I’m from Atlantic City. A Jersey Shore town and a casino city. The boardwalk stretches 5 miles along the Atlantic Ocean. Casinos line the boardwalk.
From ages 7 to 9, I lived uptown in the south inlet on Rhode Island Avenue, a block away from the boardwalk. It was the ’hood. The section of the boardwalk in our area was rundown, dangerous — and, of course, neglected.
Those early years of my life were the most exciting. I lived so close to the boardwalk that I spent most days there. Some days I’d fish off of the jetties; other days I’d be in and out of the ocean.
Sometimes my mom would spend a day searching the neighborhood for me. When I’d return home, she’d ask where I had been. I’d say I was on the boardwalk fishing and looking for shells.
Truth was: I wasn’t into shells. And fishing was only a sometimes thing. I was attracted to the lights.
An Explorer’s Spirit
The Showboat hotel and casino loomed over my neighborhood like “The World Is Yours” blimp from “Scarface.” My friends and I would enter the casino through the boardwalk entrance. The ambiance was steeped in money. The slot machines were constantly ringing.
Our intentions were to hit the fountains, grab the change and hit the arcade. We hardly ever made it to the wishing wells in those days, let alone the arcade. As soon as we hit the casino floor, security was on our heels.
Likewise, the security guards in the adjacent Trump Taj Mahal would be waiting on us as we passed through, knocking over chairs in our wake.
We made fun out of getting chased through and around the casinos. We had to be doubly careful, because we didn’t want to be noticed by a family member who worked there or be caught by security. We got lost so much. One door might lead to a ballroom or an elegant restaurant. Another door might lead to Pacific Avenue, which was fast and scary.
I noticed we were treated worse than the white boys. They roamed the casinos like they owned them. They did what we couldn’t. I didn’t know how to feel. I wasn’t angry. I just understood it as the way of the world.
After we were escorted out, me and my friends would run up the Steel Pier and sneak on the Ferris wheel. Looking at the ocean from above was at once scary and exciting. The ocean seemed vast and dangerous, as if it had many stories to tell. I was attracted to its peaceful and violent nature.
My friends and I would continue down the boardwalk, enjoying the atmosphere: seagulls, tourists and people hustling their acts. Some of my friends would hustle too, flipping off of the boardwalk for tips. We always had an idea to get money. It hardly ever worked out, but even at a young age we were on the grind.
The boardwalk was safe in terms of the people. My mom knew I wasn’t going to be kidnapped. Plus, I wasn’t letting nobody snatch me. You had to be a bad kid to travel that far up the boardwalk at such a young age, and it would’ve been a disgrace to my reputation as one of them.
I wasn’t actually a bad kid. I just had an explorer’s spirit. I wanted to see the world and be free. I wanted to learn my city.
Most of the shop owners on the boardwalk didn’t speak English well. We made fun of them because we didn’t understand them, and they didn’t understand us. They would spot us coming and post up in front of their stores. To this day, I don’t know what the inside of those stores look like.
The stores we were allowed to enter were too expensive for us. But the beach was free.
Money and Water
My grandma used to take us to the beach on Missouri Avenue. I didn’t understand why, because all of the Black people we knew went to Inkwell Beach uptown.
The beach on Missouri Avenue is called Chicken Bone Beach. Much later on, I learned that the beach had been an exclusive African American section of the Atlantic City beach around 1900, when the country was segregated.
In the book “Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City,” author Nelson Johnson describes the city in its earlier years as a plantation by the sea. Black people were exploited for their labor and segregated to the least desirable part of town.
Since Black people were barred from dining at the city’s restaurants, they used to bring their own food to the beach. When workers came to clean the beach the next morning, they often found the beach littered with chicken bones, which is how it came to be called Chicken Bone Beach.
The likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jr. and a host of other famous African Americans would frequent the beach and stage shows for the tourists and locals.
I’m proud my grandma took me to Chicken Bone Beach and shared her early culture with me. We, too, used to take a basket of food with us. Those memories still resonate with me today, just like my home city does.
Money and water is where I come from. The ocean lay behind the casinos — you had to get to the money before you could reach the water. But once I got the money, I forgot about my connection with the ocean. I forgot about the sense of freedom it gave me. The entire time that blue expanse was telling me to be resilient, like my ancestors, and dream.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.