Image by Paul Lowry via Flickr
Christmas time brings about a dilemma for many a Jew Yorker. Though there are heaps of our ilk spread across the five boroughs, the Christian holiday is still often regarded as an opportune time for many people, chosen or not, to spend a few days visiting the lands from whence they or their significant others came in order to be closer to family or just warmer/different environs.
So with the holiday frost nipping at my heels and the prospect of being a lonely Jew on Christmas cooped up in my Brooklyn apartment with no one to play with–as many of my faithful and faithless friends took the low road out of town– I pondered my own brief escape from the frigid prison of cinema and Chinese food. I came up with a plan that amused me so.
I wasn’t so sure that the East Coast’s Las Vegas of depression (the west coast’s being Reno) was even open on Christmas Eve, but the more I pondered this plan, the crazier and more enticing it became. The last time I’d been to that particular stretch of the Jersey Shore, I’d emerged a winner to the tune of $800 (thanks Donald Trump!). Being recently unemployed, I figured that kind of luck might do me some good in the wallet department. Plus, as someone who enjoys new and odd experiences, I figured you couldn’t beat a Casino on Christmas Eve in terms of depravity.
With two days ‘til Christmas, I spent a large portion of my evenings brushing up on Blackjack situations with digital outings on Yahoo! Games. And just when losing fake money began to cast serious doubt, my faith in the probability of reward was restored when both a TV show I was watching and a song I was listening to mentioned casino situations. These were sure signs that fate was calling me to that boardwalk without ill intentions.
When Christmas Eve morning came, I had a few things to sort out before I could make my AC run. Feed roommate’s cats, check; file unemployment claim, check; Stop at the bank and take out $200, check; turn off irresponsibility sensors, check! Atlantic City here we come!
Now one can’t magically teleport to Atlantic City just yet, but I’d be willing to invest any future winnings on the furthering of such technology as it would help to avoid the encounter with the cavalry of the downtrodden that line up for the buses that leave every half-hour from the Academy bus gates at the Port Authority of New York. It’s an assemblage of various financially-strapped but morbidly obese, blue-haired elderly, and faux-high rollers that spend $35 round trip hoping to meet the tattered-dress-wearing, cigarette-dangling, bleached-blonde version of lady luck who spends most of her time– be it summer or winter– on the Atlantic City boardwalk courting the lonely and desperate for one night stands. She may not be the sexiest girl in town, but you wouldn’t kick her out of bed–at least until the nicotine stench started to attach itself to your clothes and everything else in the room.
With teleportation yet to become an option, I endured the two-and-a-half hour slog down the 130-mile stretch of highway towards destiny. Contrary to popular myth, this bus ride wasn’t all sweet dreams and rose petals. The requisite discomfort that accompanies even the briefest stints on public transportation became apparent even before leaving the station as several passengers took the opportunity to relieve themselves in the bathroom. Not that this is the improper place to do so; it’s just that doing so that early into a road trip tends to give the recycled bus air that not so pleasant aroma with an undesirable immediacy, to be coped with throughout the entirety of the journey.
Not to be outdone in the malodorous bouquet department, the woman sitting next to me unveiled a fully dressed Subway sandwich reeking of pungent processed meat and vinegar; several strands of dried out, confetti-like lettuce hanging out from a compressed region of submarine sandwich siphoned the scent towards my nostrils, like an excited toddler shooting down a waterslide.
I knew what I was getting into before choosing to make this trip, but the accompanying misery of transportation had somehow presented itself as appeal. That misrepresentation was now abundantly clear. To combat my foul-scented surroundings I turned my focus to literary matters, having a copy of Mark Twain’s “The Innocents Abroad” at my fingertips and an iPod full of 9,000 plus options blasting distraction into my ears. My pilgrimage to personal gain had been gifted with a certain amount of tunnel vision, lest an unforeseen distraction should arise. The only thing resembling such a distraction were the two reasonably attractive ladies seated behind me, whose presence seemed quite the heavenly apparition in a bus full of degenerate gamblers hellbound for the holidays. I would’ve attempted to engage them, but they were enrapt in conversation from the get-go and they presented nary an entry point, so rather than butt-in, I minded my own.
