In Atlantic City, folks pushing chairs say business is at a crawl

Posted: August 14, 2010

ATLANTIC CITY - On slow days, Felix Johnson sits like a hawk on the edge of the Boardwalk, scanning the crowds for arthritic knees, sweaty children with tired little legs or the bewildered tourist who didn't realize that the Taj Mahal is nowhere near the Hilton.

Wednesday was one of those days for Johnson, one of the hundreds of strong-legged workers who push this resort's famed rolling chairs up and down the Boardwalk for a fee and tips.

"I push chairs every day. I push them in the winter," said the 30-year-old native of Liberia, sitting in his big wicker chair near the Resorts Casino. "It's been a bad year, probably the worst since I've been pushing."

"This is tough," said another chair-pusher, Mohammad Ranjbar, a native of Afghanistan. "You push, push, push all day . . . for what?"

Business seems to be good for the two companies that control almost every one of the more than 300 rolling chairs allowed on the Boardwalk at any time. But for the mostly foreign workers who rent out the chairs and push them, it's been a long, hot summer.

Now Ranjbar walks alongside young Russian, Romanian and Turkish chair-pushers, cruising miles of Boardwalk all day soliciting customers. Others park in lines along the Boardwalk railing, waiting for their chance to park in front of a casino.

Outside the Trump Taj Mahal, some pushers, like 21-year-old Mujgee Enkhtaivan, said they'd been waiting for hours.

Enkhtaivan is a college student in his native Mongolia, studying human resources. This is his first visit to the United States, and he said he could take it or leave it.

"It's all right," he said. "I'm not making what I thought I would make." 

Not the golden era

An Atlantic City icon long before casinos arrived, the rolling chairs have remained essentially the same since they debuted here in the late 19th century: metal or wood frames, three wheels, bedecked in wicker or wood with canvas roofs. They're designed to fit three people.

Author A.E. Seidel described the first three decades of the 1900s as the "golden era" for rolling chairs in Atlantic City. Bill Boland, owner of Royal Rolling Chairs, says the Boardwalk had thousands of rolling chairs during that period.

Those are the years portrayed in Martin Scorsese's forthcoming HBO miniseries "Boardwalk Empire." The series, chronicling the rise and fall of Atlantic City power broker Enoch "Nucky" Johnson during Prohibition, was filmed in Brooklyn but is sure to feature rolling chairs amid the booze, babes and bloodshed in what was, at the time, America's playground.

Lisa Cabrera, Royal's office manager, said that her company recently restored some early-20th-century rolling chairs that HBO requested to accompany the show's premiere in Atlantic City next month.

"We actually get a lot of requests for people who want to buy them," Cabrera said. "They want to put them on their front porches."

During a slow year, Boland will sell a chair or two, but this year has been so busy that he hasn't had to do that, he said.

"This has been the busiest summer in 20 years," he said.

But while Royal and Ocean Rolling Chairs, the city's other big chair owner, are prospering, the workers who push the chairs are not.

Every morning, pushers arrive at Royal's expansive warehouse on South New York Avenue and pay a rental fee for a wicker chair. The prices range from $20 on some weekdays to more than $40 on weekends. Anything the pushers make on the Boardwalk is theirs. If no one takes a ride, they've lost money.

The problem, pushers say, is that the Boardwalk has too many chairs and too many foreign students who couldn't find or keep jobs in the struggling casinos. They also blame the casinos for taking customers' money, and the economy for taking customers from the casinos.

A competitive situation

Atlantic City has regulated the rolling chairs since 1891 and has tried to keep a tight watch on supply and demand. The city currently permits 305 chairs at a time on the Boardwalk. Boland said he owns 192 chairs. John Taimanglo, owner of Ocean Rolling Chairs, has 150. And Eric Shepherd, a former boxer from Camden, owns two chairs.

For Shepherd, 54, empty chairs are part of the economic ebb and flow that has affected Atlantic City for decades. He's been pushing chairs here for 21 years. He rents one out and pushes the other, almost every day of the year.

"I've been up here in the snow when the Boardwalk's empty and came home with sore legs and no money," he said. "Look around, there are a lot of people here. They'll all want a ride eventually."

Last month, when Royal planned to increase its July 4 rate from $40 to $100, pushers converged on Ocean Rolling Chairs in such great numbers that police were called. Taimanglo did not return several calls or e-mails seeking comment, but Boland said he and Taimanglo are very competitive.

Many of the pushers say that Boland puts out too many chairs. Boland said that Taimanglo brought in too many foreign students as pushers. Ocean pushers and Royal pushers even compete on the Boardwalk, trying to scoop up customers from one another in the middle of a negotiation.

In the past, customers would rent chairs to use as private benches for watching major parades or Boardwalk events.

Anthony Cox, director of Atlantic City's Licensing and Inspection Department, said that the city monitors the number of chairs on the Boardwalk, and recently introduced regulations to limit the number of the so-called "standing" chairs allowed.

"It becomes a nightmare," said Cox. "If you let too many chairs up on the Boardwalk, it can get crazy and congested."

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