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Postcard from the End of America: Atlantic City

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(Article changed on September 20, 2013 at 14:53)

Atlantic City, 2013
(Image by Linh Dinh)
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Atlantic City, 2013 by Linh Dinh

This city peaked nearly a century ago, when it billed itself as "The World's Playground." Hyperboles and false hopes are its currencies. Trudging into glitzy casinos, badly dressed schmucks dream of instant wealth, yet leave with barely enough nickels and dimes for McDonald's dollar menu. I know of a Chinatown waitress who shows up twice a year. In Philly, she'd hop on the bus in her vermillion blouse, crimson shoes and blazing underwear, all for luck, but by evening, she'd be crumpled outside Bally's, lamenting her fate, in Cantonese mostly, and even sobbingly demanding a partial refund so she could get a proper meal before riding home. For six bucks, she can chow down on two cheesesteak egg rolls at Boardwalk Grill. They're not bad, apparently, but I haven't tried them, for when I shambled by that one evening, I was down to two pennies, though not from gambling.

I've been to Atlantic City many times, but never to gamble, since I don't get a special thrill out of donating what little money I have to huge corporations. In 1987, a bunch of us were drunk enough to spontaneously drive down from Philly, with the intention of skinny dipping in the ocean, but when we got there, only I and Ms. Di Paola were still buzzed enough to do it. In Kate Chopin's The Awakening, a pioneering feminist novel published in 1899, the heroine got bored of being a (rich) mother and wife, so escaped into art and adultery, only to end up wading into the sea naked. Swimming further and further out, knowing there's no turning back and becoming increasingly exhausted, she frantically reviewed her life for possible meanings. A conjured voice mocked her, "And you call yourself an artist! What pretensions, Madame! The artist must possess the courageous soul that dares and defies."

A bonafide artist or writer can spring from any place, no matter how provincial, ridiculous or devoid of intellectual ambience, so there's no reason why Atlantic City shouldn't produce a cultural figure of note, but the only names that are even remotely connected to it are Allan Kaprow, the performance artist, and Valerie Solanas, best known as the woman who shot Andy Warhol. Living much of his life in NYC, Kaprow leaves no clues to his Atlantic City beginning, but in Solanas' famous SCUM Manifesto, there's this:

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"Unhampered by propriety, niceness, discretion, public opinion, "morals,' the "respect' of a**holes, always funky, dirty, low-down SCUM gets around.... and around and around.... they've seen the whole show--every bit of it--the f*cking scene, the sucking scene, the dick scene, the dyke scene--they've covered the whole waterfront, been under every dock and pier--the peter pier, the p*ssy pier.... you've got to go through a lot of sex to get to anti-sex, and SCUM's been through it all, and now they're ready for a new show; they want to crawl out from under the dock, move, take off, sink out."

In "Rootie Tootie," composed in NYC, Thelonious Monk evoked the train whistles he had heard as a child in Rocky Mount, NC, so here Solanas resurrected Atlantic City though also living in Manhattan. (It's not clear when she left New Jersey, but in a Village Voice article from 1968, she was quoted as being old enough to surf.) In any case, the Atlantic City of Solanas' childhood predated the casino era, and was known mostly as the home of Miss America. Began in 1921, it's the world's longest-running beauty contest and one of its first.

Artistic flaws mirror defects in one's character, but without these distortions and perversions, there would be no art at all, and I'm not saying this as an endorsement of madness, for the artist should always struggle against himself to minimize his countless deficiencies, but for all her deformities, Solanas certainly did not lack courage, and in her tiny surviving body of work, she is often sharp and very funny, as in "he'll swim through a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there'll be a friendly p*ssy awaiting him," and the insight is spot on, too, in a poetic kind of way, though not always, as we shall see. The flip side, also, is that men are known to shrink from a perfectly warm embrace because screwing, often, is not what it's really about, and these grown boys are also intrinsically anxiety-ridden and often cowardly. You rarely see a man attack another one-on-one, for example, or face on, but nearly always when he has his target grossly outnumbered, and from behind, too, with no warning, and even a much weaker man, or nation, is deemed too dangerous an opponent, so must be ganged up on, with a coalition, if necessary. Back to sex: Many women will sadly concur, from personal experiences, that a friendly p*ssy might just chase a man out the door. I mean, before he gets any. As Andre Dworkin, someone who's undoubtedly indebted to Solanas though superior to her as both thinker and writer, observes, "Sexual intercourse is not intrinsically banal, though pop-culture magazines like Esquire and Cosmopolitan would suggest that it is. It is intense, often desperate. The internal landscape is violent upheaval, a wild and ultimately cruel disregard of human individuality, a brazen, high-strung wanting that is absolute and imperishable ["]" So a man may just swim through a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, only to hesitate before the most forgiving of pussies.

It wasn't so long ago that the only Americans who placed personal ads were in their mid-thirties or older, but now, even our very young, buff or nubile can't find partners in their immediate physical environment. Pointing this out to a university audience once, I stated, perhaps not too tactfully, "If you can't get laid in college, you're not going to get laid." We must be among the loneliest, most alienated population ever. We watch more TV than any other country, rank among the highest in porn consumption, which also means, by implication, that we're among the most vigorous of masturbators, and our divorce rate ranks third in the entire world, behind only Maldives and Belarus.

