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Dispatch From Atlantic City

There's only one way to get to Atlantic City. Fast. Before the excitement morphs into boredom, before you re-examine your finances and realize your allotted gambling dollars would be better spent paying down your mounting credit card debt, before the whole thing begins to seem like a bad idea.

So, we drive fast; that is, as fast as Paul's '87 Buick Skylark will allow. At this speed the Buick doesn't shield its passengers from any irregularities in the road. Each bump sends shockwaves shivering up its chassis and through the bottoms of my feet. The wind is threatening to strip this rig apart piece by piece. At this speed the Buick's drum breaks, if needed, will be completely useless. We'll skid for about a half-mile, or until we make contact, and embark separately toward our own terrible deaths.

In the distance, a halo of pink light appears—neon straining to escape into the atmosphere. Several marathon trips through the desert to Las Vegas have conditioned me to view this unnatural glow warily. Once the light pulls you into its orbit, your path is no longer your own. To some the pink light is heaven, to others it's hell, but you never know until you get there. It all depends on the night.

Near 11, the Buick and its passengers sputter into Atlantic City. First stop, the Tropicana, where we leave the rig with a snide valet, who regards the Buick and us with the same cold incredulity. It's the epitome of karmic justice that this asshole is required to wear a puck shaped beanie.

We make for the tables passing through a maze of slots and computerized black jack machines. The jingle-jangle of payouts, and the over-oxygenated casino air already has me lightheaded. In my mind, there's little doubt that casinos employ teams of behavioral psychologists to mind-fuck their clientele into handing over their hard-earned money. For one, finding an exit in a casino is harder than finding a non-hipster strolling down Bedford Ave. in Williamsburg. The décor—the flashing lights, the swirling wall-to-wall carpeting—induces mild hallucinations. One by one, the free drinks whittle away at your senses.

Whatever it is, it works like a charm. It has me salivating Pavlovian-style over a craps table, desperately searching for an opening so I can slap down my bankroll and get started. I turn a 360. Not a spot to be had. Not at craps, not at blackjack, not at roulette. A pit boss wanders up to me, probably drawn in by the wild look in my eyes. President's Day weekend, he explains, is the busiest of the year.

The wait's got me antsy. When you're gambling, antsy is a bad way to be. Before long the green monster takes over and you jump on the first table you see whether the action looks good or not. You gamble from the gut, make rash bets, and awake from the fever only after the house has swept away your last chip.

My crew comes to the consensus that Tropicana is a bad place to begin the night. After nearly ten minutes of searching, we find the exit and escape down the boardwalk seeking greener pastures.

The Plaza, Caesar's, Bally's, and the Sands loom up ahead. It's strange to think that Atlantic City has only been a gambling Mecca for the last 26 years. Before the Casino Gambling Referendum passed in 1976, Atlantic City was just a run down tourist town that hadn't seen a good season since the U.S. entered World War II. Overnight these vast casino/hotel complexes rose from the ashes. Travel a block from the boardwalk, though, and you'll find that Atlantic City's $640 million-a-year gaming industry has done little to benefit the city itself. The shadows of casino empires hang heavily over tenement apartment buildings, dive bars, strip joints, and pawnshops—a city decomposing from the inside out.

We settle on Bally's, one of Atlantic City's first casinos, the former location of the Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel. Inside, the crowd's thick, but we split up and head off to scope the action. Jarrett and I find a craps table that looks hot. We belly up and drop our money on the felt.

The dice are kind to us. Jarrett's betting heavy on the come line. I'm dropping place bets on the 6 and 8 and hitting consistently. The pass line is heating up. Then a new shooter comes out. He looks like a cross between the Beave and Richey Cunningham. The pit boss even asks the kid for ID, a rarity. The kid steps up and rolls. He tosses dice like he's throwing rose petals into the wind. The heavily tattooed biker at the other end of the table winces and clenches his fist. The elderly woman to my right, who appears to be on leave from a Jersey nursing home, clutches her heart, then reaches into her purse for a pill. Jarrett and I share a look. The kid is bad luck wrapped up in a sweater vest and pleated khakis. But the green monster's at the wheel. We decide to ride it through.

Each roll eats away at my chips. Jarrett's not doing much better. When the kid finally craps out, my bankroll could just about cover a pocketsize manual on how to play craps from the hotel gift shop. I stick for the next shooter, only to watch my last chip slide toward the center of the table and disappear on his first roll.

