Atlantic City-bound: A view from the bus

February 06, 1994|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Staff Writer

To get to the craps tables at the Sands Hotel & Casino, you walk past the pictures of Cher and Whitney Houston and Richard Jeni (Richard Jeni?), hang a right opposite the roulette wheel and a quick left at the "Highest Jackpot Always Paid!" sign.

There, leaning against a table with felt as soft as a putting green, is John Danelon. Mr. Danelon is a Rosedale guy who lays bricks for a living. But you can't lay bricks with ice and snow on the ground, so he's here in Atlantic City this Monday, hoping that at least the dice are hot.

The casino is a swirl of noise and lights and movement. Not too many joggers here -- the cigarette smoke is so thick it gives the air that brownish Mexico-City-at-rush-hour look.

Somewhere off to the right, a large woman from Delaware hits for $90 on a slot machine and shrieks madly. Instead of telling her to put a cork in it, Mr. Danelon smiles.

"When the place is crowded, people jumping up and down and screaming, it gets to you," he says quietly. "It's a great feeling."

To capture this feeling, Mr. Danelon boarded a bus with 45 other dreamers this morning at Golden Ring Travel in Baltimore.

Busing gamblers to the casinos is a multimillion-dollar business. Golden Ring Travel sends four buses with an average of 200 passengers to Atlantic City daily, and six other bus companies in the Baltimore metropolitan area provide a similar service.

According to the South Jersey Transportation Authority, more than 900 tour buses pull up to the casinos each day. Last year, a total of 8.3 million gamblers arrived by bus. And when you consider that each visitor spends an average of $50 gambling, it's clear that Mr. Danelon is hardly the only one who feels the electricity of this place.

Three hours later, Mr. Danelon is standing next to a man with the worst toupee you ever saw, watching the guy roll the dice and hoping that if he wins, the guy breaks down and buys a new rug.

Outside on this city's famous boardwalk, it is 55 degrees and the sun is shining after a week of horrible weather. People are strolling everywhere. The T-shirt joints are jumping. Madame Tina ("Special Crystal Ball Reading -- $5!") is open for business.

Even the derelicts seem in a good mood -- a hollow-eyed man in standard-issue psycho fatigues hands a bottle of wine to his partner and says: "Here, take some of this."

But for Mr. Danelon and most of the other gamblers from Baltimore who started bright and early, it's a day to spend indoors.

Indoors is where the money is.

*

* 8:30 a.m. -- In the soft, gray light of morning, bus 348 is filling fast in front of Golden Ring Travel. The bus is roomy and plush. It has six TVs. It has a VCR. It has a uniformed hostess who serves orange juice, coffee, tea and Danish.

If they parked this thing in your driveway, you'd only use your house for a change of clothes.

Most of the people making the trip are senior citizens, many regulars who travel to Atlantic City weekly. A ticket costs $22, and you get back $12.50 in quarters to throw in the one-armed bandits.

Sitting in seat 37, Mr. Danelon has this warm glow about him. "I do this four or five times a year. It's the excitement of the tables. I'm a sick man. Very, very sick."

Seated next to him, his friend, Ann Vick of Rosedale, a cashier at Value Foods, says: "Look at him. He is sick."

* 8:50 a.m. -- As it rolls up Interstate 95, the bus takes on a festive, party air. Suddenly a loud clicking noise is heard. Either the right rear wheel is about to fall off or . . . A man is playing a battery-operated video poker game. You talk about having a gambling jones! Hey, buddy, we haven't even reached Edgewood.

In the next seat is Pietro D'Angelo of Dogwood, retired after 27 years in The Sun's composing room. Seeing a reporter and photographer, he booms in a voice redolent of his native Italy: "Hey, put my picture in the paper! I lose all the time! Never win! Yeah, take my picture! That way everybody see me and say: 'Hey, Petey, you look great!' "

Obviously, Mr. Pietro still hasn't come to grips with that chronic shyness. If he'd only open up a little.

* 9:45 a.m. -- The hostess, Dolores Ashton, is an incredibly energetic woman and strong candidate for Nicest Person in the World. Plus she belongs on some sort of talent show, where she'd whip any of those goofy mimes or the guy with the Chihuahua who balances on a hula hoop.

Look, this is real talent: Serving coffee, tea and orange juice on a speeding bus without spilling a drop.

C'mon, what's your secret, Dolores?

"Practice," she says with a smile. "You brace yourself against the seats when the bus rocks."

Don't give us that, Dolores. It's the shoes, isn't it?

* 10:16 a.m. -- Dolores announces the winning number in the first raffle of the day. The prize is a free bus ticket to Atlantic City. The winner is a tall fellow up front. Everyone cheers wildly. Then the winner of the 50-50 drawing is announced, and everyone cheers again.

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