I don’t know if words could ever do justice to the scene at Bally’s Park Place Casino and Hotel where St. Michael’s Church of Atlantic City held it’s 100th Anniversary gala. How do you describe 1000 people in a ballroom, almost all Italian, screaming and laughing with joy and tears as they run into classmates from grade school they hadn’t seen in 50 years? Or old boyfriends who brought back the memory of being very young and innocent in a time when the young had the privilege of being innocent? Or the girlfriend who had a wall of Ricky Nelson pictures in her room under whose watchful gaze you schemed to create the most wonderful Ricky Nelson fan club that ever was?
The sound level in the ballroom probably would have drowned out the roar of a 747 heading for lift off. It was a sound interspersed with the lilting vowels of immigrant Italian English. All words ended in a, e, i, o or u – music to my ears.
I’d already spent a day with two old friends – the girls who’d lived next door to my childhood home, who went to school with me through high school, who discovered womanhood, acne and boys with me. We hadn’t been together for over 30 years but it seemed like just seconds had past. One minute I was a 57-year-old woman slowly unfolding from a car and then I was with Grace and Lea and we were all 12 years old again.
Lea had been away the longest so we took her on a nostalgia tour of the old neighborhood. We stopped by the steps in the alley that led up to her house and remembered playing cut out dolls together on them, making paper dresses from wall paper sample books we would beg from the store down the street. She marveled at the renovations of the church. We checked each other’s memories for the exact location of some missing buildings and tested each other’s knowledge of the names of the nuns who had taught us in grade school.
And then, as we’d done so many times in that far away past, we headed to the boardwalk. The boardwalk has both changed and remained the same since we last walked it together. The old hotels have been replaced by the gaudy fronts of casinos, the beach now has man made dunes protecting it that hide the ocean from view, the Million Dollar Pier where we spent so many afternoons on the roller coaster and Merry Go Round is an empty shell of metal girders waiting for the new shopping center to fill it.
But the smell is the same, the boards are the same and every once in a while you hit a block not yet taken over by a casino where the old stores live on – places to buy souvenirs, pizza, orange drinks, soft ice cream and salt water taffy, while having your future told by a real psychic. We stopped at a display celebrating Atlantic City’s 150 anniversary and signed our names to the big card, taking care to use our maiden names so people know who we were.
When we arrive at the ballroom for the cocktail hour, we are met with pictures from St. Michael’s past. Coordinated by year, each display is surrounded by people pointing and shrieking as they find their 8th grade class picture or their May queen crowning. I find pictures of my father on the Knights of Columbus bowling team from the year they won the New Jersey bowling championship. That trophy adorned a wall in our grocery store for years.
By the time we go in to dinner, the party is in full roar. No one sits down for longer than a few seconds. Between wandering the aisles looking for familiar faces, hugging and crying when finding one, dancing the tarantella and misting up as O Solo Mio is sung, dinner itself becomes secondary. I realized I’d never before been to a party full of Italians where food has taken such a back seat. The only moment of silence in the evening is when Father D’Amico says grace before dinner.
I don’t know if it’s possible to ever again produce the type of neighborhood created by St. Michael’s. I don’t know how you explain what it meant to successive waves of Italian immigrants throughout the 1900s. But I know I’ve always felt privileged to have been a part of it. And from the turn out at this anniversary party, I’m clearly not alone in feeling that way.