July 5, 2016
The governments that get themed into casino-hotel-resort properties tend not to be democracies, but oligarchies, aristocracies, monarchies, Africa-and-Asia-devouring empires. Pharaonic Egypt, Doge-age Venice, imperial Rome, Mughal India. Atlantic City has incarnations of the latter two — Caesars Atlantic City and the Trump Taj Mahal — with the Taj being the last property in the city to bear the Republican candidate’s name, though it’s owned by distressed-asset czar Carl Icahn, who also owns the Tropicana, a crumbling heap styled after the Casa de Justicia of some amorphous banana republic. The worse the regime, the better the chance of its simulacrum’s survival. Atlantic City’s Revel, a hulking fin-like erection of concrete, steel, and glass that cost in the neighborhood of $2.4 billion, opened in 2012 only to close in 2014, which just goes to show that an abstract noun, verb, or imperative in search of punctuation (Revel!) doesn’t have quite the same cachet as a lost homicidal culture.
Today, the fake ruins of Rome and India are among the cleanest, safest havens to be found in the real ruins of Atlantic City — a dying city that lives for summer. I was returning there, to my family there, still unsure as to whether this summer would be my last or its last or both.
Now, given the fact that AC’s been so perpetually press-maligned that I can remember nearly every summer of the sixteen I spent there being deemed, by someone, “crucial,” “decisive,” “definitive,” or “the last,” this suspicion of mine might seem, especially to fellow Jersey Shore natives, irresponsible and even idiotic — so I will clarify: I don’t mean that I thought that after this summer of big media scrutiny but little new money the city would burn, or that the Atlantic Ocean would finally rise up and swallow it. I just thought that, come Labor Day, the city’s bad-luck streak would only break for worse and no one would care.
After the legalization of Indian tribal and nontribal casinos in Connecticut in the 1990s and in Pennsylvania in the 2000s; after the legalization of tribal casinos in upstate New York in the ’90s and of nontribal casinos in the 2010s; after the damage done to the city by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and all the myriad, still-ongoing depredations of the global so-called Great Recession that resulted in the closing of four of the city’s casinos in 2014 (the Revel, the Showboat, the Atlantic Club, and Trump Plaza), leaving AC with the highest rate of foreclosure of any urban area in the country between fourth-quarter 2014 and the present; this summer — the summer of 2016 — already felt like the fall. Maybe this wouldn’t be the last summer that White House Subs or Chef Vola’s would ever be serving, but it might be the last summer that I, as a sane, unarmed, and relatively pacific human being would still feel comfortable traveling to them for a cheesesteak or veal parm on foot — taking the stairs down from the overlit Boardwalk to the underlit streets of what’s officially become the most dangerous city in Jersey, now that Camden has stopped reporting its crime statistics to the FBI. It occurred to me that if and when AC is ever visitable or enjoyable again, my parents will probably have retired south to Cape May, and the few acquaintances of mine who still live on Absecon Island — the island of which AC is the northernmost town — will probably have left.
But what ultimately had me convinced that AC — whose historical cycle of boom and bust recapitulates each year in the cycle of “season” and “offseason” — would not be the same, or even recognizable, was the perfect-storm convergence of a few maybe-related, maybe-unrelated events.
First, the budget deadline: if AC couldn’t produce a balanced budget for state approval by October 24 — and most residents here were convinced that it couldn’t, and that Governor Chris Christie wouldn’t let it — then the State of New Jersey would assume control of all its offices and operations, commencing with what AC’s mayor, Don Guardian (and the ACLU, and the NAACP), regards as an unconstitutional takeover of city government. Should this happen, AC would be the first city in Jersey history to be run from Trenton (besides Trenton). The state would have the power to renegotiate all of AC’s contracts, including its union contracts, and to privatize, meaning to peddle, its assets — like the water company, the Atlantic City Municipal Utilities Authority, and the defunct airport, Bader Field — in the hopes of paying off the city’s $550 million debt and reducing its $100 million budget deficit.
Second, the ballot referendum: on November 8, two weeks and one day after this likely state takeover, Jersey voters would go to the polls to decide whether or not to approve the New Jersey Casino Expansion Amendment, which seeks to expand casino gaming — until now restricted to Atlantic County — to two other Jersey counties able to provide suitable casino siting at least seventy-two miles from AC. If the amendment is approved — and as of this writing the opinion split appears to be 50/50 — get ready for grand-opening celebrations of casinos in the Meadowlands. The logic is that AC has already lost about $2.5 billion in gaming revenue to neighboring states over the past decade, and it’s only a matter of time before some enterprising schmuck puts up a betting parlor in Manhattan; the establishment of new casinos up north along the Jersey side of the Hudson might forestall that. Or it might not — but it would certainly ensure that the citizens of the largest city in the country will stop trekking almost two and a half hours on a defunct-bathroom Greyhound, or almost three hours on an Amtrak that because of track deficiencies must be routed through Philly, to lose their shirts.
Of course, November 8 would bring another decision, and not just for Jersey.
I called Mom and Dad, fueled up the car, and left New York, driving Turnpike (Exit 11) to Parkway (Exit 38) to the AC Expressway. There wasn’t any traffic.
Back in the (Bill) Clintonian 1990s, when the billboards flanking the Expressway and the Black and White Horse Pikes weren’t bared to struts or advertising Your Ad Here, when my father made his money suing the casinos and my mother made hers giving accent-reduction lessons to South Asian immigrants who worked at the casinos, when my parents’ friends and professional peers and just about every other adult bowing to my left and right and in front of and behind me in synagogue either regulated the casinos (for the state’s Casino Control Commission and Division of Gaming Enforcement), managed the casinos (their gaming floors, food and beverage, and entertainment), or supplied goods and services to and for the casinos (ice, linens, waste management), AC — the city itself — remained a mystery to me, a paradox. It was a place where everyone made a living, and yet where no one liked to live. A place of fantasy (strippers!) and yet of bewildering strictures (you can purchase alcohol 24/7 in stores and bars, but not in strip clubs, though you can BYO alcohol into strip clubs!).
It was, to my teenage self, about a two-dozen-block strip of Boardwalk and two major if seedier streets, Atlantic and Pacific, which I’d visit for fun or trouble before heading out for the less crowded, less polluted beaches or home, making in the course of a single weekend night the same trip that most of the adults I knew made every weekday: between AC (population 39,260) and the whiter, more affluent Downbeach towns of Absecon Island or the whiter, more affluent mainland. The adults were just going to work; their children, or I’ll just speak for myself, had drugs to buy and girls to meet.
