EVERY NOW and again I travel to the gambling dens of Atlantic City, only to lose a sum of money I can't really afford to lose, which causes me to return home and pray that the utility company doesn't shut off my electricity.
People say: "Why do you do that?"
And I answer: "Oh, hell, we'd only blow the money on mortgage payments or the kids' college education anyway. Besides, if everybody stayed away, what would Trump and the mobsters and the crooked politicians do?"
My God, what a place Atlantic City is! A few blocks in either direction from the neon glare and marble opulence of the hotels and casinos, junkies gather in front of abandoned buildings and hungry babies wail as their mothers sit vacant-eyed on the hoods of rusted cars.
Meanwhile, over at the Taj Mahal or Bally's or Resorts, the bathroom fixtures are trimmed with gold and the slot machines ring day and night and they're wheeling 10-foot-wide plastic boats filled with shrimp and lobster out of the kitchen.
Clearly, if you took a snapshot of the city and played "What's Wrong With This Picture?" your writing hand would cramp up circling all the discrepancies.
The only thing I play in the casinos is blackjack, which is the quickest and most convenient way to lose money, short of just handing your wallet to one of the hookers.
(Which reminds me of a true story. This sportswriter was having a beer in a hotel bar after covering a ballgame. He was about to go write his story when a hooker sidled up and whispered: "For $100, I'll do anything."
("Anything?" said the sportswriter.
("Anything," repeated the hooker.
(With that, the sportswriter fished out his room key from one pocket.
("Here," he said, "I'm in Room 210. Go write me a lead and a sidebar.")
Getting back to blackjack, I am so bad at the game that there are times I'm tempted to walk up to the pit boss beforehand, peel off some bills, press them into his hand and say: "Here, pal. This'll save us both some time."
Instead I dutifully belly up to the tables, to the considerable mirth of the dealers, who can spot a rube from across the room.
Oh, they don't laugh right out loud. But they see me sitting there, sweating over every game, agonizing over every chip, wondering if I'll have enough gas money for the trip home, and they think: Dead fish in the water.
God knows I wouldn't argue with that assessment.
(Maybe a little history is in order here. I was on a cruise once and played bingo every day for seven straight days, which caused me to seriously consider jumping overboard after a while.)
(Anyway, in that whole time, I never won a game. Not one. Little old ladies from Schenectady, N.Y., won. Sullen teen-agers from Atlanta won. Drunk businessmen from Miami won. But not once in seven days did I ever get to sing out: "Bingo!"
(It seems to me that if you can't even win a game of bingo, you have no business being in Atlantic City in the first place, unless you're there for a prize fight or the Miss America contest or to check out the latest hairdo on Trump's arm.)
When the buses filled with senior citizens from New York and Philadelphia and Washington and Baltimore arrive each morning the casinos, a sea of polyester washes over the slot machines.
It is something to see. And I'm usually there to see it, having been wiped out in blackjack in the span of 20 minutes or so.
So, for kicks, I watch other people lose their money at the slots. Soon the joint is awash with the sounds of quarters jingling in plastic cups and the whirr of handles being pulled and the quiet hum of money disappearing into the great beyond.
Playing the slot machines has never done much for me (then again, neither does blackjack, obviously.) You put in a couple of quarters and pull the lever and wait to see if the cherries and oranges and lemons match up. Where's the sport in that?
I once watched a nun play a single machine for an hour without winning. She mentioned that she worked with crippled children. And I thought: Can you imagine? And she comes here to unwind?
Soon enough, after being crushed in blackjack and watching the old ladies play the slot machines, it's time to leave the madness of Atlantic City behind.
For a brief moment, I toy with the idea of grabbing a cup of coffee for the ride home.
E9 Then I remember: No, you have to have money for that.