I head for the bar. After all, the drinks aren't free for losers. Inside the time it takes to order and receive a scotch and soda, George, the friendly though somewhat maladjusted bartender, tells me his life story. Given, it's pretty short. It goes something like this: he's lived in Atlantic City all his life, never been further than Philadelphia; his father was bartender, so was his grandfather, and so on.

Apropos of nothing George says, "When I get off at eight in the morning it takes me two hours to get home."

"Really? Traffic, or something?" I ask.

George grins. "Nope, I only live six blocks away, but there're three bars along the way." He laughs so hard his glasses begin to fog. When I try to reciprocate it comes out like a sob. I thank him for the drink and push off from the bar quickly before he can fill my head with another depressing image.

It's really too late for that. When I turn back toward the floor, I see a feeble old woman with a redish-purple afro; she's hooked into some type of oxygen tank on wheels and playing a row of three slots feverishly. I see tank tops straining under beer guts; I see lycra buckling under boob jobs; I see huff cuts, botched bleachings, tease-ups; I see heated domestic disputes on the brink of turning physical; I see blue collar workers, still in uniform, cashing paychecks for chips. All these broke-down people chasing a slice of the American dream and losing money they don't have in this neon hellhole. I begin to wonder where I fit in this place. Maybe I don't. Then, I wonder why I'm wondering all this crazy shit.

After working myself into a depression at Bally's, watching some busted ex-cheerleaders work the poll at the Stopless Go-Go Bar is almost uplifting. Admittedly, the strip joint wasn't my first choice. The boys, however, overruled me.

The place is empty. A bouncer is shampooing the carpet to the beat of a Dido song. The girls are hovering around our table. They smell blood on the water.

A few feet away, Jarrett's negotiating the terms of a lap dance with a thick-bottomed latina. If history dictates, soon he'll be getting savagely dry-humped in a darkened corner, struggling to keep his hands to himself. After she dismounts he might take her hand and stare at her hard, giving her his soulful look. He might say something like this: "Take a chance on a brother like me. I'll take you away from all this madness. I'll take you away from all this." And he'll be serious, sort of. Yeah, seriously.

A stumpy, gap-toothed girl finishes up on stage and wanders up to me. I take a long pull of beer as she begins shaking it. I think I'm blushing. We begin what is almost a normal conversation. "It's been pretty dead in here tonight," she says. Her tits swoosh past my face. "You guys are like the only guys who've been in here for hours." She traces the lines of her thong. "I don't usually work Friday's." She flips her hair across her face and pulls it back slowly. Then, she stops dancing. "So, are you going to tip me or what?"

"Do you have change for a dollar?" I ask. She gives me a look. "Sorry, kidding." I give her my last dollar and she moves on. Quickly, I become very unpopular with the dancers, which is just fine by me.

The sun's making a break for the horizon when we stumble out of the Stopless. The latina squelched Jarrett's marriage proposal. Across the boards no one's had much luck tonight. We head for Tropicana to stage our last stand.

Once inside the casino I land at a roulette table. Roulette. Truly a desperate man's game. Apparently, at some point, I hit the ATM.

I'm betting heavy on black with a few long shot bets placed around the table. As I watch the wheel spin, my vision blurs. I blink. Now I'm seeing double. Then, triple. Soon my vision is kaleidoscopic. Drunk, I am. My decision-making skills are dangerously impaired. My senses are shot. Before long, I get knocked off the table with enough money left for a cup of coffee and the morning paper—as long as it's not The Times.

"Get me the fuck out of here," Paul says. We're out front of the Tropicana and the valet's taking his time bringing the car around. The sun's high. The light of day has never been brighter. I'm feeling the onset of what will surely be a debilitating hangover.

After we tally, Paul comes out the big loser. Ironically, he allotted himself the least amount of money to begin with. During the course of the night, he redlined the overdraft on his bank account. We are convinced that he snuck out of the casino several times to pawn some of his belongings.

"George Dubya should drop a nuke on this town," Jarrett says. No, I say, he should wall-off Jersey with some high-voltage fencing and turn the entire state into a penal colony. We have a laugh, all except Paul, who is from Jersey.

When we get on the road Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" comes on the radio. I close my eyes. Already I'm back in New York where sin and ugliness are rampant, but hidden a polite distance below the surface. The Buick's shaking to pieces. I can't stop smiling.

--Daniel Schulman



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[email protected] | March 2002 | Issue 24
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