Angelo "Sonny" Mancuso Jr. hates the casinos. Sure, he voted for the casinos along with his paisanos here in the Italian section of Atlantic City called Ducktown. Now he feels the monoliths on the boardwalk are sucking the life from his community, named for the ducks that roamed the streets years ago.
"The casinos would like to turn Ducktown into a parking lot for buses from New York, Philadelphia and Washington," he says one afternoon as he plucks fresh basil leaves in his bar and restaurant at 2300 Fairmount Ave. "They ruin everything they touch." The assembled locals, burly and tatooed, nod agreement.
Though he's bitter, Sonny is a survivor, making it in an uneasy symbiosis with the gambling havens a mile away. It's a love-hate relationship.
The man who delivers fresh vegetables to the casino restaurants brings Sonny the cast-off bruised melons, tomatoes and peppers that wind up in his superb soups and sauces. The casino bosses call him from Miami to order fresh marinara sauce and offer complimentary show tickets in return. Al Martino and Robert Goulet stop at the tavern for pasta and beer after they perform. His momma goes wild.
"Here," says Sonny, grinning in his wide face and rubbing his hands together, "try this marinara I made this morning." I slurp sauce and get a tour of his cellar crammed with wheels of aging parmesan cheese, jars of canned sauce from Jersey tomatoes and boxes of imported pastas.
Gruff and garrulous at 50, Sonny wants to carry on the legacy of his father who opened the tavern in 1935 with the city's second liquor license. "Like the settlers going out West, we're circling our wagons," he says, cuffing me on the cheek for emphasis and swigging from his bottle of Chivas Regal.
Sonny isn't the only Atlantic City original left, although the number is dwindling. And from Madame Edith, the boardwalk phrenologist, to Rose Wristbridge who owns George's Home Town Tavern on Atlantic Avenue, they all wonder how long they can exist with skyrocketing taxes and the casino propaganda that warns of rampant crime everywhere but at the tables or slot machines. On the Boardwalk
There is an Atlantic City beyond the gambling halls. The casinos are glitter and glass and mirrors papering over their meaner reality; other parts of Atlantic City worth taking in are rough-edged and at times seedy, but what you see is what you get.
The diving horses may be gone from defunct Steel Pier, but you can still get everything from fudge to fortune tellers on the boardwalk, the longest in the world at six miles. The White House Sub Shop on Artic Avenue continues to make the best submarines anywhere, including Philadelphia. Rose Fidelli serves up fine Italian meals at Ferraro's at 125 S. Missouri Ave., and she might sing an operetta with your gnocchi. South of the city, the towns of Ventnor and Margate offer elegant, white-pillared brick homes, where lawns are watered by built-in systems like the ones on the U.S. Capitol grounds.
Like Ducktown in the city, these established shore towns remain virtually unchanged. The beaches are best here south of the city, and parking is usually no problem. Beach badges are required, but enforcement is relaxed. Mostly it's vintage beach: Babies playing in the surf, teen-age girls flirting with lifeguards, families schmoozing and an occasional single-engine plane flying up the shoreline towing a sign like "Steels Fudge Is Best."
Away from the plastic glow of the casinos, a picture of Atlantic City emerges as the urban center of Absecon Island, a typical barrier island eight miles long. At the wide northern end, marinas and commercial clamming operations face Brigantine and its unspoiled, protected beaches. The island tapers to a rocky point in Longport across the bay from Ocean City. Parasols & Cat Boxing
In its glory days, Atlantic City earned the name "Queen of Resorts" and attracted East Coast high society from Boston to Baltimore. At the turn of the century, ladies in white gloves paraded their finery under parasols on the boardwalk. Grand hotels such as the Traymore, the Blenheim and the Chalfonte-Haddon Hall graced the shoreline where casinos now reign.
It was a city known for stunts. Men fought kangaroos, cats boxed cats, and a part-Sioux Indian named Ronald Harrison became "the living corpse" in 1952 when he survived 42 days in a six-foot grave on Steel Pier. Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelley sat for 49 days on a 13-inch steel disc atop a flagpole on Steel Pier in 1930, and his record stood until Dixie Blandy perched for 78 days in 1964.
And it was a city of entertainers. Al Jolson was a lifeguard in the 1930s. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis got their start at the 500 Club. Frank Sinatra played with Harry James in 1939. Marilyn Monroe rode in a Packard convertible as grand marshal of the 1952 Miss America Pageant. The list is endless.
Gambling is nothing new in Atlantic City; the casinos merely legitimized a longstanding tradition. Bootlegging was an underground business on the mainland, but here it was a major industry.
In the 1930s, clubs such as Babette's and the original 500 Club hosted an assortment of card players, horse players and high rollers of various persuasions who mingled with the Vanderbilts and the Ascots in back-room parlors. Mobsters such as Al Capone and Lucky Luciano competed for turf all year until they came to "conventions" in Atlantic City, where they carved up territory on Chicago's south side and dawdled in the surf during breaks.
Sonny Mancuso wasn't around to meet Scarface, but he remembers Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, the local political boss who linked Atlantic City to the underworld heavies until the mid-1940s. "Nobody went hungry in this town while Nucky was running things," says Sonny, recalling the days Johnson would slide a $100 bill on the bar and tell Sonny's father to make sure folks could eat during the Depression. The Seedy Side
Atlantic City was deposed as queen of resorts after World War II. Vacationers chose to fly to Miami or Las Vegas. Decline brought decay, and by the 1970s the seedier side of the resort was laid bare. Casino promoters promised to attract millions of tourists and restore the city's tarnished image, but after four years the results are mixed.
