It’s a longstanding official policy: we stop in Atlantic City at least every four years. Not to gamble, mind you, but for cheese steaks. At the acclaimed (but only if you’re into that sort of thing) White House Sub Shop, which on a Friday night might be harder to get into than its DC namesake.
Our Caribbean cruising screwed up the timeline, turning four years into five. Now at this stage in my life—regression on most fronts— after five years with no regular contact I’d probably forget my own children’s names. Thus, five years is far too long a time to remember what ingredients I like on my sub. Cheese, yes; fried onions, of course; hot peppers, it goes without saying. But what about fried peppers and sautéed mushrooms? Lettuce and tomato? I simply cannot imagine adding cold items to a hot sub, yet it sounds vaguely familiar when the waitress asks. The fact that I don’t recall will ultimately mean I won’t be satisfied till I try both constructions. At 16 inches per sub, it’s a good thing I’ve brought Gary.
Similarly, I’ve completely forgotten whether I like the White House Special Italian Sub just the way they make it (which doesn’t sound at all like restaurant behavior of mine) or whether I want a custom jobbie, which is far more likely. But again, with what insides and accoutrements? With trepidation, I order it the White House way. Too late I remember I never liked some of the mystery meats (mystery at least to a Hebrew National girl) The White House puts in theirs.
It only takes one bite to remember (this is food, after all) that after years of sampling I had pared my version down to capicola, genoa, an accent sliver or two of prosciutto, plus onions, lettuce, tomato, hot peppers, oregano, oil and vinegar.
I remove a few overly grainy meats from my White House Special and soldier on without complaint. Disassembling the sub, necessary though it is, wreaks havoc with the careful arrangement of ingredients, so that I’ve got a geyser of onion cuttings, crushed hot peppers and tomato slices popping out all over the place. The table we ultimately leave looks something like quadruplet two-year-olds were the customers.
The White House was opened in 1946 by a GI named Anthony Basile, an Atlantic City homeboy returning from the Philippines. Basile claims to have invented the submarine sandwich, naming it after the ships he served on during World War II. Gary simply cannot get over the fact that in all these almost 60 years The White House has not added so much as a shred of cole slaw or a french fry, to the menu. He considers this a lost business opportunity of incalculable proportion. I, on the other hand, salute such holding out as a laudable refusal to bow to Mammon. One might even expect framed tributes from Mennonites or Mansonites for such remarkable—some might say un-American—restraint.
We try but can only rate the White House pretty good. The formica sub-shop interior is the same. There are many additions to the Big-Stars-Who’ve-Eaten-Here memorial wall. Frankie, Dean-O, Tony Bennett, even “W” I recognize, but we’re totally out of the loop when it comes to those characterless, unlined faces of the youngly famous set. I also do not recognize the bread: what happened that crunchy, cut-your-cheek, hours-old hoagie bread?
Despite the carbohydrate disappointment, we do manage to share two whole subs and a half. A fairly dismal performance. In past years I've beaten that record all by myself. And gone on to chocolate-covered frozen bananas. Just ask Jay Gerber if you don’t believe me.
I don't like this aging business.
So I think we won’t be returning to the old White House. Dinner may have cost only $30 but dockage cost $244. If Atlantic City's Trump Marina now charges $4 a foot, we can only imagine what trendy, usurious Nantucket runs these days. Probably $244 for a mooring outside the harbor and triple that for a dockside slip.
Besides, this I do remember: there's nothing like a Hubba Hubba cheesesteak. No one can forget the sole, correct, guaranteed unforgettable way to order a Hubba Hubba cheesesteak: double steak, double cheese, with fried onions, provolone, house-made Marinara sauce and the Hub’s amazing special hot chili. Extra chili on the side for dunking.
Except the Hubba-Hubba’s out of business. Allegedly, Big Pat came out of the Big House with other moneymaking schemes and his jailhouse stand-in, almost-as-Big John, eventually skimmed off sufficient cash so he could devote himself full time to his swell motorcycle collection.
To be perfectly accurate there is still a Hubba Hubba in Stamford. But the ambiance is all wrong. It’s downtown, smack in the middle of Broad Street and not where it belongs: on Route 1 where there are still enough 18-wheelers wandering noisily by belching emissions to make it qualify, sort-of, as the truck stop it once was.
That original Greenwich Hub was my destination for a pre-Junior Prom snack. Doubtless this was the first and last sighting of an orchid corsage and a many-tiered tulle dress in any of the Hubba’s incarnations.