I also became a casino employee, but only after I was sure I was leaving. The summer of 1998, the summer between high school and college, I worked at Resorts, a casino that lacked an apostrophe so as to appear, I’m guessing, less possessive: of my time, and of the customers’ cash. I was a coin cashier, and my job was to stand, fully tuxedoed, inside an excruciatingly bright and noisy barred cell furnished with a tiny surface of faux marble (because marbling camouflages grime, and cash is grimy) and a small round aperture through which slots players handed me their buckets, white plastic troughs emblazoned with the Resorts logo and surfeited with their winnings. I would dump each bucket’s lode into the churning maw of my automatic counter, which, while it tallied up the coins, also separated them, shunting the nickels and quarters — the preferred denominations of slots — into vast plastic bags that hung to the floor like the distended gullets of pelicans. I’d read the total from the counter’s display and pay the players their rightful take in whichever form they requested it: bills, or — I was supposed to encourage this — chips, which at the time were regarded as the easiest monetary substitutes for players to immediately put back into circulation and thus be parted from. Fiat currencies would soon leave the slot floor altogether, with the introduction of new self-service machines that wouldn’t take or pay out with coins at all, but instead took, and paid out to, casino-issued credit cards. At that point, in the mid-2000s, the honorable trade of the coin cashier, like that of the blacksmith (who now only posed for photos at Bally’s Wild Wild West Casino) and the riverboat captain (who now only posed for photos at the Showboat), just vanished.
It should be noted, however, that before the casinos phased out coins and we coin cashiers were replaced with self-service machines, we spent all our shifts servicing our lesser machines, trying to declog them — especially on the graveyard shifts, when more and more players came in with buckets they’d use as ashtrays, so that their coinage was interspersed with butts (smoking was banned in 2008), and when more and more players, too late for the dinner buffet but too early for the breakfast buffet, came in with buckets of fast food they reused to hold their jackpots. They’d sit at the slots, pulling the levers or pushing the buttons while poking around in their buckets for fried-chicken drumsticks or BBQ ribs, and shake off the stuck metal before indulging. Coin cashiers were trained to contain these situations, and so were expected to go sifting through the winnings to remove any bones and burnt ends and shreds of skin and breading. Those were the simplest things, the simplest of the foreign objects, to watch out for, mostly because they came in buckets from KFC or in foam clamshell containers from Burger King or McDonald’s. Other containers, such as shoeboxes or backpacks, were tougher to monitor, and if I — in the over-air-conditioned heat of the moment, under verbal fire from an interminable line of intoxicated zombies — ended up missing anything, any non-coin article, especially if I ended up missing something sizable buried at the bottom, like a wristwatch or a phone or a med-alert bracelet, it would (usually) announce itself by jamming up the counter, and clearing the jam would (usually) blank the total, in which case I’d have to pay out a quarter-bag’s max: $100. Obviously, then, it would be in a slot player’s interest, if he or she hadn’t won quite $100, to make sure that stray cutlery or a spare key or other sabotage debris were always lurking below the coinage. Obviously too, the casinos knew this trick, and we coin cashiers knew that we were responsible for catching it — that we were being camera-surveilled from every conceivable angle and so might be disciplined, or terminated, for not catching it. But still: I was leaving for college in the fall, and there were midnights, there were dawns, I was finding bloody Band-Aids. Shift after shift, my totals rarely matched up, the amount in coins I’d taken in always considerably less than the amount in bills and chips I’d paid out from my drawers, because I kept having to hand over the $100 black chips or, more often, the crisp, sharp Franklins. Though I hate to credit a Philly boy, it was Franklin who put it best: “Neglect is natural to the man who is not to be benefitted by his own care or diligence.”
On breaks I ate in the Resorts basement at the employee buffet — which was “free,” because it featured leftovers from the customer buffets — and after my shifts I hung out with the only two cashiers around my age, the only two who after clocking out wouldn’t dash for the jitney home. Everyone else I worked with was older — nice people, family people, immigrant or first-generation Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Vietnamese, and Thai, who weren’t going to squander their precious off-time arguing with pizza-faced white coworkers over pizzas at Tony’s about what was better, hand jobs or DIY jerking.
Some nights I’d blow all my earnings at AC Dolls or Bare Exposure (which enigmatically, or out of legal exigency, once briefly called itself Bare Exposures). Some nights I’d blow just half my earnings on a room above the Chelsea or at the El Rancho (the one motel that’d never carded me and yet is now, deliciously, called the Passport Inn) — a room from which I’d call a few friends (males), who’d come and drink and smoke pot with me; a room from which I’d call a few friends (females), who’d never come.
Such are my memories, or at least the ones I’ve offered around like cocktail franks to folks in New York and other cities I’ve lived in, whenever someone asked where I was from and I answered AC and they said, “Hey, that must’ve been interesting,” or, “Wow, that must’ve been nuts.” With age, and after becoming assimilated to circumstances I’d never imagined for myself as a kid from the Shore (in Europe! with a girlfriend! as a journalist! as a novelist!), I realized that I’d unintentionally adopted their perspective myself — a sense of the Shore in general and AC specifically as strange, even freakish — and so made a habit of sharing, of performing, only the extremes. I gratified what I perceived to be my more sophisticated audiences with only the most outlandish anecdotes of my immaturity there, never mentioning, for example, that I was educated at the island’s particularly good Jewish school and not in its particularly bad, racially tense public school system, and that my parents were — are — kind, pleasant, generous, intellectual people who weren’t always 100 percent aware of — because I wasn’t always 100 percent transparent about — all the nose-dirtying I got up to after-hours.
Now, having returned to the city — to what AC’s Chamber of Commerce used to call America’s Playground and now calls, with depressing deprecation, the Entertainment Capital of the Jersey Shore — I found that my feelings had flipped. What I’d been conditioned to regard as a madcap, hedonistic outlier of a place, an utterly, even excessively incomparable place, now struck me as not exceptional at all, but emblematic, not merely of the rest of the state but of the rest of the country off whose coast it floats. The city of my youth had seemed like a flounder in summer, that bastard flatfish that local fishermen call a fluke. AC 2016, however, was coming to seem like America’s bowrider: what captains call the dolphins that swim in front of their boats, riding the wake off their bows as if heralds.
I first noticed this sea change last fall, when a certain type of red-faced, overweight, whatcha-gonna-do-about-it New Jersey/New York male commandeered our national politics. Both Donald Trump and Chris Christie were talked about in my family constantly — Trump since before I was even in utero, and Christie since George W. Bush appointed him US attorney for New Jersey in 2001, and especially since he became governor in 2010. But it was only after suffering through their schoolyard-bully penis contests during the 2016 Republican primaries that I began to recognize how similar they were, how alike in personality and in unctuous, disingenuous style. If I hadn’t detected their toxic resemblance before, it was only because they’d been menacing different playgrounds: Trump having always been nominally private sector, brandishing the better, or just more recognizable, brand; Christie having always been nominally public sector, an elected official who must be held to higher standards. The ongoing SEC and congressional and New Jersey State investigations into Christie’s alleged misappropriation of Port Authority monies, his allegedly having made federal emergency-relief funds available to Jersey cities affected by Hurricane Sandy contingent on city-government support of unrelated state-government initiatives, and, finally, his allegedly having ordered the George Washington Bridge closed as an act of political retaliation against the mayor of Fort Lee — and so snarling a major artery from Manhattan — will likely continue beyond the conclusion of his term in 2018. Jersey’s governor has always been such an unmitigated prick that what stunned me most last spring wasn’t Trump’s emergence as the GOP front-runner, but Christie’s dutiful dropping-out and endorsing him — his assuming a role, even after Trump passed him over for VP, halfway between that of a catamite butler and a henchman capo, the butt of Trump’s insulting fat jokes and the fetcher of his milkshakes and fries.
