Passing Trains

Short Stories... All Aboard!


Atlantic City

Looking back, I couldn’t have asked for more. It was July 1st, and we were in Atlantic City. I wanted to say “fabulous” Atlantic City, but the superlatives blew town after that blue-eyed blonde winked from the TV, “Hi, I’m Mimi, fly me to Miami!”

It was 1967. We rented a second floor double room on Mississippi Avenue, five blocks west of the ocean. Although I was fairly bright, it took a few fair days to associate Atlantic City’s streets with Parker Brothers’ Monopoly – the game years earlier I’d rarely lost, especially since we played by my free-wheeling interpretation of the rules. I moved my hotels, for example, from purple Baltic to blue Connecticut to orange Tennessee before each and every dice roll, which usually resulted in bankrupting my 6-year-old brother before he finished his popcorn. (Okay, I wasn’t so bright, back then…)

Charlie and me had covered a lot of road and jobs during the months before we carried our two bags up the warped staircases on Mississippi. We had been to “Expo ‘67” in Montreal where we worked the Russian Pavilion out on the St. Laurence River, for about 20 minutes, then slipped out between serving caviar-in-borscht appetizers -- to go hustle pool. Next we were on the tip of Long Island tossing table-side Caesar salads, that is, until we slipped out to go hustle pool. Then it was a lobster joint in Huntington Harbor (Long Island) called “The Mooring”, and if I remember correctly, we worked nearly two full shifts before we drove into Manhattan -- to go hustle pool.

From our view on Mississippi, we could see the others like ours, rooms in long, white clapboard structures facing each other two short steps and one popping nail from abject poverty. Aside from the worn furniture and termite-scarred head-boards, our corner room had long shear curtains, apparently left over from the grand hotels now sitting one decibel from abject silence along the Boardwalk. Yet, the curtains still flowed as light snow on a soft ocean breeze. So, I won’t discount our Mississippi rooming house too much, since altogether it had history and character above and below its threadbare rugs and rusted tubs.  Who knows who stayed there, or had slept in our beds? Maybe two friends like us, two vagabond waiters prone to hustling pool, two friends lucky to still have the shirts on their backs.

As usual, we had about enough cash to pay a little rent plus a few meals, so it was off to bed dark and late to be up for dinner the next night. The blessings of youthful bright brains, not to worry too much, or hardly ever. A job or sucker was always waiting, in every city and every town, so after a good rest we’d choose one or the other. And what a peaceful sleep it was, windows wide open, curtains riding angels on white silk, and the smell of ocean coming in on giant white surf, then seemingly cresting right beneath our beds. Old or young, you would have slept as well.

When next day got underway, we walked east on Mississippi Avenue looking for which or what to do. Along the way we paused at the third corner because Charlie had noticed people riding in bread trucks. Actually, there seemed to be an awfully lot of people riding in bread trucks, so we stood there silently applying our bright brains to this Parker-City puzzle. Top hats, irons, even shoes, but why in Atlantic City did they seem to prefer bread trucks? Yet complex puzzles often reveal simple answers, like bread trucks converted into jitneys, 12 seats for 12 racks, and one American quarter to travel the board north or south, pier to Steel Pier.


Yet, this little story is not about mass transit, but rather and mostly about friends. Charlie was someone I knew almost from the start. We had met not a year earlier, although we moved as if we had been together since birth. We were exactly equal, although our backgrounds had only a little in common. Common, for example, was the game of pool, eating and sleeping, two years apart, and that’s about it. Otherwise, Charlie grew up an orphan, and in so many foster homes he only recalled them vaguely and seldom. He had never learned that he could do many things well, and some things astonishingly well. Yet, what I found most admirable about Charlie was his ability to handle the worst of fate, to chalk it off, then move on. Every turn had its potential for success, and he was determined that no force or man could keep him under.

And I think if it were he and not me now writing this down, he would also say good and nice things about me. Isn’t that what friends are, who see each other walking in the sun, the wrong of rain gone under the bow?

Yet, not everyone thought so highly of my traveling companion, especially when facing him across a pool table. No, Charlie wasn’t the greatest pool hustler who ever lived, but there were occasions when he came pretty close – maybe even close enough that he was there. In the pool room, Charlie was the definition of confidence tinged by simmering contempt. To him, his opponents were lower than worms from a Calcutta sewer, and he had the knack of conveying this attitude, especially when an opponent had ability. “Sucker” was his favorite pool parlor word, and around the felt tables everyone (except him and me) was a sucker. So, put yourself in their position, after barely missing a difficult shot, hearing Charlie announce in his low clear voice, “sucker”. Now put yourself in Charlie’s position, when after enough “suckers”, your life is suddenly in your hands. 

