Now there’s trouble busin’ in from outta state and the D.A. can’t get no relief
Gonna be a rumble out on the promenade and the gamblin’ commission’s hangin’ on by the skin of its teeth

Well now everything dies baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your makeup on fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City

— Springsteen, Atlantic City

There weren’t no problem getting to Atlantic City. There are whole cities in America marooned without a bus let alone a train service, strange burgs forever frozen at the moment when the greyhound depot was shuttered for good. Atlantic City? The buses leave on the half hour from NY, on a Friday afternoon stuffed to the gills with people desperate to get to the craps tables and slots, but too poor to afford a car that will make it there.

Get a four day return-ticket at the NY Port Authority bus terminal and you get a twenty dollar voucher for the Tropicana Casino. They’re all there in this long queue shuffling to the coach’s luggage hold, the black woman in Sunday best and the white women in the sort of elastic-banded slacks they’d wear to install wall insulation, the Long Island guys in sports shirts and the rolled-gold crucifix hanging outside it, and the older white guys in da uniform — white open-necked shirt, grey jacket, slacks of a colour that is not grey.

Grizzled, slender, aged, but not gin pickled — who’d waste two bucks on a belt of rye when you can bet — thrumming with energy waiting to get there, to the tables, to the floors, to the life, and the chance that it might all turn around.

Atlantic City — man if you’re going to gamble, go there, not Vegas, at least first — may be many things, but the American dream it ain’t. More like the American acid flashback, some nightmare snowcrash of past and future into each other making a present. Wooden row houses with bay windows greet you as you roll over the bridge into town — the place is built on an island — tired, sagging, waiting to be knocked over, and then the casinos rear up before you like enormous concrete waves.

Famed as a seashore paradise for much of the twentieth century — the original Monopoly board is based on its streets, with the wooden beachside Boardwalk getting pride of place — no city suffered more from the increasing ability and willingness of Americans to go further abroad or their holidays from the 60 onwards. Cancun rose as the Jersey shoe fell and by the mid 70s, the place was bankrupt and wrecked. The New Jersey legislature responded by legalising gambling — the only state outside of Nevada to do so — in 1976.

Well I got a job and tried to put my money away
But I got debts that no honest man can pay
So I drew what I had from the Central Trust
And I bought us two tickets on that Coast City bus

— Atlantic City

That move was just ahead of the roaring 80s, and perfectly placed to take advantage of the sudden flood of easy money, and one man in particular made the new AC, Donald Trump, whose trio of casinos dominate the place. As the old resorts along the Boardwalk were imploded one by one, the place generated one great movie (Louis Malle’s Atlantic City) and one great song (Springsteen’s Atlantic City) and seemed ready to ride the wave of new-found fortune forever, right?

Well, erm, wrong. Saturday night the casino puffs up like a snake that swallowed a pig, from the Greyhound crowd, but the rest of the week it’s dead, and you can, like your correspondent, get a four star suite for forty five bucks a night. What happened? In a word, Injuns.

In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that “native American tribal entities” enjoyed a weird quasi-sovereignty which meant they couldn’t be controlled by state laws banning gambling. Now, there’s an “Indian casino” in nearly every state — Foxwoods on Conneticut is one of the biggest, a short hop from NY — and they learnt from the Vegas renaissance, turning them into family resorts, drugs and hookers kept well away, so that boring people in SUVs and bumbags could have a flutter on a roulette wheel while the kids play on the organic wood playground etc etc.

Atlantic City became a self-selecting place, where you go to do gambling as it should be done, amid surroundings of sleaze and despair. Vegas has been knocked down and rebuilt twice since the old cow town and crossroads (Spanish for “the meadows”) became a place for the Italian and Jewish mafias to put their Mexican heroin money. Atlantic City still has its layers, the old houses, the stone churches, the 50s motels (‘colour TV in rooms!”) and its grand civic hall, with chiseled in stone across its portico the legend “dedicated to the ideals of Atlantic City”.

Well, the ideals of Atlantic City now are a hooker with her own blow who’s willing to be paid in casino chips, which was probably not what the founders had in mind. And the city runs off addiction. Addiction of the gamblers piped in from NY and Philly, who buy their return tickets, gamble anything they’ve got away, live off free OJ and bar snacks and slink home on the Monday morning red-eye, the hookers who service them when they get lucky, and the drugged populations those hookers feed with money. Atlantic City’s dubious achievement is to have the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the country, around 7% of the population infected.

Now our luck may have died and our love may be cold but with you forever I’ll stay
We’re goin’ out where the sand’s turnin’ to gold so put on your stockin’s baby ’cause the night’s getting cold
And everything dies baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back

Atlantic City

Outfront the liquor stores and the go-go bars housed in old row tenements with black-painted windows, the thin men shuffle up to you, their purple Karposis shining in the sun.

“My name’s Duane man I need eight bucks, I need six bucks my name’s Curtis,” one guy said to me in one single sentence, decomposing mentally and physically before me.

