Updated: Nov 17, 2022
I never went to Atlantic City as a kid. Any preconceived notions about the place were derived from a movie from the 90’s called Wild Hearts Can’t be Broken. The movie is set in the 1930's and follows a young girl from a Podunk town who cuts her hair and runs away in search of big dreams and bright lights. She struggles, fails, then trains for her dreams. Then in the gauzy soft lighting of an early 90’s rom-com we see her coming-of-age transformation as she rises to certain notoriety. There is a jazzy soundtrack. She becomes an Atlantic City horse jumper. Then she goes blind. But don't worry, the movie ends well. She relies on herself and her love and jumps a horse again - blind. It ends with triumph and a splash and her smiling and waving to the crowd.
Voice over narration explains the rest.
This is what we hope for - from life and from a movie that comes on network TV on the rainy Sunday afternoons of childhood; that it ends well.
This trip to A.C. was purely conventional. There was no poetry intended, just the convenient intersection of the last breaths of summer and the accumulation of credit card points. What the hell. Let's stumble down the boardwalk and get distracted by the busy lights from the slot machines that beckon to the deepest ravines of our ancient and feeble human brain parts. Let us sit on the beach and stare at the Steel Pier and compare it to the photos from 10 years ago when the ocean swallowed the land and left everything covered in the wreckage that matched the hurricane’s namesake. Sandy.
You gotta hand it to ‘em. You always have to give people credit for rebuilding. There are empty lots where houses used to stand. There are murals. There are memories. There is a depth here that is buried under the beckoning lights and booze and desperation. If you can look past the flash and glare and block out all the bullshit and sadness. Gangsters. Games of chance. Women who would ride horses up a devastating ramp with the intent to jump off the end and land in a puddle - And look good while doing it.
We don’t look as good these days. There’s no sense that we must wear collars or heeled shoes or hats and gloves - even in the hard times. So on this day, like every other, our clothes stretch and bend to accommodate our movements as we walk down the streets and keep the ocean to our backs. Turning inward to this strange town that never got the memo that it could look “coastal”. There is no sense of a curated aesthetic demanded of most oceanside destinations. No easy breezy seashells and linens of white and navy blue. It’s row homes and parking lots. Could be Philly. Could be anywhere.
This morning we are searching for salvation, and by that I mean breakfast. The kind of breakfast that involves a griddle and grease. And coffee. Oh how we covet the coffee. For this we intentionally turn our backs on the overpriced casino nonsense and turn to Perry’s.
Perry’s Cafe and Deli is located in the bottom level of the Howard Johnson that you could not find if you tried. It is decidedly bland from the exterior. Hardly marked. Utilitarian. And settled on the block near a large old church and across the street from several empty and abandoned storefronts.
And the place is hopping.
Bustling and overwhelmed with people who are looking for care and comfort and scrambled eggs.
We are seated quickly at a small table and given the golden ticket. A laminated menu. With only two sides. This is it - your choices are all right here. All in the palms of your little desperate raccoon hands. Not the endless confusion of an unlimited menu. You have two pages. Two pages to get yourself together. That’s it.
Our server is polite and warm, but there is nothing about her that is not firing at all cylinders. She is hustling. They all are.
The service station is a commandeered four top table on the side of an open galley kitchen. It could be used for seating guests, but then the servers would have nowhere to call home base. From their table staged like a war room they scramble with coffee cups and pour over the seating chart like they are running diagnostic tests on a space shuttle. The pace is fast. Lightning fast. The kind of pace that is reserved for primetime network television drama and sizzle reel clips that play on the commercial break.
With an intensity unknown - I marvel at these people. How do they do this? How do they do this every day? The wiry bus boy is hauling massive gray bins that are brimming with dishes and the orders go in on a stainless steel carousel that rotates with butter yellow hand written tickets. Who curated this movie set? It’s perfect. The cooks are hustling and churning out dishes. I can tell which one is the guy in charge because he acts like he is the dad. He is the captain of the galley. The one calling all the shots in the kitchen. I can tell this because of his broad shoulders and his tough baseball mitt hand movements that are firm, but still fast. Dexterity on fire. He needs a raise. They all need a raise.
Whatever they are getting paid - double it.
It’s still not enough.
Our server comes back with coffee and our orders come flying in shortly after. The bacon is crispy. None of this floppy, flaccid sadness they serve at the casino. No, This bacon knows that it is bacon. Thank the Lord Almighty. We chew our bacon and eggs and butter our toast next to a table of church-goers. Obviously locals. They are impeccably dressed for the day and know where to access the sacraments of this world and the next. I feel better for sitting next to them. Our server returns. More coffee. A smile that comes from the energy reserves that is her internal combustion engine. The engine that keeps both her and her tables running on all cylinders. God Bless these people that take care of us. The strangers that wait on tables and take our orders and take care of us. The beauty and reality of this is not lost on me.
This could all be so mediocre. These workers could come in and not care and I would totally understand. This is not a fancy destination. This is a pancake shack in a Howard Johnson on a forsaken block in a wild and forlorn seaside town. And yet - for some reason - beyond all my comprehension these people are busting their humps to get the gospel to the masses. The bacon and the eggs to fortify their weary aching souls. The breakfast that will sustain them in between the hope and the gambling and the beach and the surf and the memories of hurricanes.
I chew on my crispy greasy hash brown potatoes and wonder if all the fortune tellers on the boardwalk get a kick back from the casinos to tell the thirsty nervous people that they will win big. That fortune awaits them at the next table, the next turn of the roulette, the next flashing light or ringing bell. There are parts of us here - parts of humanity that are so bare, ugly, craven. Depleted and so obvious and fallen. The truth makes me shudder and I dig back into my potatoes.
Because here at Perry’s the gifts are honest. The people are hard working. And you will eat your fill. And the crowds will pile up outside for the honesty and sincerity of a stainless steel carousel for butter yellow order tickets. They will clamor for the transparency of a laminated menu. And this place will serve as a beacon of something better, just a few blocks from the beach. A place that serves pancakes in a town that remembers gangsters and diving girls and sunny days and hurricanes alike. I decide not to hide from it - from all the things we are. I want to face the ocean waves and wind and tell the truth. I want to find prosperity where there is honesty and a cook wielding a spatula like a knight wields a sword. In the dance of normality, the breakfast is over. Because this is the rhythm of life and nothing lasts forever.
So, we pay the good people and stand and push in our chairs. Take one more swig of coffee. Shrug on the expectations for the day and walk back into the salty breeze.
Another day here. Another day here on the ground.
I hope it ends well.