I was recently standing with my husband in the vast lobby of the Borgata, presumably Atlantic City's eighth wonder of the world. The place was opulent, naughty and dizzying, sometimes all at once.
But I was remembering another Atlantic City, the one so familiar to legions of Jewish Philadelphians, the one my grandmother called "Tlontic City."
There were no glittering casinos back then, no bus tours loaded with day-trippers, no dazed-looking wanderers bearing plastic cups of quarters.
Just that salt air that ruined your hair, the smell of Boardwalk junk food wafting over the teeming teen mobs who gathered outside The Chelsea Hotel, and the dressed-to-the-nines grown-ups in their stationary rolling chairs — the ultimate oxymoron — lined up against the boardwalk railing.
In July and August, everyone was "down the shore." The denizens of Wynnefield, West Philly, Olney and Camden were in Atlantic City.
If you were between 12 and 20, you spent your days on the beaches near the old President Hotel. We girls were in our one-piece latex bathing suits that left marks on our bodies, while the guys tried hard to look cool at a time when cool meant slicked-back hair and a beach strut.
If you were lucky, your parents took you to Lou's for dinner. For the uninitiated, this was the gathering place, a shrine to overeating, at the edge of Ventnor. Lou's was where you stood in line desperate to see and be seen. Once inside, it was time for serious eating that would make today's food police faint.
Blintzes, corned beef sandwiches dripping with Russian dressing and sour pickles that would make your lips pucker.
I fell in love for the first time on that boardwalk. His name was David, he was from Bala Cynwyd and an "older man" — 18 to my 15. It was all so dizzying, so romantic, so sophisticated to hold hands near Steel Pier. The entire romance lasted two weeks; then David spotted my friend Merle, and that was that.
Looking back, it was all so innocent in the era when caution and conformity were our twin cultural pillars, when Jewish girls dated only Jewish boys and everyone somehow managed a few weeks on the Atlantic City boardwalk.
From that to the present Atlantic City, and the Borgata … All around us on the night of our visit were extremely thin women in clothes that I truly didn't think real people wore, and men who looked vaguely like rock stars. They were so ultra-hip that they loved being stared at. And I did plenty of that in the Borgata's interior haze of beiges and taupes.
But with all that glamour, I still missed the good old Atlantic City.
I would have given anything to see those throngs of kids huddled around the Chelsea Hotel, trying to look and act cool, and the women in their rolling chairs wrapped in mink stoles in July.
The happy ghosts of those years live in some out-of-the-way memory cells, capable of being summoned back in an instant. But they are just that — ghosts.
At the Borgata on that summer night when we gaped, the glamour quotient was through the roof. The restaurants were full and the clubs were rocking.
I took it all in, studying the scene like some pseudo-anthropologist.
And I left knowing with absolute certainty that this was definitely not the Atlantic City that lives in me.