All roads may lead to Rome, but at the Port Authority I learned that all buses depart for Atlantic City. Once our coach reached the island two or three individuals shuffled off at the municipal bus terminal, but everyone else cleared off at the last stop: the Tropicana Casino. My backpack and I navigated the lobby to the Valet Parking drop off, where we made our rendevous, a small white domestic car piloted by one of the most fiercely intelligent women I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.
This was another refugee from my suburban high school, a girl who speaks several languages and was currently cutting her teeth in her first few months as a reporter for Atlantic City's local paper. A few days before when we'd worked out a good day to meet she'd been a bit groggy. "I've got a migraine," she said by way of explanation. "Covered a triple murder yesterday." I suppose I was expecting a radically different creature from the girl I knew in high school, someone altered by a few years in California, a year in Brazil and a few months as a fledgling reporter. Her wardrobe had shifted from hoodies and bandannas to dresses that could stop a casino floor boss cold, but this was the same contrarian with a steel minded sense of justice that I'd known in high school. We spent our night touring the faded glory of Atlanic City, strolling the boardwalk in the fog, wandering in and out of casinos.
This was my first time to see a real live American casino, and my images of the sexy, gnarly thrill of gambling culled from Martin Scorcese and James Bond movies were way off the mark. To be fair, it was the off season, but they didn't shut down dramatically for the winter like the resort in The Shining. There was a steady and loyal crowd of customers hunched around half the roulette wheels. There were no fevered faces of elation at the blackjack table, no desperate wringing of hands, no one curled into absolute despair. People gambled with all the enthusiasm of mowing the lawn. A lounge singer crooned ballads on top of a piano, but her light-blue jeans and starchy blouse were more suited for dress down Fridays at the office than seducing Sean Connery.
My favorite casino by far was the Trump Plaza, which looked like Al Pacino's mansion from Scarface, all cold shiny surfaces at sharp angles, golden chandeliers, cold ego buffing every surface. But like all the casinos on the boardwalk, the Plaza had long ago woken up from the hangover of it's heydey, shaken itself awake, and begun the long slow plod of everyday business. Half the escalators were shut down for repairs, dingy orange traffic cones sitting on the imperial carpet, the repairmen off on a permanent lunch break. With no down escalators functioning we got trapped in the upper levels, trying to get down using a dusty concrete staircase that we soon figured out was for employees and fire flee-ers only. I was sure that large men in suits tucked with hidden firearms would come after us at any second, but once a female security guard saw us, she opened a fire door and let us onto the casino floor. She apologized about the escalators, pointed us in the direction of the real stairs, and wished us a nice evening.
While I had always known that Atlantic City was a lacklustre East Coast Las Vegas, I wasn't quite prepared to be so underwhelmed by the place. Gleaming shopping malls fronted casinos that looked like a Disney Land roller coaster, replete with animatronic cowboy robots miming a single routine on loop. There was nothing particularly remarkable about the gamblers: a young midwestern couple sharing a slot machine, blue haired women at the baccarat tables, a table of blue collar joes playing seven-card stud. The town itself clung to the casinos like rows of peasant dwellings nudged up against the castle walls, weatherbeaten apartment blocks and homes, neighborhoods sustaining themselves on trickles of state and casino salaries. Pawn shops swimming in hocked wedding rings dominated the strip, but the past few years have seen a few new clothing retail shops and even Atlantic City's first supermarket, businesses free of the immediate gravity of the casinos. What is a town with concert halls, Asian noodle bars but no place to buy groceries? There are no supermarket squares on a Monopoly Board, where do the employees of all those little green and red hotels eat?
I always thought casinos were sparks of hubris, palaces spun from hot air and violence, exploding like Nero's Rome or abandoned monuments like the pyramids. But the ruins of Atlantic City soldier on, warded by middle managers and unions of immigrant blackjack dealers. As long as the buses of guardedly hopeful run into the city, these monsters will go about the daily business of polishing the burning vices of youth to the lukewarm pleasures of the blue and aged.