"Jesus Christ," I muttered.
"I guess they don't want you to know what time it is," Morgan said, as I pulled the curtains closed again.
"Or if it's a nice, sunny day outside."
That's the thing?a few years ago, as part of a massive, multimillion-dollar renovation plan, Caesar's ripped out the ceiling of the lobby and replaced it with navy-blue Lucite and 10,000 little lightbulbs in an effort to recreate the night sky over Rome. So now, you could say, the sun never shines on Caesar's. Or at Caesar's.
"Jesus Christ," I repeated, shaking my head and taking another peek out the window to make sure that we were, indeed, looking out on the lobby. We were.
"It's okay," Morgan told me. "It's not like we came here for the view."
And she was right, but still?things were weird already. You can always expect things to get weird in Atlantic City, but it usually takes a little while. It usually takes hitting the boardwalk, or stepping foot into one of the casinos. But in our case, things were already starting to happen on the train down.
At one of those strange little stops in Jersey?one of those minor towns you've never heard of and could never imagine living in?towns like Toadlick or Egg Buster's Hollow?the doors opened and a hefty fellow in a wheelchair lurched himself aboard. He slapped the front seat of the car up and snapped his chair into place.
This left him staring directly at me, as Morgan and I were sitting in the seat opposite the folding one. He seemed pleasant enough, though I still pretended, alternately, to sleep and to be interested in the various parking lots we were passing.
Then at the next stop?Asscrumb or Pig Squat?two more people in wheelchairs were heaved aboard, and Morgan and I were told we had to move to make room, which we did without complaint.
One old woman in a motorized scooter chair got lodged tight in the aisle, holding up the train for a good 10 minutes.
"First time I've tried to get this thing on a train," she announced happily to the packed car. "I've had it in some pret-ty weird places, though." She chuckled to herself as the train finally rolled on.
We thought this was peculiar, this army of the wheelchair-bound heading toward Atlantic City?until we hit the first casino, which was itself packed with the wheelchair-bound. One old woman equipped with, among other attachments, a talking keyboard, was parked in front of a slot machine, losing away.
"I guess that explains the train," Morgan whispered as we passed her.
I'd paid many a visit to Atlantic City over the years?though it had been a good long time. It had been an even longer time since I'd been in one of the casinos. A lot of things had changed. Time was, the casino floor was awash with ridiculously clad cocktail waitresses, who not only offered, but insisted, that you have a free drink, whether you were playing or not. And then another. Nowadays, these "waitresses" are few and far between?screeching past the tables, shouting, "Coffee or juice!"?then disappearing around a corner before you had time to react. Worse, they didn't even seem to offer alcohol anymore, unless you cut some sort of special bargain with them beforehand.
And it was after standing in line for 45 minutes to get a few rolls of quarters to start with before I realized that the machines now took paper bills. That made everything so much easier, and losing so much faster.
One thing that hadn't changed, though?the casinos of Atlantic City remain nightmarish jungles, packed with an ugly and brutal Saturday night crowd stinking of cold desperation, dead-eyed for anything except that next open machine. Unfortunately, it was through this crowd?mostly old-timers, shoobies and day-trippers determined to toss their Social Security checks to the wind?but with a few spring-breaking fratboys tossed in, just to make things worse?that Morgan had to try to maneuver me. Once I got to a table or a machine, I was fine, but these places are simply not designed?and why should they be??with the foul-sighted in mind. But she did an admirable job under horrible circumstances. The crowd was overwhelming, all elbows and spinning heads, hypnotized by the lights and the incessant hum and chime of the machines.
Casino layouts?and the four or five places we hit were all alike this way?are works of some kind of obsessive brilliance, the result, it seems, of decade-long studies in chaos theory. They're mazes, with no clear central aisles, few if any landmarks and, Lord knows, no signs. Finding your way out is a matter of simple dumb luck, and, until you do find your way out, you have to pass by an endless array of all those tantalizing games. As a result, people panic, people get wild with a greed borne on overstimulation, people get weary and need to sit down for a while.