We didn’t play pool night and day, however, for two reasons. First; he and me didn’t always win. Second; if we weren’t always the best hot-shot pool players, we were the best waiters. And that was “my” job, the “job getter”, the fast talker, the courteous and deferential applicant, the kneeling supplicant – but mostly, “If you want the best waiters on the face of this earth, hire us.” (“If not, you’re just another s-u-c-k-e-r!)


If you’ve never been to Atlantic City, let me tell you what me and Charlie saw. First is “The Boardwalk”, as wide as a four lane highway. This is where Atlantic City lives, where everyone walks at least once a day and twice at night. Up and down, stores and shops, cotton candy and salt water taffy, fortune tellers and bikini sellers, convention center to roller coaster rides on the Steel Pier. A giant herring-bone of wood over sand, and beach towels, umbrellas, and the kiddy’s red pails floating out on the Atlantic tides. Peddle and motorized chairs carried the extravagant or exhausted, because to walk a “few” boards might mean miles when you returned to pass GO. Yes, there was little not to like about Atlantic City, so I couldn’t quite understand why anyone would fly “Mimi to Miami!”

The Boardwalk was also summer home to some of the world’s more accomplished flim-flammers, and to think, the casinos were still years away. One of my favorite spectator boardwalk scams was the “auction house”, store-front gadget and faux art emporiums set up as if you could bid a bargain, make a score, grab the whole bag. Out front was a barker, a free market evangelist with a Moses-like voice who would lure the fish in, promise anything, anything at all to push them into his con man’s church. Some were true master casters, too, so much so no jury would consider a conviction. If anything, our “Moses” left the courtroom as the jury’s long-lost and just-saved victim, a simple man of the disappearing cloth, fallen in with the devil by the temporary insanity of ignorance. “We the jury find the PLAINTIFF guilty, guilty of attempting to take this poor defendant, this poor Godly man to the cleaners!” “But you Honor, I paid $78 for this $6 toaster, and look at this Oriental rug, it turned my white pants maroon!”

It wasn’t the shoddy merchandise that amused me, or the bait-and-switch right under their noses, but rather the way it was done. You see, the barker needed only a few “fish”, although many more seemed to enter. Of the twenty odd people sitting in the folding chairs waiting for the “auction” to begin, up to 15 of them were shills – people dressed up as tourists or honeymooning couples who bid up the price of a $4 gadget until the fish bit down on the $86 hook -- line, and stinker. Call it the madness of crowds, even small crowds, when everyone catches the fervor, joins the wave, raises a riot, or in this case, the bid. And it worked every time, start to finish each half night-time hour, one right after the other, shills running from auction to auction – until finally there was hardly a $99 toaster or $800 Hoboken rug left to sell.

Sometimes Charlie and I wondered about all this Atlantic City action, and why at times it seemed to be the center of the flim-flam universe. Of course, not everyone was up to no good, but compared to other places we’d been, this town nearly took the low-down cake. Only Times Square was worse, but arguably because it didn’t have surf and salt water taffy. Maybe that’s why we liked it so much, because it was almost “home”, with a view. Yes Sir, there’s nothing like the ocean to make good men bad, middle men worse, and Catholic girls hookers. 

But who were we to talk, two piranhas of pool, two hustlers let loose in a place where no one could hold a stick. The boardwalk hosted billiard parlors, and the busiest one was on the boardwalk-side of a bowling alley. Not so unusual either, cue balls mixed with bowling balls, except that in Atlantic City their doors faced to ocean; leaning on a felt table was like leaning on a sponge, and if you added a taught string to any one of their cue sticks, you could shoot arrows just like that Robin Hood. Even the balls acted water logged, but when they dripped on us, they dripped on them.


For better or worse, Atlantic City had reached the end of it tourist Mecca rope. Its best old days had set with last September’s sun, and in the summer of 1967, seemed determined not to look back. The town had turned ragged around the edges, tattered in the center, even splintered along the walk. Oh, there were lots of people still coming to swim and stroll the boards, but the biggest hotels sat like dying giants gasping for a last breath of salt air. Their skeleton staffs were dreaming of Mimi-in-Miami, while eight, maybe ten guests sunned on 300 lounge chairs, and two, maybe three kids played in the whale-size pool. The upper class had moved out, and the us-class moved in. Atlantic City had once been the greatest show on earth, the vacation spot dreamed from the Grand Concourse to Liberty Bell Lane. Kids had talked excited in school about this ninth wonder of the world, and the only place to go after Communion or bar mitzvah. To their parents, just walking the Boardwalk was the sign of coming fortune or current success. Best hotel or side street room, Atlantic City had been the coliseum of Rome and the odyssey of Greece. Yet, what had lasted so long, was now shortly gone.

