Friday, January 22, 2021

Dreaming at the No Tell Motel

 "People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."

Albert Einstein

by Zvi Baranoff

As far as charm and ambiance is concerned, the No Tell Motel had absolutely none. What the Motel provided was a fairly high degree of privacy and a defensible parameter.

The place was a dump, somewhat out of the way with nothing to encourage one to stay there, so few people did. I had rented the bungalow furthest from the road so we were out of sight and as there was only one pathway in and out and a thick patch of trees beyond us, we were pretty sure we wouldn't be caught by surprise from unexpected visitors.

The bungalow was very small with two narrow beds and not much more. There was a musty odor that permeated the joint and who knows when it was last painted but the color of the walls could best be described as nondescript with some odd stains. 

We filled the place from floor to ceiling with the crates of books with barely enough room for us to squeeze in the door and around the beds. Yeah. Cozy like that. We made ourselves right at home. We really needed some sleep.

We bolted the door as well as set the electronic alarms. I double checked the windows. I put my handgun by my pillow before laying myself down.

To begin with, I tossed and turned and slept fitfully. I dreamed disturbingly and was generally uncomfortable. Bob snored and slept as if he hadn't a concern in the world. 

My dreaming was lucid, kaleidoscopic and jagged. The dreaming felt incredibly real and simultaneously unreal and otherworldly.

In my dream, I was in a prison that resembled a lockup where I had been for a few years in my youth. I was, however, an old, old man. I was standing in a long chow line with the other inmates, holding a tray. In front of me a disagreement between two inmates turned into a scuffle and quickly escalated.

The line of prisoners became a circle and the fighters were in the center of that circle. The floor became a sandpit and the two battling in the center wore only shorts. Their ebony skin glowed with sweat and the body blows landed with the intensity of lighting and a reverberating sound of rolling thunder. 

One pounding after another occurred and blood flew in all directions. The sandpit began to fill with sweat and blood and the fight continued as if without an ending. 

The blood became waves and the waves became overwhelming and all the inmates were caught up in the huge rolling oceans of sweat and blood. I was pulled under by a large rolling wave and I was alone. The wave washed me up on a beach that seemed familiar. I was near the Steel Pier, in Atlantic City and I was once again my twelve years old self.

My young friend Susie was there on that Atlantic City beach of my dream. She was gawky and a bit tomboyish. Her smile was accented by the braces on her teeth, the metal glistening in the bright summer sun. She was as I had remembered her although I had been through so much and away so long. 

We walked up the beach towards the Boardwalk but as we walked the distance to the Boardwalk seemed to grow and the beach seemed to expand. The sand was hot on our bare feet. The beach was crowded with tourists on blankets and hundreds of sun umbrellas and many dozens of ice cream vendors. There was the overwhelming odors of suntan lotion and perspiration. The beach stretched on and on but eventually we made it to the steps that led to the Boardwalk. 

The Boardwalk of my dream was wider than the Boardwalk of my memory. It was also far cleaner than anything I actually remembered. Everything was sparkly and was glimmering. The Boardwalk was crowded with jugglers, clowns, acrobats and mimes. We walked hand in hand as we weaved our way through those crowds towards the Steel Pier.

As we approached the Steel Pier, the crowd on the Boardwalk parted like receding waves for us. As this happened, dark clouds began to fill the sky. The amusement rides on the pier were crowded. The Tilt-A-Whirl and the Ferris Wheel and the Rollercoaster were full of screaming people. 

The sky grew ominously dark. Jagged lighting etched across the sky and a cold rain began to fall. We ran to the House of Mirrors. 

There was no line to enter the House of Mirrors. There was no one there at all besides us and the ticket taker at the entrance. 

Sitting on a tall stool by the portal to the House of Mirrors was a man with a twisted back and a disjointed face. "Welcome to my House of Mirrors!" he said. "In my House of Mirrors I am tall and handsome," he said and he grimaced at us in a way that we understood to be an attempt at a smile.

We searched our pockets but neither of us had either tickets or money. 

In my dream, my twelve year old self found my adult wallet and I offered the gatekeeper my credit card but this was the 1960s when children didn't carry credit cards and he didn't know what it was or what to do with it. We were all momentarily flustered and frustrated. 

