Back from relaxing for a couple of days in Atlantic City. (The photo below isn't mine - in fact, I didn't take any this weekend - but it will do for now.)
I hadn't been there in quite some time, maybe four years, and for all the building and rebuilding the place remains a great constant. For international readers, Atlantic City is a small beach town in southern New Jersey that over the years has become the east coast's answer to Las Vegas, with better fudge and salt water taffy.
It's a curious place. A boardwalk lined with the gaudy lights of big-money casinos. There are some big-name chi-chi stores with high end jewelry, clothing and such for that day's lucky big winners, punctuated by junk shops and greasy food joints for the rest. Lots of storefronts featuring oriental foot and back massages. (These, as far as I know, are actual massages, as opposed to the "massages (nudge, nudge, wink, wink)" one can get in Las Vegas, where "massages (nudge, nudge, wink, wink)" are legal, a code word for taxable.) And, of course, souvenirs for everyone to remember the trip. What is life without a "someone I know went to Atlantic City and all I got was this t-shirt" t-shirt?
There's a Korean War Veterans memorial that's powerful even if the boardwalk does seem a curious location for it. It includes plaques for each of the native New Jersey recipients of the Medal of Honor, with a brief description of what each did to earn that distinction. The descriptions read like the heroic scenes from a big-budget action movie, and then you remember these guys did it for real and without knowing if the script would bring them out alive. In most cases, it didn't. If you visit Atlantic City and think looking out at the ocean leaves you feeling awestruck and humbled, turn the other way and read the plaques. I'll never call some guy who hits home runs or makes 3-point shots a hero again.
When first built-up years ago, the casinos were supposed to benefit the city, in particular the schools, but travel a couple of Monopoly-named streets past the boardwalk and the poverty tells a different story. Visiting high rollers, rooms and drinks provided free in return for dropping a couple of thousand dollars at the craps tables, walk past glitzy casinos alongside the busloads of regular folks who could probably be doing better things with their money than trying to double it at a slot machine or blackjack table. And together they pass local folks trying to get a few dollars by singing, playing plastic-bucket percussion or just by being there. It's very democratic, in a sad kind of way. Most sobering for me have always been the pawn shops, right across the street from the casinos, with big signs offering immediate cash for gold jewelry.
Still, the boardwalk has things to offer the non-gambler. Fresh air. Good shows too, though it's a bit off season for entertainment until it's closer to Christmas. The only big-name show this weekend was Jay Leno at Caesars (top ticket price: $175). We decided on a Beatles tribute band concert (top ticket price: $25). So realistic I almost yelled out, "Don't marry Heather!" Afterward we went back to our motel (about a twenty minute drive from the pricier hotels on the boardwalk) and watched a Letterman rerun.