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Postcard from the End of America: Atlantic City

By       Message Linh Dinh       (Page 1 of 7 pages)     Permalink

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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

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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."

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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:

"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.

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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.

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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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