Imagine this: you take all the smoke-filled, tacky casinos in Oklahoma, put them down on the boardwalk of Coney Island, and get the crowd plucked from state fairs around the country to visit. That is the best description I’ve been able to come up with for Atlantic City. I took the train from Penn Station to Philadelphia, and met up with my friend Liza, who lived in a town near me in France. After a quick visit to her lovely home in West Philly, we got in the car and headed to New Jersey.
After a couple of hours in traffic, we spotted the giant casinos looming by the coast. There was basically nothing until a block from the water, then behemoths of neon and concrete jutted up in front of the ocean. This was my first visit to New Jersey, so I’m not sure if this is an accurate first impression of the whole state, but wow…what a bizarre place. We were greeted by a multitude of Caesar statues, on top of the parking garage and neighboring buildings at the Caesar’s casino. After leaving the car in a somewhat sketchy place (but really, everything was sketchy), we walked past a pizza pub, strip club, and cash-for-gold place, and then went to the casino itself.
Inside was an absolutely massive version of the Augustus of Prima Porta, probably the classiest thing we would see all day. He has a giant frying pan because some sort of cooking expo was happening…I have no explanation for the swimming pool lights and outrageous size of the thing.
We were greeted on the boardwalk by someone in a giant inflatable lobster costume. From there, we walked down to the beach, which was dirty and crowded, but we took our shoes off and walked in the water anyway. It was nice to feel the waves over my skin, even if I ended up with sand in my shoes the rest of the day.
Back on the Boardwalk, we perused the tacky shops. I bought a cheap pair of sunglasses. I should have bought the figurines of dragons playing drums, guitar, and keyboards, but I was foolish with my money. You can’t find that stuff everywhere. Did you know that Monopoly is based on the Boardwalk and the streets that go off of it? That game may be a little ruined for me, now that I’ve seen that St. James Place is actually a rather desolate street with only a sad-looking Irish pub. I saw no top hats or race cars anywhere! There were wheelbarrows, of sorts. A lane in the middle of the Boardwalk was marked off for the rickshaws that you could pay to be pushed in. We saw many skinny-armed people throwing their weight behind bulky passengers wedged tight in the chairs.
For some reason, there was an exhibit going on of proposed Holocaust Memorials for the Boardwalk. Really. Of all the places to build a memorial, that would be one of the last. The land of bachelor and bachelorette parties is not exactly a place for contemplation. I lost track of how many groups we passed of slurring singles stumbling toward their upcoming marriages.
We stopped inside a lot of the casinos, losing five dollars to a poker machine. I know, tragic! It’s really amazing how many different types of slot machines there are, all pretty much the same game, just with different images. I was fond of the above Hexbreaker, which had graphics of bad luck, like black cats, pennies tail-side up, the number 13, broken mirrors, spilled salt, voodoo dolls, and ravens.
Inside the Wild West Casino, there were poker dealers dressed in what looked like the University of Texas marching band uniforms, a “saloon,” and this mining-themed room in a faux-Western town. There was a mountain at the entrance with a broken animatronic man and a sad, fraying fake donkey.
The Taj Mahal didn’t embrace its theme as much as the Western place, although the huge chandeliers and glorious mirrors were certainly opulent. On one of the piers, there was a huge shopping center where we took shelter from the sun (it was very hot). Inside, we caught what has to be the craziest fountain/light/music show I’ve ever seen, although I guess there isn’t much competition. A circular fountain shot spurts of water in rhythm to what sounded like every genre of music in the world mashed up with dance beats, while fog and water like rain poured down from the ceiling. The audience watched with blank gazes and cameras held high.
On the Steel Pier, there is an amusement park with a “crazy mouse” ride and one of those bungee things that rockets people into the air. As you can see, it’s not made of steel at all. Turns out the original pier, which was longer and more grand, was burned down and this concrete pier was built in its place. It was once the home of the amazing diving horse; now you walk down a hallway of claw machines while licking sugar one of 20 possible flavors of funnel cake off your fingers.
My favorite Atlantic City pier was this one that was deteriorating into the ocean. If my internet research is right, then this is the formerly posh Italian-inspired Garden Pier. Now it brings a war zone touch to the Atlantic City boardwalk. I wonder why it is not covered in roller coasters and neon lights. Perhaps a good site for a post-apocalyptic themed casino? The machines would all be broken, money worth nothing, and you would gamble with worn poker chips out of boredom in a bunker while zombies claw at the door. Sounds like fun to me.
There were actually a few surfers trying to ride the waves near the steel pier, fearless of colliding with the concrete pillars. I did recently see a guy bring a full-size surf board onto the subway in Brooklyn. It took up a rather large portion of the car. Maybe he was headed to the treacherous waves of Atlantic City?
I imagine that some people take whole vacations to Atlantic City. I guess you can waste many hours playing the slot machines (which disappointingly don’t take coins, or have a slot), but I think a day was enough for me. The only thing I wish we’d had time to see was Lucy the Elephant, who isn’t in Atlantic City, but two miles south of it. We kept seeing pictures and paintings of Lucy, but I thought she was the elephant hotel that had been torn down in Coney Island. Turns out that there was more than one Elephant shaped building on the coast of the 20th century Atlantic and Lucy survived into the 21st.
We left Atlantic City after sunset, when the Boardwalk was lit by the electric lights of greasy food booths and flash of cheap digital cameras. After leaving the glare of the coast, the drive back to Philadelphia was almost completely dark. Just marshes and then trees out the window.