Then the ticket taker turned his head directly to me and in a hushed tone he said to me alone, "I can't let anyone in without a ticket or money but I can only stop those that I see." With that, he removed his right eyeball and held it out in his left palm before he continued to speak. 

"You seem like nice children," he said, particularly emphasizing the word 'nice'. "This eye in my hand is blind. If I shut my other eye, you can sneak right in." With that, he winked at me in a most exaggerated way. I tugged on Suzie's hand and we entered the House of Mirrors.

Although we had entered the House of Mirrors hand in hand, we soon became separated from each other and were lost in that maze of mirrors. 

I was alone and frightened. Everywhere I turned I ran into glass and my own twelve year old image. While I confronted the maze my ears filled with the squawking and squealing of seagulls and the insistent buzzing of flies. Time lost relevance and the maze of mirrors appeared to be infinite. I trudged onward with no obvious success or sense of accomplishment.

I ran from mirror to mirror and the buzzing and squealing of the flies and the seagulls was all I could hear. And then, a pathway opened for me and Suzie and I were once again together and we had found our way through the mirror maze and we were looking at the Steel Pier.

The rain had turned to snow while we had been in the House of Mirrors. Everything within our sight was snow-covered and there was not a person anywhere we looked. We ran from there, seeking shelter from the weather. The Boardwalk was icey and windy. We headed to the beach. There were snow drifts there. We found a narrow opening in the snow and we crawled through to a spot under the Boardwalk.

It was warm under the Boardwalk. We laid in the sand and held each other. We made adolescent promises of perpetual loyalty and love. 

Around us, the winter weather evaporated and Atlantic City all around us was once again summer. The Boardwalk above us was full of tourists. We laid in the sand under the Boardwalk and watched through the slats at the people walking above us. 

In my dream, I closed my eyes and when I reopened them I was alone under the Boardwalk. 

I came out from under the Boardwalk and I was no longer in Atlantic City at all but in some large metropolis full of buildings of an Art Nouveau style. It was a city that seemed vaguely familiar but still I didn't recognize it. I was no longer a child. I wandered through the alleyways of that city looking for landmarks that would provide clues as to where I was. I tried to get my bearings.

The city was frightful and dangerous. Gargoyles seemed to stare at me from all the buildings. I was chased by sinister but unseen forces. I was trying to run but my legs failed me. I crawled and barely stayed ahead of whatever was chasing me. 

I came to a dock. There was a raft and I climbed onto it and it flowed downriver and out into the ocean. Helicopters criss-crossed above me shooting at the raft. In the dream, I somehow survived this and the raft washed up on a rocky coast. 

The next thing I remember, I was in a prison on the day of my release. Under the watchful eye of a prison guard, I exchanged the prison uniform and work boots for some ill fitting civilian clothes and a pair of cheap sneakers that I changed into. 

The guard handed me a subway token and waved me out through electronic sliding doors. I was outside. The air was brisk. The subway station was across the street. I walked down the stairs, inserted the token in the turnstile and boarded a waiting train. 

The train was crowded but at each stop people would depart and the crowd began to thin. I rode that train to the final stop. 

When the automatic doors opened and I got off that train I was on a tropical beach. Palm trees swayed in a light breeze and the sun was shining brightly.  The air was warm and balmy. The ocean was the turquoise of the Caribbean. I walked alone by the water's edge.

From a distance, I saw a thatched hut a long way off. As I got closer, I saw a figure in a flowing robe dancing on the strand between the cottage and the gently rolling surf.  I continued walking towards the cottage, the rhythmic splashes of the waves were to my left and the white sand stretched outwards with no end.

Then, in front of me on that smooth white sand I saw what appeared to be writing made of sea shells and pebbles and seaweed. I squinted in the bright sun, trying to make out the script. The letters seemed to squiggle but eventually my eyes caught on and I could read what was there in front of me. It read "Suzanne" as clear as can be.

I looked up from there and the thatched cottage stood in front of me. By the doorway in front of the cottage was a tall stool and on that stool sat the twisted blind man that had been guarding the House of Mirrors on the Steel Pier. He sat there with his glass eye in the palm of his hand. 

A curtain moved in the cottage window and a moment later the beautiful dancer darted out the door and grabbed me by the hand and pulled me into the cottage. I simply knew that her name was Suzanne and that she was my childhood friend Susie from many years past and far distant shores. 

