Odds turn against Dream Gambling: Many Americans rely more on dreams and wishes than hard work.

August 07, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- In travel guides, this fabled seaside town is where the nation's first national highway begins, but Atlantic City has always been a destination.

Vacationing families came for the ocean's soothing powers. In World War II, the city's hotels were converted into military hospitals -- their specialty was amputations. Beginning in the 1960s, white flight and urban decay turned it into the most glamorous address of any slum in America. All the while, it remained a mecca for young beauties wishing for a better future as Miss America.

Today, new waves of dreamers come, hoping to impose their will on garish devices known as one-armed bandits.

Slot machines, the most popular form of legalized gambling, are revitalizing Atlantic City. But they are laying bare an unsettling truth: For many people, casinos signify a new version of the American Dream that is a mostly a mirage, a glittery world where where riches flow easily.

"That might be 'the dream' right there," said 35-year-old security guard Tom Curciona as he pointed at one of the high-rise casinos that dominate the boardwalk. "People think they're going to make that million dollar score. Something for nothing -- that's what's wrong with this country "

The traditional version of the American Dream was that those who came to the great cities of the United States from other shores could rise as far as their talents would take them -- provided they worked hard.

Along Route 40, however, from the mountains of Utah to the Jersey shore, Americans believe that too many people expect the fruits of the dream without being willing to expend the labor. They fear that something for nothing has become a kind of national value.

Wrong rewards

Gambling is an inherently hopeful pursuit that in one sense typifies America's optimism. The flip side is that gambling winnings are, by definition, something for nothing. And the most relentless "players" in this new national obsession are state governments, which have been soliciting lotteries, casinos, riverboats and racetracks -- and taking healthy cuts from the profits of a business that produces no product.

"Too often, public officials view gambling as a quick and easy way to raise revenues without focusing on gambling's hidden social economic and political costs," President Clinton said recently.

Many Americans agree with this sentiment. But they tend to cite a different example in insisting that government rewards the wrong kind of values. They are upset with the growth of welfare.

"Right now the economy is doing OK, but we're in trouble," says Steve Ryzner, a 35-year-old electrical engineer here for a convention. "Drugs and welfare are the two biggest problems. ++ The solutions offered by politicians, Bill Clinton included, are a facade."

Such sentiments are echoed by Joan Wentzell, owner of the Kountry Kitchen diner outside Atlantic City. After it burned down last year, she discovered that even with insurance, reopening would cost her $100,000. Because two of her grown kids work in the business, she rebuilt anyway.

She didn't expect a trophy, but she was "flabbergasted" when the county increased her property taxes by 30 percent. "We still have a lot more going for us than other countries, so you don't like to complain, but middle-class people are just paying for everything through the nose," she said.

It is stories like this that make Americans who feel overtaxed nonetheless leery of tax cut promises from politicians who aren't willing to make tough spending choices. In other words, it seems like more something for nothing. "We just got a supposed income tax cut in the state of New Jersey," said Charles Fullerton, a retired phone company employee from Glendora, N.J. "My bill was $35 less this year. But my real estate taxes went up $200."

Feeling pressed, Americans complain about immigrants and welfare recipients -- and search for short cuts of their own. Lured by the casinos, Atlantic City recorded 33 million visits last year, ranking it ahead of Walt Disney World.

"Everybody dreams of hitting it big," says John Bonk, a 37-year-old waiter at Donald Trump's Taj Mahal. "How can you help it?"

Means of escape

The dark side of the dream are the 32 pawnshops on Pacific or Atlantic Avenues behind the casinos, all with their stock sign: "Cash For Gold." The proprietors take 30 cents on the dollar for diamond-studded gold Rolexes or Piagets.

"A lot of people don't realize this can be a tough city," says Joseph Marto of Action Gold Jewelry. "They come here with $1,000 or $1,500 hoping to make more. They get tired or they get mesmerized and they lose it all. Sometimes they don't have enough left for a phone call so they come in here."

Gaming industry executives insist that most people who patronize their casinos realize it's unlikely they'll get rich, and that their customers have more complicated motivations for gambling.

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