The Night I Ran into my Grandparents in Atlantic City
If you’ve grown up in the Delaware Valley and you like to have fun chances are you’ve probably
had at least one good Atlantic City moment. The seaside resort has cost me a solid 4 maybe
even 5 of my nine lives. Most of the time it’s intentional. Bachelor weekends gone haywire are
AC’s middle name. Crashing hard is expected when excursions are executed after cautious
months of making plans. Memories for the most part are few and far between as they should be
when the usual outcome is often tarnished with regret. It’s a ‘what happens here stays here kind
of a place’ although by now once you’ve become veteran to the extenuating circumstances of
forced depravity, the outcome can also start becoming rather mundane. On this particular night over five years ago there was no bachelor party on the radar. No outcome to be expected. Just an
evening with the Disco Biscuits at the House of Blues chased with a shot of ergot. Or so I thought while leaving the House of Blues far sooner than I’d anticipated. For the show was nothing more than the evening’s pre-game.
When you leave a show on those peculiar nights, the ones where you’ve let your mind tether the fine rope of reality, there’s no better place to be than Atlantic City. The Showboat was great for these kind of situations. Before the Revel it stood apart from the other casinos along the beach. You could walk outside to grab some fresh air with only the harassment of about half as many people in destitute situations asking you for anything monetary or vice-related. It also boasted the House of Blues which in my opinion was the only modern small venue that seemed to get it right in that town and when both the venue and the casino closed-down I felt like a part of me closed down with it. You see, the Showboat was not only my particular favorite casino but it also happened to be the casino of choice of my grandparents. Even before I could legally enter the floor I remember seeing my
grandmother drive her Lincoln with my grandfather riding shotgun and usually another elderly couple posting up in the backseat riding down Pleasure Avenue in Sea Isle right around sunset heading to what was once America’s Playground.
They were drawn to the thrill just as much as I was and still am. Maybe that’s where I got it from.
The only difference is what draws us in. They liked the Showboat because it brought them good
nights at the slots or blackjack tables paired up with a half decent buffet and alright senior
citizen entertainment options. I liked the music venue and the carpeting. But I think it’s safe to
say that we both loved the carnival atmosphere.
After the show I made my way to the bar for a much needed sip of relaxation. Tonight it was heavily called for as the lights fantastic, drawn out from hibernation within the abyss of my mind by the jam-heavy three to four song sets that have made the Disco Biscuits famous, was flying full throttle. At this point, the biggest concern was figuring how I was going to get home. I had arrived in Atlantic City behind the wheel of my own vehicle but even the daredevil in me was chicken when it came to leaving town under my current impairment this evening. What made matters even worse was that I didn’t have the mask of alcohol to hide under because my first drink was ordered at the side bar near the venue after the show.
In my drinking years when I found myself in this state I’d usually order something that I would
never order. Like a strawberry daiquiri or anything with blue curacao in it. On this evening it was a rum runner with an extra shot of rum and a much needed one because the bartender’s frustration was literally writing its name onto her name tag. Who could blame her? Her bar had been invaded
by a curious bunch of un-showered heathens barking demands and she had been cornered with the anxious stares of multiple dilated pupils. My anxious stare being one of them. It wouldn’t have
been so bad if the only seat I could find wasn’t the dreaded seat you see at the end of the bar
which is usually near a trash can and in the way of its employees when it isn’t being used by
them on their breaks. Trust me, on nights like these you can sense the frustration of people and
when that frustration is much-deserved because of the degree of jackass one is forced to serve
in order to make a living, observing its escalation can in and of itself be a traumatic experience. It didn’t help that the one man sitting next to me looked like he had just finished up shooting bull
testosterone into his rear and seemed to be looking to take his rage out on a poor video poker machine that probably sits obsolete on more normal days.
This prompted me to sneak my drink outside and do what I love to do late at night when I’m at
the beach and I can’t sleep because my mind is altered, stare at the ocean in contemplation.
The relaxing sounds of the ocean waves crashing under a half moon provided just enough
courage to walk back into the chaotic world of the Showboat Casino on a typical weekend night
in the heart of Summertime. My vow re-entering the casino was quite simple, walk around and
stare at the light and the carpet until I feel safe enough to drive back to my shore home (Sea
Isle City) where a sunny Saturday on the beach would be awaiting my tired and delirious mind.
It was either that or sleep in the car and there was no way I was missing out on this evening’s
peculiar light show that was igniting the orchestra that often lays dormant inside my head.
At first glance casino floors may seem to go on forever but the lights, carpets, and mirrors add
this dimension. When you’re not a gambler, walking the floor gets old very quickly. Usually I’ll pull a twenty dollar bill and post up at a random slot machine long enough to muster a cocktail
or two. This night was no exception. A couple pulls and a little luck can have you riding in
victory off into the sunrise. On this night it seemed my luck had run out halfway into the Disco
Biscuit’s second set. I didn’t even have time to flag down a cocktail waitress before I was forty
dollars in the hole. To make matters even weirder, when I looked around for the cocktail
waitresses I noticed a familiar face standing in the adjacent slot row. With leather skin and eyes
which have seen secrets to tomato sauce recipes handed down from previous generations, dressed as if she was about to tee off at the Shop Rite LPGA Tournament in Galloway was none other than
my grandmother, Mom Mom.
