Atlantic City

It was Francis’ sense of boredom that was the catalyst for an early-afternoon jaunt into nearby Atlantic City. Traffic, even at this hour, was still thicker than he’d remembered in the past. And then Atlantic City loomed ahead, the new casinos poking up against the familiar skyline.

 

It was much easier, of course, to find a parking spot during the day, less of an effort to avoid the expensive commercial parking lots. Many of these lots now offered reimbursement in conjunction with the casinos. This was intended as an inducement, but to Francis the process seemed entirely too laborious, forcing one to trek deep into the bowels of the casino, parking stub in hand, locating the redemption center, and waiting in a long, annoying line for a parking-validation stamp, and then--whenever it was you exited the casino--presenting it to the parking-lot attendant.

 

He parked a few blocks away and was solicited for money by an overly friendly man who seemed a little drunk.

 

The casinos were soulless and imposing. They led to a slight air of confusion. The Frontenac Hotel, for example, had been such an integral part of Atlantic City, yet now—with all the new casinos and Atlantic City’s broad transformation—he was unable to ascertain exactly where it had once stood. The Frontenac was a decrepit jewel, a once-grand hotel with pillars and elaborate turrets; an abundance of ornate, complicated architectural geegaws--this odd combination of stateliness and vulgarity. Back when he and his sister were little, they had all ventured into the Frontenac for the sake of sheer curiosity. The memory of the shocking decrepitude was still vivid: The faded, almost ratty carpeting, the chipped staircase, the floors badly in need of scrubbing. The Frontenac had eventually been demolished. Now, with all these changes to Atlantic City, he could no longer place its specific locale.

 

Francis ascended the boardwalk, bound for nowhere in particular. There was nowhere he needed to be, nobody to meet.

 

Quite arbitrarily, he meandered into the lobby of the Goldmine Casino. A gigantic cage stretched from floor to ceiling, packed with mechanical, colorful birds in garish plumages of yellows, reds, purples. These birds, Francis recalled, had become something of a celebrated thing. Every few minutes they came to life, singing songs and telling jokes, and right on cue flashing red and yellow lights emanated from the cage, punctuated by a loud, brassy fanfare of prerecorded music. Feeling somewhat foolish, he gravitated toward the cage. The music swelled to a crescendo and now the ersatz birds began singing. With surprising rapidity, a crowd had materialized around the cage and now Francis found himself amid a large group of gamblers and tourists.

 

Each bird took a brief turn. A yellow parrot, straw hat perched at a jaunty angle, commenced with a Jimmy Durante routine. The next bird—a pink and purple figure of uncertain lineage—sounded like Elvis; the one after, Francis realized, was Wayne Newton. The crowd reveled in this, the birds’ song and patter, laughing uproariously, even applauding. A drunk and warbling Dean Martin was followed by a green bird that departed from the strictly musical format, executing a Johnny Carson imitation that Francis had to admit was pitch-perfect. The crowd laughed anew. He moved on to the casino floor.

 

The interior of the Goldmine Casino was a realm all its own, row after row of slot machines bracing the floor, a steady current of beeps and buzzes, flashing lights, and he wandered through row after identical row, akin to an assembly line, nearly every slot machine commandeered by a grim, serious-looking gambler-- most of them older--unsmiling and somberly absorbed in their labors, feeding quarter after quarter into the machines: An endless stream of coinage. And with a whoosh and a clatter the slot machine would occasionally reward the gambler’s efforts by regurgitating some of the quarters, the players instinctively depositing their money back into the slot machines. Francis had heard that some of these fanatical slot enthusiasts—so convinced of their change at beating the odds and so unwilling to budge—had actually pissed their pants rather than relinquish their position.

 

The casino provided large plastic tubs—akin to popcorn containers at the movies—prominently emblazoned with the Goldmine’s puke-gold logo. These tubs were absolutely everywhere: piles and piles of them on the slot machines, stacked up against the walls, by the bathrooms. Wherever you were, you could scoop up your winnings at a moment’s notice.

 

He was seized by the spirit of adventure and looked around for a two-dollar blackjack table. If he was finally going to attempt playing blackjack, a two-dollar minimum would most likely be his speed, but these two-dollar tables did not seem to be in evidence here at the Goldmine. He waded through the casino floor in search, now, of a five-dollar table, the hubbub of the crowd gradually increasing, and he eventually happened upon a cluster of five-dollar tables.

