a leap it was from Gloucester to the Jersey Shore. The air-conditioned bus we boarded was surely a spaceship, for after two short hours, we landed on another planet. A child’s fantasyland, it was better than anything Disney ever concocted. Atlantic City smelled like sugar, tasted of salt, and had more color than the Ben Franklin Five and Ten. It was mermaids and a roaring ocean, sand castles, and the Miss America Pageant.
The boardwalk stretched along the sea for seven long miles. It was lined with shops displaying things we could not buy, but it was enough just to window-shop with hope and lust. Sundries filled the shelves and counters, often bursting out onto the boards as if the stores were too small too contain them. They were silly things made of seashells, weathered wood, and fishing rope. We felt silly ourselves looking at the tacky hats and t-shirts, sunglasses with pink flamingos on them, blow up water toys in the shape of sharks, and little globes containing floating sand instead of snow.
Then came a visit to Fralinger’s Candy store. Surrounded by racks of walnut fudge and coconut macaroons, we filled up simply by breathing in the air. Displays of colorful boxes, loaded with sugar, stacked up to the ceiling and life-size dolls held out trays of goodies. But the star of the show was the taffy machine. A comical robot in action, its mechanical arms gracefully moved back and forth, stretching and pulling thick gooey ropes of pink or yellow salt water taffy in an endless loop of lusciousness. At just the precise moment, when the taffy grew perilously thin in one spot, it circled back on itself, doubling in volume to the size of an anaconda.
If we were lucky, Fralingers gave out free samples that day. Each bite-sized piece of taffy came wrapped in white translucent paper, twirled at both ends like a firecracker.
Eating my special treat, I watched the people go by. Everyone looked happy. Couples held hands, families pushed fat babies in strollers, and kids had cotton candy stuck to their cheeks. Some were lucky enough to get pushed in a rolling chair, their faces grinning out from under a private canopy, the wheels underneath making a bumpity bumpity sound as they rolled across the boards. I accepted this reality completely. It was sweet as the air inside Fralingers. Any darkness in my peripheral vision, any inkling of loss or grief, was nothing more than temporary, like getting a bit of sand in my eye. It hurt of course, but could be rubbed out and washed away, soon forgotten.
The Duke Hotel sat half a block from the ocean, close enough that guests might hear the sound of waves breaking on the beach. It looked impressive from a distance, but aged before our very eyes as we approached, becoming dark and ominous. The kids were unusually quiet, huddled together in the shabbiness of the lobby.
“Oh dear,” said Mother. It was her standard response to troubles both big and small.
Grandma Hannah grumbled in an Irish brogue as she and Mother checked the rooms. They were spacious enough, but decrepit and just plain ugly. Sheets were carefully examined for bed bugs, wooden drawers opened and shut again. The bathrooms looked grim but passed inspection having adequate plumbing and nothing moving.
Next we went downstairs to see the chef’s kitchen. It was a cavernous space smelling of gas and musty furniture. The faint light that managed to pass through the grimy windowpanes illuminated dust particles swirling in the air, but little else. As our eyes adjusted, we spread out, looking in closets and cupboards big enough for a child to hide in. I was tempted, but instead imitated the grownups, peering into corners, although I wasn’t sure what we were looking for.
The kitchen had three restaurant stoves, black and crusty. They were built for giants. Twelve empty tables sat adjacent, each covered with oilcloth, an artifact of the glory days. At the far end of the room sat eight refrigerators.
“It’s monstrous,” Mother said in a whisper. She didn’t want to insult the hostess.
“We’ll keep our milk and juice in one of those iceboxes,” said Grandma Hannah. “And we can always boil eggs. That’s safe enough.”
I was relieved to see Mother nod in agreement. I liked it there. Maybe it was creepy but that made it all the more thrilling. It was my first hotel. And it belonged to a Duke.
The next morning, we left early and headed for the world famous Steel Pier. Named after the girders that made it indestructible, the Pier was a half-mile stretch of pure pleasure jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. Everything was included in the price of admission and everything included a lot.
At the Music Hall, we saw Tony Grants “Stars of Tomorrow” with act after act of child singers and actors. I wanted to be on stage so badly, I thought I’d die. We all did. When we heard the Chordettes sing “Mr. Sandman.” The teenagers went nuts.
There were amusement rides, games, movies, and six fun houses. We sat inside a diving bell that sank straight down to the ocean floor where sea creatures stared at us through the windows and we stared right back. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, we made our way to the Thrill Circus at the very end of the pier.
A big crowd had gathered. I felt the excitement, the anticipation, and something else I couldn’t quite identify. It was nervousness.
A horse and rider made a dramatic entrance and a great cheer went up. The female rider waved at us and her horse pranced around a bit letting us get a good look at him. Then they started climbing an enormously steep ramp. At the very top was a tiny platform and directly underneath, an equally tiny swimming pool, the kind our neighbors might have in their back yard. I couldn’t believe it. That horse and that lady were about to do the high dive.
Ungracefully, they continued lurching upward. The horse did not look all that gung-ho to me. Arriving at the top, he ever so slightly placed his hooves on the edge of the platform and just stood there. I felt bad for him. No one in their right mind would willingly do such a thing.
We held our breath.
The descent took only a moment. They jumped as one, plummeting with unnatural gravity. The brave horse kept his nose down, the rider’s body pasted against his. The splash they created was impressive and water continued to roll over the sides of the pool long after they landed, standing triumphantly in the center, alive.