From my previous experiences on the road to Atlantic City, I had always remembered the trip as being a straight shot without any stops, but this route suggested otherwise. The bus took refuge at a few New Jersey rest stops, the most amusingly named being the “Cheesequake” rest stop. The naming powers that be must have run out of inspiration while conjuring names to honor with fast food commerce for in the midst of such notable historical contributors as Vince Lombardi, James Fenimore Cooper, and Clara Barton they took a moment to acknowledge and appease the gods who might rain such a dairy natural disaster upon unfortunate turnpike travelers. Though, personally I may have gone with the more likely to occur Dark Chocolate Hurricane.
After more than 2 hours of cramped travel, the signs were encouraging. We could be getting closer to our destination, and just like came an actual physical road sign that alerted us that Atlantic City was nigh. The shame of it was that I had to put my book away mid-chapter, but the excitement and fortune that lay on the horizon were certainly worth it. The gambling haven was in plain sight. Our bus was scheduled to make the Showboat Casino its ultimate destination. I had never been to this particular establishment and was looking forward to it, if only because I spent the entire trip trying to figure out which song that I like contains a mention of “the Showboat Casino Hotel” (that would be Cracker’s “Happy Birthday to Me”).
When the bus pulled into the Casino’s individual station, the crowd sprung excitedly from their temporary perch ready to take the slots and tables (but mostly slots) by storm. Unfortunately, before anyone leaves the bus in this situation a Casino representative must be fetched so that they may present individual visitors with their $25 gambling coupon to be used only on slot machines. One young man–who had only taken the bus as transport to family for the holiday– was reprimanded by a few silver foxes when he tried to leave the bus for fear that he might get first dibs on the coupon. The prospect of one person gaining a gaming advantage had turned this cooped up bunch into a pack of petty, ravenous animals.
After 5 minutes more of waiting on the bus, the Showboat Casino representative arrived and people began to disembark, but with one new wrinkle– the bus was now stopping at Bally’s. Half of the passengers had had enough and made their cash grab where the bus stood, while the other half stayed on at the prospect of being let off at Bally’s. I was to be counted among the latter. It’s not that I necessarily had a preference towards one over the other, rather in my previous experience at Bally’s I remembered the coupon being recoupable for cash, which I preferred over having to spend $25 on slots. And if you’re playing 5ç slots with $25 to spare, that amounts to something like 500 slot plays, so you’d much rather have the cash.
Once the bloodlust for Showboat Casino coupons came to a close, our bus was cleared to make its final descent into Bally’s, where the coupon anticipation act repeated itself in a more civilized fashion, the only disappointment being that my remembrance of a $25 cash prize was, in fact, a mirage. I entered the building with a Casino card and a ticket for $25 that I was told was to be slipped into the slot machine with an accompanying card. Despite several tries to convert my ticket to slot credits in the vast archipelago that is the Jackpot Islands, I was more or less lost in a sea of casino card technology. I took my leave for the cozy confines of a card table.
Scouring the Blackjack Table minimums I came upon several $15 tables that bookended those with $25 minimums. I found an end table with an open seat to my liking and peeled $120 out of my wallet. Mumundkumar, the friendly dealer, accepted my cash challenge, exchanging it for a fresh batch of $5 and $10 chips.
I can’t say things went bad or good for the first stretch. My tablemates and I were in a perpetual state of equilibrium; you win some, you lose some. Though there was a tender moment between myself and my immediate neighbor–a Plaxico Burress look-alike with a blinding diamond ring on his right hand– when we both hit on hands on 14 and 16 respectively only to be rewarded with a 7 and 5. The result was a celebratory high-five that was not at all awkward.