The cottage was lit by candles and the sunlight that filtered through sheer curtains. Her eyes were familiar and the smile, absent braces, was reminiscent of the girl I once knew. The woman in front of me, however, was no one I had ever met.  Her robe dropped to the floor and she led me to her bed.

 When I felt the kiss on the top of my head, I just smiled without opening my eyes. I had momentarily forgotten where I was and what circumstances had brought me there. Then I remembered and reached for the handgun. It was not where I left it. 

"Hello, Sleeping Beauty," said the gravelly voice inches from my head. "You really should be more careful with your pea shooter." 

My eyes came into focus to see Spider smiling at me. He held my handgun, looking askance at it from various angles. Locks never meant a thing to Spider and they still didn't. I was actually very glad that he had moved my gun before waking me because I would have regretted shooting him. I wiped the sleep from my eyes.

Spider was sitting by my bed. Frank was busy sorting through the hoard of books, taking notes, doing a rough inventory and making calculations. The muscle had stationed themselves outside, providing security. Bob continued to snore conspicuously. It was time for me to get to work.

Links to Parts 1 - 16

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Part 13:

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Part 15:

Part 16:

Saturday, December 26, 2020

On the Jersey Shore

"On the Boardwalk in Atlantic city, We will walk in a dream, On the Boardwalk in Atlantic City Life will be peaches and cream."

Joseph Myrow/Mack Gordon

[This is a fictional work in progress. Links to the earlier parts are at the bottom of this page.]

by Zvi Baranoff

So, we were in a holding pattern. The remaining books were out on a front and there was nothing for us to do but wait. I couldn't head homeward until at least most of the currency came in and there was nothing we could do that would speed up that return. 

For a couple of days we hung around the apartment fussing and fretting, getting on each other's nerves and pacing. Bob and I really needed a break and we decided on a day trip to the Jersey Shore.

We took the Skyway, the high speed high rise highway which in Philly most people call the Zip Line. We barreled through the low hanging clouds and the Skyscrapers of Center City. We crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey via the Ben Franklin Bridge. Then, we jumped onto the Lenni Lenape Causeway heading towards Atlantic City. 

About halfway to the coast we took a short detour to the cemetery where my parents and my old running partner Greg are buried. It's a nice place, as far as cemeteries go. I used the GPS to locate the graves. 

I put a small stone on each of the headstones of both Mom and Dad and muttered something that would have to pass for a berakhah, or as close as I could get. Bob stood a few feet away, reciting some sort of Latin incantation that he vaguely remembered from his childhood. We both somehow finished with "Amen" somewhat simultaneously.

At Greg's internment spot I cracked opened a fifth of whiskey. I poured off some on the ground - respect - and we each had a snort. Bob crossed himself. I recapped the bottle and placed it on the grave, leaving it leaning against his modest marker. I figured that Greg would appreciate that.

We got back on the Lenni Lenape Causeway and cruised the rest of the way to the shabby remains of the once mythic shore town of Atlantic City. 

The Boardwalk once ran for miles and miles with a wide stretch of beach between the Boardwalk and the ocean on one side and it ran north and south along Atlantic City as well as Ventnor and Margate. All the beaches had been lost to erosion and all but a tiny bit of Atlantic City had long since been destroyed by one catastrophe or another. All that really remained was the infrastructure to support the fishing fleet and the Coast Guard base.

We found our way to the remnants of the Boardwalk which now was mostly a pier, sticking out into the ocean. A few fishing boats now use the Boardwalk as a dock. We found a shabby takeout joint, one of the few remaining restaurants where local seafood is still served. The food was dispensed through a window by an actual human server, a pimply teenager, and we carried the food to a beat-up table on the boardwalk with an ocean view.

We sat there and snacked on calamari and fries and nursed some cold but otherwise unimpressive and weak beer while watching the fishing boats floating about and the waves pounding and the Coast Guard helicopters patrolling the Eastern Seaboard.

Visiting Atlantic City is an inherently nostalgic experience.  The Boardwalk had always been the heart and soul of Atlantic City and everything about the Boardwalk was always illusory manifestations of cheap trickery. And now, all the former magic is gone.

My parents and their contemporaries would reflect on the Golden Era of an earlier and long gone Atlantic City that only really existed in their own distorted memories. The Atlantic City that I knew growing up was the shadow of their illusions. The Atlantic City that we were visiting was barely a wisp of a reflection of that shadow of my childhood memories. Mostly it has all been washed away. Literally, washed away.

