Miscellany — From the December 2015 issue

Getting to the End

Gambling and suicide in Atlantic City

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For roughly a five-year stretch beginning in 1995, I worked in Atlantic City, New Jersey, as a dealer in several casino resorts. It wasn’t that dealing had been a career ambition of mine. Instead, I had recognized that an affluent upbringing had insulated me from life as it was lived by most people in the world. I was a young man with a conscience — wealth guilt. I wanted to live in Atlantic City because its squalor felt honest. It was hubris to think that auto-exile into a tiny urban wasteland would provide whatever inspiration I thought I needed, but it took me a while to accept that — perhaps until 1999, when there came what local newspapers called a “spate” of suicides in Atlantic City.

Photographs from Atlantic City, New Jersey, by Robert Gumpert

Photographs from Atlantic City, New Jersey, by Robert Gumpert

By then I had concluded that casinos, like suicides, are really all about stories. That casino resorts offer a kind of virtual travel is an obvious facet of this theory, but all the glitzy bullshit — the gross architectural citation of other, actual places — is really just a lure for the virtual narrative of the gambling experience. The recent poker craze, for example, has less to do with money than with a kind of gunslinger romance: the lone traveler traipsing through a moral wilderness, confronting opponent after opponent with stoic poise. Other games feature class tropes — the conspicuous consumption of high-action baccarat, the cyclical routine of suburban blackjack, the get-rich-quick frenzy of blue-collar craps — and each offers a clear beginning, middle, and end. Real life, of course, lacks any such clarity or chronological neatness, and perhaps the best explanation for why people play games they know they will lose is that they hunger to become protagonists. It simply doesn’t matter that the story will more likely end in tragedy than in comedy.

What this meant for me, as a dealer, was that for five years I acted out bit parts in other people’s adventures. My own stories about that world are therefore clipped and incomplete. The need for stories, I want to say, is biological. I don’t care whether this is a divine imprint or the evolutionary side effect of an accidental consciousness; either way, when you serve primarily as a stock figure in other people’s stories, you begin to experience a mysterious physiological deficiency, a dreadful sense of not enough. Or at least I did. From there, it’s only a short step to wondering whether life — as William James once asked — is worth living at all.

From 1993 to 1999, there were at least nineteen suicides in Atlantic City. At first glance, that’s not too bad: Las Vegas has a much higher rate. Geography clouds the data, however. One third of the entire population of the United States lives within a day’s drive of Atlantic City. A man who junkets in, blows his wad, rides home, and blows his head off becomes another city’s statistic.

At five o’clock in the evening on August 17, 1999, a man jumped off the seventh floor of the Trump Plaza resort. He landed near the porte cochere. There were no witnesses. An investigation over the next few days by police and reporters filled in the blanks. Philip Martinetti, a thirty-six-year-old lawyer from Naples, Florida, had been in Atlantic City for four days, and lost what was described first as a “substantial sum of money,” then “$80,000,” then “$87,000.” There were tennis courts on the roof from which he had leaped, and he landed on a street called Columbia Place. A number of the story’s background details were supplied by his wife, who called from Florida when her husband failed to return home on schedule.

I had arrived in Atlantic City in early 1995 and immediately enrolled in what was called dealer school. The New Jersey Casino Control Commission required official certification for casino employees, and local community colleges and strip-mall campuses offered brief tutorials in blackjack, baccarat, and craps.

I made a variety of friends in dealer school, which was encouraging. I had come to believe that there was something a bit Marxist about casinos: didn’t they involve rich people losing money to penniless immigrants? My class analysis was totally wrong, of course, but I was right about the employee demographic. What’s more, the job created relationships among people who might otherwise never have found a way to dissolve the artificial sealants of race and class.

Photograph from Atlantic City, New Jersey, by Robert GumpertMy dealer-school friends included a former high-school basketball star named Les Moore, a jolly Laotian guy named Sy, a Vietnamese girl named Li who looked at people only out of the corner of her eye and called me “Mr. Chris,” and a biker chick who I’ll call Lacey, who drove up every day from Chester, Pennsylvania, where she worked in a dive bar.

I played basketball with Les on weekends, shot pool with Sy in the evenings after school, and occasionally had polite lunches with Li. Lacey had an Appalachian accent and wondrous hair that coiled to the middle of her back. I desperately wanted to sleep with her — and, sensing this, she declined my offers to ease her commute with a nap on my couch. Li was the first to get hired as a dealer, at the Taj Mahal. Les, Sy, and I took our drug tests together and signed on at Bally’s Grand. Lacey never worked as a dealer. She threw a party to celebrate her graduation from blackjack class — it was the only time she had ever graduated from anything — and a short time later, her roommate was reportedly raped and murdered in their Chester apartment.

