Cashing Out

As casinos continue to close in Atlantic City, it feels like the end of an era. I went to see what the end looked like.

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You wouldn’t have known from the long line of people waiting to check in that the Showboat Atlantic City Hotel and Casino would be closing in just one week. My partner Rob and I arrived at the Mardi Gras-themed casino a few minutes after 4:00, when check-in began, and already guests had formed a long line along the gaming floor. Many were traveling both light and heavy: They had backpacks and pillows from home and bags with bottles of liquor, even though a sign in the self-park garage said guests were not allowed to bring their own alcohol into the hotel. 

This was only my third time in the Showboat. I have been coming to Atlantic City’s casinos since I was old enough to gamble, but I always thought the Mardi Gras theme felt a bit desperate. The jazzy music and paintings of parades and parties always seemed to be working overtime to convince guests that the Showboat was a fun place. My late grandmother loved the place and racked up free meals and show tickets and hotel rooms here over the years. In Atlantic City, I preferred to lose myself in places and periods I’d never been: the Taj Mahal, the 19th-century U.S. Wild West, or ancient Rome.

But Rob and I were at Showboat to mark what increasingly feels like the end of an era. Earlier this summer, Showboat’s owner announced that it was closing the casino unless a buyer could be found. The casino remains profitable: it earned $7.6 million in the second quarter of 2014. But Caesars Entertainment — which owns three other Atlantic City casinos, as well as gaming halls in thirteen other states and Canada — is downsizing in the city as competition from casinos in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut cuts into Atlantic City’s gambling revenue.

Showboat is not alone. Earlier this year, the Atlantic Club closed. And in September, both Trump Plaza and the two-year-old Revel resort will shut their doors. Atlantic City will still have eight casinos, but there’s the very palpable feeling that the city’s second act may be coming to an end.

Rob and I wanted to see what that transition looked like. So after we checked in, we went to our room on the 14th floor of the New Orleans tower. Housekeepers were still cleaning a few rooms. Ours had a door that wouldn’t open all the way — it jammed against the floor tiles when it was halfway open. The room looked a little down on its luck. The tan carpet had several pink stains. The TV was neither flat nor high-definition. Our windows looked out over the top level of the casino’s self park garage; weeds had grown high in large planters. In the bathroom, a towel ring on the vanity was missing, but nobody removed the large screw that had held it in place.

We had no way of knowing whether the quality of the room had anything to do with Showboat’s imminent closing. Online reviewers note that rooms in the New Orleans Tower are nowhere near as nice as those in the Bourbon Tower, which is also closer to the ocean. But I do know that when we realized we had no soap or shampoo, I went into the hallway to find one of the housekeepers I had just seen a few minutes earlier. They had disappeared. On the floor of the hall, however, were bags of dirty sheets, a used glass, several cocktail straws, and an iron. I saw an open door to a room with bright fluorescent lights. I went in and saw cots in one corner. Bags of dirty laundry sat in front of service elevator doors. A pink liquid covered the floor. Through a window, I could see the wetlands that separate the barrier island from the mainland.

Back in the room, I called housekeeping and asked for soap. The woman who answered told me they would send some right up. We waited for about 20 minutes, then went down to the casino to have a drink. What else could we do — complain about the service in a hotel closing in less than a week?

That night, Rob and I gambled at the Trump Plaza. The Plaza opened in 1984. Its architect was Michael Stern, Jr. — the man credited with creating the first integrated hotel, casino, convention, and retail space in Las Vegas in 1969. Today, the Plaza is a 1980s gem. The main boardwalk entrance displays the casino’s name in gold, under black and red triangles. A long, tall wall of black windows spans above and beyond the main sign. Mirrors and bright gold panels cover so much of the inside. Almost every surface of every casino shines, but the interior of the Trump Plaza feels especially illuminated, yet a bit smokey, too. It’s an episode of Dynasty realized through architecture and interior design.

I played roulette; the game’s clear odds and payouts speak to me. Six of us surrounded one of the three roulette tables open that night. The other tables sat empty. A few people put chips on the numbers 0 through 36, which have the lowest odds but the highest payouts. Most of us, however, played the outside: the black/red, odd/even, 1-18/18-36 bets that have the highest odds and lowest payouts.

A cocktail waitress served us free vodka tonics. Several players at the table asked for chips in a different color when they felt they needed a bit of luck. When I was almost out of money, one player at the table pointed up at the digital sign that displayed the most recent winning numbers. He told the croupier that the sign was displaying the wrong numbers. The croupier pointed to the roulette wheel. He said that the numbers were so close together that sometimes the device that captures the winning numbers incorrectly identifies the next number. Then he shrugged. I wasn’t surprised we had no soap in the hotel, but I didn’t think a casino could take a “What are you going to do?” attitude about gambling, no matter how close it was to closing.

After I lost more money than I was comfortable spending, Rob played a slot machine based on the TV show The Walking Dead. After he lost more money than he felt comfortable spending, we walked down the boardwalk and back to the Showboat.

When we entered our room, we saw that housekeeping had come. It looked as if someone opened the door, stood in the hallway, and threw a handful of soap, shampoo, conditioner, and lotion onto the bathroom counter. In both the Showboat and Trump Plaza, employees had been much friendlier and more chipper than we expected… or at least friendlier and more chipper than Rob and I would be if we knew our jobs were coming to an end. I respected and admired their attitude.

But it was also refreshing to imagine someone just throwing toiletries into a stranger’s room. Good for him or her, we thought. If all three casinos ultimately do close, as it looks like they will, 6,500 people will be out of work. And there aren’t a lot of other job opportunities in a city that went all in on casinos.

