I grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey in the days before gambling legally dominated the political scene. I make the distinction of “legally” because illegal gaming, as well as prostitution and other nefarious enterprises, always dominated the Atlantic City political landscape.
As a child, I defined politics as follows. The pope ruled the world, the president helped the pope by ruling in America and Hap Farley ruled in Atlantic County. Atlantic City did have a mayor. In fact, it was the same mayor for most of my childhood. At some point in the 1980s, Atlantic City held the dubious record of having the most mayors in a row go directly from office to jail. That would never have happened under Hap Farley.
My family’s home sat atop dad’s store. Across the street there was a pool hall and a restaurant mixed in among the row houses. I spent many a sweltering summer night sitting in our living room looking out at the pool hall and watching the police raid it because of the never ending poker game going on in the back room. They would come speeding down the street with lights flashing and sirens screaming. They’d leap out of the car and smash through the plate glass windows. This was usually done so the photographer from the local paper could get a good shot.
It wasn’t till I was much older that I thought to question the timing of these raids and the fact that a photographer was so conveniently there when they happened.. They only occurred when a bunch of neighborhood guys were playing a fairly low stakes game. The raids never seemed to occur when the shades were drawn and all the limos with Pennsylvania license plates were parked on the street. Not that police cars didn’t constantly circle the block while those limos were there. It’s just they never put their sirens or lights on. They certainly never jumped through the windows. They would occasionally stop and knock on the locked door and get cup of coffee. But that was about it. And no photographer was anywhere in sight.
These same limos would periodically pull up at the Venice Restaurant a few doors down from the pool hall. A driver would get out and run around to open the door for the occupant. The occupant was often hard to see because some very big men usually surrounded him. They seemed to always be dressed in black and for a long time I thought they were there for an after funeral party. As I grew older, I realized that was possibly why they were there, but in all likelihood, they also caused the need for the funeral.
The police were always around when these special dinners happened. The restaurant would close except for these guests. And once again, as with the pool hall, all the curtains would be drawn shut. My dad would get an order to deliver trays of antipasto which he did even though it was a Sunday afternoon and his only half day off the whole week. Oft times, it was the police who would help dad carry the trays in.
And that was how the city was run. Anyone who asked questions usually found the answers caused them more trouble than they were worth. If someone did challenge Hap Farley at the polls, the ensuing campaign most resembled a prelude to a gang war which, if you think about it, was just a whole lot more interesting than debates on TV.
In Atlantic City, in the days before Donald Trump gave colorful characters a bad name, politicians told us what they were going to do without benefit of focus groups, pollsters or image advisers. The smart politicians spread enough “good will” around the local neighborhoods to ensure something akin to fanatical devotion. At election time, you didn’t have to really think a lot about who to vote for because only the candidates approved by the incumbent boss appeared on the ballot.
Politics aren’t what they used to be. Thank goodness. But living in Alaska, where fringe candidates outnumber the Porcupine caribou herd, at least keeps politics interesting. It may not be the politics of my youth, but it’s never boring.