Excitement and camaraderie aside, the hands that Mumundkumar–or Mac as he preferred to be called– weren’t that kind to us. I was probably down $40 when his replacement, Xiao, took control of the card shoe. I didn’t fare quite as bad with this new dealer and I was somewhere around $30 in the black when Mac came back. The charade of false hope went on for another several minutes before I was down to my final $5 and had to dig out another Andrew Jackson in the hopes he’d veto the Impending Poverty Act of 12/24/10. But Mac’s next two hands pushed the bill through anyway.
Dejected and unsure of my immediate gambling future, I took to the boardwalk to suss out a food option and ponder the value in making further get rich quick attempts versus deciding to pack it up and cut my losses . Remembering that it was 6pm on Christmas Eve, I knew I’d have to scramble back towards a casino-sanctioned eatery to fill my poor belly. Luckily, I happened upon a Nathan’s and indulged in some of their famous fare before pulling myself up by my bootstraps and back onto the road of Atlantic City triumph.
I contemplated a move to the Taj Mahal, the site of my previous successful outing and took a stroll through Caesar’s Palace, but in my obsessive compulsive heart of hearts, I didn’t want to leave with the feeling that I had let Bally’s beat me. It didn’t hurt that I knew somewhere Bally’s had $10 minimum tables and those might stop or at least slow the hemorrhaging of money from my wallet. I decided to seek them out.
My search took me from the plain, classy wing of Bally’s to the gimmick-laden Wild West Casino extension, where there was a bar charging for $2 drafts just feet from any table where your alcohol was guaranteed free. I managed to locate the precious $10 tables in this region, but such tables were popular with other hard up folks. Instead, I plunked myself down at another $15 minimum table complete with a sexy-wild west lass emblazoned on the façade as Tim McGraw’s “Indian Outllaw” blared through the speakers. I couldn’t see my dealer’s name, as her hair covered her nametag, but I figured I had plenty of time to be sociable and learn.
Mystery dealer was relatively friendly when it came to leaving my small fortune in tact; she may have even tacked on a 20-spot or two. All I know is that I had more than what I started with when I first cashed into the table and that made me less count conscious. Instead I was able to enjoy the ebb and flow of the game. You win some, you lose some; you don’t get too far down. After 40 minutes or so of ups outweighing downs, my new, somewhat profitable acquaintance took her leave never to return. In her place, arrived a somewhat more attractive dealer of Southeast Asian descent, with an overly friendly disposition.
Seated at a nearly perpendicular angle to her, I could not spy her nameplate and strike up conversation. I was waiting for her to spin towards me so I could grab a glance at her tag, only when she finally did she resembled her predecessor in that there was a stream of hair flowing over where I would normally spy her name. I did however catch a B and two L’s interrupted by her black strands. I assumed her name was “Belle” but couldn’t get over the thought that she didn’t look like a Belle or Bella or anything involving a B and two L’s.
As “Belle” continued to deal, my pile of chips began to look about as healthy and wealthy as a pile could look when using the wisdom of playing by the blackjack book. I had easily gained back my losses for the evening, if not broke into the black yet again.
The vibe of the table was an extremely positive one. Seated along with me were three African-American men of varying ages. One heavyset 20-something year-old that had the demeanor reminiscent of the local aged wise man whom had seen it all before. The next man was the actual elderly man, who while maybe not wise was certainly sleepy, and the third just a calm, cool and collected middle-aged guy who kept quiet but wasn’t above the occasional excitement. During our time together at the table it felt as though we were all amassing small fortunes. The table sage kept a running commentary of encouragement in a gentle, assuring tone throughout our tenure together even during tough hands.
“That’s okay. You played the hand right. It’s all gonna come back to you.”
“There it is. As long as you do what you’re supposed to do you’re going to come out a winner.”
“Alright, nice play. You got it, I told you.”
“You can’t help what happens with the dealer. Just play your game.”
With his positive demeanor, consistent flow Confucius-like wisdom and tee-ball coach encouragement, you’d think he was doing much better than he actually was. I didn’t notice it through the haze of good vibes he was sending everyone’s way, but he was actually losing. I soon realized he was betting more than the $15 minimum despite having at one point warned against going too high above it. He ducked out for a few hands and exchanged another $20 for chips before saying his final goodbye to the table.
