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Casinos have no windows and no clocks, rendering high and low rollers alike indifferent to concepts of night and day. Maybe they don’t have clocks in their houses, either. How else to explain why the 8:30 a.m. bus from D.C. to Atlantic City on a chilly October Saturday is packed? There’s another bus that leaves in the late afternoon, but Mary at the Gold Line bus company assures me that the 8:30 departure is the busiest trip of the week. Gold Line makes daily pilgrimages to the gambling mecca, offering a round-trip ride, a handful of quarters, and a generous $2 buffet coupon all for just $29. It’s a bargain, she says. Get there early, she says.
Mary doesn’t mention the seven stops the bus makes before it finally hits I-95. By the time we pull away from Nick’s Diner in Wheaton, there’s a low rumble of kvetching about the delay. In this crowd, anythinganything at allthat takes away from the six hours of allotted playing time is nothing short of a travesty. “We only have six hours,” people say over and over again.
Of course, most passengers should know precisely how long the bus takesgiven that a good number of them made the same exact trip last weekend. Most of the riders are women, and almost everyone is over 40. Some people even know enough to bring pillows and blankets for the five-hour ride. But most people are wide awake, content to spend the road trip debating Lady Luck’s fickleness and specific strategies to force her hand.
This is B.T.’s third weekend excursion in a row. She sits on the aisle, stubbornly blockading the window seat so she can spread out for a nap if the urge strikes. B.T. is on a self-described gambling “spurt” because, she says, she’s buying a new house. Last weekend, she won $700 on the slot machines. She sticks to the slotsusually at Bally’s, never at the Trump Taj Mahal, sometimes at Resorts. But this time, maybe she’ll follow me, she says: “You’re new, so you’re going to win.” Everyone needs a lucky troll in their pocket. Might as well be me.
Five hours into the trip, the first whiff of cigarette smoke creeps out from the bus’s bathroom door. This is bad for team morale, because there’s no one on the bus who doesn’t want a cigarette, too. But the bus driver chooses not to notice the illicit stream of smoke. It’s part of his laissez-faire style, one learned through decades of experience. He gets on the intercom just once on the way down, to tell us that there will be a video each way. “Don’t ask me the name,” he says. “I don’t know. I just put it on.” Then he issues one warning: “If by chance you leave anything in Atlantic City other than a footprint in the sand, you done left too much.”
When it’s time to start the movie, he just pulls overonto the thin shoulder of I-95and pops in The Match Maker, a movie so horrendously bad it must have been made for airplanes and demoted down to bus trips. “The best part of this movie is the credits,” someone yells at the end.
Finally, Atlantic City’s feeble skyscape appears in the distance. The sight of the casinos across the empty New Jersey plains has everyone perked up for a moment. Still, the atmosphere is not one of excitement, exactly; it’s more like resigned anticipation. “I like to hear those bells go off,” says B.T. “As long as it’s my machine.”
At a pulloff on the freeway still miles from the casinos, we pull over to await the “Greeter”a representative of the Sands casino who passes out coupons good for $18 in gambling cash. The coupon is redeemable at the Sands only, but almost no one on the bus plans on actually gambling at the Sands. “That place is so tight,” B.T. mutters, in reference to the casino’s cramped floor. “And, honey, they take forever to give you your money. I mean, Jesus Christ. It’s like they don’t want to give it to you.”
Instead, most people will cash in their coupons and take the money elsewhere, sacrificing precious playing time in the process. Everyone also gets five $2 food coupons, each usable on a different date. While those are being doled out, people dig into their bags to find folded-up food coupons from last weekend’s trip.
Then the Greeter, a bored-looking woman named “Icy,” wishes everyone an obligatory “good luck” over the intercom and trudges off to the next bus full of suckers.
This is Shirley Anne Harris’ first trip to Atlantic City alone. Oh, she’s been to the casinos more times than she can count. But usually she comes with a girlfriend, and they split their winnings. There was a time when she used to go more often, too often. Now she only goes for special occasions.
