by: Michael Shields
An offering of a few intertwined shorts, pieces of a larger whole, that starts off on a bus to the Puppet Promise Land….
The bus’s hum and gentle swaying provided the perfect conditions for me to finally get some rest. Weeks worth of 17-hour days on set, while thrilling, takes a toll. And I cannot imagine that much sleep awaits me in “America’s playground.” I also can’t imagine that slogan holds any water, with anyone. I am not sure, if polled, you would get 5 out of 1000 Americans to answer Atlantic City if asked What city do you think of when you hear the words: America’s playground? I have come to refer to it as the “Puppet Promise Land,” a place filled with more false hope and filth than its mere size deems possible. Visits there are unavoidable if you live in New York City. Something always comes up and you end up with a metal lure in your mouth and the rest of your body unwittingly being pulled down the Garden State Parkway.
There is only one form of transportation I take to AC, the aforementioned bus. I see no other way to do it. It’s appropriate on every level. If you’re going to slum – dig deep. If your going to eat shit you might as well stick your head up the horses ass…..so I’ve heard. A beer at the soulless Heartland Brewery at the Port Authority before submerging into the depths of New York’s central hub and boarding a bus with a ragtag group of hopeful daydreamers, drug dealers, and curiosity seekers is the only way to travel to AC. A 25-dollar gambling voucher awaits you upon arrival from the casino’s “greeter” when you travel in such style. The bus ticket, round trip, only cost 30 dollars so its obvious they just want to get you in the door and let the addictions and lapses in judgment take care of the rest.
Rest would have to wait this trip, and for good reason. Fortuitously my travel companion on this always full, 2 seats to a side, four to a row, Greyhound was a godsend. The expected cohort in these situations usually is ripe with a bouquet comparable to both the Port Authority and the cheap casino hotel room in your future, or does not respect personal space or believe in its existence.
No, I got lucky. Who filled the available seat next to me was the embodiment of charm, of wit, and of grace; a woman, 80 going on 26, who emitted the energy of a shot of espresso. She sat quickly, with the ease of a much younger more able body, and then shot first.
“My name is Louise and if you don’t mind I would like to guess your name.”
“Bingo. Wow, only three tries.”
“I must admit, young man, that this is not my first rodeo at’ tall.”
We spoke at length, about everything. We laughed and flirted like a couple of teenagers. Not only was it not Louise’s first rodeo but it also wasn’t her first trip to Atlantic City. This was one of hundreds, possibly thousands. It wasn’t addiction that brought her here, but nostalgia. According to the 1950s Kate Moss, Atlantic City was a much different place in her time, a magical land to escape where dancing and drinking into the late hours was followed by long days of soaking in the sun on beaches I have seen syringes wash ashore on. Atlantic City was also where she met her husband, who offered her “a cigarette she just couldn’t refuse.” But Louise got real quiet for a moment after she mentioned that, and I am not one to pry.
As the bus pulled into the station, Atlantic City’s Bus Terminal between Michigan and Atlantic Ave, Louise gathered her things urgently but with the grace I had come to know from her. We said our goodbyes and I, with utmost sincerity, thanked her for the conversation.
“Remember what I told you, avoid the machines between the bus entrance and the bathroom. They are rigged like a rubik’s cube.”
‘Thanks Louise. I will stay clear.”
“I think I see a potential sugar daddy up front so I must be going.”
“You need to get those shoes, right there, shined. You can’t get a way with that no more.”
An older black gentlemen, a shoeshine man, was giving it to me quite thoroughly as I walked by, or tried to at least. My loafers, brown and scuffed – a bit weathered I suppose, weren’t up to snuff for him I figure. My guess is no ones are, good enough that is. This man, it seems, likes to stick his nose where it don’t belong when it comes to other peoples footwear, a personal matter no doubt. But, not to him. I solicited none of his business, none of his advice.
“Those are just not good enough. That is no way to walk about town, let alone get anything done,” he went on. I remain the target of his lambasting, slow as I am these days. Him with his makeshift stand beneath this temporary scaffolding. Nothing permanent on this corner I figure. I wonder how far I must be from him for him to leave me alone. I hope he finds another innocent man to pester.
“You aren’t going to get away with it anymore. No, sir. You CANNOT win like that. You are not going to win. They will find you out.”
The last time I will cross this corner I assure you, no matter the need.
I think I am in the clear now. I hope so at least. I could, if inclined, get my shoes shined of course. I have the money. And he is right that they could use it. Scrapes, nicks, marks for days on these boats. Boy, could they. I could get my shoes shined every day if that is what I wanted to do. I could, in fact, even buy a new pair of shoes every day for the rest of my days if that was my concern, if that was my priority; shoe cleanliness that it. But it aint. And if it were, I wouldn’t get it from him.
I have been walking these blocks every day for longer than I can remember and I have not encountered that man or that type of harassment before, at least not that I can remember. No doubt I took a wrong turn somewhere. A left when I was supposed to go right or so forth. Wouldn’t be the first time and damn well won’t be the last.
The ocean was glassy, still as a night’s watchman. Although the seas were calm that day the beach was lively, wall-to-wall so to say. Beach blanket on top of beach blanket as far as the eye could see creating a patch-worked quilt held together by stitches of light brown rippled sand.
He approached the young woman with the confidence of a man who does this often, which he surely wasn’t, but fate waits for no man. He was overdressed for the situation, wearing suit pants rolled to a cuff, a neatly tucked white sleeveless tee-shirt, and he was carrying his scuffed brown loafers in his left hand with his dress shirt draped over the same arm. He was in town on business, a conference, and hitting the slots or tables during lunch break seemed ludicrous to Walter on a day like this.
She was lying on her side atop a bright orange blanket wearing a white one-piece swimsuit. Stunning. Her bug-eye shades and red lipstick popped against the backdrop of her powder white skin. She wasn’t alone but her companions faded with each step he took. As he approached he withdrew a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, a white pack with two thick red racing stripes on the front of the package adjacent to an emblem touting their dual filter in all its glory. Retrieving the pack he stumbled slightly but regained his composure quickly. He stood over her for a brief moment in silence, waiting for her to look up from her book, something called “More than Gold” by Hilda Pressley, and he then cleared his throat garnering her attention instantly.
“Umm, I am sorry to bother you but…..but I couldn’t help myself from coming over and introducing myself.”
“Oh yeah”, she said with a knowing smirk, “Why is that?”
“Because I wanted to offer the prettiest girl on the beach one of these cigarettes here, and I wanted to see if she if she would smoke one with me.”
“Is that right?”
“That’s right. And hopefully after we finish that cigarette that pretty girl I spoke of would want me to stick around for a bit and talk. But if not I would walk away and leave that beauty to her novel and never bother he ever again.”
“Sounds like a reasonable proposition.”
“Couldn’t be more reasonable. So, what do you say? I even got a light if that sweetens the deal.”
As he was saying this he removed a silver Zippo lighter from his pant pocket. She, in response, popped up as if spring loaded and light as a feather. She extended her hand in an overly proper mannerism, and smiled.
“My name is Louise, and if you don’t mind I would like to guess your name.”