October 26, 2008

Blind Men Shouldn’t Play Cards for Money in Public


More often than not when Morgan and I mentioned to people that we were going to Atlantic City for a couple of days, we were met with confused looks and hesitant questions.

            “So . . . um, is there something going on down there, or . . . ?”

            While it might have been more interesting to report that we were going down to cover some wacky event or another—Norm Crosby or a porn convention or the international pig racing championships—the sad truth is, no. No, unsophisticated philistines that we are, we were just going to gamble. Every few years, whether we can afford it or not, we get the idea in our heads that we want to throw away a lot of money on games of chance.

            We don’t have the time or energy to fly out to Vegas, and getting up to the Indian casinos seems both limiting and a pain in the ass. Plus we both love the ocean, and I have a thing for washed-out gaudy “opulence” slapped down in the midst of abject poverty. So Atlantic City it is.

            It’s impossible to spend more than a few hours in Atlantic City without a lot of weird shit happening. I’ve been there any number of times over the years—ever since I was living in Philly—and I’ve yet to come away without a handful of stories. Tacky stage shows, stolen cars, drunken escapades, seagull fights, the late, great Celestine. There’s always something.

            It had changed considerably—and not necessarily for the better—since our last trip. The twenty minute walk from the train station to the boardwalk used to be a desolate trudge through empty lots, along dangerous roadsides and past abandoned buildings. Now—almost overnight it seemed to us—every square inch of land between the train station and the casinos had been filled with massive, white, almost blinding outlet stores from every retail chain you can imagine. And once you reach the boardwalk, every vestige of the old Atlantic City has been scrubbed away. The little salt water taffy shops have been replaced by Godiva chocolates and the fried chicken and ice cream joints have become Burger Kings.

            Even the casinos themselves seem much more interested in being shopping malls than the festering cesspools of human desperation they once were. Just trying to get from our hotel room to the casino floor meant an endless trip through three separate malls featuring hat stores, spy stores, crystal shops, gourmet chocolate shops, high-end boutiques, sports bars, over-expensive delis, movie theaters, and a Hooters.

            It was pretty dismal, I must say.

            At least you can still count on the amputees. Celestine may be gone, but an army of amputees has taken her place along the boardwalk. Legless men playing clarinets, French horns, harmonicas, or nothing at all fill the benches between the casinos, providing an unavoidable slap of reality as you stroll from one dead fantasy to another.

            Another thing that hadn’t changed about A.C., was the people. I think more than anything else about Atlantic City, I love the dialogue. I know that if I just shut up and listen to the people around me, I will find endless entertainment of a kind I could never find on the streets of Manhattan. The woman behind us on the train, for instance, spent half an hour between the Philly and Cherry Hill stops listing all the television shows her friend Alice watched regularly.

            “ . . . And she watches E.R. and Law & Order, and Gray’s Anatomy, and House and C.S.I. Miami, and Boston Legal . . . ”

            The two old ladies standing in line behind us at the restaurant where we were planning to eat lunch read the entire menu aloud to one another, commenting on nearly every item.

            “They have a whole Chinese section here—”

            “I don’t want any Chinese. Don’t read that, ‘cause I’m not interested.”

            “Well, they have almost everything else here, too—they have a brick oven pizza—”

            “I wonder what that’s like? Brick oven. Whaddaya suppose that means?”

            “—and all kinds of sandwiches. Hot and cold both. They got a turkey club, and a hamburger, and an open-faced turkey sandwich, and a shaved pastrami—”

            “I love pastrami, don’t you? But don’t know that I could eat it. Not now. Stomach.”

            “ . . . and fried chicken, and a chicken parmesan, and some—”

            “They got a soup and salad on there? I’m thinking soup and salad might be nice.”

            As I stood there listening, Morgan saw the look on my face and whispered, “You’re taking notes.”

            She was right, of course. I always go back to a 1978 interview Werner Herzog gave, in which he explained that there were lines of force criss-crossing the country, and that these lines of force all intersected in a very few specific places. In these specific places, he said, you can get an instant snapshot and understanding of everything that’s going on in the country at that particular moment. He cited Dallas, Vegas, Salt Lake City, Plainfield, Wisconsin, and the floor of the New York Stock Exchange as being the points he knew. Especially after this trip, I’d add Atlantic City. If you listen to the people in the casinos and on the boardwalk, you’ll learn all you need to know about the political mood, the economy, pop culture, the energy and environmental situations, the immigration debate—the zeitgeist as a whole. And believe you me, it’s absolutely terrifying.

            Perhaps nothing made that more clear than Bally’s Wild West Casino.

            Last time we were down there, construction had just started, and a big sign out front announced what was coming. Back then Morgan and I passed by and almost simultaneously said “ewww.” It just didn’t sound like a good idea. Yet this time, more out of desperation than anything, we stopped in.

            The first sign of trouble was the man who met us at the front door. He introduced himself and then offered us seventy-five dollars each if we would meet him later that afternoon to take a tour of a new hotel that was being built “just across the Boardwalk.”

            We both shrunk back in horror, made some lame excuse, and dashed onto the casino floor and out of reach.

            That was only the first sign that something wasn’t quite right.

            The Wild West, as you might expect, was designed with an Old West motif in mind—from the facades of Western-style buildings, to a constant stream of bad country music blasting from the P.A. Even the dealers were dressed up in cowboy garb instead of the traditional tuxedo vests and ties.

            It’s pretty ridiculous to begin with, but becomes patently absurd when you realize that all the dealers are either Pakistani or Asian.

            (“How-dee, partner!”)

            While every other casino we’d been in that morning had been packed, the Wild West—smack dab in the middle of the boardwalk—was empty.

            We got such a bad, creepy vibe from the place that we just put our heads down and ran for the doors.

            “That was just so wrong on every level,” Morgan said when the door closed behind us.

            Not five minutes later as we were walking into yet another casino, we heard a large woman with a Southern accent ask her friend, “And did you see that awful country bumpkin casino?”

            In any case, we finally settled in at a table, played some blackjack, and lost. Then we played some more, and lost some more. Then we slept for a while (last time we were there, our room had a view of the hotel lobby. This time we had a view of a parking lot). Then we got up and lost some more. It was exhausting and demoralizing and at times incredibly frustrating, depressing, and horrifying. I tell you, blind men should simply not play card games for money in public. But you know, we had a grand old time—and we can’t wait to go back, if only for the amputees.


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