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Turning Houses Into Hotels

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Illustration by Jack Unruh  

The columns of Caesars are hollow and cracked; the onion domes of the Taj Mahal are peeling. In Atlantic City, where I grew up, reality is constantly eroding fantasy—in the same way that waves of families from Philadelphia and New York lap away at my parents’ door every summer.

While the boardwalk hosts the interloping landmarks of Agra and Rome, the inland vacation homes once hosted me and my friends—uninvited.

The New Yorkers preferred the crush of the Monopoly board, tending to stay in condos and time-shares off the sea streets—Baltic Avenue, Mediterranean Avenue—bordering the casinos. The Philly crowd maintained large shingled houses in Downbeach, riding that rising tide of property values from Ventnor and Margate to Longport—towns named by their hopeful developers after Victorian beachfront resorts, where men in three-piece suits promenaded neurasthenic women through pastel postcard scenes.

We—who were born down the shore; who stayed through the off-season because the off-season was high school; we whose driveways you parked in, whose lawns you parked on; we who, come the end of the weekend, come the end of the season, cleaned up your trash as you fled Parkway North—we were the kids who broke into your homes. From Labor Day to Memorial Day and every weeknight in summer, those houses were ours; they were our refuge, the only perk of having to survive another stretch of grayscale winter. I drank the Kahlúa that was left in your cabinets; I practiced on your saltwater-warped pianos, rearranged the Chagall prints on your walls, read and reread your paperbacks in your hammocks, and fucked the Polish girl who’d run the Steel Pier Ferris Wheel in your beds. I got to know your kids for a few months, arranged dope connections for them, learned your alarm codes. I learned where you hid your spare keys: under the schwartz family mat, under a fiberglass stone, dug into the soil of an empty porch planter. My friends and I had small parties, lights off, don’t tempt the cops.

Shoobees, or shoebies, typically abbreviated as shoobs: a derogatory term once applied by boardwalk businessmen to the urban poor who visited the shore with all their provisions for the day—sandwiches, a towel—packed into a shoe box. Locals still use the word, though the tourists have become richer and the containments larger: gleaming SUVs, ungainly Hummers. Once, at the very end of a season, stoned and drunk in a strange Longport house, I found a shoe box in a bedroom closet. Everything had been packed out besides that and some dry-cleaners’ plastic, some hangers. I don’t know what I was expecting when I untied the twine that held down the lid. It was flush with cash—$162. That shoe box was a treasure. That shoe box was September.


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