A couple of weeks ago, Harris turned 51, and her husband didn’t get her anything, so she put on a sad face and he ponied up for the ticket, for one. He doesn’t like to gamble. Neither do her two kids.
But Harris loves the slots. When she gets to the casinos, she doesn’t have time to eat. You only have six hours, remember. Today she’ll spend what she’s got with her, which is $300. You need at least that much “to be comfortable,” she says; then you can get into a groove and wait until you hit. Caesars has been real good to her, she says. Once she won $2,000. That was a long time ago. Of course, she doesn’t talk about all the times she’s gone up there and thrown $300 down a rathole. Real gamblers never, ever talk about losing. Not only is it bad karma; it also creates just the kind of cognitive dissonance that has no place on the road to Atlantic City.
Last night, Harris played bingo, but the money went to charity, so it doesn’t really count as gambling. She used to go to the tracks in Dover, Del., another charter-bus destination. “But that ain’t nothing,” she says, compared with the ringing thrills of A.C. If she can’t get up to Atlantic City, she’ll settle for Lotto back in D.C.; sometimes she’ll “dream a number,” she says, and go play it for a week or so.
But Harris is not superstitious. And she’s not lucky, she insists. “Anything I get, I have to earn it,” she says. “Nothing don’t come free my way.”
Harris didn’t even think she’d make it to 51. “My body aches,” she says, touching her knees. Part of the reason her body hurts is her job, which she loves. After 18 years as a secretary for the D.C. and federal governments, Harris quit and became a steel laborer. She works for a construction company on a barge in the Potomac River, replacing rods in the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Sometimes people fall into the water, but Harris never haswhich is a good thing, since she can’t swim.
Her first year on the job, Harris “caught hell” for being a woman. But she stuck around, because she likes being outside and working with her hands. Her father was in construction, too. She’d gone to secretarial school just because that was what was expected of herall the girls she knew in high school were getting government jobs. But she’d never meant to stay. “Ain’t nothing to the government,” she says, shaking her head. And it’s hard to imagine her in a government-issued cubicle, with her scuffed-up glasses and knobby hands.
As we pull up to the Sands, Harris gets up to leave, shifting the navy-blue bandanna on her head down to her neck. The bus driver warns everyone to be back by 7:10, or he’ll leave without them. And within seconds, the riders, Harris among them, have filed off and melted into the A.C. throng.
Atlantic City has cleaned up in the last few years, people will tell you. It has a Planet Hollywood, sparkly new amusement rides, and Bally’s recently-opened-with-great-fanfare Wild Wild West casino.
But it’s still a brutally ugly place, full of ugly people. Granted, on every Jersey boardwalk, there are going to be people spitting and wearing too little clothing. But in Atlantic City, the guy spitting is doing it into a microphone before he starts his street performance. And the fat woman wearing short shorts is also wearing gold high heels.
An open-air pizza place on the boardwalk suggests the A.C. that should be: There’s a pretty teenage boy throwing dough around while Sinatra plays in the background. Little kids and touchy couples line up for slices and lemonade. But if you get close enough to the pizzas displayed in the case, you can see that the cheese is curdling.
It’s strange how a place built on people’s dreams can be so utterly devoid of romance. There are dozens of rickshaws-for-hire on the boardwalk, pushed along by young men in sneakers. But the attempt at Far Eastern charm falls terribly flat. For some reason, maybe because of the context or the glare of the drivers, the display comes off as embarrassingly servile. And anyway, most of the people paying $10 to get pushed three blocks are just late to catch their charter buses home.
It’s as if Atlantic City gets away with being so heinous only because the ocean is right there to redeem it. And it is lovely, rolling and clean and empty in the autumn chill. But on the boardwalk, all of the benches are facing inward, toward the hulking, flashing blocks of fun.
Inside the casinos, it’s a Darwinian struggle to find a spot where luck will find you. People are shoving each other out of the way to get to their favorite slot, hollering for the cocktail waitress, or just plain screamingeither they’ve struck it rich or someone has snagged their purse.