My earliest conscious recollections concerning Atlantic City were the long trips on the White Horse Pike in the back of my parents' Studebaker. The car had an AM radio with tinny sound and we could tune in to Philly stations for about half of the trip and pick up a couple of Atlantic City stations for some of the rest of the trip. 

It was a long trip in those days. Arrival in Atlantic City was announced with the sighting of the Copertone billboard, the image of a small dog pulling at the bathing suit of a young, suntanned girl, exposing where her bottom was still white.

The Studebaker was equipped with what my Dad called "Two and Forty air conditioning". That is, if we opened two windows and drove forty miles an hour we could somewhat cool the inside of that car. Mostly this just let in the hot and muggy summer air and road dirt of South Jersey.

Atlantic City, when I was young, was defined by the "Season" by which everyone understood to be the time sandwiched between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The rest of the year it was a gritty town with little to offer of interest to anyone, even those that lived there year round. 

Just before Memorial Day, the city woke up, put on a fresh coat of paint and replaced burnt out lightbulbs. The town doled itself up - like putting lipstick on a pig - and presented itself as the place to be. For those of us of modest means living in South Jersey or Greater Philadelphia, Atlantic City was the cat's pajamas, the shiznit, the pinnacle of excitement. Atlantic City was the best summertime escape we could possibly imagine on our tight budgets and with our limited imaginations. 

My grandparents owned a small hotel just off the Boardwalk near the Steel Pier. Of course, that was a very long time ago. And then, there were the riots and the fires. And then the real estate manipulators and the mobsters and the plans for casinos and revitalization, followed by more fires and insurance payouts. This was before the hurricanes and the floods and the tidal waves, the attempts to build seawalls and the washing away of most of the barrier islands of the Jersey Shore. 

Summer in Atlantic City was what I lived for when I was growing up. Atlantic City was my turf from the time that I transcended being an ankle biter in diapers. As soon as I was stable enough on my own legs, the beaches and Boardwalk was where I ran feral and unsupervised all summer long and ran with other feral youth. We soaked up the sun and got gritty in the sand. 

Everything about Atlantic City involved some process of shaking money loose from the tourists. Everything was entertaining with flashing lights and various degrees of sleight of hand. It wasn't all Three Card Monty but neither was any of it quite up and up. 

Up and down the Boardwalk, there was one spectacle after another. The show never stopped and up and down the Boardwalk I found ways to be entertained. 

There were the rolling chairs, the diving horse, the dancing chickens, Mr Peanut. There was the Woolworth's Five & Dime full of knicknacks. There was tri-colored ice cream waffle sandwiches. American Bandstand broadcast live from the Steel Pier. The Miss America contest  paraded young women in bathing suits riding in Cadillac convertibles to wave at the crowds standing along the Boardwalk. There was Lucy the Elephant which doubled as  a gaudy hotel. There were the amusement rides and the House of Mirrors. 

Nothing about Atlantic City was quite real. Us kids had a blast and we learned a lot from top to bottom, on the beaches, on the piers and both on and under the Boardwalk. 

It was my tween years when I worked at the family hotel pushing a broom and making beds and such when I met Susie who was a year or two older than me. Her family had rented a studio apartment for the season. I was infatuated with her and we walked and talked and swam and joked together all that summer. 

The day before her family was set to leave, we ran along the beach until we were out of breath. Then, she took me by the hand and led me to a spot under the Boardwalk and we laid about in the sand and told each other knock knock jokes, one joke dumber than the next.

The beach is gone. The Boardwalk is gone. The city is gone. Susie is gone and pretty much everyone and everything I have ever known in my life is also gone. All my reasons to come to Atlantic City by that point had totally evaporated.

I was sitting there, watching the waves and feeling washed away by time. Bob was enjoying the fish and the beer. I was feeling melancholy, nostalgic and lost. It seems that I keep going back to look for what's no longer there. Whatever. I was tired of being on the broken remains of the Boardwalk and was in no mood to be crying in my beer. If fact, by that point I was tired of the beer as well and I was ready to roll out of there.

We piled back in the car but for some reason beyond logic I was not quite ready to head back to Philly yet so we tooled around a bit aimlessly and ended up in Egg Harbor.

