I felt like an astronaut in the 1960’s, the time ticking down until I was to rise into the great unknown. But while they were going to be rising into the infinite expanse of space, I was to be going up into the body of an enormous wooden elephant, thus making this one of the worst analogies ever.
Being a hustler myself, I can certainly appreciate the entrepreneurial vision of James Vincent de Paul Lafferty, Jr. Owning a number of lots in Margate, N.J., he realized that the best way to get people to buy these undeveloped parcels of land was to negotiate with them inside a giant elephant. So in 1881, he had Lucy constructed for the unheard of sum of $25,000. He would take prospective buyers onto the elephants back, so they could look around and figure out which lot they wanted to buy.
Our tour guide, a teenager named Heather, led us up the remarkably steep staircase located inside one of Lucy’s legs. At the bottom of the stairs was the old ticket booth, where people 100 years ago had payed ten cents to go into Lucy. Over the previous century, ticket prices had soared with inflation, and we had to pay the unheard of sum of $4.00! But once inside the exquisite beast, we realized that it had been money well spent. A beautiful wooden floor, a skylight, and the original bathtub(used when a physician lived here in 1902) highlighted the belly of the beast.
Other elephants were built in the 1880’s (the heyday of enormous elephant buildings), one in the middle of a giant marsh in Cape May, which somehow didn’t make it (you’d think a giant elephant out in the middle of the marsh would be a big money bonanza), and a colossus (122 ft tall!) on New York’s Coney Island, which caught fire and fell to the ground. Lucy certainly had her share of close calls. Lafferty sold the creature in 1887, and in 1903 it was opened as a tavern. In 1904, some drunken jackass knocked over a oil lantern and nearly sent the beast down, to borrow a native New Jerseyite’s term, “In a Blaze of Glory.”
Speaking of drunken jackasses, I had spent the previous three nights getting in a bar brawl at a comedy show in northeast Philly, flirting with older women and hanging out at the “Dizzy Dolphin”with a member of Huey Lewis and the News, and losing money and eating bad food in A.C. So I was refreshed by the kool ocean breeze after climbing onto the howdah, or observatory, on Lucy’s back. Heather informed us that the 65 foot tall elephant had been moved from down the street in 1970, when that property had been sold. There had been a media frenzy, and power and telephone lines were dropped to make way for the beast.
Alas, all good things must end, and it was time to make our way down the dangerous stairs one last time. A tangible feeling of history overwhelmed me, as I thought of the hundrds of people who had certainly tumbled down these very same steps over the years.
It was time to head back to Philly, but first we stop and ate at a little Colombian restaurant down the street from Lucy. I don’t know what the astronauts ate when they returned from space, but I doubt their restaurant had a waitress who spoke almost no English and was as cute as ours.