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Deformed Woman Battling For Boardwalk Space

March 26, 1990

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) _ A legless, armless woman who won custody of her daughter 14 years ago by changing the baby’s diaper with her teeth now plays ″We Shall Overcome″ and ″Over The Rainbow″ on the Boardwalk by pressing her tongue against a keyboard.

However, her music strikes the wrong chord with municipal prosecutor Steve Smoger, who said Celestine Tate is a ″con artist″ taking advantage of a special permit given her by the city by not living up to an agreement to pay a fine in exchange for being allowed to perform.

Ms. Tate, a 34-year-old mother of two who lives in Ventnor, said during a break from a recent performance in front of Bally’s Park Place Casino Hotel that she just wants to play her music.

″It’s a nice way to occupy my time rather than just sitting around doing nothing,″ Ms. Tate said in a singsong voice.

She frequently asks God to bless passers-by who drop quarters and dollar bills into the bucket in front of her hospital gurney.

Smoger estimates Ms. Tate earns from $120,000 to $140,000 a year. Ms. Tate puts the figure at more like $70,000 to $80,000.

She said her two daughters - ages 11 and 14 - attend private school in Philadelphia, and that she has to pay her $750-a-month rent plus the expenses of a woman who comes in to help her at a weekly cost of $158.

In 1976, Ms. Tate had to prove to a Philadelphia judge that she could care for the first of those girls after the welfare department said she lacked the ability to raise the child.

″I changed her diaper in court and the judge gave her back to me,″ Ms. Tate said, adding the child’s paternal grandmother forced her to break up with the girl’s father because she was disabled. ″It was the Lord’s will that I give birth to her so it must be his will that I have her.″

Ms. Tate was born in Philadelphia suffering from birth defects that left her legs and arms undeveloped. During the interview, she had to ask her cousin to pull a blue blanket over her when the wind blew off the Atlantic Ocean onto the Boardwalk.

″God gave me ways to use my mouth that people with hands can’t,″ she said. ″I wouldn’t trade me with anybody.″

Ms. Tate reaches the Boardwalk spot with the help of a cousin, who pushes her gurney two miles from Ventnor. She said she likes to pass the Boardwalk’s rolling chairs en route.

″I’ll be saying, ‘Beep, beep,’ when I pass them,″ said Ms. Tate, who laughs and smiles easily, raising her eyes from her keyboard to see whomever she is talking with.

She learned her craft in Philadelphia at a music school for the disabled and came five years ago to Atlantic City, a tourist destination she remembered as a child and wanted to return to as an adult.

Tourists and residents alike seem to gravitate toward her, filling her bucket as if it it were a wishing well with requests guaranteed.

″I think it’s beautiful,″ said Millie Vixson after she floated a $1 bill into the bucket. ″I admire the idea.″

Ms. Tate, who is about 4 feet tall and weighs about 170 pounds, has had to battle repeatedly to preserve a spot on the Boardwalk and make a living, and her battles may not be over.

In March 1989, the city gave Ms. Tate a special permit that exempted her from the city’s 80-year-old ordinance barring Boardwalk panhandling. As part of the agreement, Municipal Judge Bruce Weekes said she had to pay a $2,600 fine over the next year for 26 violations. That followed a similar agreement reached in November 1986 between her and city officials.

Smoger said she has reneged on her latest agreement. Ms. Tate freely acknowleges she hasn’t paid the fines, arguing that since that she’s not a beggar she shouldn’t have to pay them.

She said she is not worried about possible further legal action against her.

″You’re going to lock me up and feed me in jail or I’m going to eat on my own,″ Ms. Tate said.

Smoger said he sympathizes with Ms. Tate’s disability but grows tired of sparring with her over her failure to pay the outstanding fines.

″She has done a remarkable job and should be commended for elevating herself to the position she has,″ Smoger said. ″She’s a con artist. Every benefit that could be bestowed on to her has been bestowed by the city of Atlantic City.″

He said he will seek revocation of her license if she does not pay the full $2,600 when her license comes up for its yearly renewal in June.

Smoger defended the anti-begging ordinance as necessary to prevent the Boardwalk from being swamped with people asking for money. Ms. Tate said she’s an entertainer, not a beggar or a public nuisance.

″I could not be begging with my mouth full,″ she said.

Her latest court battle involves something different than her freedom to make a living. She is scheduled for a hearing in Egg Harbor Township municipal court Friday on marijuana possession charges. Ms. Tate said she is innocent.

Howard Mitchell, Ms. Tate’s cousin and the most recent relative to push her gurney down the Boardwalk and watch over her, said he has faith in the woman he calls ″Teeny.″

″I get up and run away from life when I get scared,″ Mitchell said. ″She keeps my spirit very high. Sometimes I’ll just say ’Teeny, thank you.‴

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