I received this news secondhand. I never heard from Lacey again.

On September 2, 1999, a nineteen-year-old named Jaramillo Rogeles climbed out onto a ledge on the twentieth floor of Trump Plaza. Police arrived, negotiators and family members appeared on the scene to make appeals, and word quickly spread through town that another suicide drama — potentially the fourth in a span of three weeks — was at that moment unfolding.

I was working that night. I believe I was assigned to blackjack. If this was the case, then I would have been dealing with a chronic, highly specific, macadamia-nut-size area of pain deep inside my right shoulder. I got tapped out for my twenty-minute break and decided to walk to the boardwalk. You couldn’t see anything of the suicide drama from the foot of the building, but a crowd of observers had gathered out on Chicken Bone Beach. I joined them down near the water. Peering up at the skyline, I saw the perpetual swarm of seagulls circling inside the city’s huge sphere of neon light. A novel ecosystem of insects had arisen in tandem with the casino industry, and the seagulls preyed on them in a nightly frenzy. It was hard to avoid seeing the entire town as a kind of bug zapper for insects and people alike.

I had to search for a while before I spotted the small silhouette of a man on top of the casino. He was actually on a ledge just below the roof — you could see him standing there like the stick figure on a traffic signal, leaning, peeking over the drop. Smaller, shadowy heads behind a low wall belonged to the cops trying to talk him down. The crowd around me was mostly inebriated tourists in late-summer gear, barely managing to hold their drinks steady. Waves snatched at the shoreline. The beach stank of beer and brine. The festive mood, what you might experience at an outdoor cocktail party, began to turn. The little man on the roof couldn’t make up his mind. There were perhaps a hundred of us out there, a hundred half-finished stories interrupted by an anonymous shadow threatening to take center stage. The crowd wanted to call his bluff. For a moment they broke into a chanting alternative to the cops’ increasingly desperate rationale.

“Jump! Jump! Jump! Jump!”

My break was over before the boy was strapped into a harness and pulled off the ledge.

I left Atlantic City for about a year, in 1997, to return to graduate school. The casinos had hardened me. Students in the classes I taught had the same air of privilege that I had hoped to shed, and I once lambasted a boy as though he were a grizzled craps player trying to slide dice. In a way, this indicated that my exile had succeeded. But after ten months the student-loan money was gone, and I found myself back in Atlantic City, at a new casino. I had lost track of Les Moore, but I sometimes visited Li, and Sy showed up at my new job. He was a bit less jolly. The casinos had baked a crust on him too, and now we traded only grim nods.

At the new casino, there was a guy who worried everybody. He was a good dealer, but there was a kind of trapped, inappropriate fear in him. On dead games — empty tables awaiting a player — he sometimes launched into mean-spirited soliloquies that seemed to be the product of a diseased imagination.

“They say it’s wrong to hit a woman,” he said one night. “Hit a woman, and you’re a bad guy, plain and simple. You take a guy. He’s a good guy. He works two jobs. This guy kills his wife and mother-in-law. The mother-in-law first. Why? He’s a good guy. But he just killed two people. You know why? He snapped. Snapped. With a steak knife he stabbed them fifty times. You know why? Because they were on him. They took his money. They put him into debt, and picked, picked, picked.”

Someone reminded him that our casino employed an in-house counselor.

“It happened one night. They criticized him too much. He grabbed a steak knife, some kind of knife. This is a true story. Stabbed them fifty times. He just snapped. It can happen.”

A jackpot rang out across the casino floor. He offered his moral.

“I don’t think it’s wrong to hit a woman.”

On August 25, 1999 — a “sun-drenched morning,” as one newspaper described it — a man jumped from the ninth story of the Resorts casino garage. He had left no note, carried no photographs in his wallet, and wore no wedding ring. Police soon traced his path through the city. He had checked into the Taj Mahal and lost several thousand dollars his first night. Over the next five days, he drifted from one casino to the next. After that, his trail disappeared for four days, and then he made his last bet, slipping a quarter into a slot machine.

Two days later, a Resorts security guard named Bert found the man up on the roof, sitting behind an elevator tower. The man was alone, had one of his loafers off. He said something about checking out the view. Bert told him he had to scram. The man put on his shoe and moved toward the door. “Have a nice day,” he said. Then he darted past the guard and leaped off the edge.

