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Ruin and Despair in Atlantic City

Posted on Wednesday, February 17th, 2021

Dave!Last night I got a call from a good friend I've known for over a decade. And the way you know that they are a good friend is that I actually picked up. There's only a dozen people that I will interrupt my busy pandemic lifestyle to talk with, and he is one of them.

"I'm starting to worry about you. Your texts and emails have you sounding down."
"More down than usual?"
"Yes."

I assured him that I'm doing just fine despite the pandemic completely changing my life, we shot the shit for a half hour, then said our goodbyes.

And I totally get why he called. COVID is happening, the world has gone to shit, and the light at the end of the tunnel is probably the headlight of a freight train. This is a friend who knows first-hand about my struggles, and it's nice to know that there are people who care enough to check in on me like this.

The centerpiece of our conversation was me explaining that there's a difference between wanting to die and being apathetic about dying. I don't want to die, I just don't care if it happens. For the time being I have cats that rely on me, there's some things left I'd like to do with my life (or try to do), and I'm not ready to check out just yet. So I'm good.

Mostly.

The news when I woke up this morning was Trump Plaza being imploded and demolished...

The Trump Plaza being imploded.
Photo from the Associated Press Newswire

This brought up memories of my first and only trip to Atlantic City back on July 17, 1999. I was working in New York City and ended up with a free day and nothing to do. Ultimately I decided that I would go to the Hard Rock Cafe Atlantic City for lunch so I could check it off my list, then head back to The City. The cheapest way to do this was via Greyhound Bus. Not the best way to travel, but I had survived far worse.

I managed to get a window seat half-way back, then sat there as the bus started filling up. Eventually a woman walked up and asked if she could sit next to me. I said "No problem" and she replied with "Thanks. You look like the person least likely to grab me or assault me." The only thing I could think to say way "Um, thanks. I guess?"

The next three hours were spent talking to my seatmate and new best friend. John F. Kennedy Jr. had died the previous day and she had to get out of The City. He had been the golden boy of NYC, was much beloved there, and things were just too depressing for her. A nine hour distraction was just what she needed. Like me, she had booked the 8am departure (arriving 11am) returning 2pm (or something like that). Along the way she had quite a lot to say. I remember almost none of it. I do remember her talking about how she had moved to a new church and signed up for choir. When she got her robe, she was dismayed to see that it was all white. "So there I am in all my Blackness standing there in the whitest robe I've ever seen..."

I didn't say much after explaining that my trip was just to visit the Hard Rock Cafe.

When we arrived we just kinda gravitated towards hanging out together for our three hours. The first thing I did was ask somebody where the "Trump Hotel" was at. "Which one do you mean? The Taj Mahal or the Plaza? I had no idea, so I just responded with "Um... whichever one has the Hard Rock Cafe in it?" Turns out it was the "Trump Taj Mahal" across from "Steel Pier" which was a 20 minute walk...

The Hard Rock Cafe Atlantic City at Trump Taj Mahal as seen looking South on the Boardwalk.

The Hard Rock Cafe Atlantic City at Trump Taj Mahal as seen looking South on the Boardwalk.

The All-Star Cafe Atlantic City was there too...

The All-Star Cafe Atlantic City at Trump Taj Mahal as seen looking North on the Boardwalk.

After eating lunch, we played slots in the casino for a while. I hit a $70 jackpot fairly quickly off a $10 investment, and poured her out a bunch of quarters so we could keep playing the various slot machines before walking back to the bus terminal. We had a great time. I got the Hard Rock Cafe checked off my list and she got her distraction.

And then some.

On the way back a fight broke out on the bus. Some guy leaned his seat back into some other guy and he was not happy about it. The guys were screaming. The wife of one of the guys was screaming. And the bus driver was screaming for them to knock it off or else he would stop the bus and kick them all off of it. Eventually the matter was settled by the husband and wife swapping seats or something. All my seatmate had to say about the situation was "I knew it. I just knew I wasn't going to get through six hours on a bus without something like this happening!" The rest of our trip was made in silence as we headed back to a city in mourning.

The Trump Taj Mahal Hotel and Casino was one of Donald Trump's many banruptcies and has a rather colorful history... including it being involved in money laundering and being a hot spot for Russian mobsters. Eventually the property was shut down in 2016, then sold to Hard Rock International in 2017. Then in 2018 they reopened it as the "Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Atlantic City."

As for The Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino? Also bankrupted. Also a colorful history. It was originally THE place to be in Atlantic City for the rich and famous. But once the Trump Taj Mahal opened in 1990, Trump ended up poaching his own customers with the newer, bigger, flashier property. Thus the Plaza bankruptcy in 1992. In 1993 Trump somehow made his way out of bankruptcy (do I even want to know how a casino beloved by Russian mobsters managed that?) and started expanding the property... because doubling down in the face of financial ruin is apparently his thing, I guess. But money wasn't the only thing that Trump lost... he also famously lost an eminent domain case against a woman named Vera Coking. Like the asshole he is, Trump tried to get the city to condemn her property so he could buy it and turn it into a limousine parking lot. He failed.

Just as Penthouse magazine publisher Bob Guccione had failed in the 1970's to buy her out of her home. A situation that fans of the Pixar movie, Up, might recognize...

Jenny at the end of my bed.
Photo by Jack Boucher for Historic American Buildings Survey, c.1991 (via Wikipedia)

Unironically I also have a photo of the now-demolished Trump Plaza Hotel from my 1999 visit. I took a photo of Planet Hollywood Atlantic City and it was sticking out like an ugly sore thumb in the background...

Planet Hollywood Atlantic City with Trump Plaza behind it.

Trump's rise and fall in Atlantic City is an engaging story, which you can read in this Salon article originally published by InsiderNJ just before the previous presidential election: Atlantic City has a warning for the nation: Donald Trump brings ruin and despair. Salon helpfully added the byline "Trump looted and corrupted New Jersey's gambling mecca and then got out of town. Does that sound familiar?" Why, yes. It sounds very familiar, alas.

It's weird to think of the stuff that's happened in the world during my 54 years, 10 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days on this planet. From the year I graduated, Trump had Trump Taj Mahal ('84), Trump Plaza ('84), Trump's Castle ('85), Trump's Steel Pier ('88), and Trump's World's Fair ('89) in Atlantic City... and lost them all. His consolation prize being that he was elected President of the United States of America in 2016, the same year Trump Taj Mahal (his last remaining Atlantic City property) was shut down permanently.

Oh well. In addition to my dying (among many, many other subjects) I also hold apathy towards ugly buildings being demolished.

I am kinda glad that I was able to visit Atlantic City during Trump's heydey there in 1999 though. America's prince may have just died in a tragic plane crash... but Donald J. Trump, Democrat, was thinking of running for president on a pro-choice Reform Party ticket with Oprah Winfrey as his running mate.

It was a glorious time to be alive.

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