The Republican primary debates marked the televised degeneration of their friendship — or whatever a friendship can mean in politics — which began only in 2002, when Trump’s sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, then a Philadelphia-based judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, nominated to that position by Bill Clinton, introduced her brother to the governor. The Christies were invited to Trump’s third wedding, to Melania; the Trumps were invited to Christie’s first inauguration. A year into Christie’s first term, and six years after the State of New Jersey had started to pursue collection of the almost $30 million in back taxes owed by Trump’s casinos, the State suddenly reversed course and settled for $5 million. Trump contributed an exceedingly modest share of the money he saved to the restoration of New Jersey’s historic gubernatorial residence, Drumthwacket. New Jersey’s near-miraculous tax forgiveness must be understood in the same way as its governor’s near-miraculous abjection: neither are demonstrations of Trump’s master outmaneuvering, but rather of Christie’s cravenness. Christie will do anything to win, or be on the winning team. If he can’t be President, or VP, he’ll plump for chief of staff, or attorney general, or even just settle for a monogrammed-T swag bag with a Trump hat, Trump Steaks, Trump wine. Christie’s not only inept, he’s also running out of options: there isn’t much of his party left to knock around. Politics (budget meetings in the State House in Trenton) used to be distinct from entertainment (The Celebrity Apprentice in syndication), but no more. Christie seems jealous of Trump, not just of his financial success or his nomination but of how well and recklessly Trump, as a former/current reality-TV star, can lie. Christie has always just ignored, withheld, or fastidiously obfuscated. Trump, by contrast, can’t afford not to be blatant or audacious in his untruths, so as to keep earning free airtime from the cable networks and radio stations whose ratings and ad revenues increase — blatantly, audaciously — in correspondence.
To me, Trump was always a blusterer, a conniver, a mouth: a cotton-candy-haired clown who crashed the AC party late and left it early and ugly. To my parents and their cadre, the Republican nominee was a more malevolent breed of fraud: a dishonest client and dysfunctional boss. I spent my first weekend in AC persuading my parents to introduce me, or reintroduce me, to their casino friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, and spent my first week explaining my presence to many concerned and baffled adults, to people who didn’t recognize me from childhood, to people I didn’t recognize from childhood, and to strangers and all and sundry who’d make the time to talk Trump with me. The word I heard most often in reference to the GOP candidate — from Steven Perskie, the former New Jersey assemblyman and state senator whose original gaming referendum brought casinos to AC in 1976; from Nelson Johnson, the New Jersey superior court judge who wrote the book version of Boardwalk Empire; from Don Guardian, one of the few AC mayors in my lifetime not to have been charged with corruption; from Ibrahim Abdali and his cousin who’d only identify himself as Mohammed, Afghan refugees who sell pipes and bongs and martial-arts weaponry on the Boardwalk — the word I heard most often was failure.
Every Trump account I was given in AC described a man so extraordinarily bad at business, or at being anything besides a business celebrity, that he was forced to switch from building casinos to branding casinos with his name, that polysemous pentagrammaton he charged his partners to use and then sued them to remove once the decaying properties became a liability. In the 1980s and ’90s, the casinos with which Trump was associated constituted between a third and a quarter of AC’s gaming industry. The Playboy Hotel and Casino, which was founded in ’81, became the Atlantis in ’84, and went bankrupt in ’85, was acquired by Trump in ’89 and renamed the Trump Regency; he renamed it again as Trump’s World’s Fair in ’96, and it was closed in ’99 and demolished in 2000. Trump Castle, built in cooperation with Hilton in ’85, was rebranded as Trump Marina in ’97, was sold at a loss to Landry’s Inc. in 2011, and is now operated by Landry’s as the Golden Nugget. Trump Plaza, built in cooperation with Harrah’s in ’84, went bankrupt and shuttered in 2014 and now just rots.
And then there’s the Trump Taj Mahal, which Trump built with the help of Resorts International in 1990 on financial footings so shaky and negligent that by the end of the decade he’d racked up more than $3.4 billion in debt, including business (mostly high-interest junk-bond) and personal debt, which he handled by conflating them. By lumping them together under the auspices of a publicly traded company, Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, he dumped all his burdens onto the backs of his shareholders even as he continued to treat his casino receipts as profits, to be raided and reinvested in development in New York. Even while Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts bled an average of $49 million a year into the late ’90s, even while its share price plummeted from $35 to $0.17 through the early 2000s, Trump himself continued to receive a salary in the millions, not to mention bonuses and the monies his personally held companies made from his publicly traded company leasing office space in Manhattan’s Trump Tower and renting Trump Shuttle helicopters and Trump Airlines airplanes to fly around showroom acts and high rollers. Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts finally went bankrupt in 2004, and in its restructuring became Trump Entertainment Resorts, which itself went bankrupt in 2014 and was fire-sold to Icahn Enterprises, whose subsidiary, Tropicana Entertainment Inc., has run the Taj into a $100 million hole. Carl Icahn, the conglomerate’s chairman, was once a wary adversary who now endorses Trump, though he’s declined Trump’s offer to become the next secretary of the treasury: “I am flattered but do not get up early enough in the morning to accept this opportunity.”
On July 1, at the height of the season, the Taj’s unionized employees from UNITE HERE Local 54 went on strike, demanding a wage increase and the reinstatement of health and pension benefits suspended in the transfer of ownership. Negotiations were never scheduled; Icahn and the union couldn’t agree on a venue, let alone an agenda. In early August, Icahn announced that he’d be closing the Taj after Labor Day. And so the fall forecast kept getting grimmer, with the loss of the city’s most prominent casino and more than 2,800 jobs.
The Taj’s demise would be chronicled throughout the summer by the New York Times and the Washington Post, in articles framed as analyses of Trump’s finances. These articles, like the leveraged-debt practices they documented, were virtuoso feats, given that they were researched without access to the candidate’s tax returns. But reading the articles induced headaches: all those loans and defaults and shell companies shattered, keeping track of them was like counting the beach, grain by grain.
The main issue I had with this out-of-town finance journalism, however, was that it was finance journalism: none of its unbiased sums could account for Trump’s meanness — that petty, vile villainy that was being described to me when I was casting around for a place to write.
