My good friend Dave, who loves video poker and also has access to a car, invited me to join him on a trip to Atlantic City, fondly known as "That Place on the Jersey Shore with the Casinos." I jumped at the chance, because I had been eager to compare the East Coast's version of Las Vegas with the real thing.

Early Saturday morning, we took off for the New Jersey Turnpike, flush with anticipation. Dave had printed out driving directions from the Internet, because even though he had been to A.C. before, he couldn't really remember how to get there. I was put in charge of interpreting the cryptic directions, which should have been easier than it was. Stopping to pay tolls approximately every fifty feet or so, we made it to town, only missing the exit once.

With some time to kill before our lunch date with some friends of Dave's, we parked the car and headed for the Garden Pier, home of the Atlantic City Historical Museum. I wanted to get a little perspective on the city, and also see the Mr. Peanut costume I had heard so much about. Thanks to the grudging generosity of the casinos, the museum is completely free, and open every day except holidays. We signed the guest book and were each handed a brochure and a lapel pin in the shape of a pickle, by far the nicest gift I had ever received from Heinz. The first item on display is the Mr. Peanut costume, set up on a mannequin behind glass, to keep my grubby hands off of it. The display also features some pictures of Mr. Peanut in action, shilling snacks on the boardwalk way back when. The rest of the museum is a bit of a letdown, with a lot of knickknacks that can be found at just about any historic museum in America, although the temporary exhibit featuring photographs by Al Gold, most of which appeared in the Atlantic City Press, gave us a good idea of what life was like before the casinos turned the boardwalk into a secondary attraction. (More info available at their website.)

After getting our fill of days gone by, we walked up the boardwalk a way, stopping in at the Ripley's Believe It or Not museum, which is not free, and therefore not accessible to a couple of cheapskates like Dave and me. It has some of teaser items out front, all of which were eminently believable and plenty stupid, except for the robot sculpture made out of trash like bottle caps and old license plates. Finally the appointed lunch hour rolled around, and we made our way to Merv Griffin's Resorts casino. Instead of the California Pizza Kitchen, where we were supposed to meet, we found a place called Breadsticks. I had my heart all set for an artichoke heart and feta cheese pizza, so I was a little mopey on discovering the change. Luckily, it was made up for by the fine company, a group of folks whom Dave corresponds with on Prodigy. He introduced me around as Stinky, which everyone got a big kick out of, especially Veronica, who took up the nickname with uncommon gusto.

We listened to stories of the excitement they had already experienced, having arrived the night before. Most of it had to do with gambling, but there were also some drinking stories thrown in there for good measure. Veronica decided that if I cleaned up my act a little bit, I may be able to woo her daughter away from her Wall Street boyfriend. I told her I'd give it some thought, but was offering no guarantees. I couldn't really understand what she had against some rich guy who loved her daughter, but didn't really think it my place to question her motives. Lunch consisted of generically eclectic food, sort of what one might expect from TGI Fridays, but with more of a focus on breadsticks.

After lunch, we took our leave of the group, so Dave could get his fingers dirty plugging quarters into video poker machines. We walked to the Claridge, the closest thing to a low-roller joint one can find on the boardwalk. Dave found some full-pay video poker, but not with ease, and settled in for some play. After a while watching him and losing a few dollars, I decided I would give Dave a break from my incessant questions about which suit has the prettiest queen and let him concentrate. I split to take a look at some of the other resorts.

My first stop after finding my way out of the mysteriously laid-out Claridge was the Sands next door. A dark, smoky, uncomfortable room, much like one of the dumpier properties in downtown Las Vegas, I expected to see some low table limits and nickel slots. I did not. The clientele looked like they could not really afford to be playing ten dollars a hand blackjack, but they were anyway.

I trudged back to the boardwalk and headed further south to Bally's. Half of the casino is old and shabby, with no particular theme, and the other half oddly resembles any of a variety of Old West-themed places in Vegas. Most of the decorations are pretty bland, but the animatronic mule mesmerized me for a full five minutes.

My next stop was Caesars. This place vaguely resembles its Vegas predecessor, but is not nearly as garish or fun. Again, the table limits were prohibitively high, nothing less than ten bucks at the blackjack tables, and five dollars with double odds for craps.

Finally, I had to see what Donald Trump does when free from snobbish Manhattanites, and is allowed to go all out. I think his buildings in New York are among the tackiest in town, but nothing could have prepared me for Trump Plaza and World's Fair. Fingerprint-laden shiny brass and psychedelic carpet cover practically every surface. The word Trump appears approximately a million times on everything from doorways to slot machines. Most casinos in the world are over the top when it comes to tawdriness, but this place really goes for the gold. Although most gambling remained out of my league, I was impressed by the huge selection of nickel slots and even video poker.

By this time, the sun had gone down, and I walked back up the boardwalk, enjoying immensely the cool breeze and sea air. I met Dave at Resorts, where he tried to make excuses for why he didn't win big. We headed to Trump Taj Mahal, another shrine to gaudiness, although newer and fancier than Trump Plaza. I lost ten bucks playing video poker, and had had about enough of this town.

On the way back to the Atlantic City Expressway, we stopped in at the White House for a couple of Philly Cheesesteaks. Dave maintains that these are by far the best cheesesteaks anywhere, and I can honestly say I have no idea if he's right or not. The sandwiches were quite good, and the atmosphere could not be beat. On every inch of wall space hang pictures of famous people sitting in the plastic booths enjoying greasy food, and the crowd talks loudly while waiting in line for their grub. A fine dining experience to be sure, and cheap to boot.

Finally, we hopped back in the car, put in a CD of goofy 60's girl groups, and made our way back home.

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