Jackson Casino Days
When I think back to my "Jackson Casino" days, I can only relate as an eight, nine and ten year old. Every other year up to graduating high school, I attended schools in Baltimore. I have a disproportionate amount of memories of my youth as an eight, nine and ten year old. I never thought as a kid that my life was so different than other kids. As a kid all I wanted to do was play and have fun. Kids are kids.
A few interesting things stick out in my memory of "Jackson's Casino." I had a morning, daily chore. My father would open the casino front door at the boardwalk. The black guys who worked at the casino were always waiting for dad to open up. One guy who got along with dad well, always had time to come over and spend time and talk with me. The reason I probably remember him so well fifty years later is because he also had a name that I'll never forget Pork Chops. Ole "Chops" answered to that name, but was always "Mr. Chops" to me. His job was getting the office cleaned up and ready to go, put the "banks" in all the cash registers and stocking all three bars with beer and booze.
Well, my morning chore was to find the hidden money on the floor or behind things at the large dance floor service bar. Drinks or a beer were two and one dollar, respectively. The bartenders would just throw the money on the floor, give the customers what they ordered, and quickly yell to the next patron. Some nights dad told me that the money almost got up to the bartender's knees. I was small so I got down and could always find money stuck somewhere. Sometimes quite a bit. To a kid money didn't mean anything, but I knew that if I brought a lot into the office, I always got praise from the adults. They never cleaned those bars until the next morning, so the money smelled just like beer. Floors sticky - everything - was sticky and smelled. But I had fun doin' it. Another thing that fascinated me during the same time was all these guys walkin' around throwin' sawdust on the floor, then sweeping these large piles everywhere. That looked like fun. But the best part of finding the money at the dance floor bar was afterwards my dad would let me go behind the front soda fountain and get one candy bar. I think I had a Chunky Bar or a Zero Bar everyday for years. Mom never knew about it.
Another thing that sticks in my mind was that huge walk-in safe in the back of the office. As a young boy it totally fascinated me. I was warned on many occasions not to walk into the safe because if the door shut, I would suffocate. But that big safe with the large spinner on the front, and the two large dials that held the "most secret code in Ocean City" and the official type lettering on it impressed this kid. And right next to the safe was a map of Ocean City and the surrounding area. I remember it was an aerial photo map and the "Beach Highway" stopped at 33rd Street. North of that was almost all sand dunes. I can remember dad talking about the old Catholic home that was "up the beach." I don't remember seeing the place, but it was often talked about. But the thing that fascinated me the most about that map was all the blue thumb tacks tacked all over it. Come to find out, it was the property that my dad, his brothers, and their dad owned. Dad once told me that when I got older and wanted a place to raise my family, I could pick a spot where there was a blue thumb tack. So I would look at that map and wonder what it would be like to live maybe way down by the inlet or way up Philadelphia Avenue up near Twentieth Street or back on the bay. West Ocean City was just too far away to live. Keep in mind I'm thinking like a kid in the early fifties. I even dreamt about those thumb tacks. I'd locate a thumb tack that was close to Jackson's Casino (which was at 9th Street) and go and check it out. Kids and their imaginations.
Another thing that stuck in my memory was all the slot machines. My uncle worked on them every morning. He was always fixin' them, just about every day. But I'll never forget a conversation he had with my dad. Keep in mind I didn't know a thing about slot machines. Just fascinated by these reels that spun around. There were all kinds of fruit on them and everybody said the cherries were the best. But my uncle was talking to dad saying that a big weekend was coming and he was going to put reels in the machines that had more lemons than normal. If a person got a lemon in a window, they lost. It wasn't until I was a little older that I realized what he did. Just about every slot machine had a middle reel with extra lemons. Normally, when grown ups talked business I lost interest quickly. But, for some reason, not that time. It was one of those things, for some unknown reason, that can stick in a kid's head.
My mom would take me down to the balcony overlookin' the vast dance floor and the band stand area some nights and tell me that the band leader was world famous and the black guy with the trumpet was famous for somethin' else. I didn't care much for that loud trumpet, but was really likin' that cool handkerchief he had. When out of our upstairs apartment onto the balcony, I had to sit right next to my mother because all around were people playin' cards with lots of money on the table (never chips). As a kid I would like to run around but to bump into one of those tables would have probably been ugly. Anyway, all those people playin' cards were really, really serious about playin'.
All the kids slept up on the third floor behind the casino. It was one big room with six bunk beds and a bathroom at each end. I remember the steps that went from where the grown ups lived, the second floor up to our floor was straight, steep and narrow. I think back on it and the entire building was a huge firetrap - but it never burned. Even the hotel next door, the George Washington Hotel, was a great place for playing hide and seeks during the winter months. Lots of rooms and lot of places to hide.
I had four male cousins - all close to my age plus three girl cousins just a little younger. Plenty of people to do things. All of us slept in the same room, ate at the same large dining table, and played in the same area. We would spend days digging tunnels under the boardwalk. There always seemed to be a 'secret' fort being dug out somewhere. The casino was built on top of a large sailboat. We could dig down a few feet, hit wood, and keep digging until we found a door or window. But the rooms were filled in with sand, or it would be hard to dig out a fort or secret hiding place. Every day there seemed to be a game of "cups" played either in the large empty lot next door or out on the beach. Back in those days there were plenty of empty Dixie cups in the sand all over the place. Fill one halfway with sand, fold the top over, pinch the sides and you had a cool weapon. We would get in these "cup" fights and others would join in on one side or the other. It usually stopped when someone would start cryin' or mom or an aunt would call us from the upstairs back windows. Then it was a race to run back to the alley, up the back stairs, wash hands, and sit at that long table. Lots of pasta meals, hamburger platters piled high, with a pot of beans on the side, and always fish sticks on Fridays. The more I think about those times and write about it, I want to be a kid again. All we ever did was play. Never put shoes on during the summer. Had to for school. Speaking of school, there is one final thought that I would like to share. I never gave it much thought until I grew up.
The last year that I spent the winter in Ocean City was my fourth grade. When the final bell rang, and it was time to go out and play or go home, all students left the building by the large front doors. All the kids leaving school, walking, running, screaming - just doin' what kids do. We went down the steps and out the large front sidewalk and then fanned out to leave. Every school day there were dogs sittin' on the grass, off to either side, waitin' for their masters. Never had a dog, but had neighborhood kids that did. The dogs would run right next to our bikes all the way home. So when thinkin' back, it was quiet, bell rings, within seconds a stream of runnin' kids; tails start waggin', barkin' starts, rush to bike stand and within minutes, silence. Those dogs just sittin' there waitin' patiently. It was somethin' special. Glad I had a chance to experience it.
February 15, 2008