Wednesday, April 13, 2011

St. James Place

From my earliest memories to my mid twenties, I was granted entry to a fantastical world. It was a magical place of unexpected smells and sounds and tastes. It was a city of majesty and poverty that never slept. People from all over the world, speaking dozens of tongues, flocked to its streets and hotels. It ran along the Atlantic Ocean on a sandbar island with three piers that jutted out into frothy, green waters. A boardwalk ran along its white beach for seven miles, where stores sold salt water taffy in little, silver boxes shaped like suitcases and mile long hot dogs from Coney Island. Men, down on their luck, pushed the wealthy in tall, wicker, rolling chairs along two smooth sections of the boardwalk, singing out, "Watch d' chair! Watch d' chair!" Undershirted men toting heavy white cases with worn, leather, shoulder straps tramped along the beach during the day, shouting, " I've got yer Eskimo Pies. I've got yer Fudgie Wudgies. Ice cream. Come and get yer ice cream!" Boys with blue change aprons and newspapers under their arms, called out, "Read all about Frank Sinatra. Read all about Frank Sinatra," regardless of the day's news. Burly life guards sat in tall white, wooden chairs or stood by long white row boats trimmed in red and black, scanning the thousands of bathers who jammed the surf. The ocean never stopped moving, and the tide of tourists who washed into Atlantic City, New Jersey, during those 20+ years never stopped, as well.

I was not a tourist. That was an important distinction to me. My grandfather, Pop Comey, emigrated to Atlantic City from West Philadelphia before I was born. He lived on St. James Place, between New York and S. Tennessee Avenues, in a cooperative apartment house. It was just a stone's throw from the ramp to the boardwalk. He and my grandmother owned their narrow, first floor apartment, with a porch that was only four steps up from the never-ending stream of people who passed from Pacific Avenue to the Boardwalk. Just down on the right was Feeley's, an Irish bar that enjoyed melancholy singing in the wee hours of the morning that my two brothers and I could hear when its door opened and closed. Down the other end of the street, and just up Pacific Avenue, was St. Nicholas Tolentine Church, where my grandfather was an usher. The church was built in 1855. The island became Atlantic City in 1854. There was history deeply embedded in the sand in Atlantic City, and I considered myself part of it.

Every night, throughout the summers, my two brothers and I explored every foot of the boardwalk. We knew the cheapest place to get a soda (the last store heading to Captain Starn's at the inlet - five cents and 40 varieties). We stalked the demonstration vendors where pitchmen hawked spring loaded choppers that every woman needed for her kitchen. They always had food items left over and gave them away. (Ed McMahon of Johnny Carson fame was the regular at the corner of St. James boardwalk.) We knew when the peanuts had just been roasted at Planters Peanuts, just across from Steel Pier, and when the Belgian Waffles were on sale at Woolworth's, at the corner of New York Avenue. We knew the best water games to play on Million Dollar Pier and who were the honest carnies. (Charles Burchinsky - later known as Charles Bronson - worked these same games in the 1950s.) And we haunted the Italian Village in the rear of Million Dollar Pier.

It was always a carnival in the Italian Village, a roof covered section at the rear of the pier that stood thirty feet above the ocean. Glassblowers spun liquid glass into fragile, tiny animals. Men with thick arms and hairy chests pounded their fists on white dough to make pizza pie. Huge sausages and cheeses with strong smells hung near posters of Rome and Milano. Small cafes served hoagies, pepper and egg sandwiches, Nepolitan ice cream, and shaved water ices with real chunks of lemon and orange. Espresso simmered in tall chrome percolators. Mario Lanza's voice echoed nonstop in Italian and English.

We couldn't afford to buy anything in the Italian Village. We often started the night with 25 cents each. My older brother would blow his money in the first half hour in the arcade on Garden Pier. He enjoyed pinball and was especially good in shooting a bear that would roar when you hit it with a shot of light and then change direction. My younger brother would eat his way quickly through his money. Me? I had two passions. Comic books (especially Classic Comic books) and the incredible parade of people every night. Conventions were popular and changed every week. One week it was men wearing fezzes decorated with black tassels and silver, crescent swords. The next week it was the Knights of Columbus with sashes and plumes. Masons and Elks and Kawainis clubs from every state in the union proudly strutted their finery among the mass of adults and children.

We usually walked up to Convention Hall where Miss America was crowned each September, and then all the way back to the cheapest soda place, and then, on weary legs, back to St. James Place. When I returned home, I usually had a new comic, a dime left over, and a tapestry of voices and faces in my head from the strangers I had been following for blocks, before they turned off into a store or a street. Often I could not understand a word they had been saying as I strolled only a foot or so behind them. I suspected what part of Canada or Europe or Asia they were from, but I could never know. I guessed their occupations and socio-economic ranges but I could never be sure. But I was always pretty certain if they were happy or not. If they were interested in the people that were by their side. If they loved their children and their partner. Years later, I would study Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) that taught me how humans mirror behavior and establish rapport and adjust their voice and tone with those they enjoy. It made me remember three little guys who were blessed to have a boardwalk and a street named St. James Place where they could discover a fantastical world each and every night.

Note: St. James Place is located between Pennsylvania Railroad and Community Chest in Monopoly, the Parker Brothers' board game based on Atlantic City properties and utilities.

Copyright (c) 2011 by James Hugh Comey

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