Postcard from the End of America: Atlantic City

This city peaked nearly a century ago, when it billed itself as “The World’s Playground.” Hyperboles and false hopes are its currencies. Trudging into glitzy casinos, badly dressed schmucks dream of instant wealth, yet leave with barely enough nickels and dimes for McDonald’s dollar menu. I know of a Chinatown waitress who shows up twice a year. In Philly, she’d hop on the bus in her vermillion blouse, crimson shoes and blazing underwear, all for luck, but by evening, she’d be crumpled outside Bally’s, lamenting her fate, in Cantonese mostly, and even sobbingly demanding a partial refund so she could get a proper meal before riding home. For six bucks, she can chow down on two cheesesteak egg rolls at Boardwalk Grill. They’re not bad, apparently, but I haven’t tried them, for when I shambled by that one evening, I was down to two pennies, though not from gambling.

I’ve been to Atlantic City many times, but never to gamble, since I don’t get a special thrill out of donating what little money I have to huge corporations. In 1987, a bunch of us were drunk enough to spontaneously drive down from Philly, with the intention of skinny dipping in the ocean, but when we got there, only I and Ms. Di Paola were still buzzed enough to do it. In Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, a pioneering feminist novel published in 1899, the heroine got bored of being a (rich) mother and wife, so escaped into art and adultery, only to end up wading into the sea naked. Swimming further and further out, knowing there’s no turning back and becoming increasingly exhausted, she frantically reviewed her life for possible meanings. A conjured voice mocked her, “And you call yourself an artist! What pretensions, Madame! The artist must possess the courageous soul that dares and defies.”

A bona fide artist or writer can spring from any place, no matter how provincial, ridiculous or devoid of intellectual ambience, so there’s no reason why Atlantic City shouldn’t produce a cultural figure of note, but the only names that are even remotely connected to it are Allan Kaprow, the performance artist, and Valerie Solanas, best known as the woman who shot Andy Warhol. Living much of his life in NYC, Kaprow leaves no clues to his Atlantic City beginning, but in Solanas’ famous “SCUM Manifesto,” there’s this:

Unhampered by propriety, niceness, discretion, public opinion, ‘morals,’ the ‘respect’ of assholes, always funky, dirty, low-down SCUM gets around… and around and around… they’ve seen the whole show—every bit of it—the fucking scene, the sucking scene, the dick scene, the dyke scene—they’ve covered the whole waterfront, been under every dock and pier—the peter pier, the pussy pier… you’ve got to go through a lot of sex to get to anti-sex, and SCUM’s been through it all, and now they’re ready for a new show; they want to crawl out from under the dock, move, take off, sink out.

In “Rootie Tootie,” composed in NYC, Thelonious Monk evoked the train whistles he had heard as a child in Rocky Mount, NC, so here Solanas resurrected Atlantic City though also living in Manhattan. (It’s not clear when she left New Jersey, but in a Village Voice article from 1968, she was quoted as being old enough to surf.) In any case, the Atlantic City of Solanas’ childhood predated the casino era, and was known mostly as the home of Miss America. Began in 1921, it’s the world’s longest-running beauty contest and one of its first.

Artistic flaws mirror defects in one’s character, but without these distortions and perversions, there would be no art at all, and I’m not saying this as an endorsement of madness, for the artist should always struggle against himself to minimize his countless deficiencies, but for all her deformities, Solanas certainly did not lack courage, and in her tiny surviving body of work, she is often sharp and very funny, as in “he’ll swim through a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there’ll be a friendly pussy awaiting him,” and the insight is spot on, too, in a poetic kind of way, though not always, as we shall see. The flip side, also, is that men are known to shrink from a perfectly warm embrace because screwing, often, is not what it’s really about, and these grown boys are also intrinsically anxiety-ridden and often cowardly. You rarely see a man attack another one-on-one, for example, or face on, but nearly always when he has his target grossly outnumbered, and from behind, too, with no warning, and even a much weaker man, or nation, is deemed too dangerous an opponent, so must be ganged up on, with a coalition, if necessary. Back to sex: Many women will sadly concur, from personal experiences, that a friendly pussy might just chase a man out the door. I mean, before he gets any. As Andre Dworkin, someone who’s undoubtedly indebted to Solanas though superior to her as both thinker and writer, observes, “Sexual intercourse is not intrinsically banal, though pop-culture magazines like Esquire and Cosmopolitan would suggest that it is. It is intense, often desperate. The internal landscape is violent upheaval, a wild and ultimately cruel disregard of human individuality, a brazen, high-strung wanting that is absolute and imperishable […]” So a man may just swim through a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, only to hesitate before the most forgiving of pussies.

