You can take the girl out of Atlantic City, but you can’t take Atlantic City out of the girl. No matter how far I get from the beach, there’s always sand between my toes and a damp, icky feeling in my hair. Nearly every summer weekend since FDR’s third term, I have gotten sticky in Atlantic City.
Whenever I walk along the hard sand at the edge of the water, I remember squeezing my parents’ big, comforting hands for protection against ominous green waves. I knew the breakers rolled deliberately just to swallow me up.
When I apply SPF 30, I remember sitting on an itchy brown blanket as Daddy gently rubbed oil on my back and shoulders.
I never had to beg Daddy to build drip castles with bridges. He never tired of digging to China for cool, wet sand, grabbing clumps, letting the water ooze out and dripping neatly on the top of the turret.
I remember the endless drive down the White Horse Pike in the back of Daddy’s convertible. My sister and I lay on the car’s rear floor singing Halo commercials. As we hit the causeway over the marshes, the briny smell of ocean filled our lungs and announced our arrival.
Nearly every block on the island holds a memory as sharp as a splinter from the Boardwalk. The gabled house we rented with five other families and the attic room I shared with pigeons. The corner where my 10th-grade flame, Arthur, hawked newspapers during the Miss America parade; he was prettier than Miss Michigan.
The playground where my great-aunt Bess, then about 60, threw up after twirling too fast on the kids’ merry-go-round. The musty motel with broken air conditioning where I stayed when I introduced my sons to the beach.
When Philadelphians frequent Atlantic City, we go “down the shore.” For us, the beach is the sandy part and the ocean has the waves. If you don’t know the language, you’re branding yourself a “shooby”: a day-tripper who packs a lunch, a loud radio and a change of clothes, all in a shoe box. Every season, some local graffiti artist scrawls SHOOBY GO HOME on a bulkhead.
Geographically Atlantic City is on Absecon Island, like all the other islands along the upper Atlantic coast in some ways, and unique in other ways. Like its New Jersey neighbors, this island has smoother, finer, whiter sand than beaches in Maine, Maui or Monaco.
On my beach, the sand is fine enough to fashion the laciest castles. Soft enough to turn volleyball games into slow-motion dreams. Grainy enough to make peanut butter sandwiches extra crunchy.
My naïve childish pleasure in the warmth has given way to an adult awareness that beaches need protection from real estate developers and chemical wastes.
Still, we introduce our children to our own addictions. If we love the beach, we schlep strollers, playpens, diapers. We know that sand eventually disappears down the bathtub drain, and children become huggable again.
Each summer I watch a father introduce a toddler to the waves. He carries the child to the brink of the water, whispering, perhaps, stories of heroic marine battles. He puts her down, teetering and unsteady, on dry land.
Predictably, reliably, water rushes up to meet the little feet, which don’t move. She looks up at daddy, eyes showing panic, silently asking, “What now?” The water retreats, and the toddler pats the drying sand. The water returns.
Within minutes, the child forgets her father, slapping the waves with her clumsy fists, squealing pleasure. Next time she ventures deeper. Soon she’ll teach her baby brother, and eventually her own children, to greet the ocean on its own terms.
For millions of Americans, the grit of the sand and the glitter of Miss America never fade. Honky-tonk? Yes, but with its own unique flavor, its own smells and sounds and sights.
No, no you can’t take that away from me.
Contact Susan at her website, www.writerphiladelphia.com.