I hadn’t been back to my hometown in over 30 years, so everyone is asking me “how was Atlantic City?”
This was after Rita and I had visited there one chilly late October weekend. Keep in mind, we’re from sunny, Boca Raton, Florida, so chilly for us is anything under 80 degrees and there it’s brrr, high 50’s.
This homecoming was going to be a joyous occasion, yet perhaps a bit tense with a trace of drama or trauma. A somewhat sobering weekend was in store as I was there to meet for the first time, my daughter Robin.
As if that weren’t enough, we were also going to celebrate my son Andrew’s birthday. As far as I know, Andrew is my only son, but you never know these days with all these ancestry DNA tests what’s going to pop up and you’ll hear someone say to you “Hi dad, tests show you’re my pop.”
I had only learned a few months ago that I was Robin’s biological pop-up dad resulting from a relationship with a charming girlfriend I had back in late 1950’s. She and I were playfully-active students educating our hormones at that sex emporium, Atlantic City High School.
So Rita and I flew into the once heralded World’s Playground, home to rolling chairs on an endless boardwalk, James and Fralingers saltwater taffy and the mighty Steel Pier, but not so mighty anymore.
Yet it was once “The Showplace of the Nation” featuring the diving horse until it was seen as cruelty to animals and to the Miss America Pageant that had to drop its famous swimsuit competition after women protesters in the late 1960’s called it a “cattle auction.”
We collected our one checked bag at Atlantic City International Airport, then darted out of the building splattered with billboards, one advertising “Same Day Joint Replacements.”
We hurry to our Jitney, those mini-busses that used to ferry people up and down Pacific Avenue when I was growing up not far from the blue properties, Boardwalk and Park Place. Oh how you’d love to have hotels on them waiting to charge astronomical rents to hapless opponents who landed on one of them in what was then our generation’s Game of Thrones, the boardgame, Monopoly.
So, we jitney to our hotel, the splashy Hard Rock, which was once Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal until it went bankrupt, but since has come roaring back and is now one of the hottest casinos in town.
On the way, we pass some landmarks in my life. One is Atlantic City Hospital where Andrew and my daughter Adrienne were both born in the Frank Sinatra Wing. It reminds me of Robert Goulet singing “Atlantic City My Old Friend” to Susan Sarandon in the film Atlantic City while she’s in a phone booth in the hospital frantically trying to call the parents of her estranged husband who was just murdered. There were no cell phones then, just great actors.
The film also stars Burt Lancaster, who my high school sweetheart Eileen, Robin’s mother, dated, along with other celebrities she hung out with and some she lived with until she died, including the vitriolic stand-up comic and social critic Lenny Bruce.
I recall in the movie Susan Sarandon each night after working in the seamy casino serving shellfish, she would counter the fishy smell by sensually stroking her luscious breasts with lemon juice while across the way Lancaster would leer at her through his window lustfully.
I remembered Eileen’s beautiful breasts. How could she have gone out of town and secretly had a child whom she gave up for adoption at birth without me knowing a thing about it? Me, the biological father!
But now it’s out of the closet where it had been hiding so many years. My oldest daughter Angela looked at the data from Robin’s DNA test and told me, “Dad, it shows pretty conclusively you’re her biological father.” And now, heaven help me, I’m about to meet her.
Then we pass St. Nick’s Catholic Church where I would drive the nuns nuts with my antics and a compulsive need to entertain my classmates.
My dad was an entertainer too, a violinist, and my mom was forever shushing me when he practiced. So, I grew up mad at Mendelsohn and Brahms who kept my dad from playing ball with me like other dads did with their kids.
I’d go to school with a kind of chip on my shoulder from my dad’s ever worrying about injuring his precious fingers. He was not only a concert violinist, but he conducted The Atlantic City Festival Orchestra. Each night he led a salon orchestra at the Traymore Hotel near where we lived on Bellfield Avenue between two of the oddest bedfellow streets, Kentucky and New York.
Driving by good ole St. Nick, we see a bride and groom having their picture taken on the church steps. Close by is a disheveled drunk sound asleep on one of the steps. Oddly, it made me feel at home again in the world’s playground.
I couldn’t help wondering how I would greet my new daughter, how tightly would I hug her. Kiss her on the cheek? Here was I at my only (I hope) son’s birthday, with my new Brazilian wife beside me in this made-over, flashy, noisy, jumping guitar-swinging city, now an unrecognizable seaside casino resort, profoundly face lifted from what I remember growing up, but still bubbling with memories, waves of them breaking against me at the Hard Rock.
So where was I for this momentous occasion? Sing it Dick Haymes:
. . . there where the saltwater air
brings out a lady’s charm . . .
in romantic, enchanting, Atlantic City,
down on the old New Jersey Shore.
(Part two tomorrow)