Having not lived in New Jersey since my teenage years, I should have no reason for knowing the casinos of Atlantic City as well as I do. I shouldn’t be able to reminisce. I shouldn’t be able to tell you about the time, at age nineteen, I made it to the final table of an invitation-only craps tournament and was a single roll away from winning ten grand. If only the stogie-smoking old-timer had rolled a five. My eternal optimism be damned, he crapped out and I only won $500. Nor should I have ever been comp’d a dinner of New Zealand mussels — the one thing I’m allergic to in this world — and be able to tell a story about me nearly vomiting on a casino table, only to grab my chips, cover my mouth, and sprint through the casino to the nearest bathroom. Security gave chase, after all I was a young man with a handful of chips running through the casino. With facing doors at the end of a narrow hallway, I couldn’t help but hip-check a woman into the wall as she exited the ladies’ room. Go Devils! I found a toilet in time to catch my half-digested shellfish. Security, winded from the chase, thanked me for not puking on the casino floor. We never did make it to the Brian Setzer concert that night. Remember him?
I’ve got a number of stories like that from my trips to Atlantic City. Of course, if I still lived in New Jersey, I’d just call it AC. Las Vegas gets shortened to Vegas. Atlantic City becomes AC. And that’s about it for the similarities.
The news of the casino bankruptcies reached us during our travels in Europe. My dad, the one who taught me everything I know about gambling, filled me in. To my surprise, like so many other New Jerseyites, he had moved on to casinos closer to home, albeit in Pennsylvania. The only show in town suddenly had too much competition and unlike that glitzier city in the desert, Atlantic City was nobody’s vacation destination. Trump Plaza was closed, Showboat had shuttered, and Taj Mahal was on the ropes. A new casino, Revel, closed in under two years. “It should have never been built,” my dad said, before describing a litany of marketing mistakes Revel had made. It seems they made the cardinal sin: confusing AC for Vegas.
So it was with equal parts morbid curiosity and nostalgia that we decided to make the drive down to Atlantic City last Friday. Kristin’s sister Lindsay, who we were staying with that week, had a conference to attend at Bally’s. I offered to drive. She accepted. And so the three of us set off early in the morning on a bitter cold day, barreling down the Garden State Parkway in a borrowed minivan with personalized plates — JOYFUL, indeed. With NPR’s “Morning Edition” playing at a reasonable volume, cruise-control set 9 miles over the limit, and our headlights on for safety, we were total rock stars. “AC, Baby!” Said no one. Ever.
Two hours of salted highway later, we arrived. A quick stroll over to Mickey D’s for breakfast took us past several blocks of outlet shops that were new since my last visit. Banana Republic, Guess, Clarks, Ralph Lauren and so on and so forth. Halfway there I realized how ridiculous this was. We were walking away from the boardwalk. And not in fear of being murdered. Where was the ghetto? Was I misled? Had AC turned the corner? Had the heavy helping hand of government managed to transform this place from a degenerate seaside city of sin into another characterless shopper’s suburbia? Maybe the financial difficulties were overblown. Maybe the city wasn’t doing so bad, after all. Seriously, Ralph Lauren? In AC?
As it turns out, stories of the city’s demise had not been greatly exaggerated.
We came in out of the cold at Wild West Casino, a themed area of Bally’s, and were immediately greeted with the full-body wagging excitement of a lonely dog whose owner had been away too long. “Thank you for your business! We’re so happy to see you! We hope you enjoy your stay!” It was awkward and sad, and also weird. The two greeters standing attentively inside the windowless street-side entrance were the only two employees we saw in the casino. We walked the entire length, from street to boardwalk, and not a single table was open for gambling. Not a single cocktail waitress carried a tray. Not a single patron was parked in front of a slot machine. Feeling like trespassers, Kristin and I hurried down the hallway that connects the casino with Caesar’s, the much larger casino and hotel next door. Caesar’s wasn’t completely empty; there were a few people playing the slots and a smattering of table games open, but it was quiet. Too quiet, like someone had died.
That someone was Trump Plaza, the casino next in line down the shore. We fought the wind south along the boardwalk past the vacant husk of Trump Plaza, the fourth Atlantic City casino to close forever in 2014. It was 30 years old. Famed narcissist and late-night punching bag Donald Trump sued to get his name removed from the forlorn property (he doesn’t run the property management company that bears his name) but the outlines of the lettering remain.
We marched on, southward, to Tropicana, the lone hotel on the boardwalk that a person of sound mind can visit without needing to pop a Prozac on the way in. My last time in Tropicana was for a friend’s bachelor party in 2005 and though it’s Caribbean-slash-Cuban theming still looked largely the same, it was in the process of getting new marble flooring and carpet near the craps tables. Nice to see at least something getting maintained in this town. I sidled up to an empty table, took the dice, and thirty minutes later, content with my contribution to the casino’s future upkeep, colored up and left.
Back out in the cold, clear weather, we continued southward along the boardwalk past the remaining hotels, to where the sidestreets are no longer named after states and presidents and Monopoly properties. Ahhh, there’s the ghetto! Just how I remembered it!
With the wind at our back we marched some two and a half miles northward past dollar stores, myriad Chinese massage parlors, hot dog stands, and closed-for-the-season souvenir shops. One of the many security guards stationed along the otherwise vacant boardwalk noted that we were walking more that day than even he does. We walked all the way to the gleaming, silver curves of the beautiful building formerly known as Revel. The most expensive casino ever built in Atlantic City at 2.4 billion dollars closed last September, just two years after opening. It’s an alien structure that appears comically out of place, with a shining mirrored facade that will surely blind many a beachgoer long into the future.
With a couple more hours to kill, we turned back to the south and, for old time’s sake, climbed the steps to Trump’s Taj Mahal casino, the only one of the three Trump-branded casinos still in business (the other, Trump Marina, had been sold to Golden Nugget in 2011). The Taj Mahal was, in 1990, the first billion-dollar casino to open on the east coast. Today’s visitors can see what it looked like in 1990 firsthand. All they have to do is open the door. Whereas most of the casinos smelled musty, the Taj welcomed us with a noxious cloud reminiscent of the heating oil tank we had in our basement when I was a child. Carl Icahn’s 20-million dollar investment in the casino should keep it open for a few more months (signs throughout the empty gambling floor celebrated the casino’s ability to stay open), but it’s sure to prove too small a lifeline for too large a drowning victim.
Disappointing as it was to see so many places where I had spent time closed and empty and going bankrupt, not to mention the thousands of jobs lost, we had a nice day. There are no bad days on the Jersey Shore, particularly in winter (fewer New Yorkers, no offense). And so we whiled away the day walking mile after mile back and forth up and down the empty windblown boardwalk, watching the waves, remembering the dozens of trips we had made to the shore when we were younger, and ultimately agreeing there was no reason to ever come back to Atlantic City.
AC, baby. What a shame.