The Real Atlantic City Never Saw a Jackpot

It's possible the young woman who wins the Miss America contest this weekend won't be much older than the 20 years that gambling has been legal in Atlantic City, the pageant's home.

Amazingly, it's been that long since the first casino, Resorts International, opened. It ushered in a new era of hope that big bucks from baccarat and blackjack, plus the large piles of small change from slots, would benefit the deteriorating city and the pocketbooks of visitors.

Sure, some folks have hit various-sized jackpots, some wins even enabling them to hire a stretch limo to take them home instead of piling back on the dismal day-trippers bus.

But fundamentally little in Atlantic City, a place where real people go to school and work and buy bread and Windex and deodorant, has changed - and all you have to do to see this is to stroll down Pacific, or Atlantic, or even Arctic Avenues - the three streets that most closely parallel the Boardwalk. It's run-down back there, with a down-and-out feel and every other sentiment you might steal from a Woody Guthrie tune. It all resembles black-and-white stills from the '60s.

In other words, someone has figured out how to make Atlantic City appear glamorous.

But just behind the sizzling facade is a worn, weary place. And now that the much-touted second wave of casino growth appears to have diminished to a low-tide ripple, it appears less likely than ever that money will trickle out, or down, the back doors of the casinos and onto the streets where locals, who'd expected so much when the casino-gambling referendum was approved by New Jersey voters in 1976, live.

Since the casinos opened, the streets of Atlantic City were never paved in gold as promised. In fact, they're as pockmarked and gritty as ever.

The last time I visited pre-gambling Atlantic City was in 1965 or so with my parents and brother.

Our room was located above our hotel's kitchen, which made it both hot and smelly. My brother stepped on a jellyfish and sulked. The guy who wore the Mr. Peanut suit up the boardwalk shook my hand so hard it hurt, and I felt embarrassed about being propelled, by some poor guy's legpower, in a rickshaw.

We checked out early, and my parents have never returned.

But I've been back, at least a few dozen times, since Resorts International opened, followed by Bally's, Trump, and the rest. And I've watched how Atlantic City has developed a glitzy row of casinos that stand, like a one-dimensional movie set, in front of the stuff of Real Life which looks shabbier than ever.

In spite of all this, I love the place, both to walk and to observe human behavior - women who wear ridiculous high heels to walk the gaps and planks of the boardwalk and the folks who don't seem to go anywhere without clutching their plastic cups full of sacrificial coins.

But even as I enjoy it, I see how Atlantic City is acting Dorian Gray-ish, its facade alluring, covering the truth.

I think of Atlantic City as a slice of cake turned on its side. Starting from the east, there's a layer of ocean, with its inherently metaphorical nature and ability to temper the seasons.

Then a layer of boardwalk, where I've walked hundreds of miles back and forth, fortified on fudge and Orange Juliuses. Then comes the layer of glittery hotels, within which are the casinos designed to get you lost so that all roads lead back to or through them.

Finally, the biggest layer, the seediness and fatigue of the luncheonettes that cater to people who think yesterday's donuts are an okay breakfast, and laundromats where at least one of the dryers is always on the fritz, and the type of grocery stores where Susan Sarandon's character from the film "Atlantic City" probably would have shopped, and corners for hanging around on.

Back here, nothing much has changed in 20 years, just as the contestants in the Miss America pageant still have big hair, poofy styles that look like they're maintained by regular Saturday-morning appointments.

Back here, Atlantic City is the Miss New Jersey who scrubs toilets and subsists on cheap cuts of meat, and never gets to wear a crown.

* Janet Ruth Falon is a writer and writing teacher in Elkins Park, Pa.

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