ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. - Right away, I had to see them for myself. There was a tiny news story about them in the paper, bottom of Page 2, and after reading it, I screamed: "DORIS, WARM UP THE BUICK! WE'RE HEADED TO ATLANTIC CITY!" somehow overlooking, in all the excitement, that I don't live with anyone named Doris and don't own a Buick, either.
But that wasn't important at the time. Getting to the Jersey Shore pronto - that was the important thing.
Three hours later, I pulled into the grimy self-parking lot at the Tropicana Hotel, crossed the skywalk and descended into the perpetual hazy twilight of the casino.
Oh, things were happening at the Trop. Bob Dylan was coming to the 2,000-seat Showroom, and the "Dresses of Diana, Princess of Wales Exhibit" was a hot ticket, but I didn't care about either of those. The tour buses were rolling in now, too, disgorging armies of senior citizens from all over who shuffled across the casino in polyester sweatsuits or baggy khaki pants and golf shirts with all three buttons buttoned, jiggling their plastic buckets of quarters as they headed, zombie-eyed, to the banks of twinkling slot machines.
But I didn't care about them, either. Let's face it: You can watch these folks gamble at any bingo hall or bull roast in the country.
No, I was here for something much, much bigger. I was here for the new slot machines called Pedal n' Play. And in the rear of the casino, behind a velvet rope and across from the glassed-in poker room, I found them: a row of quarter slots hooked up to exercise bikes, just like the paper said.
There were 10 Pedal n' Play machines in all, each with the colorful name that slot players demand (Triple Diamond Deluxe, Hearts of Gold, Double Wild Cherry, etc.) and attached to each was a gleaming new Lifecycle recumbent bicycle.
My God, the suckers could actually lose weight and lose money at the same time now! It looked so easy, too. Throw a few bills in the machine and start pedaling. Hit the button on the left handlebar to bet. Hit the button on the right handlebar to spin - all while the Lifecycle provides a full digital readout of calories burned, miles pedaled, heart rate, etc.
There was even a cup holder for your Coors Light or amaretto on the rocks or Diet Coke, or whatever you happened to be swilling.
Clearly, we had turned another corner in the social and cultural evolution of America. I thought of all the great developments of the past 50 years: the space program, the smallpox vaccine, the fall of the Iron Curtain, the dawn of the Computer Age. ...
Then, two things jolted me out of my reverie. First, an elderly woman brushed past, spied the Pedal n' Play slots and chirped: "Oh, I've wanted to try these."
She said her name was Dolores Hancock, from Somerset, N.J. Then she stubbed out her Newport 100 in a nearby ashtray, sat at a machine, put a few quarters in and began pedaling earnestly.
Seconds later, a cocktail waitress wearing almost nothing came up and asked if I wanted a drink.
The whole thing was surreal. I felt like I was in the middle of a Fellini movie, except there were no dwarfs or circus strongmen gamboling about and no one was wearing a mask. We may be talking exercise here, I thought. But this ain't exactly the Towson Y.
The new thing
For some years, Las Vegas and Atlantic City have reigned supreme as the modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah of the contiguous 48 states. God, of course, laid waste to the original Sodom and Gomorrah. Vegas went off in its own weird direction a few years ago, marketing itself as a family vacation destination - and not just for the Corleone family, either.
But Atlantic City continued to wallow, even revel, in its tacky licentiousness. It was almost as if God had said: "Providing your gaming licenses are in order and you're not too mobbed up, I will allow you to lure all the rubes you can with noisy, high-payoff slots and free drinks and cheap all-you-can-eat buffets, and aging lounge acts like Barbara Mandrell and Englebert Humperdinck and the re-formed Temptations."
This formula has worked swimmingly for 20-plus years. But like every other industry, the gaming industry is always looking for the Next New Thing. And, believe it or not, the Next New Thing in Atlantic City gambling might be: exercise. This, at any rate, is what a man named George Mancuso is saying to me now.
Mancuso is the Tropicana's vice president of slot operations, a young, handsome fellow who speaks in the language of a dot.com entrepreneur and announces grandly of Pedal n' Play: "We're marrying the fitness craze and the gaming craze."
The Tropicana, he says, is the first casino in the world to try this. At a trade show he attended a year ago, a company called Fitness Gaming Corp., out of Fairfax, Va., approached him and pitched the Pedal n' Play concept.