When I was a kid growing up in Atlantic City, history I spent more than half my adult life erasing, shortly after my father died, my mother acquired a boyfriend. His name was Charlie and he was quite a bit older than my mom, like 20 years older. He was in his early 60s when he came into my life. Despite their age difference, Charlie had twice, if not three times, her stamina. Although he was still practicing law (he’d been a judge in Nuremberg), he said he was semi-retired. Weather permitting, he spent as much time as he could fishing, boating, painting still life, going to the race track (he adored thoroughbred racing). He was a great fan of farmer markets where he bought bushels of peaches and corn. My mother, who didn’t own a pair of shoes that didn’t have high heels, was challenged keeping up with him, especially on balmy summer nights when he wanted to cruise the famous Atlantic City boardwalk.
I often remark to my husband how much Charlie would have enjoyed Seaside. He would definitely have had a boat. He would have surf cast on the beach, and since he loved fine dining, he would have been a regular at Maggie’s On the Prom. Speaking of The Prom, he would have really loved it, although he would have liked shops and amusements right on it like the Atlantic City boardwalk. Besides proximity to the ocean, Charlie loved Steel Pier and poking into shops. He loved soft serve ice cream and fudge and he especially loved a nut store called Mr. Peanut. But all that activity required walking. The Atlantic City boardwalk is 4 miles long; the wood is laid in a herringbone pattern, which makes it ideal for bike riding.
Charlie rode a bike; on his own, he had a little German folding bike he used to get around. As a result of an accident he’d sustained as a child, he had one leg that was significantly shorter than the other, resulting in a pronounced limp. His work and dress shoes were custom made for him in Philadelphia where they were fitted with a lift. But he said they were uncomfortable for walking any distance. Which is why one day he came home with a wheelchair.
The wheelchair quickly became a toy for us kids to play with. There were two of them (they were a score from a medical supply store in AC that was going out of business) and we used them to stage wheelchair races. He commandeered a chair for himself, however, whenever we went up on the boardwalk. He’d sit in the wheel chair and my mother would push. One night he joked she should wear a nurse’s uniform. That pissed her off.
Remember how I said my mother only wore heels? Well, she wore them to push Charlie around in that wheelchair. One evening she was cranky and tired. We’d probably been out too long. “OK, let’s switch,” he said. “You sit in the chair and I’ll push.”
I will never forget the expression on peoples’ faces when they executed the switch. Summer nights in Atlantic City, the boardwalk was always crowded. People who had been looking on in sympathy for the older guy in a wheelchair being pushed by the much younger pretty blond screwed their faces up with incredulity when they swapped positions. Charlie didn’t mind pushing and she was glad to get her feet up. The chair functioned for him like a walker; it was something to balance him and lean on.
“What are you looking at?” I remember smirking to an on-looker who looked like she’d been sucker punched. It was a lesson I’ve never forgotten what happens when you tamper with people’s expectations.
Meanwhile, remember no wheelchair racing is allowed on the Prom!