 

The dealer at the nearest table had departed. Amid much hullabaloo, a new dealer—a middle-aged woman—assumed the helm and said something that Francis was unable to ascertain. Yet it must have been funny, whatever it was this middle-aged woman had said: the card players, perched on their seats and hemmed in at the table, began to laugh. Little knots of people, scattered throughout the casino, seemed to be perpetually in the midst of hurried consultations: security guards, pit bosses, management types, other dealers. The provocatively attired waitresses weaved back and forth, trays laden down with exotic, complicated drinks. From somewhere across the casino floor he could hear the strains of excited shouts, cheering.

 

The blackjack table nearest to him was packed so full that Francis began to think his chance would never come, but suddenly an available seat opened up and with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation, he took his place, proffering a twenty-dollar bill to the pleasant dealer who had made everyone laugh and receiving his puny little stake of four chips.

 

There were no clocks at the Goldmine Casino, no windows; no delineation between night and day. The dealer, with astonishing rapidity, dealt everyone their allotted cards. A dull-looking man in a suit, reeking of metallic-smelling aftershave, was wedged into Francis’s right; a heavy-set, dour-looking older woman was seated to his left.  From time to time he’d heard discussions of blackjack strategy: when to stay, when not to stay; the house’s advantage, doubling down. None of it made even a little sense, but sitting here now he wished he’d paid a modicum of attention. He tried hard to make it look as if he knew what he was doing, affecting a blasé mien as he—per custom--tapped the dark-purple tablecloth to indicate his desire for another card, or authoritatively sliced the air with his right hand to indicate that no further cards were required.

 

Another cheer could be heard from the far reaches of the Goldmine. Craps, he guessed. Craps—the little he knew about it--was interactive, the crowd often given to vociferously voicing its feelings. To his mild disgust, his arm brushed against the fat arm of the older woman sitting next to him. And then faster than he thought possible, he lost four bets in a row and his twenty dollars was gone. Now he was forced, feeling vaguely foolish, to vacate his seat. He tried not to consider what those twenty dollars could have purchased.

 

Uncertain as what to do next, he ambled his way over to the dark casino lounge, sinking into one of the plush seats. The lounge, at this time of day, was almost entirely deserted, save for a much older, immaculately attired man with a roguish moustache who was sitting up front at the bar, garbed in a blue suit with cufflinks that glistened to such an extent that Francis could make them out from where he was sitting. The old man was nursing an elaborate drink. Francis felt a pang of unease: What, exactly, was the protocol for ordering drinks in a casino lounge?

 

A smiling, saucily-attired waitress loomed over him, handing him a complicated drinks menu and a bowl of peanuts, which Francis--happy to come across something familiar in this foreign land of the casino lounge--began consuming immediately. The mammoth list of drinks seemed as complicated as blackjack strategy and he was suddenly, painfully aware of how easy it would be to look like an utter rube in front of this alluring, sophisticated waitress. Upon her return, he ordered a Rolling Rock, which seemed like a fail-safe option: Nobody laughed at beer. But when the cold bottle and tall, skinny glass were set before him, his enthusiasm faded quickly. A Rolling Rock was really the last thing he wanted now.

 

He took some obligatory swallows and consumed most of the remaining peanuts, but the beer made him feel slightly sluggish. The older man at the bar, he noticed now, had been joined by a very tanned younger woman in fancy garb, the sort of woman who would be in attendance at a sophisticated party with soft music, hors d’oeuvres, and cocktails. It appeared introductions were being offered, the woman smiling, both she and the old man shaking hands. Francis turned his attention back to his beer. The waitress instinctively refilled the peanut bowl. When he glanced back at the bar, the old man and woman were toasting each other.

 

With some sort of nagging sense of obligation, he finished most of the beer and then asked for the check, which was promptly offered and predictably exorbitant. The waitress, done with him, offered only the most perfunctory of good-byes. It had begun to dawn on him what was transpiring up at the bar. The old man and younger woman departed.

 

Back out on the casino floor, Francis was startled by the appearance of a scruffy, bearded oddball in threadbare clothes. And then he was startled all the more as a phalanx of four beefy security guards materialized out of nowhere, converging on this man in a perfectly executed formation and—as one—actually lifting him into the air like a human battering ram and charging through a side exit. All of this, incredibly, had transpired in almost complete silence and within a minute there was no evidence whatsoever that this had even taken place at all, the casino going back to its usual buzzes, its beeping.

 

To Francis’ own surprise, he was suddenly filled with a deeply felt, almost painful yearning for the old, somewhat tawdry Atlantic City: the Steel Pier--where the fifth grade had gone for a class trip and a gang of toughs had swooped down and stolen a dollar right out of his hand—Nathan’s Hot Dogs, the Frontenac Hotel, the long-shuttered burlesque hall, and even those annoying bicycle surreys that leisurely transported tourists up and down the boardwalk. All of these were gone, including the requisite contingent of rough-featured, slightly unkempt old men in uncomfortable-looking polyester slacks, puffing away on large, odiferous cigars. There had always been an unofficial quota of these old men and their odiferous cigars, who were positioned strategically at regular intervals up and down the boardwalk. It was as if the equilibrium of Atlantic City depended on these old men. Where had they gone?
 