Paradise was not lost entirely, however, because July roads from Trenton to Philadelphia still led like slippery off-ramps to the mythical Boardwalk shore. And they said you could jam 50,000 people into the Atlantic City convention center, which was also home to the world’s largest organ. Did they say “organ”? Well, I certainly wasn’t going to pass-up this bit of key-side trivia. Yet, some days Charlie was not as bold, so he waited safe out on the Boardwalk to watch me being carted off to jail. For his momentary lack of faith, I rocked the massive hall to Beethoven’s 5th (key of P-pseudo), at full organ volume until the convention doors blew open. In these situations, however, one must play fast, and don’t wait around for the applause – or handcuffs.


My first night on the floor at Alfred’s Villa was a less risky success, and Mr. and Mrs. Alfred couldn’t have been happier than two grapes in Greece. Their joy also gave me the opportunity to sing Charlie’s praises; “If you think I’m good, wait’ll ya see my partner!” Thus, the following night Charlie and I brought the house down with our concert in trays. No, I’m not boasting; on the dinning room stage, we were the best. 

It was then we decided to “go straight”, to work every meal -- breakfast, lunch, and dinner. By the end of our first Atlantic City week we had all our tables covered; morning through noon at the nearby and new Holiday Inn, evenings at the “Villa”. We’d only play pool when they gave us a day off, and then only for “fun”. We had had some wild idea about joining the middle class, opening a fish’n’chips, buying new cars, then marrying two all-American girls. We’d sit in front of our Boardwalk business and just pick out the beauty we wanted, and her twin. Young men being men, it’s the best way to shop, before we went to “Moses” to bid for her 5 carat ring. And if you think the girls today are something, you should have been with us back then!

As a matter of fact, that’s exactly when we noticed a lot of beautiful girls walking every street and alley in Atlantic City. And when we found out why, it had nothing to do with us or our future fish’n’chips empire. No, all the beautiful girls were in town for the annual AMA convention. They had arrived to service the 50,000 doctors, who in their sterilized oath, were just like soldiers out buying their first date. Almost overnight there were as many hookers as doctors, possibly more. Suddenly the bread trucks started smelling like Five’n’Dime #5, although even the sudden gallons of American beauty perfume couldn’t overwhelm the sea’s Atlantic City air. 

The night after our first Atlantic City sleep, and having mastered the appearing bread trucks, I got to work. According to several Boardwalk experts, the two best restaurants in Atlantic City were the “Knife & Fork” and “Alfred’s Villa”. They said that the latter, however, never hired “waiters”-- only waitresses. But since the Knife & Fork was meat and potatoes, and Alfred’s, Italian, the choice was simple.

Mrs. Alfred was a kind, lovely lady, but like I had been warned, she said, “I’m sorry, we don’t hire…uh, we don’t need any service help at the moment.” Her and her husband’s restaurant had been converted years ago from a large, well built house, and since then dinner had been served right up to its attic third floor. So, as Mrs. Alfred and I sat on the one-of-a-kind Neapolitan couch in her ‘Villa foyer -- discussing who and why she doesn’t hire, I couldn’t help noticing a waitress struggling up the stairs with a half loaded tray. By the third step she was listing 55 degrees starboard, and her tray was teetering 90 degrees aft. In the background Enrico Caruso was at the peak of his 78rpm vinyl aria, when it looked like the tray-girl was going to come crashing down under the weight of Enrico’s veal parmesan, a fact even the suddenly wincing Mrs. Alfred duly noticed. “Mrs. Alfred, by the time your waitress makes it up those stairs, that is, if she makes it up at all, I could have served twice as many dinners and been back down to the kitchen for twenty more.” 

I was the first waiter hired since the year she and her husband had originally opened – back when every waiter either came to work drunk or not at all. But, “The Prince” had taught me about the means, and the means of my assurances justified my ends. Nonetheless, I for once felt guilty about selling my high pressure line, because Mrs. Alfred was a kind and lovely person. I was taking advantage, I thought later, not because I was at that moment unseen in my skill – but rather because my life was too often ruled by the wind. Oh, what sinners doth God make, but for us God also created the wind.

© 1997/2017 David M. Molloy


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