No one claimed him at first. The police were annoyed by the gaps in his story. “This is a suicide that, normally, we would have been done with,” one detective told a reporter. He also noted that another recent suicide, a British woman who had jumped from the twelfth floor of Caesars on August 23, 1998, had been equally hard to identify. Meanwhile, the story had accumulated a cargo of telling detail. There was the loafer, the last-minute gentility before he jumped, the way his body was buried by employees of the Adams-Perfect Funeral Home in “a pauper’s grave” at the county’s expense.

It was the third suicide in eight days. The American Gaming Association fought back against the ruinous P.R. “When standard statistics are used, and when the masking effects of extraneous factors are controlled,” a functionary said, citing an earlier study, the suicide rate in Atlantic City was “about average.”

A police spokesman agreed, resisting a reporter’s prodding questions: “I’m not going to say anything derogatory about the gambling industry. You ask me a question about the place where I live and make my living and raise my family, obviously, I’m going to be a little protective.”

Everyone wondered about the Robot. It was a gargantuan thing with long, slinky arms and a stocky body on wheels. Its face was a screen with red L.E.D. eyes and an animated mouth that moved when it spoke. It had the accent and attitude of a dirty old New Jersey man, and it rolled around while swiveling its mantis head, entertaining customers — upper-middle-class couples — with scraps of stale comedy.

“There’s a midget in there,” someone said in the dealer’s lounge. “They can’t make no robot do that. There’s cameras, and little buttons to make it do things. It’s some little fucking munchkin making fifty bucks an hour.”

But no one had seen the midget. No one had seen a little guy in the cafeteria scarfing vegetable lasagna on an abbreviated lunch break.

“No, it’s remote control. It’s the surveillance guys. Instead of watching the bacc pit, they’re running around shooting cameras up girls’ dresses.”

By program or policy, the Robot did not come near the table games. It wandered up and down the aisles of slot machines, teasing players. One night I saw it home in on two older men waiting for their wives. Its head turned toward them, then the body pivoted and rolled forward, its whole frame wiggling orthopedically.

“Hey, boys!” the Robot bellowed. “You come stag? Me, too. But look around! Lots of chippies out tonight!”

The men laughed as their wives approached.

“Here’s a couple now! Hey, girls, wanna dance?” The Robot triggered a recording of “In the Mood” and did a little jig for a moment. The women smiled and touched each other on the arm. “You been playing slots, ladies? You know, slot machines these days are robots just like me. I’m an oversize one-arm bandit!” The Robot jolted out an arm. “Here, pull my finger and hit a jackpot, guaranteed!”

Dealers worried about the Robot. We already relied on a couple of technological crutches: we used automatic shufflers, and our blackjack tables had electronic eyes to check hole cards. Yet the extra speed ultimately meant more hands per hour, more wear on wrists and shoulders.

“I bet that thing could deal. Those hands it’s got? Easy. Someday it’ll be just like that.”

Only once did I have a personal experience with the Robot. The elevator in the back of the house went to three floors, but the second floor was off-limits to dealers — it was home to the security catwalks and the count room, where the casino kept its cash. One night on break, I got in the elevator by myself. Just as the doors were about to close, I heard, “Hey, buddy, hold the elevator!”

I jammed the button. The Robot rolled aboard and spun around to face the doors, its wheels grinding on the plastic floor.

“Hit two for me, buddy?”

I hit two. The doors closed; the elevator was old and slow.

“Zoo out there tonight, huh?”

I agreed.

“I see one more pissant old-timer, I’m cracking him one.”

The Robot seemed to sigh, and it extended one of its arms backward, reaching around at such an angle that I was reasonably certain there was no human arm inside. It rubbed the tin plate where its vertebrae would have been, were it a vertebrate. “My back is killing me. This gig is nuts, dude. Pay’s shit, and no benefits.”

The doors opened onto the second floor.

“Try engineering,” I said. “Get some oil for that back.”

The Robot’s head swung toward me, and I looked into its red, heartless eyes.

“Funny guy,” it said.

On August 23, 1999, I was assigned to blackjack in Pit Ten, the casino’s high-action room. I would work from ten at night to six in the morning. I arrived early and learned at once that another suicide drama was playing out in the city. Someone had jumped from the top of our parking garage. The body was still on the ground outside the door. This was only the second suicide of the spate, but it was remarkable because the first had come only a few days before, less than a block away.

I walked out to Pacific Avenue. The entire intersection was cordoned off with yellow police tape. In the days to come, the newspapers would make much of the fact that the victim had landed just a few feet from a hot-dog vendor. I walked around to study the body, which was lying on the sidewalk, covered with a sheet. The sheet showed some uncomfortable-looking bulges and a couple of small bloodstains, and the sneakered feet poked out at one end, aimed at twisty, wicked angles. I joined a ruminant crowd. People gather around scenes like this, I think, to borrow plot from stories that are on the verge of concluding. The spirit has nearly flown, it will take meaning along with it, but until it’s gone, you can salvage something — you can liven up your own story with its details. Everyone assumed that the man under the sheet was another distraught gambler. The usual thing.

I stood alongside the tape until the coroner’s van arrived. The coroner was an enormous woman whose bulk tipped back and forth as she walked. She stretched on latex gloves, and when the body was uncovered, the police formed a barrier around it with blankets. At that point I had to go back inside and tap onto my game.

Halfway through the night, in the dealer’s lounge, I learned that the body had been Sy’s. Someone knew the story: he had come to work that evening, but had been called into the manager’s office and fired before he began his shift. He drove to the top of the parking garage and jumped.

I had two players on my game that night, both Jewish men in baseball caps, friends. Their average bet was around a thousand dollars. My floor person was a tall Italian who spoke infrequently and then projected a steady stream of spite. The players had sunk deep into the narrative of the game — hunched together at the shoulder, whispering strategy and recriminations — and they regarded me as part of the apparatus, no more human than the table or the shoe or the cards. I didn’t mind; I dealt quickly. I can’t say I was sad about Sy: our friendship, if that’s what it was, had already crumbled. What I was really feeling was a kind of jealousy that he had escaped and I was still trapped. I sensed two kinds of judgment at work. There was the judgment of my players — I was a fool for their amusement — and the judgment from Sy.

A further oddity: after a while, I realized that for me too, the game had become a prop in a still larger story. I snapped out of some kind of daze or trance and realized that I’d been dealing, performing hundreds of complicated calculations and motions without giving the least thought to them at all. I had not the slightest memory of them. It’s perhaps the only time in my life when it became absolutely clear to me that there was room in my mind — and this is William James too — for more than one consciousness, that one part of me could perform a difficult, stressful task while another part, a higher class of self, went on conducting the business of comprising who I was. In other words, I was struggling to maintain my own narrative, to resist that moment when my story might be submerged into another’s forever. All of this manifested physiologically as a sensation of emptiness, as though the exterior of my body were a porous shell maybe half an inch thick, whose contents were a complete mystery: organs, a void, or a million phantasms that took turns at the levers that made me move and think. I felt the paralyzing cowardice that seizes hold after a glimpse into the abyss. My limbs were doughy, my mind as insubstantial as a radio signal, and just as vulnerable to interruption.

My players took a break, stepping back from the table and removing their baseball caps to reveal yarmulkes underneath. They counted their money — I had no idea whether they were winning or losing — and stepped off to the bathroom.

My floor person moved in beside me to count the checks in my rack. I could sense his rage; his breath was sickly sweet. “Wearing beanies underneath their hats,” he said. “Ashamed of their beanies.”

I got tapped out. I walked back to Pacific Avenue, dodged through traffic. The coroner had drawn no outline around Sy, but I found a few chalk markings where he had hit the ground. I stood on that spot. It was three in the morning. The crowd was gone, the yellow police tape was gone, the hot-dog cart was gone. There was just the city’s routine squalor, and what had once struck me as honest now seemed redundant, a story that kept getting recycled. I looked straight up at the higher levels of the parking garage. There was someone else up there. A shadowy head and shoulders had peeked out over the edge of the top floor, a man who had tracked Sy’s story to the other end of its climax. I felt nothing. I was neither ghost nor haunted. Wind fluttered my shirtsleeves. The shadowy figure paused a moment, then pulled back from the edge, and I returned to my game.

I don’t remember much of the rest of that night, which is just as well. Before I went home — after the sun came up — the new day’s newspaper appeared in the dealer’s lounge. The story of Sy’s suicide started on page one, above the fold. The week before, it claimed, Sy had pulled a gun on a woman reported to be his estranged wife. The arrest cost him his job. His full name, which I had never known, was Souanexay Souvannavong. The hot-dog vendor was quoted as saying that the body hitting the ground sounded like a “large bag of fruit.” I could have added a few more details. Sy was a pretty good guy, once. He had bad acne, full lips, and he tended to slobber when he laughed. I turned the page. The story continued with a photo of the crowd out on Pacific, a collage of blurry figures in cheap resolution, all the minor characters who had snuck into the day’s news.

I couldn’t tell if I was among them.

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