Many people crawl to sex to be forgiven, Valerie, so will you absolve me? Will you press me into your lovely belly button? By the way, have y'all come across this construction site witticism, "I'll eat a mile of her sh*t just to see where it came from"? Of course, that's not meant literally, but neither was the SCUM Manifesto. In any case, its central weakness is not its literary suggestion that all men should be killed, but its portrait of the ideal woman as one who's "dominant, secure, self-confident, nasty, violent, selfish, independent, proud, thrill-seeking, free-wheeling, arrogant ["] who trust only their own animal, gutter instincts ["] whose sole diversion is prowling for emotional thrills and excitement," and the best way to get even with a man, for being a man, is to "ram an ice pick up his a**hole," so the fully realized woman should act like the worst kind of man, per Solanas. (Discussing the last voyage of Gulliver, Borges points out a similar blunder in Swift when he had his animals act like humans, and his humans like animals, a reversal that cancels itself out.)

What's not allegorical, successful or otherwise, are recent stories of men, in Boulder and Tulsa, who squeezed themselves into public toilets and piously waited in sh*t and piss to breathlessly admire, from below, not-exactly-amicable female posteriors. If only Swift and Solanas could comment on these cases. Though extreme, they implicate us all, for just as we're ready to bask in another's glory, we're also smeared and flecked by any other man's depravity. On balance, though, are men so foul and murderous? What, you don't read newspapers?

Alone, a man can be monstrous enough, but when you band them together, drape them in spiffy uniforms then hand them the deadliest weapons available, what do you get? Heroes, of course! And there were plenty on display during the latest Show Us Your Shoes Parade on the boardwalk. Riding in individual cars, Miss America contestants were shorn in over the top, custom-made shoes that embodied their states, all but Miss Kansas, who simply wore combat boots, along with her Army uniform, as she's an active soldier. Uniformed troops were also interspersed throughout this rather lackluster, low-budgeted affair, with the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force all represented. Not just patriotism, but militarism was in the air. Accompanied by roughly 60 children in red, white and blue, most holding flags or buntings, a local yokel twanged his way through Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA." (To book Greenwood himself would have cost at least $20,000, his fee in 2007.) Written in 1983, it has become an anthem to those who cheer any American war, including ones they haven't heard of. On YouTube, videos of this song are filled almost exclusively by images of soldiers.

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Halfway through the parade, a group of perfectly ordinary looking women appeared, with several rather frumpy or fat, so it would not be unreasonable to assume these were simply ladies from a local organization that fight against some disease or vice, perhaps Mothers Against Driving while Drunk, High on Meth, Texting and Rapping. It came as a shock, to this observer at least, that these were all former Miss Americas! Subjected to a regiment of healthy eating and endless exercising, not to mention constant grinning whenever in public, these women apparently let go the second they got the crown. During the contest the next day, one of the eliminated beauties actually declared on camera that she couldn't wait to get back to her hotel room to scarf Kentucky Fried Chicken. Pressure over, let's kick back and balloon, American style, with six-packs of Bud and tubs of the Colonel's original recipe. Why not? Everybody else is doing it. Before she won, this year's winner was even caught on tape sneering at last year's queen, "She's fat as sh*t!" Then she, too, will turn to redolent earth before too long.

Dethroning woman as goddess, Swift uncovers and wallows in her actual sh*t. Debunking male pretensions, Solanas charges that everything that comes from him is figuratively sh*t. Daily, actually several times daily, each of us is grounded, humbled, by this burden that cannot be properly assimilated into the culture, though it's spewed, often enough, from our mouths, out on the streets.

But enough of this, OK, I won't say it. Let's get off the boardwalk, for Atlantic City isn't just that. With less than 40,000 people, this is no city, really, but a town with two dozen high-rise hotels, and a daily influx of day trippers. On Pacific Avenue, just a long block from the ocean-fronted promenade, the seediness begins. Here, you can see cheap residential hotels, liquor stores, tattoo parlors, cash-for-gold dealers and strip joints. At A.C. Dolls, a sign advertises "Divorce Parties!" Even before dusk, prostitutes prowl, and there are plenty of cops also, to make sure no tourists get mugged, so unless you wander further inland, you won't likely be punctured and divested.

On a recent evening, I turned from Pacific onto South Georgia Avenue to photograph a curious sign, with "CASH FOR GOLD" over "ROOMING HOUSE." In the distance, a dozen young people were hanging out in front of the well-lit porch of another flop mansion, with its shared bathrooms of antiquated fixtures, and thin mattresses draped in dull, gray sheets that flaunt constellations of stains and cigarette burns, like bruises and sores on a worn out body, though still sexy. In the dark, a bi-racial couple strolled towards me, the woman in hooded sweat, the man in knit cap. In this society, white men command just about every board room, while black dudes rule the sidewalks, at least those with folks still loitering on them. It took me a minute to get my shot right, and when I was done, some older guy sitting on a low step huffed, "You shouldn't be taking your camera out around here, man. Those people were saying they wanted to smash it!"

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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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