It wasn’t so long ago that the only Americans who placed personal ads were in their mid-thirties or older, but now, even our very young, buff or nubile can’t find partners in their immediate physical environment. Pointing this out to a university audience once, I stated, perhaps not too tactfully, “If you can’t get laid in college, you’re not going to get laid.” We must be among the loneliest, most alienated population ever. We watch more TV than any other country, rank among the highest in porn consumption, which also means, by implication, that we’re among the most vigorous of masturbators, and our divorce rate ranks third in the entire world, behind only Maldives and Belarus.

Many people crawl to sex to be forgiven, Valerie, so will you absolve me? Will you press me into your lovely belly button? By the way, have y’all come across this construction site witticism, “I’ll eat a mile of her shit just to see where it came from”? Of course, that’s not meant literally, but neither was the SCUM Manifesto. In any case, its central weakness is not its literary suggestion that all men should be killed, but its portrait of the ideal woman as one who’s “dominant, secure, self-confident, nasty, violent, selfish, independent, proud, thrill-seeking, free-wheeling, arrogant […] who trust only their own animal, gutter instincts […] whose sole diversion is prowling for emotional thrills and excitement,” and the best way to get even with a man, for being a man, is to “ram an ice pick up his asshole,” so the fully realized woman should act like the worst kind of man, per Solanas. (Discussing the last voyage of Gulliver, Borges points out a similar blunder in Swift when he had his animals act like humans, and his humans like animals, a reversal that cancels itself out.)

What’s not allegorical, successful or otherwise, are recent stories of men, in Boulder and Tulsa, who squeezed themselves into public toilets and piously waited in shit and piss to breathlessly admire, from below, not-exactly-amicable female posteriors. If only Swift and Solanas could comment on these cases. Though extreme, they implicate us all, for just as we’re ready to bask in another’s glory, we’re also smeared and flecked by any other man’s depravity. On balance, though, are men so foul and murderous? What, you don’t read newspapers?

Alone, a man can be monstrous enough, but when you band them together, drape them in spiffy uniforms then hand them the deadliest weapons available, what do you get? Heroes, of course! And there were plenty on display during the latest Show Us Your Shoes Parade on the boardwalk. Riding in individual cars, Miss America contestants were shorn in over the top, custom-made shoes that embodied their states, all but Miss Kansas, who simply wore combat boots, along with her Army uniform, as she’s an active soldier. Uniformed troops were also interspersed throughout this rather lackluster, low-budgeted affair, with the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force all presented. Not just patriotism, but militarism was in the air. Accompanied by roughly 60 children in red, white and blue, most holding flags or buntings, a local yokel twanged his way through Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” (To book Greenwood himself would have cost at least $20,000, his fee in 2007.) Written in 1983, it has become an anthem to those who cheer any American war, including ones they haven’t heard of. On YouTube, videos of this song are filled almost exclusively by images of soldiers.

Halfway through the parade, a group of perfectly ordinary looking women appeared, with several rather frumpy or fat, so it would not be unreasonable to assume these were simply ladies from a local organization that fight against some disease or vice, perhaps Mothers Against Driving while Drunk, High on Meth, Texting and Rapping. It came as a shock, to this observer at least, that these were all former Miss Americas! Subjected to a regiment of healthy eating and endless exercising, not to mention constant grinning whenever in public, these women apparently let go the second they got the crown. During the contest the next day, one of the eliminated beauties actually declared on camera that she couldn’t wait to get back to her hotel room to scarf Kentucky Fried Chicken. Pressure over, let’s kick back and balloon, American style, with six-packs of Bud and tubs of the Colonel’s original recipe. Why not? Everybody else is doing it. Before she won, this year’s winner was even caught on tape sneering at last year’s queen, “She’s fat as shit!” Then she, too, will turn to redolent earth before too long.