Because my parents had remodeled my old bedroom into the room of dusty, disused exercise equipment, and because AC has no leisurely cafés or bookshop spaces and its public library is open only 9 to 5, I prevailed on my uncle to make me a key to the office of one of his companies, Fishermen’s Energy, a consortium of commercial fishermen who are trying to establish what would be New Jersey’s first offshore wind farm, in AC. The building was the Professional Arts Building, which went up in the 1920s and flaunts it; its windows gave onto Resorts. I moved into the conference room, adjacent to the cubicles of my uncle’s three employees, who, given Jersey’s disinterest in renewable energy, didn’t have much work to do — or to put it positively, had the occasional leisure to talk.
The receptionist, Karen Carpinelli, previously worked for a family-run Atlantic County–based neon-sign firm that found itself working for Trump, who preferred to contract with family-run firms because they were easily abused. Trump consistently failed to pay the full amounts he owed, which forced the sign-makers to inflate their prices: apparently the totals didn’t matter, only the discounts did, and if Trump paid at all it was usually half of whatever they billed him. Fishermen’s Energy project director Tim Axelsson, who hails from a distinguished fishing family in Cape May, recounted to me how, in 1988, Trump had planned to arrive in AC for the first time in the Trump Princess, a $29 million yacht formerly owned by the Sultan of Brunei and, before him, by Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. The Princess, however, being one of the largest yachts in the world at the time, was too large to navigate the channel, and so Trump paid to have the channel dredged, which it was, without any impact studies conducted or permits obtained (though the NJ Department of Environmental Protection did issue a belated stop-work order). Fishermen’s Energy COO and general counsel Paul Gallagher, who prior to working for my uncle served as AC city solicitor, once served as manager of the Jersey-Atlantic Wind Farm, whose five inshore wind turbines, situated hard by the inlet, help power the city’s wastewater-treatment plant. When that project went up, Trump made a call: there were five turbines, he said, as if he were counting up the notoriously short fingers on his notoriously small hands, and there were also five letters in his name — did Paul understand? Would the Jersey-Atlantic people be interested in festooning the poles of their turbines with T R U M P? Apparently, Trump would let them do it free of charge. And this was just the lore to be found in a single office — the lore that was dumped on me about five minutes after moving in.
All along the Boardwalk, the sun-bleached, tattered banners read do ac — the city’s latest marketing catchphrase. The Boardwalk was a scrum of such imperatives, with Trumps on every side issuing edicts and diktats, offering bargains. Trumps in toupees and with their guts hanging over their change belts, out on Steel Pier, out on Central Pier, trying to get me to try the ring toss, though the rubber rings always bounce off the rubber bottles, or to try the beanbag pitch, though the lily pads they’re supposed to land on are kept wet and slippery with a shammy. Try Fralinger’s Salt Water Taffy, which contains no saltwater. Step right up and I’ll guess your weight, or at least I’ll make your wallet lighter. What American literature taught me — what Melville taught me in The Confidence-Man, what Poe taught me in “Diddling,” that imagination or fantasy can be a form a greed, even a uniquely American form — the shills and carny barkers taught me first, at $2 a lesson: I would never win that stuffed elephant.
The Boardwalk’s kitsch, the kitsch of Trump’s former properties along the Boardwalk, merely reinforce how retro a mogul the candidate is: a throwback who doesn’t care he’s a throwback, who’s barely aware he is, dressed to impress in a padded Brioni suit and a tie with a scrotum-size knot. After a sham career spent endlessly lauding himself as the last great product of the last great era when our country still made things, when our country still built, he now spends what’s basically his retirement — which he considers America’s retirement, his and its mutual licensing age — wallowing in sentimentality and goading with nostalgia. He’s a magnate brat who in an age of rapid computerized transactions and exponentially unaccountable ethereality didn’t make his name, such as it is, or his fortune, such as it is, on Wall Street, but rather in the old-school outer boroughs, and later in schmancier Midtown, developing what he’d inherited. He deceitfully prides himself on having employed real, tangible workers (including illegal immigrants and Mafia contractors) to build real, tangible things (which tend to have structural insufficiencies, and the same black glass that’s used in TV/movie evil-overlord compounds and fascist government architecture throughout the Middle East and Central Asia). Not for Trump any bundling, derivatives, or microtrades — just the anachronistic micromanaging of flamboyant chandeliers and ornate door handles. He’s the steak-n-taters CEO, not an asexual vegan baby of the algorithm revolution.
Making my rounds of the Boardwalk bars, it was eerie: how every person’s take on Trump was the same, or was so precisely contradictory. Locals — especially those who knew the candidate’s business history — vigorously loathed him, while visitors — especially those who knew nothing of that history — were equally passionate in their admiration and praise. “He’s just another billionaire.” “He’s one of us.” “He’s a liar.” “He’s so honest.” Common to the heated speeches of both were the apparent influences of alcohol and fear. Everyone I was meeting seemed drunk on fear: of the candidate, of their country, of themselves.
The ambient scare that Trump has put into the populace, and the way his calculated swoops through the news cycle moderate or exacerbate this emotionalism, regulating it like a professional thrill, reminds me more than anything of gaming: of what it feels like to put my money on the line. It’s as if Trump — this vanity candidate, famous beyond law — is offering all of us a wager: that he can inflame his rhetoric and press his luck without ever pressing it too far — without alienating all women and black and Hispanic voters, and without getting too many Mexicans, or too many Muslims, or even just some white Democrats, beaten up or killed.
This, of course, is the only type of wager that Trump can ever make: a bet against America, counting on our dumbness, counting on our hate. He’d never take a turn at one of the properties he’s owned; he’d never belly up to one of the voting-booth-like slot devices on which his AC businesses were based. Trump, a man addicted to success, and — if his oration is any indication — a man with extremely limited reserves of self-control, can’t ever gamble, because he can’t ever lose. I’d bet that Trump is barely even familiar with the table rules, for the simple reason that he doesn’t have to be; all he has to know are the odds to know that he can’t beat them. Having owned the house, he’ll never tempt the house. All he can do is torch it. Which is why Trump won’t lose the election, at least not in the reckoning of his supporters. Even if Clinton is declared the winner, most likely even before Clinton is declared the winner, he’ll allege some sort of conspiracy; he’ll blame someone else; no failure can be his fault. He’ll accuse the game of being rigged — he already has. He’ll indict the nature of the game itself, calling the political process both overregulated and underregulated, prohibitive in cost, inefficient, and just plain evil, and the sad thing is, he’s not wrong.
The saddest thing, though, is that the only place in AC — the only place in America, it seems — where you can go to escape his sped-up diet-pill tics and wiggy tirades is one of his former casinos. Two weeks into its union strike, two weeks before the announcement of its closing, the Taj was a mess of stained carpet, moldy walls, leaky ceilings. Regular maintenance personnel had been replaced by skeleton crews of temp labor, but since the dealers aren’t unionized, the casino was open, and remained so locked down, so focused on keeping me unfocused and yet maximizing my TOD (German for “death,” but also casinoese for “time on device”) that none of its screens carried anything but ads for inoperative buffets and upcoming circus extravaganzas that would have to be canceled. No CNN, not even Fox.