So we stopped and played.
Despite my best efforts, I've always been a miserable gambler. Years at the track and never once placed a winning bet; basement poker games, never a winning hand; multiple casino trips and never hit anything larger than a few measly bucks on the slots, which disappeared as quickly as they arrived. Morgan, on the other hand, had never gambled like this before, but had been blessed as a child with an innate sense of luck. It was time to test that sense, and retry my lack thereof.
And indeed, she racked up a nice little tot on one machine, while I hit?much to my amazement?a modest jackpot on another. (I was convinced I'd broken the damn thing when it started pissing coins, until a kindly old woman in the seat next to me explained that I was doing just fine.) As we were slightly ahead by 8 o'clock, we figured we'd take a break and get a bite, then set to it again.
All of the restaurants in Caesar's had been given ridiculous Roman-sounding names (my favorite being the "Pompeii Pasta Paradise," or something equally ominous)?and the one we found ourselves in even included actors dressed like Nero, Cleopatra and a centurion, who hassled diners as they tried to choke down their salads and fried shrimp.
"Hello! I am Nero! What's that you're eating?"
They stayed away from us, though.
Four hours later, after losing all that we had won earlier, and with the Saturday night crowds becoming too unbearable, we set out to try to find a bar. An extraordinarily difficult thing to do in Atlantic City, finding a bar. So we settled on a place just off the casino floor called "The Bacchanal."
Here's how The Bacchanal is described by Caesar's p.r. department:
The Roman celebration of Bacchanalia, a legendary feast of fine dinning [sic] and sumptuous temptations, returns! Relive the mythical experience named for the god of wine and revelry?feast your palate and your imagination, as Caesar once did, in ancient Rome.
Yeah, well, historical accuracy aside, I suppose it was something like that.
What that description translated into, essentially, was an overpriced bar serving watered-down drinks and featuring a disco cover duo (Casio and tambourine) who knew four songs, but who were obligated to play them repeatedly for five hours.
What that also translated into was that the overweight, aging (except for the fratboys) and extraordinarily white crowd would insist on dancing. Yes, dancing?or something like that, to even paler versions of "Hot Line" and "Copacabana."
"Copacabana" really got them going.
We went back down to the floor, shaken from the exhibition, not nearly as drunk as we wanted to be, lost some more money, then went to our room. Despite everything, we had to admit with no shame at all that we were having a hell of a good time.
After a few hours of sleep, we returned to the casino as close to refreshed and clearheaded as we were likely to be. The day before, we had avoided the tables for three reasons. First, they were too fucking crowded. Second, most of them featured minimum bets of $25. And finally, to be perfectly honest, we weren't exactly sure what we were doing. Morgan came down knowing all the subtleties of blackjack?things I'd never heard of before?but neither one of us had played it in this environment. Despite all the gambling I'd done, I'd always avoided playing face-to-face with strangers?especially strangers who gambled for a living.
But Sunday morning, the tables mostly empty, the floor calmer, last night's freaks and monsters back home in their Egg Buster's Hollow beds, it was time to jump in.
I pulled out my wallet and dropped far too much cash on the table, which the dealer swept away, handing me a small stack of chips. I never could have considered playing blackjack for $25 a hand before. Hell, there's simply no way I would've been able to do that. But here I was now, at a table with three others, laying down that first chip.
Then another, a few seconds later.
Within two minutes, I had thrown away $200. I should've been shocked or devastated or outraged or something. I should've at least been a little wiser. But I wasn't. I knew I wasn't going to win, so I figured why the fuck not lose my money in some new and alien way? And that's exactly what I did,
When my chips were gone, Morgan took my place at the table. And before long, she had amassed a small fortune, piled up there in front of her. I was amazed. She knew when to hit and when to stand, when to split and double-down, what to bet against and what never to bet against.