Dethroning woman as goddess, Swift uncovers and wallows in her actual shit. Debunking male pretensions, Solanas charges that everything that comes from him is figuratively shit. Daily, actually several times daily, each of us is grounded, humbled, by this burden that cannot be properly assimilated into the culture, though it’s spewed, often enough, from our mouths, out on the streets.

But enough of this, OK, I won’t say it. Let’s get off the boardwalk, for Atlantic City isn’t just that. With less than 40,000 people, this is no city, really, but a town with two dozen high-rise hotels, and a daily influx of day trippers. On Pacific Avenue, just a long block from the ocean-fronted promenade, the seediness begins. Here, you can see cheap residential hotels, liquor stores, tattoo parlors, cash-for-gold dealers and strip joints. At A.C. Dolls, a sign advertises “Divorce Parties!” Even before dusk, prostitutes prowl, and there are plenty of cops also, to make sure no tourists get mugged, so unless you wander further inland, you won’t likely be punctured and divested.

On a recent evening, I turned from Pacific onto South Georgia Avenue to photograph a curious sign, with “CASH FOR GOLD” over “ROOMING HOUSE.” In the distance, a dozen young people were hanging out in front of the well-lit porch of another flop mansion, with its shared bathrooms of antiquated fixtures, and thin mattresses draped in dull, gray sheets that flaunt constellations of stains and cigarette burns, like bruises and sores on a worn out body, though still sexy. In the dark, a bi-racial couple strolled towards me, the woman in hooded sweat, the man in knit cap. In this society, white men command just about every board room, while black dudes rule the sidewalks, at least those with folks still loitering on them. It took me a minute to get my shot right, and when I was done, some older guy sitting on a low step huffed, “You shouldn’t be taking your camera out around here, man. Those people were saying they wanted to smash it!”

“Ah, they’re always talking shit!”

Dude chuckled, “Yeah, you’re right. They think they’re gangsters, but they’re just pranksters!”

A compact man in old dress shirt and pants, Bill Bringhurst was his name, and he was in Atlantic City to peddle programs at the Miss America Competition, with events all week-long leading to the finale on Sunday. He said it wasn’t unusual for him to make $250 a night, just selling programs on commission, and he had worked Eagles and Phillies games, too, and concerts. “Beyonce wanted me to go on tour with her, so I could sell her programs.”

“You’re full of shit!”

‘You don’t know, man, I’m good at what I do. I’m the best!”

He said his family arrived in the “1400’s,” and were among the first settlers of Germantown in Philadelphia. Well, Columbus reached the Americas in 1492, and Germantown wasn’t founded until 1681, but maybe the Bringhursts were kidnapped by Martians, then dumped in Pennsylvania a couple hundred years earlier. Anything is possible. By this point, I was starting to wonder if here was just some homeless guy talking out of his ass, but hot air is all too common in a city with a faux Taj Mahal, and where the last mayor lost his job for lying about being in the Green Berets during the Vietnam War. This he did to win the election, and to collect extra benefits from the Veterans Administration. As the expose heated up, Bob Levy simply disappeared for two weeks, leaving embarrassed A.C. without a mayor. It turned out this former life guard had checked himself into a mental health clinic. “The hope you deserve, the help you need. Depression. Anxiety. Bipolar Disorder. Schizophrenia.”

Leaving Bringhurst, I ran into a man who had hung his jacket and khaki pants on an electric meter box outside Papa John’s Pizza. “I like to mark my territory,” Tony B explained. Tony’s scheme was to buy Delilah’s Den, the strip bar, “for maybe $400,000. No more. They’re really hurting. There are four strip bars within three blocks, and that’s too many! I’ll turn it into a special ed school.” Tony also let out that his father had been a hitman for the Gambino, “like Carmen Campisi.” Within two minutes Tony had told me all this, and given me his phone number also, then he disappeared.

