I spent two days last week in Atlantic City for a conference. I tend to get there every year or so for one meeting or another. Of all the vices I have, gambling is not among them, so it's not a place I generally go out of my way to get to.
Lured by $55 room rates (plus $10 per night fees) the conference this year was at the Tropicana, the Boardwalk casino complex best known for its addition of 'The Quarter,' a zone of restaurants, nightclubs,and boutiques as well as the hotel's problem with bedbugs. It was a nice place ot stay for a night or two, but the constant need to walk though the smoky casino to get anywhere and the uncomfortable accommodations for a meeting make it unlikely I will head back there for a meeting.
The breakfasts were good, but the dinner left me scampering to Red Square, where the food was better, the company was excellent and the TVs were showing March Madness. People watching at Tango's, a lobby bar, was fascinating but the Boardwalk was really the place to be on the first few days of spring. Day time highs were in the upper 70s, with mild evenings under a canopy of stars accompanied by crashing waves.
And as long as you don't stray from the boards and your hotel, AC doesn't seem so bad. There are clearly corridors designed to get you safely from the Expressway to your destination, with giant signs pointing the way. Even the Revel, set to open next week, already has its own giant 6 lanes of lighted safety to get even the drunkest gambler past the badlands and headed home.
It's a surreal town, with the wind turbines and downtown outlet mall, old and new convention centers, sprawling casinos bracketing vast stretches of poverty all set along a grand stretch of white sand. As much potential fun as AC seems to hold out as a possibility, I leave somewhat sad every time I am there. I'm not good with being told what to do, and sometimes stray outside the guided tour of the city to see things that the casino folks would prefer we didn't realize were there.
Things like the closed baseball complex that has never been able to make a go of it, the eerily disused golf course, the rows and rows of empty houses, the massage parlors, and head shops. The vacant lots though aren't the part that bothers me the most. It's the slack-jawed vacant looks of those legions who sit tethered to a blinking machine, pressing a button all day and all night, silently watching their Social Security checks disappear.
Maybe it's not quite as gritty over at the Borgata, but the giant room size, gilt paint and high-gloss wax wasn't able to hide the uneven floors, raucously drunk herds of kids and vomit in the fake plants. Boarwalk Empire this ain't! I didn't see a tuxedo or even a tie on a guest in 2 days. Many folks are wearing thier best yoga pants and sweat shirts, casino loyalty cards ringing each wrist and neck.The younger crowd makes Snooki and The Situation look modest, staggering from club to casino in the most mini of skirts and the barest of chests.
I like to have a good time as much as anyone, but I can think of about a million places I would rather be than down in AC. If they connected you better with the ocean and the Boardwalk, I might be swayed, but instead the casinos ignore their location once you are there, forcing you to wander the floor looking for an escape hatch.
REM's 1991 hit 'Shiny, Happy People' was playing as I soldiered to the conference Friday morning. As I looked around at the rows and rows of slot machines, table games and security guards, seniors and slackers, bar maids and porters, I could not think of a more inappropriate song for the beginning of the day at the Tropicana Casino in Atlantic City.