Throughout, the community of Ducktown withstood the changes. Roughly defined by Atlantic and Fairmount avenues to the east and west, and Missouri and Florida avenues on the north and south, the community is shrinking but still strong. Sonny says he's staying. "Hey, I just put in a new tile floor. And besides, the way the casinos run things, all that's left is quality, and we always did that. They're playing right into our hands on that score." The Italian Connection
Ducktown is knit together by the trail of Italian bread from its four bakeries. Rando's on Mississippi Avenue supplies Sonny and the White House Sub Shop, where red neon signs proclaim "U.S. Choice Meats Used Exclusively" and a cadre of six men craft sandwiches for hordes lined up at the counter, the booths and out the door. Frank Sinatra's picture stands out on the wall plastered with stars because of his long note of appreciation for past subs. Half of a regular sub costs two bucks, including five kinds of meat, provolone, Jersey tomatoes and hot peppers.
The Formica Brothers Bakery has been turning out hot loaves in the morning for 53 years, and many of those have gone to Tony's Baltimore Grille at 2800 Atlantic Ave. The Italian food is cheap and good, although the atmosphere is like a small college dining hall.
The bar at Tony's never closes. It's oblong, wooden, about 30 feet long and the prices are right out of the '50s. Drafts are 50 cents. The waitresses say "Bawlemer" as if they took speech lessons at Memorial Stadium.
Dock's Oyster House on Atlantic Avenue is in the neighborhood but not part of the Italian connection. It's been at the same spot for 85 years, and the third generation of Dougherty's is serving up fresh fish. Meals are moderately priced (fresh salmon ranges between $10 and $14), and Joe Dougherty Jr. does the cooking.
Dock's gets its fresh blue fish from the marinas at the island's north end. Avid fishermen or one-timers can cast for the same quarry, along with flounder, porgies and weakfish, from one of the sport-fishing boats off Maryland Avenue. For $8 ($3 more for tackle), you can spend a half day in the morning or afternoon on a 65-foot "party boat," bouncing bait on the bay floor to catch flounder or poking around the wrecks offshore where the sea bass feed. Mean Streets
Ducktown is generally safe for travelers, but there are some parts of Atlantic City that are considered to be mean streets. The marina area in general and the northern "inlet" area in specific are two of the rough regions. Back in the 1950s, the inlet was a Jewish middle-class neighborhood where basketball stars such as Wilt Chamberlain would shoot hoops at local playgrounds in the summer, but now the area is pocked with burned-out buildings and vacant lots.
From the north end, two main drags run parallel and bisect the resort from north to south. Atlantic Avenue hosts the dying and largely dead central business district. Except for one pornographic theater, there are no movie houses left in Atlantic City, and there are no supermarkets on the whole island.
Stretching between the boardwalk and Atlantic Avenue, Pacific Avenue is a show at night. It's a me'lange of vintage 1950 motels, run-down rooming houses, sleazy bars, parking lots where people pay $8 for 12 hours, an occasional hooker across the street from the casinos, the Frank Sinatra wing of the hospital, a Lutheran church, and at the southern end the Knife and Fork restaurant, venerable and stolid, expensive and worth it, sitting like the Rock of Gibraltar at the end of the strip.
Pacific Avenue is best taken in by car (a stretch Lincoln with smoked-glass windows and New York plates is vogue). The boardwalk, trimming the island from the inlet into Ventnor, is for walking or bicycling.
By bicycle at dawn, during the few hours when the casinos close, the boardwalk is mellowed by the sky's soft orange glow while losers straggle, joggers dodge drunks and lovers meander. At full tilt on a 10-speed, the boards rattle underneath like a gattling gun. Down by Ventnor, houses face the boards and crickets compete with the pounding surf. Bike rentals in front of the Claridge Hotel are $3.50 an hour. After Dark
At night, the boards are transformed. The Atlantic City boardwalk has been the home of honky tonk and two-bit tackiness for most of this century, and its essential character hasn't changed, even though the two main amusement piers -- Million Dollar and Steel -- have shut down.
For honky-tonk connoisseurs, the six blocks of boards between Illinois and Pennsylvania avenues is an orgy, beginning with the all-you-can-eat for $3.49 smorgasbord restaurant and ending at Woolworths where an old fellow in a red beret plays "Swanee River" on the plastic kazoo while he hawks for a buck.
In between, in the one-story storefronts, there are three fortune tellers (a $5 special on crystal ball readings at Madame Tena's was a big draw); eight discount T-shirt stores; five pizza joints, including a Pizzarama; Cheapie's 100% Pure Beef House with 69-cent "muffin burgers"; one Steel's Fudge shop, still the best; one Taylor Pork Roll bar; a Dip Stix, hot dog on a stick joint; a couple of Oriental rug galleries; two instant portrait shops, one by artists at $4.50 for a profile and one by computer for $3 a couple, full face; and, of course, Tepee Town, for "genooine injun" moccasins, pistol keychains, ceramic bald eagles and string ties galore.
Madame Edith, the phrenologist at the Temple of Knowledge, read my palm for $2. The head-bump job costs $25, and Madame Edith told me it's plenty of trouble. Madame Edith said she's a Russian gypsy, born, raised, schooled and taxed in Atlantic City where she's been telling fortunes from the same spot for 25 years.
According to Madame Edith, I am sensitive and want to save the world, I will be rich and have three children, though I could have had seven, and I will travel plenty. I believe her.
Madame Edith has deep, dark, warm eyes, long black hair streaked with gray that she wears in a bun, and a wart on her right nostril that actually adds to her allure. She's worried about her future.
"How long are we going to be able to stay here?" she asks, talking of rent increases and crime.
I tell her not to worry.