The Taj, like most casinos, has primarily always been a slot palace, and any square footage given over to table games has to favor those that most favor the house: roulette, where the house edge is 5.26 percent, and craps, where the house edge is 1.4 percent, over the easier to understand and easier to play blackjack, where the house edge is .5 percent (slots are allotted a house edge of up to 15 percent). To put these numbers into words: you done never had a chance. But as long as your pleasure quanta (booze, food, shows, and carnal atmospherics) outweigh your pain quanta (your losses), research has demonstrated that you’ll keep playing along, encouraged through every bad roll or spin or card by PR exhortations, or by the living example of Trump — whose image used to be everywhere in his former casinos; whose image is now everywhere except in his former casinos — telling average citizens that they too can beat the odds and become winners, the ultimate avatars of American exceptionalism.
This type of self-empowering yet self-sabotaging, ignore-all-the-facts-and-go-for-broke gaming faded from fashion through the ’90s with the spread of numeracy through the internet. Data was suddenly determining, because it had suddenly numerated, everything, and I can recall how by the time I was working at Resorts it already felt ridiculous that anyone would go to a casino to play any game besides poker — a game in which players compete not against the house for its money, but against one another, for one another’s money, with the house taking only a tiny percentage of each pot — the vigorish or rake (typically 10 percent, up to $4). It follows that casinos don’t make much money on poker, and so the few AC casinos that still provide a room for it do so begrudgingly, with the hope that the players’ companions — their angry spouses and nursing attendants — will find their ways elsewhere in the casino, to the slots.
Of course, one of the beauties of poker is that it doesn’t have to be played in a casino — it can be played anywhere, for cheaper. The first and last semiregular private game I ever participated in began at the Broadway Suites on W. 101st Street and Broadway in New York on some weekday in 1998 — just after my summer at Resorts — and ended on that hungover, smoke-fogged day after Election Day 2000, when an art-history student left the table to hyperventilate on the floor by the poky Zenith TV and an ethnomusicology student went to find a dictionary — a paper dictionary — to check the definition of chad.
After the stolen election of Bush v. Gore, which was the first election I and all the other players in that game were eligible to vote in, it became normal for people of my generation — kinda-sorta millennials immersed in the mathematics of poker, who followed the Texas hold ’em tournaments just then being televised and played in online games between IRL games and participated in online poker tutorials — to also immerse themselves in all manner of election-relevant math, to memorize and rattle off how many electoral votes each state had, and to argue about which were the decisive counties or districts or, as in the case of Florida, precincts in each state; which percentage of overvotes or undervotes would have to be counted as legal votes for which outcome to occur and, of course, how the outcome would’ve been different if all the states, or if certain states, had split their electoral votes along the lines of their popular votes as opposed to awarding them winner-take-all — all of which were topics too specialized for, because too inaccessible to, prior generations of American voters, which kept up with the elections through the morning paper and evening news, without any interactive maps or regression analyses or aggregated (ranked and weighted) polling.
Of course, whenever you’re reading a poll, what you’re reading are odds, which you can convert yourself by flipping each percentage into a fraction, subtracting the numerator from the denominator, and dividing the difference by the numerator. For instance, if Clinton is leading Trump in the popular vote 48 percent to 42 percent, as she seemed to be throughout much of the summer, her odds of winning are 1.083:1 and Trump’s are 1.38:1. However, with the electoral vote determining the presidency, each online bookmaking site projects its own 270/538 split to calculate its odds (for parimutuel betting, meaning, say, a bet that Clinton will beat Trump by any margin; and for betting the spread, meaning, say, a bet that Clinton will beat Trump by the exact margin of 330–208). Ironically enough, most of the more reliable sites that’ll trade US election action for cash are registered in the UK, the Bahamas, or elsewhere abroad, because America doesn’t quite approve of betting on politics — not because betting on politics is cynical, but because it’s considered a variety of sports betting, which is illegal in all but four of the states.
America: a country in which even a noble law has to be justified through the drudgery of precedent and stupid technicality.
Wednesday night, the Local 54 picket crowd chanting and waving placards outside the Taj was just about as sparse as its poker-room crowd and equally gloomy: “No contract, no peace!” “All day, all night, Taj Mahal is out on strike!” The poker room was all chairs, stacked and overturned and empty chairs, and two tables of half bachelor-party fools, half “grinders”: pseudo-pros who if they’d been playing just against one another would’ve played tight, would’ve folded and waited, “grinded” in the interest of making a slow, steady profit. But tonight they were staggered between the bachelor-party fools, so the strategy was different, the tactics were looser. The old hands were taking advantage.
Out of shape, insomniac, amphetamined sharks, not circling, just sitting, around the circular tables, sniffing for blood or for related signs of weakness. They were waiting for a player — for a neophyte, a tourist in murky waters — to lose patience and bet, or to match or raise a bet of theirs or another’s, not out of any discernible logic or psychology, but because discipline is boring, and no one comes to a casino to be bored.
That’s the moment the bullying sets in — the daring, the teasing and taunting, which is often unvoiced, and often merely imaginary.
This was how it kept going down: an older, more experienced player would, after a period of concentrated play, without warning go all-in, which gambit the bachelor-party rubes would alternately take as a temptation and a test, a measure of their capacities and so of their manhoods: whether they had the balls to accept the challenge — because if they’d had the intellect, they might’ve declined it — or whether they were too cowardly, too womanly, too whipped. And so they’d let themselves go; they’d let themselves react — they’d become, I guess, reactionaries.
This whole circumaggravating and cumulatively gross situation of being provoked, or feeling like you’re being provoked, and then having to resist responding to the provocation, and then not being able to resist responding because you’re convinced that it’s all just a bluff, seems to me quintessentially male. It forces its victims to choose — quickly, and in a sensory-overloaded, blinking, chirping environment — between the logical brain and the lower instincts, between getting out and getting even. Now, project all this parasexual, paraviolent incitement from the ludic, monetized poker table to the shouldn’t-be-ludic, shouldn’t-be-monetized political stage, and what becomes discernible is the liberal-conservative dilemma, in which the societal demands of social responsibility (folding) vie against the ego demands of animal appetite (staying in play and even raising the stakes), and reveal themselves to be zero-sum irreconcilable. This, I’ve decided, is Trump’s technique: not numerically probabilistic or predictive (and so of limited use against the experienced), but a crude psychologizing that seizes on every weakness at the American table — all the poverty, ignorance, bigotry, and pride — and squeezes, until the electorate mans up and loses everything.
The danger at the heart of sentimentality or nostalgia is how directly it’s predicated on racism.Tweet
I tried bringing this up at the table, which consisted — at this ungodly and incalculable fluorescent hour of night/morning, of two grinders; two superdelegates, let’s call them, who’d broken away from their bachelor party; and one guy who could’ve been anybody, in short-sleeved hoodie, board shorts, flip-flops, and wraparound sunglasses, who kept complaining about how difficult it was to get a proper martini during a labor dispute.