The next morning, we walked north on the boardwalk to Revel. The $2.4 billion complex, Atlantic City’s newest casino, opened in 2012. Its owners and the state argued it would redefine Atlantic City by emphasizing luxury spas, high-end restaurants, and hip bars and lounges over gambling.

It never succeeded. Critics argued that, at the northern end of the boardwalk, the casino didn’t receive enough foot traffic. And a second-floor casino didn’t attract Atlantic City’s bread and butter: the day-trippers who are increasingly opting for casinos closer to home. In just two years, the Revel has filed for bankruptcy twice.

Rob and I rode the long elevator to the casino floor. We saw only a handful of gamblers. Unlike other Atlantic City casinos, which attempt to erase any visible sign of the outside world, Revel put slot machines next to windows that overlook the ocean. We were disappointed we hadn’t been here sooner.

We walked through Revel’s shopping hall, where most of the stores had already closed. Some had signs in the windows that said, “We are no longer accepting Revel Resort Dollars or Revel gift cards.” Seating areas with plush couches dotted the hall, but of course nobody was in them.

In the lobby, two front desk attendants worked at a long marble bank of 16 check-in computers. Rob and I took another escalator to Revel’s roof deck. Behind us, the 710-foot Revel tower reflected the rising sun. This is the tallest building in Atlantic City, and the second tallest in the entire state. Nobody is sure whether Revel will continue to pay the utility company responsible for heating and cooling the building; a construction management expert told the Philadelphia Inquirer that without utilities, heat and humidity would quickly build in the resort and damage equipment and finishings; mold would follow.

But in front of us, lifeguards pulled their stands to the ocean’s edge and beachgoers set up chairs. The ocean made Atlantic City; it’s the reason a railroad was built from Philadelphia to the island in 1854. The sand and water drew people for almost a century, until air conditioning and the automobile and the airplane changed travel habits. By the time the Democrats hosted their national convention here in 1964, the city was already at the end of a long slide. Gambling was supposed to be the city’s salvation, and the first casino opened in 1978.

I was born in 1980, and the only Atlantic City I’ve ever known was Atlantic City the gambling town. In college, a trip to Atlantic City felt sexy; spending money we hardly had felt reckless. After driving through the empty Pine Barrens and across wetlands, the city’s bright skyline exploded out of the darkness. We would play nickel slots with actual nickels that left our fingers gray. We played slowly so that we could have as many free drinks as possible.

I’ve kept coming back to Atlantic City since then. A night here was the first trip Rob and I ever took together, more than 10 years ago. When we lived near a bus station in Philadelphia, we would ride down for late nights. We also lived next door to a Wendy’s at the time; we would buy the largest Sprite possible, dump out half, then fill it with gin to drink on the bus.

In the casinos, we liked looking at the pictures of jackpot winners. They often reminded me of my grandmother, who never won a jackpot, but always thought she would. The people in these photos rarely smile. They’re older and look almost surprised that anyone wants to take their picture, as if the jackpot wasn’t a surprise or all that life-changing, but instead the inevitable product of years spent day-tripping in Atlantic City.

Atlantic City is often compared to Las Vegas — a match the former can never win. To pair the two is understandable, as they were for many years the only places to gamble in the United States, and they remain the biggest gambling centers in the country. Las Vegas is more successful by almost any measure: tourism figures, gambling revenue employment rates, image. No critics turn to Atlantic City to learn something about AMERICA; no architects have attempted to learn from it. In 1972, John McPhee documented the pre-casino city’s plight for the New Yorker. In 1980, director Louis Malle used the transition to gambling as the setting for his story of old dreams and new hopes; Atlantic City opens with scenes of wrecking balls bringing down classic hotels. But since then, the only people who have thought about Atlantic City are the people who live there, play there, or look to make a profit there.

But Atlantic City is not as easy to read as Las Vegas. Despite statistics documenting Atlantic City’s decline — the gaming revenue that peaked in 2006, the poverty, the unemployment — the experience of the city is difficult to capture. Atlantic City has never felt like it’s working, but it also doesn’t feel like it’s broken, as many people claim. Instead, Atlantic City feels perpetually out of order. Like gambling itself, Atlantic City’s boardwalk and ocean and even the bells and whistles and shiny surfaces of the casinos themselves suggests that no matter how bad things are, they’re bound to get better. Something will work. Something’s got to work, right?

I felt this way when Rob and I walked from Revel down to the Pier Shops at Caesars. The mall stretches across the beach and over the ocean. The stores here include high-end retailers like Louis Vuitton and Gucci, but also an Auntie Anne’s pretzel shop and a 27-hole glow-in-the-dark miniature golf course. We walked to the end of the indoor pier. The two-story water-and-light show meant to draw people across the entire mall was not working. A man mopped the floor around the seats, but we were the only two people here. The escalators were roped off.

We went to the top of the pier and had udon noodles at 10:30. We were the only people sitting by windows overlooking the ocean. We looked at Trump Plaza, and at Boardwalk Hall next door. The Art Deco convention center contains the largest pipe organ in the world, though it doesn’t work. In September, a new Miss America will see her dream come true there.

This was no Las Vegas. Nobody would have been jealous of us in that moment. Yet there are few other places to eat udon at 10:30 in the morning, in seats over the ocean, in a near-empty mall. And maybe, just maybe, the Walking Dead would pay out, if we just gave it one more shot. • 29 August 2014

Jesse Smith is a writer based in Philadelphia.

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