Try and imagine a Hubba Hubba on Route 1 in Greenwich today, tucked between the Aston-Martin, the Maserati, the Ferrari and the Mercedes dealers? I don’t think so.
The other reason to avoid the Stamford Hubba Hubba is the chili. It seems before Big Pat moved on to bigger things, he sold the place to some gullible Pakistani who forgot to get the chili recipe. The Pakistani says it just wasn’t worth it to pay the goniff extra. This is a big mistake. One can possibly forgive a jarring location, but never the wrong chili.
It’s kind of like the White House bread: even now that I’ve got the cappy/salami and the cheesesteak recipes memorialized in my PDA and my various laptops, still the bread’s just not up to snuff.
To work off our White House excess, we take a hefty two-block walk over to Caesar' Palace. There we lose 75 cents in the slots, which is far too much to render unto Caesar.
Then we amble over to Bally’s—one of Atlantic City’s many Bally's, the ersatz Old West one. The nearer Trump’s Palace or the Trump’s Taj Mahal or the Trump’s Marina or the Trump’s-Trumped-You are out of the question: we’re not willing to give The Donald (or his hair sculptor) another red cent.
Not only are the subs not worth our Atlantic City stop, but the people-watching doesn’t measure up either. There are no more fatties and grotesques than, say, your average IHOP. More old people with nifty walkers and electric wheelchairs, though, if that's your thing. (As for us, we don't need any extra reminders of where we're headed.) Too many people wear that vacant-behind-the-eyes, my-parents-were-first-cousins Atlantic City look.
After 45 minutes, we can't stomach any more…maybe if we'd eaten less. It takes another 45 minutes of trudging through stagecoach ambushes and Wild West saloons selling bagels to find our way out to the street.
The pretty people are, perhaps, at the Bahati or the Basati or the Basmati: the new hot-spot casino, apparently named after a supermarket product. Our taxi driver pronounces it expensive, but worth a look. It is striking: an immensely tall silo shape trimmed in horizontal purple neon horizontal bands and looking startlingly different from the other theme-park casinos—at least from the outside.
We pass. Gambling used to be fun. At the risk of sounding like an old-fart curmudgeon, gambling’s just not the same. Forget glamour: you no longer get to gaze at a clientele decked out in cocktail frocks and dyed-to-match pumps. Instead you’re assaulted with—from the top—lumpy mammaries oozing out of skimpy tank tops; runaway behinds straining the seams of polyester shorts, beneath which creep the secondary blights of pasty stumps stuffed into dirty sneakers. Mirabile dictu, we see not one hair roller.
On the money end of gambling, forget the two-dollar “21” table, where one could while away an evening relatively painlessly, getting free drinks while adding and subtracting to a 50 stake until it frittered away altogether. An altogether not-unpleasant experience.
But it’s worse: there’s what happened to the slots. Most of them now start at $5.00, which used to pay for your kid’s haircut. I think you can even insert your credit card, which is obscene, since the average customer looks like he doesn’t earn much more than a bus driver.
Even worse: there’s no more fun noise: Since the slots are now push-button, there’s no silver arm to throw, so you don’t get that kazoo-ey thunk at the finish. Worst of all, there’s no jingling, so you never hear that musical plink of a coin splashing down into the tray and the even more exciting basso-profundo crescendo when somebody (never you) wins big. All this is what kept the dream going. Maybe there’s a similar, electronically induced orgasm but not for my generation, where even the real thing is lately, well, hard to come by.
So much for Atlantic City.
Parenthetically, we discover the next day that Democratic hopeful John Kerry was in town. Someone (not me) should let the Bush campaign know he didn’t make it to The White House. Karl Rove would love to make something out of that.
New York, New York
We’re able to make the final leg in one day, but we want one last night alone at anchor to celebrate coming full circle. We also need to readjust our psyches for months tied up in a marina. It feels like LULU, our thoroughbred, is about to be bridled.
We move 65 miles north and drop the hook in utterly unromantic Sandy Hook. Still, we’re so close to Manhattan we can almost hear the familiar cacophony of traffic. We uncork a bottle of sparkly Prosecco, toast each other and our good fortune. Then we cook up a small cow’s worth of steak.