Grinder 1, Ricky from Philly, was annoyed and snapped at me: “No talking politics.” Grinder 2, Bill from Bridgeton, said, rather mysteriously, “That stuff don’t throw me none.” Bachelor 1 said, “Fuck Trump, but fuck Hillary harder.” Bachelor 2: “Bitch hasn’t gotten it in a while — you can tell.”
I left the table about $100 up after ten or so hours — $10 an hour being just about what I’d been paid nearly a decade ago at Resorts. I stumbled out onto the Boardwalk, into wan sunshine and mist, and found myself recalled to AC’s marquee agon: what you’re supposed to do with yourself once you’re finished gambling. The only movie theaters left on the island were an IMAX, which was only showing Warcraft, and a filthy handful of XXX stroke rooms. The live-music scene is now dominated by dinosaur acts (Vanilla Ice appearing with Salt-N-Pepa and Color Me Badd; Rod Stewart: The Hits), and the art scene, which used to feature the paintings of Sylvester Stallone, has since been demoted to displaying the paintings of Burt Young (who played Uncle Paulie in the Rocky franchise). Also: it wasn’t a beach day.
I got some (expired) yogurt and (unripe) plums from the Save-A-Lot, AC’s only remaining supermarket, crawled back to the Professional Arts Building, and clicked through the news. There he was: Trump, the constant companion, the always-on, always-up-for-anything enabler. A link on the homepage of the Press Atlantic City brought me to a better-funded paper’s lead item about Trump’s campaign chest: Trump’s campaign, it was being reported, had basically nothing left in the bank, and yet had paid out more than $1 million for each of the past few months to Trump’s companies, for use of Trump Tower office space and Trump-owned transportation — this was the Taj scam 2.0. In an accompanying clip, Trump was asked for comment, and answered in incoherent banalities before swerving into remarks about terrorism — or what he always refers to as “Islamic terrorism.” Unwilling to go to my parents’ house and unable to sleep in the office tilt-and-swivel chair, I picked up the book I’d brought from New York: The Theory of Poker, a how-to classic of 1987 written by David Sklansky, a native of Teaneck, dropout from UPenn’s Wharton School of Business (where he just missed overlapping with Trump), winner of three World Series of Poker bracelets, and arguably the greatest draw and hold ’em player of all time. In the very first pages of his book — which I must’ve read a dozen times before, for a reliable soporific — Sklansky lays out his Fundamental Theorem, which in my amped-up wakefulness now hit me like a law on the level of gravity’s: “Every time you play a hand differently from the way you would have played it if you could see all your opponents’ cards, they gain; and every time you play your hand the same way you would have played it if you could see all their cards, they lose.”
Here, presented in sane, rationalist fashion, was the insane truth behind this race: that if Trump just keeps on being Trump, and if Clinton keeps pivoting and responding to his every move, he wins. The only way that Clinton can win, according to Sklansky’s schema, is to force Trump to become inconsistent, but since Trump is already inconsistent — since he’s consistently inconsistent — that’s impossible.
As my uncle’s employees dragged in for the day, I formulated what I’ll call Cohen’s Hypothesis, or the Cohen-Clinton Lemma: If the game you’re playing becomes impossible to win, then your main opponent is probably yourself.
A table, where anyone can sit, where fortunes are exchanged: this was America, at least the East Coast white-folks version after the Civil War, when a limitless sense of economic growth seemed to derive not only from the Union’s victory but also from the untrammeled expanses of the Western frontier and the prodigious influx of young single European males who kept washing up on the New York shore, including, in 1885, a 16-year-old from Kallstadt, Germany, named Friedrich Trumpf, who came here, as many have, and many will always, not to worship freely or speak freely, but to avoid his homeland’s compulsory military service and try to make some dollars. Trumpf — father of Fred, grandfather of Donald — landed at Castle Garden, New York, America’s first immigration depot, which processed more than 8 million people over its four-decade career. By the time Friedrich Trumpf had become Frederick Trump — by the time he’d become not just a US citizen but a prominent hotelier and brothel owner catering to gold rush prospectors and an elected justice of the peace — Ellis Island was open, and processing about 5,000 immigrants a day, not a few of whom would spend their dotages in the nearly 30,000 low-income residential units that Frederick’s son, Fred, would put up throughout the New York outer boroughs with the aid of state and federal subsidies and tax abatement. Fred’s son, then, came of age at a time in which about one-third of the country — over 100 million “ethnic whites” — had a parent or grandparent who’d entered this country through Ellis Island. These were Donald’s people, well before he ever leveraged them into a voting bloc. After all, these were his tenants; he was their landlord. The Trump family’s low-income, multifamily “projects” — in Flushing, Jamaica Estates, Bensonhurst, Sheepshead Bay, and Brighton Beach — were intended to be, and remain, substantially whiter than the projects of any other city developer.
Today, a hundred years after the peak of white ethnic pilgrimage to America, go to those projects — to those white ethnic enclaves that still exist in New York — and ask the people you meet where they’re from. Poland, Ukraine, Russia, et cetera; the post-Soviets constitute the latest and perhaps last wave of Caucasian “pilgrims” whose acculturation and class ascension has been the dominant narrative in modern American life, until recently suppressing the narratives of forced immigration (black slavery) and genocide (Native Americans). I tried a version of this interview method at the Irish Pub on St. James Place in AC — one of the city’s best, and only, noncasino bars — and about half of the people I asked said things like “AC,” or “Brigantine,” which is the next barrier island to the north, or else they just named the last bar they’d come from: the Chelsea, or the Ducktown Tavern. But the other half of the people — say ten or so — without any prompting answered my purposefully vague question of “Where are you from?” by offering “I’m half Irish, a quarter German, and a quarter French,” or, the arithmetic be damned, “I’m half Dutch and two-thirds Italian.” The people who gave me those answers were male and, respectively, 26 and 28 years old. In AC, the Irish Pub is festooned with Irish flags; the Italian restaurants and bakeries in Ducktown, the historic Italian neighborhood, are hung with Italian flags; and next to both the Irish and the Italian standards there’s always the Stars and Stripes. In the Northside, which is the historically black side — AC is so confused that it’s flipped the compass, so that the Northside is, in terms of true cardinality, the western-bay-facing side of the island — I didn’t notice many flags at all.
