Captain Starn’s Restaurant

I just found an old, old picture of my family at dinner at Captain Starn’s restaurant in Atlantic City, New Jersey, circa 1949. A roving photographer went from table to table, offering packages of black and white prints in various sizes, even on packs of matches. This must have been a special occasion, because my parents did not spend money on such frivolities. And, remarkably, everyone is smiling, except for Mom Mom Boyle, who never did.

I am, at six years old, the winsome urchin at the bottom right, wearing a plaid wool dress that I can still remember 70 years later for its malignant itch. The boy on the left wearing the captain’s hat is my brother Joe, the handsomest, most knowledgeable young man of ten on the face of the earth. My mother (who closed her eyes whenever a flash picture was taken) sits next to him, and the young woman next to her is my sister Barbara, just turned 12, already bosomed and beaming. Dad, with rare contentment on his face, sits between her and Mom Mom.

I cannot remember why we are all there, smiling and happy. Perhaps we had just gotten that funny green Chevy coup with black running boards that I vaguely recall, because we did not often go out to dinner, much less as far from Philly as Atlantic City. Mom loved to take car rides, so the acquisition of an automobile might have been the cause of this celebration. If so, the presence of Mom Mom would be a plus, giving her evidence our growing wealth.

The restaurant opened in 1940 by Clarence Starn. Built on an inlet at the end of a boardwalk, the Starn emporium included boats for hire, deep-sea fishing boats, a sailboat, and excursion boats for sightseeing. Behind the restaurant were open fish and lobster tanks, an enclosure where for 15 cents one could feed the seals, a fish market, and a shell shop.

I loved the shore and the ocean smell, but not the restaurant much. I had to sit still for a very long time, and Mom always ordered for me, usually something less expensive. A Starn’s menu from that time shows prices for full dinners (potatoes, mashed or fried; lettuce and tomato; coleslaw; and hot rolls included) ranging from $2.25 for baked crabmeat to $3.75 for lobster tail. I probably got the baked crabmeat for $2.25, lots of filler, and maybe a tough slip of membrane, like cellophane, that I have to mouth out with my tongue and lips.

The room is loud with conversations and the chink of dishes and plates levered up and down by the waitresses (all women here, the maître de a middle-aged man of good posture and manners, but never snooty nor swishy, and the bus boys all working after school). Everyone is white. Sudden quiet after the loud crash of a slipped platter, but talk quickly resumes.

The ocean-side windows are cranked open for the breeze, but not the shore-side, to avoid blusters of sand, though when Dad orders oysters and the three of us make yucky noises, he might crunch a little grit. Mom snorts, and he gets a little pissed, because after all it’s good food, and what are we all making fun of?

* * *

            Starn’s closed in ’79, during the heyday of casino-building in Atlantic City. Tourists sought the ka-ching of slots and the bargain meals offered to Philly bus tourists by the marketing people of Resorts and Ceasar’s. People not interested in glam went to Cape May for its newly renovated Victorian charm, quaint boutiques, and quiet, or to Wildwood for its amusement piers, wide beach, and adolescent activities. The Starn heirs took the offer of a casino developer and gutted the building; the project fell through, nothing was built nor anything paid to them.

Now Starn’s is a desolate lot, everything gone, even the boardwalk and all the supporting structures. Not unlike my family in that picture, which might be considered the height of our happiness: Dad pleased with his promotion, not yet restricted by his lack of a college degree; Barbara looking forward to adulthood, not yet shunned by her peers for her cerebral palsy spasticity; Joey proud of his talent in the church choir, his voice not cracked and himself not yet ostracized by his homosexuality; and Mom with her home, her white neighborhood, not yet panicked by changing demographics to move to a suburban neighborhood they can ill-afford or compete socially in. Mom Mom with her scathing tongue and ancient rage hasn’t moved in with us yet. And me, believing for a very long time—too long, actually—that we loved each other unconditionally, would treat each other gently, without jealousy, and never, ever, lie to each other, because that’s what the “Baltimore Catechism” and the nuns taught. Because that’s how a family was meant to be.

Then it all dissolved, like Starn’s, in a swirl of time, an eddy of tears, and hurricanes of dashed ambition.



Perkiomen Creek

We walk toward the creek—Dad and me. It’s September, going into autumn and we are visiting Grandmom Tilly’s and Pop’s newly built house in Oaks.

Tilly and Pop have moved up from Swampoodle, a section of North Philadelphia near 22nd Street and Lehigh Avenue. They lived there for a long time, while my grandfather ran his one-horse dairy distribution around the area and my grandmother, a candy store in the front of their corner row home. He sold the dairy route to Abbotts Dairies, took a job as a night watchman in a factory in Oaks, and had the house built.

Dad is excited about Tilly’s new house. It’s just down the gravel road from her brother Ed’s small farm and across the other road from her sister Ida.

Uncle Ed is a Mennonite; he wears overalls and a blue shirt to work the small fields around his house. Tilly converted to Catholicism to marry my grandfather Bernhard Haitz, but Ida doesn’t belong to any church, really. Ida is an old lady with white hair. She lives in a big house with her daughter Beets and her family. I don’t know Beets much, or why she has such a funny name.

Uncle Ed Litka doesn’t talk to Dad; he thumps a steel pail on the back porch and shouts to Tilly that “the bucket of corn’s here.” Then he stomps down the three steps and back to his house. On the way here in the car, Dad told us that Uncle Ed had 18 kids and each kid had a horse—that was a long time ago. Mom snorted with laughter.

After dinner, while Mom and Aunt Lennea clean up the dishes, Dad says he wants to take a short trip over to the Perkiomen Creek. He used to fish there when he was young and came up to visit Uncle Ed with Tilly and Pop. “Come on, Joey, you’ll like it.” But Joey doesn’t want to go.

I see Dad’s disappointment. He really likes this place, out of the city, the sharp smell of newly plowed earth in the fields, the trees and birds and space. I smell something sharp; Dad says it’s the damp cement and stone and stucco that the house hasn’t blown off yet, and the musty stench of Tilly’s dog Sparky. I wish I had a dog.

I jump up and say I want to go for a walk, and he gets my coat. Mom tells me I better not get my dress muddy. I hate dresses. But I promise and we leave.

We don’t have a lot of time; Mom had given Dad one of her looks. She’s uncomfortable around Tilly. In fact, she doesn’t like any of the “upcountry” relatives much. Well, I don’t think they like her much either.

Then I am THERE. In the smell of it—river and mud and grass on the bank. I am sunlight tripping through willow leaves in the current. I am the willow’s wrinkled bark and a butterfly dipping at dandelions. I am here in a way I have never felt before. I belong. I am not an outsider here.

I want to keep this, maybe draw a picture of it, to have it forever.

Dad understands. He is with me, a smile brushing his face, as he just stands there, remembering. We are in this together here, him and me, and there is no strife, no arguing.

No talk at all.

Dad and me, and this world of ripples and trills.