Atlantic City is a giant mausoleum of American hopes and obsessions, its ghastly casinos unremodelled since the 80s — why waste the money — still in the livery of salmon pink and grey, the fat stylish lettering, a whole city designed on the aesthetic of a Devo filmclip. The fat years were ten, before the Indians took over, and nothing was invested for the winter.

As the campaign enters its final fortnight, I am here to try and wrangle some of this work into the chapters of a book, happy to be holed up in such a place because I am blessed with an immunity to games of chance. A child of two problem gamblers, I can float by the tables with not the slightest temptation, which is pretty funny, being addicted to everything else.

But you can’t avoid meaning anywhere. And Atlantic City offers itself up, if as nothing else now, as a metaphor — an addiction far more powerful than mere gambling — for the American dilemma, and the Western dilemma in general.

Here, after all, is a city that was founded on modest ambitions, and the ideals of puritan virtue. Not for nothing were its neighbourhoods named after English health resorts, Ventnor and Margate. The puritan ideal behind it was that sea air and water was somehow spiritually refreshing as well as physical, that it was virtue rewarded by virtue. And it is still weird that, in a casino resort — usually designed to exclude nature altogether — it’s three minutes walk to the beach, and the wild Atlantic pitching itself against a continent, waves and wind howling, reminding you of a force larger than yourself and your desires.

The new Atlantic City reversed that entirely and in that reversal you can see the enormous cultural reconstruction that the West underwent in the last 30 years. For a century capitalism had been built on encouraging self-denial among its working class — the “frugal comfort” of the Harvester decision, of the idea that a good reward for a years work was a one week holiday of sea air and salt taffy in Atlantic City. But when overproduction became a terminal problem for the economy, in the post WW2 years, wages were allowed to rise to create a consumer economy. When that got into trouble in the 1970s, everything else was tried — hedge funds, derivatives, the dotcom economy, legalised gambling, mortgage floats, and so on. Atlantic City is the crust of that wound, a city based on the pure waste of gambling.

Well, everything dies baby, that’s a fact and that is all over now. The bourgeois economists are desperate to not recognise it, but the current squeeze is the end of the West. It will take decades more, but this was the year that economic power and initiative shifted to the East, crucially. When your economy is based largely on services and rents (financial services, IP, etc) then, at a global level you are purely a consumer, and the bell was always going to toll. In 30 years time much of the west — and most of the US — will look like Atlantic City — a crust of ageing luxury on squalor.

The problem for any President and Congress coming into power is that they are going to have to own this crap, and make hard decisions. In case anyone hasn’t noticed, the solution proposed by all the governments of the West — lower interest rates — is inflationary in the context of no real growth, which is what we’ll face for the next three years.

What we, and President Obama face, is dealing with a period of old fashioned stagflation – remember stagflation! It’s like hearing Fox On The Run again isn’t it, ahhh you hadn’t thought of that for years either had you — where the economy is flooded with cheap money, in an attempt to restart the economy, but which only succeeds in inflating it, without growth. Indeed there’s a good argument for losing this election, to let the GOP take the real brunt of the collapse.

If Obama wins, as he almost certainly will, he will have to summon the spirit of FDR to lead the nation by not sparing it of the dangers and hardships ahead. As the week began he was buoyed by the endorsement of Colin Powell, but having to deal with various garrulous Joe Biden comments about Obama “facing a crisis within six months”, and the McCain-Palin team hammering home the “socialism” message coming off the Sam/Joe The Non-Plumber encounter.

What he will have to deal with is the overwhelming mood of America at the moment, which is one of what Heidegger called “forlornness” — a sense of departed being, of what had once been being no longer, of the no-present, haunted by the past. That’s what makes the Springsteen song so powerful, this place of small, failed promises, the buses coming and going from the transit centre, the junkie shivering outside, the hookers piling off the 5pm for the weekend shift, and on and on, because it reminds us that the challenges of America, of the West, of the world, will be here sooner than we think, and all our illusions, measured in gilt and towers, will be tested.

You better hope that whoever is in charge of the waorls largest nuclear arsenal is a reasonable man or woman when that happens, or it is all over, and within the life of your kids. One way or another we have to leave the twentieth century and in the US that means leaving the people who think the country has some special virtue in the world. Who gets the Whitehouse this time will determine how your children’s lives pan out so you better, you better, pay a little attention … and over to Bruce, who wrote one of the few pop songs in pop history that reads as a poem, as spare and tight as fellow New Jersey native William Carlos Williams:

Now I been lookin’ for a job but it’s hard to find
Down here it’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line
Well I’m tired of comin’ out on the losin’ end
So honey last night I met this guy and I’m gonna do a little favor for him
Well I guess everything dies baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your hair up nice and set up pretty
and meet me tonight in Atlantic City
Meet me tonight in Atlantic City
Meet me tonight in Atlantic City

Strange and wonderful days, and they’ve only just begun, but we will get no good out of them.

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.

 

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW