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Postcard from the End of America: Atlantic City

By       Message Linh Dinh     Permalink
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"Ah, they're always talking sh*t!"

Dude chuckled, "Yeah, you're right. They think they're gangsters, but they're just pranksters!"

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A compact man in old dress shirt and pants, Bill Bringhurst was his name, and he was in Atlantic City to peddle programs at the Miss America Competition, with events all week-long leading to the finale on Sunday. He said it wasn't unusual for him to make $250 a night, just selling programs on commission, and he had worked Eagles and Phillies games, too, and concerts. "Beyonce wanted me to go on tour with her, so I could sell her programs."

"You're full of sh*t!"

"You don't know, man, I'm good at what I do. I'm the best!"

He said his family arrived in the "1400's," and were among the first settlers of Germantown in Philadelphia. Well, Columbus reached the Americas in 1492, and Germantown wasn't founded until 1681, but maybe the Bringhursts were kidnapped by Martians, then dumped in Pennsylvania a couple hundred years earlier. Anything is possible. By this point, I was starting to wonder if here was just some homeless guy talking out of his ass, but hot air is all too common in a city with a faux Taj Mahal, and where the last mayor lost his job for lying about being in the Green Berets during the Vietnam War. This he did to win the election, and to collect extra benefits from the Veterans Administration. As the expose heated up, Bob Levy simply disappeared for two weeks, leaving embarrassed A.C. without a mayor. It turned out this former life guard had checked himself into a mental health clinic. "The hope you deserve, the help you need. Depression. Anxiety. Bipolar Disorder. Schizophrenia."

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Leaving Bringhurst, I ran into a man who had hung his jacket and khaki pants on an electric meter box outside Papa John's Pizza. "I like to mark my territory," Tony B., explained. Tony's scheme was to buy Delilah's Den, the strip bar, "for maybe $400,000. No more. They're really hurting. There are four strip bars within three blocks, and that's too many! I'll turn it into a special ed school." Tony also let out that his father had been a hitman for the Gambino, "like Carmen Campisi." Within two minutes Tony had told me all this, and given me his phone number also, then he disappeared.

I was left alone momentarily, but then a young, snub nosed girl in a pale, loose smock approached, "You have a cigarette?"

"Sorry, but I don't smoke."

"You have fifty cents?"

"Sorry, I'm broke."

"You don't have fifty cents?!" And her open mouth, green eyes and pretty snub nose beamed, fully, incredulity and disgust at my apologetic configuration, standing there in the half dark.

"Sorry, but I'm really broke," and I was really down to two pennies. I'd have loved to help her get a donut or beef jerky, but I had already spent too much that day, what with the train fare to Atlantic City, a corner store hoagie for both lunch and dinner, and cheap beer at Flanigan's, where I managed to meet a couple of locals. Had I more cash, I would have offered her (up to) $10 bucks to tell me her story, and she might say, "f*ck off," or, more likely, give me 20 minutes of her time.

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Most stories can be had for free, but it still takes efforts to gather them. When asked how she managed to achieve such a great ear for dialogs, Annie Proulx said that she'd simply sit in a public place and listen, and since she was a woman of a certain age, men'd leave her alone. William T. Vollmann paid prostitutes to talk about themselves, and as they confided, he'd sometimes jerk off, to reassure them he wasn't a cop. Solanas, though, charged men 50 cents for a dirty word, "men," and six bucks for an hour of conversation.

So to hear local stories and speech, I had found my way to Flanigan's, just past the Memorial Park with its 1929 Liberty in Distress statue. The bar appeared newish, and was so denuded of quirky posters, mementos or graffiti, no history, in short, that it almost felt like a basement rec room in a suburban home. There was a sticker on the cash register, "FREEDOM ISN'T FREE," but that was it. Four draft beers were available, Bud, Rolling Rock, Yuengling and Coors Light, and they were only $2.50 a pint, so that's a good sign, as I barely had any cash on me. Kenny Roger's "The Gambler" was on the juke box, to be followed by Cat Stevens, then the Doobie Brothers, so someone was really into wise, rueful white guys reflecting on this trying life. Eight dudes perched at the bar, with two speaking Spanish. Atlantic City is 30% Hispanic, and 15% Asian, so once outside the tourist area, you'll find a fair amount of Mexican, Dominican, Bangladeshi, Chinese and Vietnamese businesses. An old pizza joint, with "WELCOME TO ITALY" on its torn awning, now serves Mexican food primarily. There's a Sidney Pho, with an image of the Sidney Opera House on its sign, but Vietnamese do that. Walk into a Viet joint, and you may be greeted with a mural of the Eiffel Tower or even Florence, Italy, so why not Sidney? Why not have a Vietnamese eatery designed as a Bavarian beer hall? I wouldn't be surprised.

Through the plate glass window, I could see a couple walking by doggy style, with the young man fondling his girlfriend's boobs from behind. They were both laughing. On television, there was a fleeting news story on "the American Taliban," which prompted a "We'll blow you up, motherf*cker!" from one of the drinkers. Hearing pool balls clacking in an adjacent room, I eventually wandered over, and there, I met two super friendly dudes, Brian and Nestor. In his mid-thirties, Brian was born in Margate, just down the road, and he has lived on the Jersey Shore his entire life. With his long hair, scraggly beard, string head band, T-shirt of sunset over groovy surf, and plaid golf shorts, Brian looked more like a beach bum than what he was, an experienced union mason. For a long time, there had been plenty of work in Atlantic City, but it became scarcer and scarcer, so three years ago, Brian had to commute each day to Philly, "At first, I'd take the train, but that meant getting up at 3:30 in the morning, so I could catch the 4:30, and once I got to Philly, I still had to take public transportation." Like in many American cities, Philly's train station is not quite downtown. "In the evening, I'd get home by 6:30, which meant I had no time for anything but to eat really fast, then sleep. You can't do that day in and day out, it just wears you out, and my line of work is very physical. Some days, I was working 53 stories up. Outside! So I drove, but that meant 25 to 30 bucks a day for gas, plus 12 bucks for tolls, plus parking! So, sh*t, man, you're talking 60 bucks a day easy. So after two years, I stopped working in Philly. I make do with what I can find here."

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Linh Dinh's Postcards from the End of America has just been published by Seven Stories Press. Tracking our deteriorating socialscape, he maintains a photo blog.

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