Jerry Gervase: In search of Marvin Gardens
I never was good at board games, particularly Monopoly. There is an intangible luck/skill ratio in Monopoly that forever eluded me. While my two older brothers put up houses and hotels on that treacherous yellow/green corner between the B&O and Short Line railroads, my meager holdings were relegated to the low-rent district bordered by Mediterranean and Connecticut avenues. I coveted the three yellow properties because my grade school was on Atlantic; plus I loved the fashionable name of Marvin Gardens. Yet I remained impoverished as my brothers rolled the dice, moved the pieces, and invariably sent me to Jail, where I languished idly, content to play with my game piece — the top hat, which I wore on my pinkie finger while the action continued around me.
Two of the Monopoly streets were not far from where we lived. One end of our street intersected with Vermont (light blue). Connecticut (also light blue) was about another mile father south. Beyond that was Pennsylvania Avenue (green), where rents were quite a bit higher than on the Monopoly board. Part of Pennsylvania bordered Symphony Circle, where stood our beautiful music hall designed by the great Finnish-American father-and-son architectural team, the Saarinens. My high school graduation ceremony took place there. There is a picture in our year book of the entire class, capped and gowned, entering the music hall.
How extraordinarily eccentric are the workings of memory. I cannot recall anything about the graduation ceremony but can vividly remember the staging of the picture with the wind rustling our gowns and tassels as the photographer positioned us around the sweeping curvilinear lines of the structure that suggested the shape of a stringed instrument.
Virginia (pinkish) was also within walking distance of our house. I walked and rode my one-speed bike, played touch football, kick-the-can, and capture the flag, and shoveled snow from the sidewalks of these streets and many others while growing up. We had an Electric Company, and we were served by a branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad running between Philadelphia and Chicago.
It is too simplistically maudlin to think of those formative years as a board game, but one day a roll of the dice started me on my decades-long journey west. There were stops in many places in Michigan until the day I passed “Go” for the last time and landed on a property in California.
It was 35 years before I returned to that board-game city. Much had changed, but remarkably, much had remained the same. The big difference was everything was smaller. It took very few strides to cross Pennsylvania Avenue, which as a child seemed wider than Interstate 5 through the San Joaquin Valley. Still, it was a pleasant trip back in time for me. The neighborhoods were there with the houses I lived in. The streets were still there, as was the music hall. But I was no longer there. There was nothing of “me” there.
True aficionados of the game will tell you that the streets on the Monopoly board are named for streets in Atlantic City, N.J. — except one. There is no Marvin Gardens in Atlantic City. Whatever I was searching for when I went back wasn’t there either. I did not find the magic of the past. Perhaps, like Marvin Gardens, it only exists in games.
Jerry Gervase is a columnist for The Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.