In the women’s bathrooms, there are empty wine glasses on top of sanitary disposal boxes. At any given hour, sequined women are putting on lipstick, pursing their lips in glamour poses, and generally hogging up the counter space. There’s a bit of a line, but nowhere near the press of humanity that lines up at the feeding troughs disguised as buffets.
Eventually I break down, slice open a vein, and attach myself to a slot machine. For about 45 unblinking minutes, I’m panting and praying and downing free, child-strength Bloody Marys. Then I’m back on the streets, out of money and running for the bus, which really does leave at exactly 7:10, no head count or nothing.
I get back on the bus with the same people I came with, but they aren’t exactly the same. They’re quieter, for one thing, thinking about how much money they have just lostor almost won. It’s a sad fact thatjust like in the rest of the worldit takes money to make money in Atlantic City. And if you had to take a bus down, well, then you’re probably going to have to take a bus back.
Harris has lost the $300 she came with. “Empty, empty, empty,” she says, shaking her head. But she still enjoyed herself, she’s quick to add. She got what she came for. So did B.T., who did “OK,” but doesn’t plan on coming back next weekend. And even though she wasat one pointup $700, she still doesn’t consider herself lucky. “Some people are,” she says. “Them little old ladieshell, they always hit.” She’s right. Anytime there’s a ringing jackpot at the slots, there’s a stone-faced old lady standing there shoveling quarters into a bucket.
It was crowded this time, B.T. says, probably because the Social Security checks just came out. Last weekend was better. “Honey, those machines were popping last weekend. I had about four machines going at once over at Resorts. And it was fun,” she says.
B.T. brightens up when another woman starts talking about Las Vegas. “You get off the plane, and there’s a slot machine. You don’t even have to walk. They’ve got a ramp,” the woman reports. “You’re kidding!” says B.T. And in Vegas, the woman says, “They’ve got drinks this big! Everything is big in Vegas!…I came home with $3 and a hangover!”
“You know that’s just too much,” B.T. says, laughing. “I know I would love it there.”
I interrupt this little fantasy to point out that she was dead wrong about me: She promised I’d win and I didn’t. Well, she says, I didn’t spend enough money to begin with. And what the hell was I doing over at the Taj Mahal, anyway?
Then a passenger gets up and starts collecting donations for the bus driver’s tip. Every trip, on a bus full of empty pockets, the riders manage to scrape together $15 or $20 for the driver. Sure, it takes some cajoling. Some people even look a little startled when they’re asked to contribute. But they do.
As we approach D.C., the driver turns on WGAY. Jimmy Ruffin wails away at “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?” as people nod their heads in harmony. “I never win when I come here,” says Stephen Hakala, consoling me. So why come? “In case I win.”
The bus picked Hakala up at the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home in Northwest D.C., near the Washington Hospital Center. He looks as if he must have been a sailor, with his white beard and starched white hat. But Hakala spent 29 years in the Army, a veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Hakala doesn’t bother with Atlantic City much anymore, but his friend sitting up front had no one else to go with. “He’s a war hero,” Hakala says, pointing to the man. Mostly Hakala just likes to bowl. He bowled on a German team when he was based in Germany, and he bowls at the Soldiers’ Home every day. Atlantic City is too long of a trip, he says.
One of the biggest gamblers on the bus is also the quietest. Roland Hall, age 70, comes to Atlantic City about three times a month. He’s a retired carpenter from D.C., but he’s been coming to Atlantic City ever since the casinos opened, 20 years ago. He is a squat man, easily overlooked, with a wide, white beard that hangs down onto his red plaid shirt. When he gets to the casinos, he follows a disciplined schedule. First he eats at the buffet. Then he goes for a long walk on the boardwalk. He makes himself do all of that before he starts to play. When he’s ready, he goes straight to the blackjack or craps tables. He never plays the slots. And he prefers the older casinos, like the Sands.
Hall imposes a $500 limit on himself, but sometimes he goes over. In June, he won $2,000. He did well tonight, too, although he skirts around the numbers. He’s been to Vegas before, but it’s “too fast,” he says. If he had his choice, if Vegas were right next to Atlantic City off the Garden State Parkway, he says he’d come to Atlantic City.CP