Let me provide a little background to this trip, if you don’t mind. It was late June 2010, and I was in a bad way. Not a catastrophically bad way, but still bad in comparison to how I usually am. There were several obvious reasons why this was the case. It was under a week until I competed in my first ever Dance competition: I didn’t feel ready, I didn’t feel worthy, I was anxious, I was drained, I wasn’t sure if I was doing the right thing. I’d put so much energy and focus into training up for competitive dancing that I felt I was losing my life-balance. In short, all I needed was to step away from the situation briefly and try to sort out everything in my head.
I had a choice between a day trip to Princeton, NJ and Atlantic City, NJ. I wanted to check out Princeton as a potential future site of study; I wanted to at least claim I’d been to the infamous “AC”. What swayed me in the end was the thought of the sea. I packed my swimming costume, sunscreen, towels and shades then hit the regional rail first thing on a gorgeous Saturday morning. Destination: beach.
Atlantic City has something of a reputation, which had made me leery about setting foot in the place. It was described as the Las Vegas of the Eastern Seaboard, and I could well imagine what THAT would be like. To the Philly residents who didn’t gamble, it was simply their party spot. Photos on Facebook albums failed to inspire me much – it was just a beach with some apparently hideous casino resorts. I could never claim it to be a spot of culture, history or beauty on my itinerary, that’s for sure.
Yet I went there for a simple reason: I needed the sea. There are certain springs that carry a reputation for healing properties, but in my mind all water has the power to heal you. I grew up with the North Sea at the bottom of my garden; when I visited my grandparents in the working-class-holiday-destination Bridlington, we’d swim in the sea. When I came back to my “home base” of St Andrews after the academic year in Edinburgh, I liked to go down to the East/West/Castle Sands and stick my feet in the sea. I’m just one of those people who needs to be around and in water; the type of person who runs deep baths and plays in public fountains. Yet paddling doesn’t cut it for me, ultimately. I need to get my whole body in there.
Thus I took the NJ Transit train to AC. It was a slick 90min ride from 30th St Station with no hassle. I got off the train at the final stop and struck out towards what I believed to be the ocean-wards direction.
I was right. I walked past some upmarket shops before walking underneath the big name casinos. I could see Bally’s, Caesar’s and the Trump Tower: all names I’d heard plenty of times on the radio. Architectural masterpieces they were not: all of the casinos were hulking structures with unsubtle colours and tacky ornamentation. I walked straight past them and towards the sparkling seashore.
AC has the beaches, folks. Good beaches. It has a even better sea, though. This is the kind of sea where you only need to step in a short way and you’re up to your shoulders; where you get big waves to frolic around in and knock you over.
I took my first plunge into the water on a parallel line from the rail station – this was at the centre of the Boardwalk. Loud music blared from the casinos, on one side of me was a large shopping mall on a jetty, on the other I could see the seaside Boardwalk continue out of sight.
I must’ve jumped over waves for a good 45min before eventually wandering out and curling up inside my towel until I dried up. I was by myself, nobody knew me here, I could act as responsibly as I wanted.
I had little expectations, but I could sense immediately that AC reminded me of Bridlington. Brid lacked the upscale casinos and clientele, but the two locations shared the inexpensive beach resort feel combined with tacky seaside attractions and vendors. The central aisle was a constant traffic-flow consisting of buggies pushed by human ferriers: you’d get there far quicker simply by walking, and I’m sure it was a relentless and unforgiving job, but most of the buggies were occupied with couples, content to let someone else’s exertion get them 3 blocks down the Shore. I hit the ‘Walk and let it take me along the coast. I ambled past a myriad of pokey shops selling identical fare: ice cream parlours, resort-wear dresses, greasy Italian diners. I stopped in one of them for a Calzone, but I could have stopped in any. The sun was blazing down and I slapped on another thick layer of sunscreen before plodding onwards. Eventually I crept past the infamous, hideous monstrosity that was the Trump Taj Mahal – it looked like Disneyland on crack, that’s all I wish to say on the matter.
Shortly afterwards I passed a beautifully gnarled wooden pier and a construction site for a blue glittering hulking shell of another casino. Suddenly it felt like I was out of Atlantic City. The beaches on my right were rockier, the inhabitants were no longer white day-trippers; they seemed to be predominantly black locals. I caught a glimpse of the housing estate boarding the ‘Walk and it looked disconcertingly rough. I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised that AC has such an underbelly, it was just depressing how quickly it appeared around the corner from the affluence and arrogance of the commercial hub.
I dropped onto the beach nonetheless. Here it was lot quieter with fewer lazy sunbathers. The waves looked equally impressive here, so I dropped right in again. There’s something just so giddyingly exciting about standing chest-high in the ocean, waiting for a particularly large wave to arrive and then leaping over it and getting salt water in your mouth. I proved that day that I was perfectly capable of sustaining this behavioural pattern for the best part of an hour until I’d got my fill.
If I looked out to the waves (and ignored the planes buzzing above us with their advertising banners) I could pretend I was anywhere in the world, not necessarily at some trashy seaside gambling resort. I could pretend I was 6 again and able to muck around in the water without caring about anything. I felt happy and relaxed again, simply by being in the water.
The trains were hourly, so I made my way back to the heart of the Shore, pausing only to guzzle up a Cherry Water Ice and admire the foam-misted outlook of the ocean playground. AC was unquestionably set up to be a fantasy-land: I guess it was simply a case that my fantasies were different from theirs…