I was left alone momentarily, but then a young, snub nosed girl in a pale, loose smock approached, “You have a cigarette?”

“Sorry, but I don’t smoke.”

“You have fifty cents?”

“Sorry, I’m broke.”

“You don’t have fifty cents?!” And her open mouth, green eyes and pretty snub nose beamed, fully, incredulity and disgust at my apologetic configuration, standing there in the half dark.

“Sorry, but I’m really broke,” and I was really down to two pennies. I’d have loved to help her get a donut or beef jerky, but I had already spent too much that day, what with the train fare to Atlantic City, a corner store hoagie for both lunch and dinner, and cheap beer at Flanigan’s, where I managed to meet a couple of locals. Had I more cash, I would have offered her (up to) $10 bucks to tell me her story, and she might say, “Fuck off,” or, more likely, give me 20 minutes of her time.

Most stories can be had for free, but it still takes efforts to gather them. When asked how she managed to achieve such a great ear for dialogs, Annie Proulx said that she’d simply sit in a public place and listen, and since she was a woman of a certain age, men’d leave her alone. William T. Vollmann paid prostitutes to talk about themselves, and as they confided, he’d sometimes jerk off, to reassure them he wasn’t a cop. Solanas, though, charged men 50 cents for a dirty word, “men,” and six bucks for an hour of conversation.

So to hear local stories and speech, I had found my way to Flanigan’s, just past the Memorial Park with its 1929 Liberty in Distress statue. The bar appeared newish, and was so denuded of quirky posters, mementos or graffiti, no history, in short, that it almost felt like a basement rec room in a suburban home. There was a sticker on the cash register, “FREEDOM ISN’T FREE,” but that was it. Four draft beers were available, Bud, Rolling Rock, Yuengling and Coors Light, and they were only $2.50 a pint, so that’s a good sign, as I barely had any cash on me. Kenny Roger’s “The Gambler” was on the juke box, to be followed by Cat Stevens, then the Doobie Brothers, so someone was really into wise, rueful white guys reflecting on this trying life. Eight dudes perched at the bar, with two speaking Spanish. Atlantic City is 30% Hispanic, and 15% Asian, so once outside the tourist area, you’ll find a fair amount of Mexican, Dominican, Bangladeshi, Chinese and Vietnamese businesses. An old pizza joint, with “WELCOME TO ITALY” on its torn awning, now serves Mexican food primarily. There’s a Sidney Pho, with an image of the Sidney Opera House on its sign, but Vietnamese do that. Walk into a Viet joint, and you may greeted with a mural of the Eiffel Tower or even Florence, Italy, so why not Sidney? Why not have a Vietnamese eatery designed as a Bavarian beer hall? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Through the plate glass window, I could see a couple walking by doggy style, with the young man fondling his girlfriend’s boobs from behind. They were both laughing. On television, there was a fleeting news story on “the American Taliban,” which prompted a “We’ll blow you up, motherfucker!” from one of the drinkers. Hearing pool balls clacking in an adjacent room, I eventually wandered over, and there, I met two super friendly dudes, Brian and Nestor. In his mid-thirties, Brian was born in Margate, just down the road, and he has lived on the Jersey Shore his entire life. With his long hair, scraggly beard, string head band, T-shirt of sunset over groovy surf, and plaid golf shorts, Brian looked more like a beach bum than what he was, an experienced union mason. For a long time, there had been plenty of work in Atlantic City, but it became scarcer and scarcer, so three years ago, Brian had to commute each day to Philly, “At first, I’d take the train, but that meant getting up at 3:30 in the morning, so I could catch the 4:30, and once I got to Philly, I still had to take public transportation.” Like in many American cities, Philly’s train station is not quite downtown. “In the evening, I’d get home by 6:30, which meant I had no time for anything but to eat really fast, then sleep. You can’t do that day in and day out, it just wears you out, and my line of work is very physical. Some days, I was working 53 stories up. Outside! So I drove, but that meant 25 to 30 bucks a day for gas, plus 12 bucks for tolls, plus parking! So, shit, man, you’re talking 60 bucks a day easy. So after two years, I stopped working in Philly. I make do with what I can find here.”