It would not be an unreasonable assumption to believe that Egg Harbor derived the name from the sulfur-like odors similar to rotten eggs that are so prevalent, particularly during low tides. 

It is swampy and mucky and had always been so, even long before the increased flooding. The pungent odor that we encountered that afternoon, however, made us nostalgic for the far less disturbing scent of rotten eggs or decaying seaweed.

The stench emanated from the wreckage of a go-fast hydrofoil speed boat, washed up and partially submerged against the shoreline. 

Above the boat were hundreds, perhaps thousands of seagulls squawking, circling and diving. In addition to that cacophony was the intense buzzing of flies. Between the flies and the seagulls, we could not immediately see what was below, but we knew that it could not be pleasant. 

As we approached, we saw dozens of crabs scurrying about. The submerged part of the boat was filled with a myriad of fish. All of these were feasting on what remained of what was once two human beings. 

None of the wildlife was bothered in the least by the stench. Speaking strictly for myself, my stomach was most seriously disturbed by the odor and the sight was quite ghastly as well. 

The bodies, or what was left of bodies, had been shredded by high-powered, large munitions, as was the boat as well as some of the cargo. 

A reasonable assumption is that the Coast Guard took out these runners somewhere further out at sea at least several days prior, and the Federales had assumed that the boat had sunk. The wreckage came in on the tide. The remains of the wreckage jammed up on the rocks and it sat there when the tide went out again. That's where we found it.

Bob crossed himself and I spit, each of us hoping to ward off bad luck and evil spirits. Then, we covered our faces with bandanas to minimize the stench. We pulled our hats down to try to keep the flies off us. We came in closer to get a better look at the situation.

The faces were a mess. The features had been destroyed by birds and flies and crabs. The lower extremities were submerged and being nibbled away by fish. 

If these two had friends or families, there was no way to know. The corpses were flailed out on the cargo, as were much of their blood and, I suppose, some of their guts. We rolled the half-eaten bodies into the water and waved off gulls and flies.

As quickly as two old men could, we unloaded the cargo, stacking crates on the water edge. When we had that boat unloaded, we shoved the wreckage off of the rocks and back into the water. Hopefully the receding tide would take all of that far away. It was certainly not useful for us any more, and we sure as hell were not interested in being found in the vicinity of a smuggler's boat.

Some of the crates were damaged and water had seeped in, significantly damaging the product. Other crates were mostly or completely intact and undamaged. We began by grabbing the boxes that seemed to be in the best shape and we loaded my vehicle. We dragged the rest of the crates to a less visible spot, covered them with a tarp and covered the tarp with branches and rocks.

Back up the road a bit, I found a No Tell Motel and we rented a bungalow for a couple of nights. We unloaded the crates from the car into the bungalow and went back to where we had stashed the rest of that cargo. We worked like that into the night and towards morning we had salvaged the whole of it and had the whole kaboodle at that No Tell Motel bungalow.

This was, perhaps, a score of a lifetime. The load was European. These were well printed volumes from professional print houses, not crappy replications from fly by night operations in the Mexican borderlands. They were nearly all in pristine condition. There was a wide variety. It looked like a little over half the books were in English. 

We were, perhaps out of our league and over our heads, to mix metaphors. We needed to find the right markets for all of them, and we needed to get them sold or moved to a more secure location in very short order. The No Tell Motel was a most temporary transit point.

We were going to need some help to break down and move this load. Finding trustworthy and reliable criminals is not such an easy thing. It takes a lifetime to build those sorts of relationships. We were a couple of old men. Most everyone that we trusted is already dead. 

This was going to need talent and stamina and brass balls. I called Frank, gave him the coordinates of the No Tell Motel. I asked him to scoop up Spider, rustle up a truck and some muscle, slide on out and meet us at the Motel. 

It was already morning. We bought some nondescript sandwiches from a vending machine in the "courtyard" of that dump of a motel. We couldn't decide if the food was fish or fowl or some other sort of meat or quasi-meat, no matter how much we sniffed and poked at it and the labelling was so worn that it didn't even offer us a clue to answer that riddle.

We ate that crap anyway and then we crawled off to get some sleep while we had a chance. We knew it would be several hours before Frank, Spider and the crew would make it and one sleeps when one can. 

Links to Parts 1 - 15

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