Somewhere in that final stretch of the near 2 hours spent being peppered with affirmations an older white gentleman joined the table, best described as a cross between Larry David and Alan Arkin, only severely lacking in affable nature and good humor. Upon the previous table cheerleader’s exit, he tried to assume the throne of table morale raiser. When 10s, face cards, or Aces were handed out to any player, he’d shout “that’s the name of the game” before the dealer displayed that players second card in the hope they’d been dealt a blackjack. It was an admirable attempt, but not exactly inspiring. And after hearing it two to three times during every hand it began to be somewhat grating–you might say slightly more grating than the Casino’s soundtrack of outdated pop songs, none of which post-dated early 2003.
Also joining the table, in the vacant middle slot, were a duo of older white southern gentlemen. I use the term “gentleman” loosely not to represent mannered men, rather to denote their being most likely in possession of male genitalia and on the verge of incoherent drunkenness. One of the pair was actually engaged in the game of cards, the other undertook the brotherly duties of propping him up and explaining to him that he couldn’t take action on other people’s hands. Their demeanors were also quite different. The soused and skinny senior Private Pyle was angry and unfriendly, while his bald and bearded buddy was a regular good time Charlie, laughing whole-heartedly at his friend’s expense in guttural bursts and exclamations in my general direction each time he chose to stay on 8 or hit on 19.
Their act grew tiresome and somewhat uncomfortable. The drunker and more ornery of the two frequently threatened violence against his friend if he didn’t let him play the way he wanted to play, while the more jolly one just got obnoxiously louder and more prone to pointing out his friend’s inadequacies. At one point a space opened up next to the drunker southerner and a young woman volunteered her chips to play there, but the Pyle shooed her away because he didn’t want the distraction of having to see her cards in his line of vision.
The uncomfortable vibe continued on through the alternating of two dealers. The lovely “Belle” with the pleasant demeanor was temporarily replaced by Anthony, a tall, crooked-toothed, salt-and-pepper jheri curl wearing dealer who wore his daddy issues on his sleeve– as evidenced by the fact he introduced himself by saying, “You can call me Anthony, or just call me a bum like my father used to.”
Anthony was a little clumsy with the cards, but he still did a somewhat admirable job. He may not have been the ideal casino dealer, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t effectively and consistently gather chips from the losing hands he doled out. My recently amassed fortune was slowly depreciating under his watchful eye, but had been cushioned enough and was periodically replenished so as not to induce panic. Anthony’s dealing inconsistencies caught up with him on one hand as “David/Arkin” decided he was going to split a pair of 9’s against the dealer’s 7. But before he could get to show his intentions, Anthony passed over him assuming he would stay as he was showing a winning hand. It wasn’t unjustified as most of us at that table wouldn’t have split that hand. It’s not what the book says to do and aside from drunk and disorderly to my right, we were all pretty much using that standard.
His presumptive split skipped over, un-fun David/Arkin let his displeasure be known in the most passive of manners, despite the fact that he had won the hand. Throughout the next hour-and-a-half or so he was a master of passive aggression, continually dropping hints that he would be a whole twenty-dollars richer if not for Anthony’s blatant disregard for his unlikely maneuvers. I believe there was even another dealing stint with “Belle” before Anthony returned and the entire situation came to a head, As the pit boss came to welcome another player to the table, Arkin mumbled something about Anthony owing him twenty bucks. The mumble grew to a grumble and ultimately to a roar.
The game was stopped and a debate raged with Anthony and the pit boss for ten minutes. The table all but cleared out and the grumpy gambler had won the day as he received a voucher for twenty-whole-dollars! The commotion managed to clear out most of the table including the pair of belligerent Dixie drunkards and the game resumed with Anthony still dealing. The instigator of the commotion was so utterly proud of his self, but realized that everyone else still present was mighty perturbed at the interruption. He tried to lighten the mood, justifying his actions as a means to an end for clearing out our unruly neighbors and wearing that like a badge. But at least they had created some laughable, if frightening entertainment.