These white ethnic roots — of “Italians” who don’t’a speak’a Italian, of “Irish” who grew up in the Pine Barrens or on the Delaware River — creep into every element of Jersey life, even East Coast life, and if you try to resist their stifling, a gang of wife-beater-and-tracksuit-pants-wearing thugs always drives up to intimidate you with baseball bats and tells you to “suck it,” in that rough, tough, I’m-from-a-cop-family-that’s-also-a-crime-family accent that doesn’t derive from any specific language or identity anymore, but rather from TV and movies and mongrel desperation. The sheer, shrill insistence on the continued relevance of these identities strikes me as a valid if annoying reaction to the fact that their progenitors — the immigrants themselves — have all just passed away. But with grandparents and parents gone, the identities they bequeath are perverted, which explains why first- and second-generation American ethnic whites have abandoned their forebears’ traditionally pro-union, pro-welfare liberal Democratic politics, which were formed by the Great Depression, and amid the privations of the Great Recession found solace in the more medieval aspects of their Catholicism: social conservatism and racism. The result is a Republican Party that’s a caricature of the Republican Party, in the same way that Jersey Irishness is a caricature of Irish Irishness, and Jersey Italianness a caricature of Italian Italianness (don’t even get me started on the Jews). With this swift deracination of ethnic whites, America will lose its last sense of white authenticity, of genuine white culture — of a whiteness that’s always opposed and been opposed by the whiteness of the WASPs, the Puritans who once were this country’s elite — and a massive segment of the populace will have to resign itself to an undifferentiated paleness: a whitehood-as-non-identity, that of a people from nothing, from nowhere, denied grievance. Ethnic whites are a dying breed, who’ve understood only just recently — historically speaking — that all they can be now is American whites, in an identity loss that they regard in their trauma as an identity theft — perpetrated by “minorities” and “illegals,” and aided and abetted by that African Muslim Obama.
It’s no coincidence, then, that rage has become the prime political motivator of the white electorate today — given that theirs is both the last generation able to remember any ethnic white grandparents and the first generation whose standard of living has not appreciably improved on their parents’. Trump’s supporters resent this so vociferously, it’s as if a birthright’s been revoked: this was not the country that “they,” meaning “their ancestors,” had been sold when they bought the boat ticket over. This was not what being white was supposed to be like, scrapping for the same scarce jobs with diversity-hire blacks and Hispanics and, worse, refugee Middle Easterners. Feeling wronged, feeling disillusioned, they retreat into mendacity and yearning — though because they have no faith in an economy that’s betrayed them and have lost all belief in what their forebears called the American Dream, they yearn not for a better future, but a better past. This is what Trump means by promising to “Make America Great Again”: promising to return us to a time that never once existed.
Call it the American Daydream, an idyll that’s intimated and hinted at everywhere in AC: on billboards, on postcards, in the lobby of the Professional Arts Building, which is festooned with giant photomurals of all the old, since-demolished, European-style grand hotels that lined the Boardwalk at its bustling heyday, the totality of the scene captured in a black-and-white that’s been touched up, that’s been rosied, with pastels. Every day, taking the elevator up and down for cig breaks, I’d study these murals — I’d try to resist their calliope charms. Put starkly, the danger at the heart of sentimentality or nostalgia is how directly it’s predicated on racism. That Great America that will be Made Again and the politics of racial oppression are, like the ingredients of any decent melting pot, inseparable.
AC was founded in 1854, just a year before Castle Garden opened in New York. Before then, Absecon Island was just a desolate sandspit that had been fishing-and-hunting grounds to the Lenni Lenape, and then a farmstead to the Quakers, and finally a minuscule, ramshackle village inhabited by the family of Revolutionary War veteran Jeremiah Leeds, whose cousin, “Mother Leeds,” was said to have spawned the Jersey Devil.
The idea to turn the island into a faddish summer health resort on the Victorian British model belonged to Dr. Jonathan Pitney, a physician, while the financial support and practical infrastructure were supplied by Samuel Richards — the scion of a rich South Jersey bog-iron and glass dynasty — who built the Camden–Atlantic line, a railroad that connected AC with the cross-Delaware cities of Camden and Philadelphia. The railroad’s engineer was Richard Osborne, who named the city after its ocean, and predicted that it’d become “the first, most popular, most health giving and most inviting watering place” in America.
But the city’s first megahotel, the United States Hotel — in the mid-1850s the largest in the nation, with more than 600 rooms — was initially mostly vacant. The Philadelphia elite balked at the rude accommodations, the grime and smoke of the open-air train, and the rapacious swarms of greenheads and mosquitoes. However, the main reason that the moneyed set wasn’t overwhelmingly attracted to AC seems to have been tradition: the good old families tended to already own good old second homes, to which they’d repair not for a weekend — because weekends, then, didn’t exist — but for the duration of the summer. To give further context: beachgoing and ocean swimming didn’t become established forms of recreation in America until well after the Civil War, and at the time of AC’s founding the coastal towns that later became famous as resorts — the closest to AC being Cape May, but also Rehoboth, Delaware; Newport, Rhode Island; and Cape Cod, Massachusetts — were still significantly active as ports.
AC’s regular clientele, then, turned out to be regular people, “red-bloods” with “blue collars”: people, usually of recent immigrant stock, who couldn’t afford second summer homes and typically had short vacations, or just a short single day — Sunday, God’s day — to profane with their pleasure. The first time a Camden or Philadelphia carpenter and his family could afford to pay another person to cook for them; the first time a Newark/Elizabeth or New York longshoreman and his family could afford to pay another person to eat and sleep in their house — to room and board in their roominghouse or boardinghouse — they went to AC: the only vacation destination on the East Coast to which there was direct rail service; a city clapped together out of water and sand and dedicated almost exclusively to making the Irish, Italian, and Jewish urban poor feel rich, or richer. This is the process that created the American middle class, which in America — unlike in Europe, where the middle class had always been a feudal characterization of artisans and merchants — became more of an ideology, or more of a delusion.
For nearly a century — the 1850s through the 1950s — new immigrants and their native-born children would come down to AC, dress in their finery, and stroll along the Boardwalk, which was invented to keep sand out of the hotels but became a lucrative commercial property that was also publicized as an education and an exercise. This raised wooden and later wood-and-metal midway featured displays of America’s emergent production power (exhibitions of Edison’s innovations stretching out over the piers) along with ample opportunities to consume (branches of the most fashionable Philly and New York boutiques selling ready-to-wear clothing at the very advent of mass tailoring), establishing in the imaginations of promenaders the commensality of industrial progress and personal, familial, and even ethnic progress. At its height — say the turn of the century — at the height of the day — say once the sun had tipped toward the bay — this grand boulevard took on the aspect of a nonstop parade route, a pageant of freshly minted Americans floating by, all showing off and being shown off to, mutually reveling in having “arrived,” in having “made it.”
Of course, this sense of success was premised on a fundamental injustice. Check out any of the old photographs, any of the old film reels, and note the rolling chairs — AC’s signature white, wheeled wicker chairs that were first introduced for the use of the disabled back when the city was still being touted as a retreat for the infirm, but later adopted by able-bodied patrons. The people pushing those chairs are black — the only black people on the Boardwalk. In the surviving images of nearly all the early hotels, restaurants, and bars, it’s the same: blacks in white uniform, their faces almost always averted from the camera.
At the turn of the 20th century, one out of four AC residents was black, a ratio that gave the city the highest per capita black population of any city above the Mason–Dixon Line — which, if it didn’t take a sharp turn to form the Delaware border, would overlay the county line between Atlantic and Cape May Counties. Much of this porter and kitchen and laundry workforce was made up of freed slaves and their descendants, who came north because the hospitality industry was more profitable, and had more opportunities for promotion, than, for instance, sharecropping. What this meant was that black AC was occupied with its own — more precarious, more constrained — attempts at achieving upward mobility: compared with black communities elsewhere in America, black AC was prosperous.
