NOVEMBER 16, 2012
BLACKJACK PAYS three to two, and Halloween is October 31. Unless, due to new policies at the bankrupt casinos, blackjack pays six to five, and, due to Hurricane Sandy and gubernatorial decree, Halloween is November 5 instead. That night, along Atlantic City’s Baltic and Arctic Avenues, from which the ocean had just receded, the cops were dressed like cops; the camouflage revelers were National Guardsmen. A kid in a President Obama mask shuffled by White House subs; the only Mitt Romney mask was in the lap of a Chris Christie look-alike at Harrah’s.
Truth is, every night in A.C. is Halloween—every night, that is, except this past Halloween (the night after the hurricane), and Christieween (the night before the election). Every casino is always a party, not just of cocktail-waitress squaws and bartender cowboys, “guestologists” in togas and saris, but also of the unintentional costuming of the customers: the overtanned, overmade-up emphysemic bubbes; the men smoking out by the loading docks dressed like Burt Lancaster in Louis Malle’s Atlantic City, or else it’s Lancaster who dressed like them and pocketed their voices: “You should’ve seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days.”
Most of the casinos, those made of steel and concrete, had sustained only minimal damage and took just a week to fix electrical issues before reopening on Friday—for no one, or for addicts. By Christieween, they were practically empty. A summer of millions of tourists gives way to a winter of thousands (on weekends), but no seasonal dwindling could’ve prepared the locals for the loneliness of being left to themselves: pop. 40,000, tops.
Anything open felt like it was hosting a high school reunion. I had a pint at the Irish Pub on St. James Place (a rare family business, since 1972) and too much vodka at A.C.’s newest casino, the Revel (financed and abandoned by Morgan Stanley, partially subsidized by the state since 2012). At the Pub, I recognized a former teacher, and at the Revel, a guy who used to deliver pizzas for Primo’s. This isn’t supposed to happen in a city—even in this city. I once doubled down on chauvinism by bringing an out-of-town friend to Bare Exposure, a strip club, just to get him a dance by a girl I knew from homeroom. But without the outsiders, there’s no one to show off for: The Jersey Shore has never had the infrastructure for a self-sustaining fantasy. On Christieween, the dancers shook, but more heads were turned by the Eagles, as they lost by 15 to the Saints.
IT WAS THE CASINOS that churned the tide I came in with, the tide my parents rose with, and the flood that drowned A.C. way before we all became experts on the differences between a tropical storm and a cyclone. In 1978, the first legal U.S. casino opened outside of Vegas—Resorts (where I worked summers in the ’90s as a cashier).
More casinos followed, shuffled, and cut their losses. The Golden Nugget folded, became Bally’s Grand, not to be confused with Bally’s, which merged with Claridge; Sands went bust; the Golden Nugget reopened, to replace Trump Marina, which itself replaced Trump’s Castle. Donald Trump’s A.C. run was abetted by mayors corrupt (Michael Matthews, 1982–1984, convicted of extortion), foolish (James Usry, 1984–1990, who pled guilty to campaign finance infractions), ineffectual (Jim Whelan, 1990–2001, under whom homelessness reached record proportions), and absent (Bob Levy, 2006–2007, who lied about his Vietnam service and illegally collected veteran’s benefits before checking himself into a psych clinic). The current mayor, Lorenzo Langford, is a Democrat, attended Atlantic Community College, and was formed by stints as a dealer and pit boss. Even if he had ideas, it wouldn’t matter, given that Christie’s tactics are just a tad softer than “Nucky” Johnson’s, or “Little Nicky” Scarfo’s—another A.C. mob boss who knew how to handle the unions.
A.C.’s deal has always been artless. Local politicians and the zoning board, funded by casino developers, approved any and all development plans. In return, the politicians guaranteed their core constituency—middle-class casino management—continued peace in their neighboring communities. Crime is kept to the darker squares of the Monopoly board, so the rest of the Shore can raise its children—me included—on taffy memories and custard dreams, clean water and dune replenishment. Neither of my parents work for the casinos, but my father, a lawyer, makes his living suing them, and my mother, a speech-pathologist, makes hers helping to reduce the accents of their immigrant employees—now mostly Indians and Pakistanis. Many of my parents’ peers own businesses (entertainment promotion, food and beverage distribution), but none of their children—many of whom worked with me cashing chips in the cages—remain. It was the success of the casinos that created this middle class, and it was the failure of the city, through drugs and prostitution, that destroyed or dispersed it.
A.C., as CNN’s anchors rarely mention, is merely the northernmost town of the island of Absecon, a corruption of the Lenape Indian Absegami, “the land across the bay.” Postwar economic ascension meant a move downbeach to higher ground, or to the mainland. The barrier island would protect the interior’s three-floor, two-car garage “bungalows.” But the most effective defense was the bay itself, since the poor could not afford to cross it. Instead, the blacks and Hispanics who cooked BBQ at the Wild Wild West Casino and cleaned the faux saloons at the Showboat were left with creaky strut houses or cramped apartments dug out of the last of the grand hotels or the motels on the pikes.
Even before Sandy, they were vulnerable. The latest threat had been the Pequot and Mohegan—tribes that, unlike the local Lenape, survived. Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, and the casinos recently approved in Pennsylvania, have produced their own devastating weather. In 2009, Trump resigned as CEO of his company when the three properties that still bear his brand filed for Chapter 11. In 2010, Christie heaved himself onto the boardwalk to announce that “Atlantic City is dying,” ordering a state takeover of the casino industry and the A.C. tourism authority that removed even issues of sanitation and policing from city control. New York’s Aqueduct Casino, which opened in 2011, posted a $630 million profit in its first year. A.C.’s Revel, which opened in April, lost $35 million in its first three months.
CONTRARY TO WHAT the networks reported, most of Atlantic City’s boardwalk remains. On Christieween, it was vacant. No rolling-chairs. No vendors hawking “GET ME WASTED” and “I’M A SHORE THING” t-shirt/booty-short combos. Just EMT disasterati, and a huddle of washouts who were homeless before Sandy and are homeless after Sandy, but better fed by FEMA.
I got back in the car—I still had a fourth of a tank—and drove to Brigantine, dialing through the radio stations: At the Borgata hotel and casino, “mur.mur Mondays” was hosting a costume contest; DJ PS1 was spinning. Polling station changes: Districts 1–3, scheduled to vote at Price Memorial Church, should report instead to the Uptown Complex. Thankfully, no Springsteen.
In Brigantine that afternoon, 73-year-old Lester Kaplan, a retired boardinghouse landlord and limousine company owner, had been found naked on the floor of his flooded home; he died of cardiac arrest in an ambulance, becoming Atlantic County’s first identified hurricane casualty. That evening, the town was sponsoring “trunk or treat,” with candy available from centralized collection points. Kids were urged to “grab-and-go,” a phrase used both as a strategy for visiting one’s wrecked home to retrieve property and also as a motto of Jersey’s favorite convenience store, Wawa.
The downbeach kids seemed happier, giving and getting door to door both candy and canned goods. But the kindest island parents schlepped their Batmen, Spidermen, SpongeBobs, and Doras over the bridges, to hunt for showers, laundry, and Tastykakes amid the marshes of Linwood, Northfield, and Somers Point, and even farther inland, in Egg Harbor, where gas was available and toilet paper in bulk.
Joshua Cohen’s most recent book is Four New Messages. This article appeared in the December 6, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Under the Boardwalks.”