“Belle” returned soon thereafter and proved to be a boon to my profits. I had managed to go from just above even to close to about $105 in the red for the evening under Anthony’s reign. But “Belle” bought back an air of calm to the table along with good fortune. When it threatened to be just me and the complaint department at the other end of the table, a boatload of Korean tourists quickly filled up the seats keeping us company for quite some time, followed by a Darius Rucker look alike that somehow managed to look younger while having a sprinkling of salt in his hair.
The latter sat with his girlfriend who when one of the Koreans dropped out found a spot at the table. It was during this relatively prosperous time I noticed “Belle’s” nametag again. I realized a “P” peaking out from behind her hair, ultimately coming to the realization that the dealer I’d come to know and love as “Belle” was not in-fact named Belle. I had only been reading the blanks surrounding B and L-L that went on to spell B-A-L-L-Y-‘S. It was a good thing I hadn’t felt comfortable enough to ask “Belle” any pertinent questions while mentioning her name. Then again, maybe I would have learned her actual name.
Despite my newfound lack of knowledge as to my friendly dealer’s first name, I pressed on in my quest to become more acquainted with an increasing amount of hundred dollar bills. My ultimate goal for the evening was to earn four-hundred-dollars or enough money to buy a new camera– preferably a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 or Canon Powershot S95, prior to my upcoming trip to New Zealand.
The David/Arkin hybrid soon left the table as did the Koreans and I found myself seated with Darius without his girlfriend to my right. The only wrinkle here was that Darius was not playing. He was watching me play, constantly applauding my decisions. It was a very awkward game of me vs. “Belle” with an enthusiastic audience of one.
Supremely confident in my blackjack skills, Darius started betting on my hands. If I bet $15, he’d put $15 more in my little circle. If I had to double down, he’d contribute to my double down pile. We were doing pretty well together. He continually used his winnings to tip the dealer and tip me. We regularly engaged in high fives and fist bumps when the thrill of victory arose and optimistic chatter when it didn’t. It was simultaneously thrilling and degrading. We were a team, but I was his lucky horse. After a lengthy winning streak, I urged him to return to his own place at the table, as it was really awkward to play the dealer one-on-one like that. He did for a few hands and then said goodnight.
No one to play with, but the dealer and still with a goal in mind, I continued to battle “Belle” for my ultimate monetary reward. But the light sting of the occasional glass of bourbon and the heavy intake of above average oxygen levels began to have its effect on me. My eyelids, despite being told otherwise by the piping in of refreshing elements, had a heaviness about them– and a slight tinge of pain began pulsating within my temples.
I saw the money on the table, counting it at $380. That was $120 more than I had changed for chips. It wasn’t $400 plus, but it was a good haul. I pushed the entirety of my chips towards “Belle” signaling to her that I was done for the night and the morning– seeing as the clock at somehow managed to crawl to 2:53am.
“Changing $330!” screamed the friendly dealer to notify her pit boss.
Confused, I looked down at my chips certain I’d divided them into even piles and calculated the amount correctly. Then it hit me. At some point in the course of the evening the pile of 10 $25 chips suddenly morphed from $250 to $300 in my brain. She was right. It was only a $70 takeaway. While it was better than nothing, it was a definite disappointment.
I bid my new friend adieu and cashed in my non-fortune and headed towards the Bally’s bus port, reflecting on the past 12 hours. Had my AC outing been a success?
Well, let’s see; I had come in search of bizarre characters-check; holiday desperation-okay maybe a little bit; and a positive flow of cash into my wallet–$70, could be worse. It would seem all my goals had been met, but a strange thing happened as I strolled through the last stretch of slot machines– I caught my a glimpse of myself reflecting on a flat stretch of metal illuminated by a dim, blinking display. I saw a tired, disheveled wreck of a 32-year-old whom traveled two-and-a-half hours to a casino on Christmas Eve to revel in the sadness of others and win enough money in order to buy a camera only to come up well short of his goal. I was the exact person I had come to see.