It was a friendly, calm table, too. The dealer and the other players went about their business, offering occasional quiet advice.
Unfortunately, as these things happen, the odds shifted, and soon that pile in front of Morgan had vanished, too.
So we moved on to a nearby roulette table, laid down a few outside bets and doubled our money in short order. Fortunately, before we had a chance to lose it all, we had to check out of the hotel. I'm still proud to be able to say that we won at roulette. In fact, roulette was the only thing we did win at?placing simple bets while the men around us frantically tried to drop chips on every single number before the ball landed, turning the table into a kind of "upper body-only" version of Twister.
With a few hours before the train left, we decided to finally hit the boardwalk in earnest. In past visits, I could always count on seeing Celestine?the armless, legless woman who played the keyboard with her tongue?ply her trade. Sadly, Celestine passed on a few years ago. And while no one of that caliber has appeared yet to replace her, the boardwalk still has its share of deviants. One man who believed God was speaking through him sold me an actual hand-photocopied greeting card. A fat, stringy-haired and barefoot woman in a nightgown wandered through the cold morning wind, incoherently propositioning single men. A sign reading "Fried Chicken" was illustrated by a big picture of a strawberry ice cream cone.
Yeah, some things about Atlantic City hadn't changed yet, and for that I'm grateful. Morgan even discovered the vomitorium in an alleyway just off Caesar's!
Despite the wind, and the cold, I insisted on dragging her the half-mile up the boardwalk to see the Taj Mahal. No trip down there would be complete without catching a glimpse of just how bad architecture can get. It's like a little taste of Los Angeles right there on the Jersey shore.
And while there, rather than turning around and trudging back, we decided to take one final crack at the tables, thinking maybe we could win back at least a percentage of what we'd already lost.
The Taj casino, despite the building's exterior, has it over on all the others. The aisles are wider, it's more clearly marked and, being positioned so far away from the rest of the pack, it's not so damn crowded. At least on a Sunday afternoon.
We found an open blackjack table and sat down. Minimum bets were still $25, but at this point we didn't much care.
"There comes a point," Morgan pointed out, "after you turn over your money, that the chips just become chips. The amount is printed on them, but they're just chips, nothing more." And she's right. Before long, I was laying out $50 a hand or more, and not giving a good goddamn when those chips got swiped away from me. The more I won, the more chips I gathered, the more I bet on each hand. It was insanity. I could almost take care of next month's rent with what I had collected at one point.
Things were going very well. And then we were joined.
We'd been lucky up to that point. People had been pleasant and self-contained at all the tables we'd been at. But like the rest of our luck, you stay at a game long enough, and it'll turn on you.
"You should split that!" the thick-necked blowhard bellowed at Morgan from the other side of the table. Yep. Spring break. He knew this game backwards and forward, he was a pro, man, and he wanted the world?or at least us?to know.
"You never hit on a 14," he said to his friend, after I'd busted. "You just don't do that. If the dealer's showing a five and..."
It was clear that he'd just read one of those 350-page Winning Blackjack Strategies books. His friend was rolling his eyes. The dealer was rolling his eyes. We were rolling our eyes. Then we were joined by an equally loud Japanese high roller, but nobody could understand a word he was saying. And an obese Southern woman who decided to express her bronchial troubles all down my back. Soon the table was a cacophony of frustrated know-it-all shoutings, guttural Japanese and furious Southern hackings.
And as the noise grew louder, our once-mighty stacks of chips?the glorious proof that we had won?continued to dwindle. Then they were gone. But on the bright side, so were the loudmouthed kid's.
As we walked away from the table, Morgan held up a single $5 chip. "Should I go cash this in?" she asked. It was all she had left.
"Naah," I told her, "why don't you keep it as a souvenir?"
She put the chip in her pocket and we headed for the train, much, much poorer, but still with absolutely no regrets. We'd be back soon enough. And we'd win it all back then.