I happened to be in Atlantic City the other day and it was quite an experience, I can tell you, just looking around.
I had in mind the big push in New York, led by Gov. Cuomo, to legalize full-fledged casinos in the name of economic development.
Economic development? He ought to go look at Atlantic City.
Atlantic City, population 39,558, has 11 casinos, so you would think it must be economically developed to beat the band, wouldn’t you? I mean, if one casino boosts the general prosperity, think what 11 must do. And not just any old fly-by-night casinos, but 11 casinos with such names as Resorts, Bally’s and Trump.
But if you know your civics, you know the opposite is the case. Atlantic City is run down and dumpy. Unemployment is close to 18 percent, a quarter of the households have incomes below $15,000 a year, and service jobs, typically the lowest paid, account for almost half of all employment.
Half the people there make their livings dealing cards, serving drinks and picking up cigarette butts, and it looks it.
I actually found out the numbers later, back home, but I had a pretty good sense of the dismal reality just ambling around the famous boardwalk and poking my head in and out of the casinos. Oh, what depressing sights!
On the boardwalk, throngs of slovenly, tattooed visitors shambling through their own litter of plastic cups and throwaway plates. For entertainment, throwing a ball at a target, at $3 a toss, to win a grungy stuffed animal. For nourishment, Philly steaks and funnel cakes. For music, whatever is booming out of the nearest T-shirt shop.
In the casinos, older people — the younger ones are shambling through the boardwalk litter. The older ones are just as slovenly but fatter and less heavily tattooed.
They sit mesmerized in front of video slot machines, as at Saratoga, and they stand around roulette wheels and craps tables, utterly joyless, which is their most signal characteristic. I walked the length of one of these places — I think it was Bally’s — consciously looking for someone smiling, and out of the hundreds of people I found two, a woman at a slot machine who I suppose must have just won, and a man walking with another man having a conversation.
Some of the others were grim, most were just expressionless. You might think of the gambling life as glamorous, if you get your impressions of the world from movies, like the old James Bond movies in which the men wear tuxedos and the ladies generous décolletage. Atlantic City will disabuse you of such notions forever.
The buildings themselves exhibit the kind of ersatz opulence that is summed up in gilt trim, large mirrors and chandeliers the size of freight cars — and here I have in mind especially Trump Taj Mahal, which surpasses all others in tackiness. Oh, such a sorry parody of elegance! It made me sorry to be alive.
And smoking being permitted in some, if not all areas, the casinos reek of smoke.
It was a Saturday afternoon and evening when I made these observations. The next morning I had a thought — go back and visit Bally’s again, early, just to see if people were gambling at the innocent hour of 7 a.m. I expected there would be a few hard-core types but was surprised to find there were more than a few. There were actually quite a lot. They were pushing the buttons on the slot machines, they were hunched around the poker tables, they were laying down their chips on roulette and craps.
I watched those tables for a little while and noticed that some of these customers were drinking. They had either bottles of beer or glasses with ice cubes, amber-colored liquid and swizzle sticks. Jumping Jehoshaphat, I thought, it’s 7 o’clock in the morning!
Then I had a further thought. I buttonholed a young security guard who was standing nearby and asked him how long these people had been there, and sure enough, he said most of them had been there all night. He had come on duty at 11:30 p.m., and they had been at the same tables.
Think of it! The whole night!
I noticed that the minimum bet at some of these tables was $10 and at others $15, and the customers, as at slot machines, rarely made the minimum bet but almost always piled their bets up. If you stand at a roulette or craps table for eight straight hours, drunk or sober, making $10 or more bets all that time, you have to be losing thousands of dollars.
It was fairly dizzying. Now, it’s hard to tell these days who is rich and who is poor, the slob look prevailing across class lines, but certainly none of these players looked prosperous to my eye. They looked very much like ordinary people — ordinary on a good day.
I watched them, I watched the security guard, I watched the miserable looking waitress in her pathetic fishnet stockings serving the drinks, and I thought, so this is the economic development that New York aspires to. Oh, carry me home to die.