You would think if she ran into me she’d run up to me first and start talking to me. Maybe even
give me five dollars for a spin. But at three thirty, early on a Saturday morning in late June at the
now shut-down Showboat Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey she was just as shocked to see
me as I was to see her. It’s as if now the fun is ruined because the cat’s out of the bag, everyone knows the secret. In that current moment I even felt she knew I was in an altered state of mind. We stared at each other in a sort of standoff fashion, the type you see in old Westerns or when you read about Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Who was going to say the first word? One of us had to. But she was quiet. Maybe she didn’t think it was me. Maybe she thought she was looking at someone that looked like her grandson. I let this minute of eternity slip by until walking up and saying hi to her. And her response, “your grandfather is sitting alone at the
blackjack table, you should go say hi to him.” Perfect. Just what I wanted to hear. The quick ‘you
do your thing I’ll do mine response’ although now I had to find my grandfather and say hi
to him. Which is all fine and dandy when being normal isn’t a masquerade.
My mind was beginning to race. What if they ask me why I’m here and what I’m doing on a casino floor two hours before sunrise? I have no woman in tow which means I have no cover-no beard to hide the flaws inside my soul that so often come out on sleepless nights. I don’t even have friends with me. I’m alone in Atlantic City, spun out after a rock concert and the only people I know in the building are my grandparents. And they know everything from what I’ve been doing to what I want to be doing and when it’s all placed on broadcast it does not look very admirable. Especially in their generation, the greatest generation that did many great things but in the eyes of the counter-culture they have one creation which has scarred this great nation and that creation is the War on Drugs.
So like any extremely paranoid human being under the influence would do when they find themselves in this situation, I decided to walk to the atm, withdraw 200 hundred dollars and exchange them for two hundred in chips at the roulette wheel. I had to create an acceptable persona before going to say hi to my grandfather and what better persona to create than being a gambling degenerate. In the eyes of the greatest generation, the one thing you don’t want to be associated with is drugs, unfortunately even sexism and racism seem to be more acceptable to many octogenarians than being somebody who uses drugs. Gambling is as much a rite of passage as going off to war for these old-timers and I was
never into either. This however would be different.
After a couple failed attempts of winning money at the roulette table I peered around the wheel
and made my way to the tables. Sitting alone at the end of the table was the man himself, my
grandfather, Pop Pop as he came to be known as in his grandfatherhood. When he saw me it
was almost as if a light had gone on beneath the frames of his glasses. A big man in stature, he
pulled up a seat and waved me over to the table. Much different from the interaction with my
grandmother who wanted no business of me getting in between her and the slot machine, he
welcomed me with a gentle pat of his big left hand on my back and a ‘hey little Louie’ to make
me feel much younger than my years. I told him my game was roulette yet little did I know that
roulette requires about as much strategy as a slot and this quote probably made me look like a bigger idiot than I actually was in his view. After losing my two hundred dollars he told
me the best thing to do at a roulette wheel is to bet big on red or black. I asked him what his
color preference was, he answered: ‘black.’ We sat down and he mentioned how he always sat
at the end of blackjack tables because he had the ability to count cards and one who counts
cards must always sit at the end. He played a couple of rounds, he won and the next thing you
know I’m in line for the breakfast buffet with Mom Mom and Pop Pop in tow, courtesy of their comps.
The only downfall of the evening was telling my grandparents how much I love to gamble at
casinos which is a total lie. Anybody who has partied with me at a casino knows I’m not into
wagering my money on its games. I’m more of a camaraderie type of guy: give me the lights, the
funky carpets, the cocktail waitresses, the slot noises, and the overall acceptance of
debauchery. I’d rather piss my money away on other things (or people)! That morning I told my
grandparents another lie, I told them that my car broke down and it was being repaired in AC…and that I had been waiting for the bus. At this point the sun was up and I could’ve drove home but I opted to catch a ride from them back to Sea Isle.
We got home early enough to sneak into bed before anybody else realized where we had been. Their secret was safe with me. From that point on my grandparents had me labeled as a gambler and they would always be quick to remind me that it is not cheap to keep casino lights on all night as an err of caution when traveling upon gambling’s dark road. Ever since that night, I always feel like I’m going to run into them when I walk into a casino even though my grandfather has since passed and my grandmother is under 24 hour care in a home. Even my favorite casino, the Showboat, is no longer in business. That following day at around noon I took the bus into AC to retrieve my car. When I got to the Showboat the urge kicked in to take a shot at winning back some of the money I lost. I withdrew two hundred dollars, walked up to the roulette wheel and heeding the advice of my grandfather I put it all on ‘black.’ It hit. Without even thinking twice, I cashed out and left.
That is the only time I had ever won something substantial at a casino.
When I’m in AC, I like to think of how much joy it gave my grandparents in their later years. It makes me feel less guilty about my own ways of having fun, ways which their generation would not approve of, but as I said earlier, there’s many social aspects of their generation that lack my approval. Somewhere in Sea Isle just around sunrise on a summer morning if you search hard enough you too may also run into an elderly couple that may be cooler than you give them credit for being. For all you know, they too may be heading back from a long evening of fun, lost in what was once America’s Playground, under the lights fantastic.