We’re just 27 miles from New Rochelle, anticipating that most thrilling of all stretches of water: New York harbor. The elation begins with the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, its greeting expected but still somehow sudden. The shivers build from there. Almost immediately, the Statue of Liberty looms into view, followed swiftly by the triangular skyscraper cluster at the bottom of Manhattan. All breath-takers and then, almost too soon to absorb, the passage under the majestic Brooklyn Bridge with its radiating tracery of cables. Within minutes comes the venerable Manhattan Bridge, followed quickly by the more workaday Williamsburg. All the while sliding along Manhattan’s magnificent skyline. On clear days, the Chrysler Building’s cupola glints golden in the sunlight Building and the Empire State shimmers like molten silver.
We’re expecting smooth sailing…or rather motoring. Shockingly, we’ve had only one morning’s worth of sailing in 17 days of actual boat travel. During the entire six weeks’ passage from Miami we’ve been blessed by sunny skies and sprinkled only a few hours by rain. Still, we felt we’d already taken our fair share of from bossy Father Neptune and mercurial Mother Weather.
We figure we’re home free.
Silly us. For one thing we’ve forgotten about testy Uncle Technology, who begins toying with us at dawn. Gary powers on the Northstar, our on-deck, sunlight-readable GPS navigation computer, which tells us exactly where we are, ticking off buoys reassuringly and pointing out all shoals and land masses.
The screen remains black. A few more flicks and we know it’s not asleep, it’s quite dead. Technology, generally a trusty comrade, is toying with us. An annoyance but not a dilemma, since we’re traveling in daylight. We haul anchor and motor on. Minutes after the anchor clangs into place we’re underway, when a dense fog drops over us like a tight gray dress. That’s Mama Weather letting us know she’s decided to ruin our day.
Thrilling turns into treacherous. New York is probably no longer the world’s busiest harbor, but it’s nonetheless infested with gigantic freighters, tankers, cruise ships, ocean liners, assorted tugboats and a slew of fast ferries taxiing earlybirds to their Manhattan cubicles. None of these monsters has, since we first encountered them at the Chesapeake Bay entrance, given a second thought to changing lanes, cutting us off, passing smack on our nose—in daylight or at night. There’s the possibility they don’t even notice us.
We can’t see a thing around us but we hear loud mournful blasts as ships approach. This is chilling, not thrilling. I reach into the cockpit table and pull out our puny little air horn in its Ziploc casing. The bag interior is coated with a film of rust, through which I can make out something floating in water. Reaching in gingerly, I pull out the plastic horn element. It’s separated completely from the bottom, a metal can that’s now a jagged cylinder of crumbling rust.
Tough luck but it’s doubtful they’d have heard it anyway over their own roaring engines.
We’ve got the radar on. While we know they do too, we can’t be sure anyone’s watching. We bring up a pitch-hitter laptop but for more than an hour we’re primarily dependent our own human resources. We count buoys, struggling to decipher their numbers even as we pass them. We move somewhat out of the channel, thinking to avoid collision by staying out of the main shipping lane.
Gary peers out, watching forward, his head swinging like a metronome: left to right, right to left across the disappeared horizon. I stand in the rear cockpit, making slow revolutions, jumping aft or out when I sense or hear something’s coming. Indistinct smears appear out of the now blue-whiteness of the daylight fog. Slowly, scarily the oncomers morph into behemoth dark gray silhouettes. We adjust course to avoid them.
This first few miles is the most trafficked of all New York harbor. Four or five commuter ferries zing past us and six or seven mega-ships materialize out of the nowhere. Threatening logs float abruptly into view. Who throws things this big out???
It’s a different sort of excitement than we expected, but it is exciting, especially so when the ghost of the Verrazano span emerges from the blur. The fog begins to dissipate ever so slowly, one thick molecule at time. That green smudge on our port can only be the Statue; nearer in, enveloped by haze she’s a veiled version of herself.
That veiled quality brings to my mind veiled and powerless Muslim women. Unavoidably come thoughts about the amorphous but palpable terrorist threat our country now faces, indistinct yet as real and treacherous as fog. Such thoughts do not suffice to prepare me for the missing World Trade Center buildings, so very solid when we sailed out of New York. With nothing dominating the emerging huddle of buildings at the tip of Manhattan, I can’t help playing a futile game of filling in the blanks with two dotted-line towers. The dead linger everywhere.
We make it through the unseen maze; eventually the lifting fog unfurls the glory of New York, a spectacle that can dissolve any somber mood. I’m back in the moment, open to the clear sunlit Brooklyn Bridge ahead and beyond that, the months in familiar surroundings, basking in family and friends.
We’re now safely docked at Castaways, our kids’ childhood water playground and longtime home to our power boats.
Over and out for now.