Every time I go north I am reminded of the impact of sustained wealth. Atlantic City has seen much better days, but it is still so commercialized. Generation after generation have come here, spent money, and returned every summer. This is why there are towering multi-story casinos and a lengthy boardwalk designed for people to walk along, eager to buy fast food and cheap souvenirs. This is a state and a region without a Civil War to wipe out its wealth, and without a Great Depression to destroy whatever new wealth it had painstakingly begun to build back. It wasn’t until the Post-World War II Bulldozer Revolution, as it is called, that the South began to even begin to economically catch up to the rest of the nation. The effect has always seemed unfair to me and tragic.
Perhaps what I am also experiencing is a bit of culture shock. I grew up going to Gulf Shores, Alabama, which seems almost primitive by comparison. There, the beaches are pristine and white. The water is exceptionally warm, almost bathtub temperature, compared to the cold, rough Atlantic. Everyone knows to eat the best southern breakfast buffet at approximately one restaurant, Hazel’s Nook. There are no casinos, but I have marked the rise and fall of high-rise condos built during the course of my life. Their progression is darkly comical in a way. Hurricanes come through, destroy large swaths of coastline, but immediately following the recovery, it is once again time to build again. Pictures on the walls at the handful of restaurants open for business invariably show pictures taken immediately after the latest storm to come through. A Hurricane named Frederic arrived a year before I was born and created considerable damage, but the collective memory of its carnage is shrinking. More people nowadays remember Hurricane Ivan, which came ashore in 2004.
The immediate city features a paltry two or three grocery stores. Hotels and motels, should you not own your own condo suite or rent one along the shore, are not nearly so profuse. But no one complains. Of course, there is no gambling, unless one means a quick jaunt across the state line into Florida to play the lottery. I myself enjoy driving down to Fort Morgan to see Spanish Moss hanging from the trees. And along the way I take a stop by my Grandmother’s old house, even though she has not lived there in over a decade, nor has been alive for eight years’ time. Crowds materialize once I reach a mile or two from the water’s edge, but they seem manageable by contrast. State Route 59 South is an exceedingly quaint thoroughfare leading directly to the beach, and purist as I am sometimes, I lament the latest business that adds to the clutter. In Atlantic City, clutter is just part of the deal.
When I come to places like these, I recognize I don’t do a good job of seeking that of God in everyone. Defensively, I seek ways sometimes to feel smugly superior, bolstering my own self-esteem. A world of bad tattoos and swimsuit size challenged individuals tries my patience and my tolerance. Yet I try again, and again, and again. My mind returns to childhood visits on weekends to see my working class, trailer-dwelling relatives. The discomfort I felt then is the discomfort I feel now.
I return to the present.
One of my most enduring writing influences is O.Henry. Some may remember him best as the short story writer known for the twist ending, a plot device he popularized. Writing at the turn of the last century, I know that several of his stories were based in Atlantic City. I wonder what he’d write about this quirky, gaudy spectacle now. During film classes in college, I remember silent two-reelers of people walking down the boardwalk, women in sundresses and parasols, men with derby hats and canes. Those days are long gone. I long for the quiet and relative peace of that time.
As I walk down the boardwalk or thread a needle through at least four similarly confusing casinos, I wonder about the stories of the people collected here. O.Henry made seemingly banal human interactions interesting, relating situations he no doubt observed himself. Sometimes I’m inclined to be a fly on the wall. Sometimes I’ve found interest in being the inadvertent voyeur. But not today, for some reason. Something about the energy and the nature of the people who stream by me prevents introspection.
Writers tend to be an introverted, observing sort of people. If we were too involved in the action, how would we set the stage? I’m interested in what came before and what lies unspoken underneath the surface. I’ve also read the now-famous book about Highly Sensitive People and find that the label fits me well. If this entire city wasn’t quite so overwhelming, I think I’d have more insight to add. For all my powers of perception, the alien nature of this town frustrates metaphor and stifles comparison. Moreover, I keep bumping into huge packs of teenage girls and boys seeking to assuage their boredom, no doubt left to their own devices while their parents gamble away for hours. The practice appears irresponsible somehow in this context, filtered through a lens of permissive sleaze that permeates everything. Cultural snob that I am, gambling is a plebeian distraction and one in which I simply cannot understand the appeal. Nor do I understand this strange little city.