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Postcard from the End of America: Atlantic City

By       Message Linh Dinh     Permalink
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Atlantic City is not just hurting from the economic depression affecting the entire country, every state save perhaps North Dakota, but it has also been squeezed by casinos sprouting up everywhere, not to mention online gambling. It has lost its monopoly, in short. "There are still a lot of rich people in Jersey," Brian said, "but they're not spending as much. It's like a barometer. When the going gets rough, they suck the money in." Brian has found his equilibrium through vegetarianism, Buddhism and acrylic painting, "I paint every day!"

"After you get home from the bar?"

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"Yeah, after I get home from the bar!" And with that, Brian was out of there, but not before he had introduced me to the bartender, Jenny, who turned out to be his aunt. Jenny had worked at Flanigan's for 20 years, so this beer and whisky fountain had been there "forever," though its age and character had been stripped away by a recent remodeling. With all the constant changes in Atlantic City, two decades is a very long time, and I would have loved to talk to Jenny, but she was too busy to chatter, so let's meet Nestor.

Fifty-three-years old, Nestor is from Colombia, and came to the U.S. 25 years ago with his mom and three siblings. For the last 23 years, he has been a busboy at an upscale Italian restaurant. He also buses tables at the Diamond Club, and occasionally works construction. The italian restaurant, though, is his bread and butter, "The money there used to be so good. Fifteen years ago, I'd make $200 a night, easy, just on tips, sometimes $300. If there's a birthday or a wedding anniversary, I'd make more just for singing. Some of the busboys were too embarrassed to sing, but I thought, Why not? I'll sing! And they'd tip me really good, and on New Year's Eve, I'd make $1,200, even $1,500!"

"Holy sh*t! You're kidding me!"

"No, I'm not. There was so much money then, it was ridiculous. Some of these guys had money hanging out of their pockets, but not any more."

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Keep in mind that a busboy only gets 20% of the tips, so a waiter was really raking it in, and Nestor was briefly promoted to waiter, but that didn't quite work out. Though his English vocabulary is extensive, and his grammar near perfect, his accent persists.

Like Brian, Nestor acknowledges that the good times are over, but, unlike most of us, he has a way out, "I'm going back to Colombia."

"Wow! Like when? Soon?"

"Yes, I'm planning on going back within a year. It's getting worse and worse here, and the lifestyle, it's too crazy. Why do you think everyone drinks so much, or takes so much drugs? There's so much stress here, and people are making less and less. My mother is already back in Colombia. She's 75, you know. A few years ago, we pooled our money together and bought some land, but my brothers and sister are all married, and they don't want to go back, but I will."

"If they're married, their kids are too Americanized...'

"Yes, so they will not go back, but I will."

"And what will you do there?"

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"Be a farmer. I know how to do that. I grew up doing that."

"That's amazing, man! I don't even know how to grow tomatoes."

"You can always learn! Here," and he gave me his phone number, "You can call me whenever, in two months, in two years, and I'll help you to buy land in Colombia."

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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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