Rolling Chairs

Posted on September 13, 2021


I recently saw a reference to rolling chairs. I haven’t thought about those chairs in decades. They were a fixture of my walks on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, back in the 60s and 70s. They were wicker, had wheels, and many were pushed manually. Most of the riders were, through my young eyes, older and affluent-looking. In the evening, many wore fur coats, oblivious to the summer weather. They were an essential part of the background, like the ocean, the salt air, the endless restaurants and arcades that lined the route.

The chairs harkened back to a time when cars were not available to most people, and when human labor was cheaper and more accessible than horses. The passengers who rode in the chairs always seemed out-of-time, or at least of the time I occupied.

I am probably now well older than many of the passengers I saw then. And, because I now know what aging means, I am aware that many of them, if not most, were probably not flaunting their wealth by sitting in their seats and being ceremoniously driven down the boards. Many of them were simply unable to navigate the boardwalk on their own. The rolling chairs gave them a way to participate in the nightly promenade, to be a part of something, rather than being something different.

Today, people use personal electric chairs, when they are unable to walk, or to walk distances. Those chairs get the job done. But, while they are doing so, they set the users apart and they send a message that the user is old and/or disabled. In our youth-obsessed culture, seniors who can, sport athletic wear and walk with purpose. They pronounce health and a defiance of age. Their eyes occasionally check in with their iwatches. They count steps and heartbeats. Distance walked is the goal, not years accumulated. There is no reward for years accumulated, only for years that stay out of their way.

The rolling chairs of my youth are now fewer in number and they are regulated. Speeds are tracked. Some sport bright colors and striped awnings. Some look more plastic than wicker. Covid has diminished the number of tourists. Rolling chair operators stand along the boardwalk, watching the meager number of tourists walk by. There are fewer attractions along the way and fewer reasons for people to be part of a grand promenade that lasted well over 100 years.

The grand promenade of people along the boardwalk no longer exists. We have found other diversions, and other ways to enjoy ourselves and to display our finery. The casinos that came in the late 70s, displacing countless old hotels and boarding houses, turned Atlantic City into a place for working class people to spend their hard-earned money instead of displaying it while seated in the grand rolling chairs. I have not been back since the casinos arrived.

The old wicker rolling chairs continue to roll on only in my memory and in the memories of those who were lucky enough to leave the sweltering city during those years and find endless magic on the beach and boardwalk. And part of that magic was the nightly promenade along the boardwalk, when we could be entertained by nothing more than the sight of one another, strolling or riding along.

Posted in: memories