September 16, 2006.
I spoke of Atlantic City, previously, as being “the dynamic of shopping intensified, a dynamic that shortcuts around use value, even around intangibles, and straight into pure exchange.” But just as the wonders are magnified, so are the sins, drawbacks, and deceptions. What really struck me, this time around, was the enormity and seamlessness of the illusion hoisted upon the public about Casino gambling… sometimes by the public, as a myth by word-of-mouth. Casino gambling is something other than it purports to be, and I can’t tell how well this is understood.
I saw young Jerseyans, gathering around the roulette and craps tables, looking on admiringly at the older Jerseyans playing the tables with salty, unmoving self-certainty. The young Jerseyans assumed that these guys were hardened veterans, who chose their stakes with real wisdom. When, in truth, they were going to be suckered and bankrupt just as fast as the younger guidos-to-be. Probably faster. What strategy did they think these princes were working from? They were games of pure chance, with the odds tilted in the House’s favor. Mathematically, the longer you sat there, the more money you lost. This is the fundamental principle of Casino gambling: the House never really loses. In fact, if this principle is ever violated— as it was by the cardcounters of the hallowed MIT Blackjack Club— the casino will kindly escort you off the premises. This is to say, that if anyone ever hatches a strategy that one-ups the odds, the House just opens the trapdoor. The games are every bit as rigged as carnivals ring-tosses.
The whole picture suddenly reminded me, perfectly, of a Chucky Cheese. With all the kids collecting tickets with the sad idea that they’re somehow amassing capital. But, the healthy response to this Chucky Cheese illusion is: the material loss is beside the point. It is the activities themselves; the tickets only help to intensify the desire-dynamics… Casinos have the same sort of desire-dynamics as Chucky Cheese, only adjusted to the sad desires and realities of the adult world.
Three fourths of the Atlantic City mob are from the New Jersey-Pennsylvania-New York area, or less than two hours away. A true vacation, for the average taxpayer, runs about 2 or 3 thousand dollars. It’s difficult to spend that kind of dough on an in-state getaway. Atlantic City makes it possible, painless infact. Atlantic City makes the in-state getaway a true vacation. Vacation time is not a true vacation, also, unless it is liminal, a suspension of reality and of economic thinking. Does the public fully understand that they go to Atlantic City and Las Vegas with the express purpose of wasting money?
Ramsey thought so. At least for the majority, he said. Maybe so. Maybe this is yet another bubble in the exhilirant form of waste we call luxury. Or more precise and more heroic than luxury, the momentary exstasis of standing outside of the burden of economic thinking, of its everyday rationality. Is this the real similarity between gambling and drugs? Regardless of gains or losses, the act itself of gambling— even when loss is certain— allows a suspension of common instrumental rationality, or the little, incessant cares that motivate it. Casino gambling is never supposed to align with classical economic thinking, for gain or profit or risk, but more with Georges Bataille’s theory of consumption, in which excess— the accursed share— must be wasted, purged, burned, squandered in a paroxysm of anti-economic impulses. The same must hold for true shop-aholics as it does for gambling addicts; that the worst purchases must give the most relief and release from economic rationality. Basquiat dumping thousands on a crate of caviar— for no imaginable reason— must make the release that much sweeter and more acute. I disagree with Bataille that it must be an excess, based on surplus. The exstasis would be all the sweeter if the share were necessary and earmarked for other purposes, still in the sphere of scarcity. Only then is it transgressive, somehow truly obscene and orgasmic. The nice thing about Casinos is that they can tailor the waste rituals to any tax-bracket or background; they can tailor the “irrationalism” to any tastes.
I’m intrigued by what this atmosphere can accomplish. Inside Caesar’s Palace, a fake band covered tooted Gloria Estefan hits while a few partiers let loose on the carpet. Most of music was pre-recorded. The guitarist pretended to wail over even the songs with no guitar part… Was he even plugged in? We formed a little circle, along with seven or so middle-aged black folks, who then totally trumped us in the circle. The whole corner roared and clapped. A clove-smoking spectre, in a broad-rimmed hat, sat on a stool, grinning. Who was he? Was he there to take one of us away?
We left and wandered in awe. Every detail of this place is the obvious outgrowth of an anthropological function. In the lobby of Bally’s was an animatronic recreation of the Gold Rush, another piece of history wrought from the same hysteria. This hysteria built half of California just as it did Atlantic City and Las Vegas, and— while we’re being level and honest— most of the Discovered World.
The ceilings in some of the passageways were a painted, and scientifically-shaded, twilight. Soft clouds. Eternal twilight. Everything was the color of Rome. The effect was so effectively disorientating that as we walked outside, the real sky and skyline appeared fake and painted, in every sense, the vault of night. Also, once away from the oxygenation of the Casinos, we dragged and realized it was four in the morning. Time to return to Philadelphia with an brainful of images and ideas.
We boarded the bus, dead and ready to nap the whole way home. Ten minutes outside the city, the driver and passengers got into a little misunderstanding. The bus driver pulled the Greyhound off the road and unleashed ten years of professional resentment onto his passengers…”It is state and federal law that I must read these instructions…you must listen and listen quietly…”
The bus interrupted him. “This is America, man. We’re on free soil!”
“Though you may be in America, you are on a Greyhound bus. This is not a democracy. This is a dictatorship!”
The bus roared and rolled in disbelief. The man was the very archetype of disgruntlement. Short, squat, pear-shaped, with red hair and a dustbug moustache that wiggled when he bellowed. We six were beside ourselves. Rich was trying to record the battle with his cellphone. “You will listen to these instructions and listen quietly or I will let you off the bus for being a safety hazard.”
He gyred his body around, took his seat, and started in again with the safety instructions.
“There will be no smoking. No consumption of alcoholic bev…” Just then, the intercom broke. Jonny turned around laughing and mouthed it to the rest of the bus… The bus howled with derision.
Comments came in. “Y’all better stop laughing. Or y’all gonna wake up under water!”
Then, about five miles down the road, we come to a left exit. The driver hooks a u-turn and starts heading back to Atlantic City. It was classic. Pure Middle School Redux. I remembered then how fond I had been of misbehaving in public school. I’ve basically been lost without it all these years. This was our chance to re-live.
I’d glance back behind me and catch some priceless lines.
“See, white people run the world. Always have. Now they’re losing control and they’re angry.”
The whole thing was lovingly handled, though, by a New Jersey police officer and Greyhound supervisor, who both got the bus to promise “not to say one word” on the way back. A promise that they kept, which confounded both me and God alike.
Some small part of me wanted someone to crack. Well, maybe not that small of a part. An episode like that reminds you to live more tangentially, to lean into any series of detours, breakdowns, contingency plans, and foul-tempered secondary characters.
I adjusted my seat as far back as I could. Jay was behind me. I tried on my new dollar sunglasses. They really completed the sleaze look I brought to Atlantic City. The sleaze gremlin. I’m going to come to Atlantic City, with a notebook in the casinos, just to sit there and formulate. I wonder if they serve coffee.
(Photos by Ramsey Arnoot)