Atlantic City is not just hurting from the economic depression affecting the entire country, every state save perhaps North Dakota, but it has also been squeezed by casinos sprouting up everywhere, not to mention online gambling. It has lost its monopoly, in short. “There are still a lot of rich people in Jersey,” Brian said, “but they’re not spending as much. It’s like a barometer. When the going gets rough, they suck the money in.” Brian has found his equilibrium through vegetarianism, Buddhism and acrylic painting, “I paint every day!”

“After you get home from the bar?”

“Yeah, after I get home from the bar!” And with that, Brian was out of there, but not before he had introduced me to the bartender, Jenny, who turned out to be his aunt. Jenny had worked at Flanigan’s for 20 years, so this beer and whisky fountain had been there “forever,” though its age and character had been stripped away by a recent remodeling. With all the constant changes in Atlantic City, two decades is a very long time, and I would have loved to talk to Jenny, but she was too busy to chatter, so let’s meet Nestor.

Fifty-three-years old, Nestor is from Colombia and came to the U.S. 25 years ago with his mom and three siblings. For the last 23 years, he has been a busboy at an upscale Italian restaurant. He also buses tables at the Diamond Club, and occasionally works construction. The Italian restaurant, though, is his bread and butter, “The money there used to be so good. Fifteen years ago, I’d make $200 a night, easy, just on tips, sometimes $300. If there’s a birthday or a wedding anniversary, I’d make more just for singing. Some of the busboys were too embarrassed to sing, but I thought, Why not? I’ll sing! And they’d tip me really good, and on New Year’s Eve, I’d make $1,200, even $1,500!”

“Holy shit! You’re kidding me!”

“No, I’m not. There was so much money then, it was ridiculous. Some of these guys had money hanging out of their pockets, but not any more.”

Keep in mind that a busboy only gets 20% of the tips, so a waiter was really raking it in, and Nestor was briefly promoted to waiter, but that didn’t quite work out. Though his English vocabulary is extensive, and his grammar near perfect, his accent persists.

Like Brian, Nestor acknowledges that the good times are over, but, unlike most of us, he has a way out, “I’m going back to Colombia.”

“Wow! Like when? Soon?”

“Yes, I’m planning on going back within a year. It’s getting worse and worse here, and the lifestyle, it’s too crazy. Why do you think everyone drinks so much, or takes so much drugs? There’s so much stress here, and people are making less and less. My mother is already back in Colombia. She’s 75, you know. A few years ago, we pooled our money together and bought some land, but my brothers and sister are all married, and they don’t want to go back, but I will.”

“If they’re married, their kids are too Americanized…’

“Yes, so they will not go back, but I will.”

“And what will you do there?”

“Be a farmer. I know how to do that. I grew up doing that.”

“That’s amazing, man! I don’t even know how to grow tomatoes.”

“You can always learn! Here,” and he gave me his phone number, “You can call me whenever, in two months, in two years, and I’ll help you to buy land in Colombia.”

That last bit is something one would say in a bar, a beer-fueled sort of exuberance or sentimentality, but still, I appreciate Nestor throwing me a life line, not that I have the cash or credit to buy real estate anywhere. In any case, the idea of leaping off this listing ship is gaining more traction all the time, with more Americans renouncing their citizenship than ever. For the rest of us, though, it would not be unwise to at least plot an escape route for when things get really nasty. For a while now, America has been the world’s leading generator of refugees, so it’s well practiced at terrifying or starving people into fleeing.

The decline of Atlantic City will not be reversed, and its casinos will be imploded or abandoned soon enough. Under the boardwalk, there won’t be one but many blankets, quilts, tarps and pieces of cardboard, and on them, folks will even make love as they almost taste french fries and hot dogs. Through it all, though, there will always be the sea, that most beautiful sea to admire as if nothing has ever happened, or to splash into, never to return.

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He's tracking our deteriorating social scape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America. Read other articles by Linh.