 
© Richard Klin 2017
 
Atlantic City is an excerpt from the novel Petroleum Transfer Engineer, to be published in 2018 by Underground Voices.

 

It was Francis’ sense of boredom that was the catalyst for an early-afternoon jaunt into nearby Atlantic City. Traffic, even at this hour, was still thicker than he’d remembered in the past. And then Atlantic City loomed ahead, the new casinos poking up against the familiar skyline.

 

It was much easier, of course, to find a parking spot during the day, less of an effort to avoid the expensive commercial parking lots. Many of these lots now offered reimbursement in conjunction with the casinos. This was intended as an inducement, but to Francis the process seemed entirely too laborious, forcing one to trek deep into the bowels of the casino, parking stub in hand, locating the redemption center, and waiting in a long, annoying line for a parking-validation stamp, and then--whenever it was you exited the casino--presenting it to the parking-lot attendant.

 

He parked a few blocks away and was solicited for money by an overly friendly man who seemed a little drunk.

 

The casinos were soulless and imposing. They led to a slight air of confusion. The Frontenac Hotel, for example, had been such an integral part of Atlantic City, yet now—with all the new casinos and Atlantic City’s broad transformation—he was unable to ascertain exactly where it had once stood. The Frontenac was a decrepit jewel, a once-grand hotel with pillars and elaborate turrets; an abundance of ornate, complicated architectural geegaws--this odd combination of stateliness and vulgarity. Back when he and his sister were little, they had all ventured into the Frontenac for the sake of sheer curiosity. The memory of the shocking decrepitude was still vivid: The faded, almost ratty carpeting, the chipped staircase, the floors badly in need of scrubbing. The Frontenac had eventually been demolished. Now, with all these changes to Atlantic City, he could no longer place its specific locale.

 

Francis ascended the boardwalk, bound for nowhere in particular. There was nowhere he needed to be, nobody to meet.

 

Quite arbitrarily, he meandered into the lobby of the Goldmine Casino. A gigantic cage stretched from floor to ceiling, packed with mechanical, colorful birds in garish plumages of yellows, reds, purples. These birds, Francis recalled, had become something of a celebrated thing. Every few minutes they came to life, singing songs and telling jokes, and right on cue flashing red and yellow lights emanated from the cage, punctuated by a loud, brassy fanfare of prerecorded music. Feeling somewhat foolish, he gravitated toward the cage. The music swelled to a crescendo and now the ersatz birds began singing. With surprising rapidity, a crowd had materialized around the cage and now Francis found himself amid a large group of gamblers and tourists.

 

Each bird took a brief turn. A yellow parrot, straw hat perched at a jaunty angle, commenced with a Jimmy Durante routine. The next bird—a pink and purple figure of uncertain lineage—sounded like Elvis; the one after, Francis realized, was Wayne Newton. The crowd reveled in this, the birds’ song and patter, laughing uproariously, even applauding. A drunk and warbling Dean Martin was followed by a green bird that departed from the strictly musical format, executing a Johnny Carson imitation that Francis had to admit was pitch-perfect. The crowd laughed anew. He moved on to the casino floor.

 

The interior of the Goldmine Casino was a realm all its own, row after row of slot machines bracing the floor, a steady current of beeps and buzzes, flashing lights, and he wandered through row after identical row, akin to an assembly line, nearly every slot machine commandeered by a grim, serious-looking gambler-- most of them older--unsmiling and somberly absorbed in their labors, feeding quarter after quarter into the machines: An endless stream of coinage. And with a whoosh and a clatter the slot machine would occasionally reward the gambler’s efforts by regurgitating some of the quarters, the players instinctively depositing their money back into the slot machines. Francis had heard that some of these fanatical slot enthusiasts—so convinced of their change at beating the odds and so unwilling to budge—had actually pissed their pants rather than relinquish their position.

 

The casino provided large plastic tubs—akin to popcorn containers at the movies—prominently emblazoned with the Goldmine’s puke-gold logo. These tubs were absolutely everywhere: piles and piles of them on the slot machines, stacked up against the walls, by the bathrooms. Wherever you were, you could scoop up your winnings at a moment’s notice.

 

He was seized by the spirit of adventure and looked around for a two-dollar blackjack table. If he was finally going to attempt playing blackjack, a two-dollar minimum would most likely be his speed, but these two-dollar tables did not seem to be in evidence here at the Goldmine. He waded through the casino floor in search, now, of a five-dollar table, the hubbub of the crowd gradually increasing, and he eventually happened upon a cluster of five-dollar tables.