These symbiotic or parasitic middle-class fantasies based on racial oppression were the great sustainers of AC — along with vice, which unites people of all colors. An economy reliant on seasonal tourism wouldn’t countenance Prohibition, and from 1920 to 1933 the city just outright ignored the Eighteenth Amendment. Forget speakeasies and clubs: alcohol was sold out in the open in the city, whose wharves had ample docking space for bootleggers’ ships. Opium dens and brothels were tolerated, but the numbers games were more popular, as were more formal card parlors. All this vice was allowed to flourish under the dispensation of the local machine, which was nominally Republican but operationally total: it had no opposition, and it even handpicked which Democrats would lose to it. The first boss of this machine was Louis “Commodore” Kuehnle, owner of Kuehnle’s Hotel, and its most infamous was Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, who spent three decades remuneratively installed in the nothing position of Atlantic County treasurer. Kuehnle and especially Johnson exacted money from the rackets in exchange for police protection — turning the police into a mercenary force for the rackets — and after pocketing shares for themselves, invested the rest into purchasing peace from the state and federal authorities, and in acts of patronage both major (building Boardwalk Hall) and minor (charities for orphans and widows). This unlawful but effective arrangement wouldn’t just grow in scale, it also served as blueprint for allied endeavors. In May 1929, the summer before the stock-market crash, Johnson assembled a conference in AC — the prototype convention of this convention town — that attracted the emissaries of organized crime from Philadelphia, New York, Kansas City, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Boston: Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Dutch Schultz, et al. This was the founding of America’s first national crime syndicate, and it was Capone who — in a late-life interview he granted the FBI from Alcatraz — most succinctly summarized their agenda: “I told them [in AC] there was business enough to make us all rich and it was time to stop all the killings and look on our business as other men look on theirs, as something to work at and forget when we go home.”
Capone’s statement was prophetic — just not for the gangsters, or the “illegal” gangsters at least. Hard times came to AC with Prohibition’s repeal, and were compounded amid post-WWII prosperity — under the machine of State Senator Frank “Hap” Farley, and the more independent and so less effectually venal city governments that followed — with the gradual nationwide legalization of nearly every vice that previously had been most safely and most dependably available within the city limits. More than the rise of air travel or the proliferation of private car ownership and the interstate system — more than the miracle of air-conditioning — this was the greatest threat to AC: permissiveness abroad, as municipalities throughout the States became more accepting of sin, or just more interested in taxing it.
Nevada approved gaming in 1931 in response to the crash. By the end of the ’50s, Las Vegas had emerged as the gaming capital of America, and by the end of the ’70s — when New Jersey finally caught up and officially approved gaming in AC — the precedents were already in place for the rash of both tribal and nontribal approvals that followed.
And so the continued expansion of casinos, and the continued extrapolation of casino principles into governmental policy — into the scaffolding of a state that can deny its citizens all but the barest amenities of welfare and health care, only because it sanctions their conviction that they’re all just one bet, one lever tug, away from becoming rich, chosen, elect, the American their ancestors had aspired to be, the American that God had intended.
I found myself — America finds itself now — at the very end of the Boardwalk. The very end of this immigrant’s midway lined with cheap thrills and junk concessions, pulsating with tawdry neon and clamoring moronically. The end of this corny, schmaltzy Trumpian thoroughfare that entertains us with its patter and enthralls us with its lies.
And yet we stay here, on the Boardwalk, because it’s safer than stepping down. Because we trust the Boardwalk, at least we trust that it can’t be trusted, and so we’re reassured by how straight it seems, how direct it seems, the way it lulls us back and forth. We’re threatened by the pavement, by the city that we might find there. The ghost streets off Pacific Avenue and Atlantic Avenue, off Arctic and Baltic — all the broken roads and dead-end alleys left behind by Wall Street, which underlies every street of the Monopoly board.
Here, unlike on the Boardwalk, everything is real. Here everything is both ghostly and real. Vacant houses. Apartments boarded up to protect against squatters. Eviction and foreclosure papers flap from the doors like tongues. Notice to Cease, Notice to Quit, papers keeping the sun out of the windows. The apartment houses rubble away into empty lots pierced by wind and drowned in the shadows cast by shuttered penthouses. Empty lots spontaneously converted for parking, a sign in the windshield of a Saturn: Pleese Dont Take Me. Walking between the Boardwalk and the Professional Arts Building, walking between the Professional Arts Building and my car spontaneously parked in a dirt and, after the rain, mud lot, meant passing the porn store, which, especially if I was making the trip after sunset, meant getting accosted. By men who slept on the beach and spent their waking lives on the street, where there were fewer police and more chances to hustle. Corner of Pacific and MLK Jr. Boulevard. Guy trying to bum cigarettes. Guy trying to bum a dollar for booze. Guy trying to deal to me. “Yo, got coke, yo.” “Molly, molly.” “Got syrup.” Taking my money and not coming back. Trying it all over again the next day unabashed, and then when I told him I’d rather just talk, he got in my face, called me gay, called me a cop. A woman telling me how the check-cashing place would only cash checks made out to people with addresses in Atlantic County by people or businesses with addresses in Atlantic County. Telling me she lived in Georgia, or had once lived in Georgia, and her only hope of returning was this check from her cousin in Camden. “Ain’t Camden Atlantic County?” “No.” “What Camden then?” “Camden County.” “Goddamn.”
Another woman giving me some woe chronicle of how she was running to catch a jitney and fucked up her knee, and how with this one knee blown and all the weight on the other, the other got fucked up too, and how she got laid off, either because of the injury or unrelated to the injury, and was homeless now, and how every time she went to the doctor’s office she just got a referral to another office that was never open, and no lawyer would take the case and sue the jitneys. Man standing in the midst of the lot holding up either a raincoat or construction tarp, screening a woman squatting pissing or shitting.
Down at the Boardwalk’s terminus, by Oriental Avenue, by night, the seagulls keep flying into the Revel and dying. Or they flap and limp around a bit before dying. You never see or hear the impact, you just get what happens after. Immense white gulls, flapping, limping, expiring. They fly into the Revel’s giant vacant tower of panes and break their necks, because without any lights on, the glass is indistinguishable from the sky.
On November 1, the New Jersey State Department of Community Affairs rejected Atlantic City’s budget and rescue plan. On November 8, Election Day, the New Jersey Casino Expansion Amendment failed. New Jersey itself went for Clinton, but the country went for Trump. The morning after, while Clinton delivered her concession speech, New Jersey’s Local Finance Board voted 5-0 to approve Governor Christie’s immediate takeover of Atlantic City. I am writing this on that morning — it is November 9. A gray day, humid and rainy. My parents called to say that it was the anniversary of Kristallnacht.