A couple of days ago I heard the expression “soup-and-fish” for the first time in many years. It translates into “formal men’s wear” or “a tuxedo.” It was popular in the 1920s and thereafter.
I first ran into soup-and-fish in the summer of 1954 in Atlantic City, N.J. I had completed two years of college, and had taken a job as a desk clerk at a mid-sized hotel not far from the Boardwalk. Its owners were Joseph Blaker, a pint-sized nicotine addict, age 60 or so, and his buxom, all-knowing wife, whose first name I’ve forgotten.
The hotel’s chief (and only) bellman was a huge, wall-eyed black man named Craft. He was a study in calm, suppressed irritation, triggered a dozen times a day when Mr. Blaker called out “Craft!” each time any sort of problem or errand arose.
Two other desk clerks, hired to help with the summer crowds, were a pair of courtly gay men. They were old friends of the Blakers, and operated a part-time hostelry in the Catskills. The housekeeper was Mrs. Mostly, a snobbish lifetime Atlantic City resident. She delighted in harking back to the time when “no decent woman would think of stepping onto the Boardwalk without wearing a hat and white gloves.”
That day was long gone. By 1954 the automobile had opened the city’s gates to barbarians from Philadelphia, Newark and other urban wastelands.
The Blakers dined out often. When setting up a dinner engagement with another couple, Mr. Blaker would ask them, “soup-and-fish?” This would establish how nifty the men would dress. Their wives followed accordingly, I suppose.
The hotel itself was not fashionable. In truth, it was sort of an old folks home. Its summer clientele were mostly guests who had vacationed there each summer for decades. They were almost all middle-aged gentiles, and happy to be so. The Blakers did their best to screen out Jews and (God forbid!) blacks. But a few slipped in. When that happened the Blakers fluttered about, polite but distressed, until the unwanted intruders departed.
The hotel’s chief attraction was the food. Over the years Mr. Blaker had somehow retained the service of a superb chef. In addition to my $35 weekly pay I had the full run of the menu, three meals a day. It was a superb summer of dining. As we all enjoyed our lobster, roast beef and baked Alaska, the reassuring sounds of Mantovani’s orchestra filled the room. In Washington, the House Un-American Activities Committee was hard at work, hounding Hollywood’s pinkos and making life safer for the rest of us. Ike was in full charge of the White House and the nation. Who could ask for anything more?
I manned the front desk every day for three months. One day I’d work 6 a.m. to noon and 6 p.m. to midnight. Next day, noon to 6 p.m. only. Not a bad routine, and plenty of time for the beach or drinking beer with Craft at a local bar. He had dozens of tales about the Blakers, their guests and Atlantic City.
As the summer began I had visions of befriending an assortment of young, unattached female guests as they registered. This dream never materialized. The ladies I checked in (and checked out) were mostly past 40, portly, married, and had no interest in scrawny, impecunious desk clerks.
The city’s beach, Boardwalk, hotels and annual Miss America pageant (held each September to keep tourists coming after Labor Day) had made Atlantic City one of America’s entertainment bright spots from 1930 until World War II. After the war the luster began to fade, as America’s love of glitz went westward. By 1954 the city’s slide into shabbiness was well underway. With the arrival of the gambling casino era in 1976 some of the city’s glamour began to return.
I never went back to Atlantic City. That was 60 years ago, but I still have an assortment of memories. Salt air, saltwater taffy, greasy fries, the horse diving off the Steel Pier, the hucksters selling gadgets on the Boardwalk, lovely women strolling, streetwalkers walking, lonely oldsters pulling slot-machine handles, and the endless quest for joy that was too-seldom found.
In September I went home to Pennsylvania. With my munificent desk-clerk earnings I bought my first car. It was a 1932 Oldsmobile with a rumble seat, spare tires on the fenders, and a rear-window shade that pulled down for privacy. I nicknamed the car Tillie. I took her back to college and began the most delightful soup-and-fish year of my life.