 

The dealer at the nearest table had departed. Amid much hullabaloo, a new dealer—a middle-aged woman—assumed the helm and said something that Francis was unable to ascertain. Yet it must have been funny, whatever it was this middle-aged woman had said: the card players, perched on their seats and hemmed in at the table, began to laugh. Little knots of people, scattered throughout the casino, seemed to be perpetually in the midst of hurried consultations: security guards, pit bosses, management types, other dealers. The provocatively attired waitresses weaved back and forth, trays laden down with exotic, complicated drinks. From somewhere across the casino floor he could hear the strains of excited shouts, cheering.

 

The blackjack table nearest to him was packed so full that Francis began to think his chance would never come, but suddenly an available seat opened up and with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation, he took his place, proffering a twenty-dollar bill to the pleasant dealer who had made everyone laugh and receiving his puny little stake of four chips.

 

There were no clocks at the Goldmine Casino, no windows; no delineation between night and day. The dealer, with astonishing rapidity, dealt everyone their allotted cards. A dull-looking man in a suit, reeking of metallic-smelling aftershave, was wedged into Francis’s right; a heavy-set, dour-looking older woman was seated to his left.  From time to time he’d heard discussions of blackjack strategy: when to stay, when not to stay; the house’s advantage, doubling down. None of it made even a little sense, but sitting here now he wished he’d paid a modicum of attention. He tried hard to make it look as if he knew what he was doing, affecting a blasé mien as he—per custom--tapped the dark-purple tablecloth to indicate his desire for another card, or authoritatively sliced the air with his right hand to indicate that no further cards were required.

 

Another cheer could be heard from the far reaches of the Goldmine. Craps, he guessed. Craps—the little he knew about it--was interactive, the crowd often given to vociferously voicing its feelings. To his mild disgust, his arm brushed against the fat arm of the older woman sitting next to him. And then faster than he thought possible, he lost four bets in a row and his twenty dollars was gone. Now he was forced, feeling vaguely foolish, to vacate his seat. He tried not to consider what those twenty dollars could have purchased.

 

Uncertain as what to do next, he ambled his way over to the dark casino lounge, sinking into one of the plush seats. The lounge, at this time of day, was almost entirely deserted, save for a much older, immaculately attired man with a roguish moustache who was sitting up front at the bar, garbed in a blue suit with cufflinks that glistened to such an extent that Francis could make them out from where he was sitting. The old man was nursing an elaborate drink. Francis felt a pang of unease: What, exactly, was the protocol for ordering drinks in a casino lounge?

 

A smiling, saucily-attired waitress loomed over him, handing him a complicated drinks menu and a bowl of peanuts, which Francis--happy to come across something familiar in this foreign land of the casino lounge--began consuming immediately. The mammoth list of drinks seemed as complicated as blackjack strategy and he was suddenly, painfully aware of how easy it would be to look like an utter rube in front of this alluring, sophisticated waitress. Upon her return, he ordered a Rolling Rock, which seemed like a fail-safe option: Nobody laughed at beer. But when the cold bottle and tall, skinny glass were set before him, his enthusiasm faded quickly. A Rolling Rock was really the last thing he wanted now.

 

He took some obligatory swallows and consumed most of the remaining peanuts, but the beer made him feel slightly sluggish. The older man at the bar, he noticed now, had been joined by a very tanned younger woman in fancy garb, the sort of woman who would be in attendance at a sophisticated party with soft music, hors d’oeuvres, and cocktails. It appeared introductions were being offered, the woman smiling, both she and the old man shaking hands. Francis turned his attention back to his beer. The waitress instinctively refilled the peanut bowl. When he glanced back at the bar, the old man and woman were toasting each other.

 

With some sort of nagging sense of obligation, he finished most of the beer and then asked for the check, which was promptly offered and predictably exorbitant. The waitress, done with him, offered only the most perfunctory of good-byes. It had begun to dawn on him what was transpiring up at the bar. The old man and younger woman departed.

 

Back out on the casino floor, Francis was startled by the appearance of a scruffy, bearded oddball in threadbare clothes. And then he was startled all the more as a phalanx of four beefy security guards materialized out of nowhere, converging on this man in a perfectly executed formation and—as one—actually lifting him into the air like a human battering ram and charging through a side exit. All of this, incredibly, had transpired in almost complete silence and within a minute there was no evidence whatsoever that this had even taken place at all, the casino going back to its usual buzzes, its beeping.

 

To Francis’ own surprise, he was suddenly filled with a deeply felt, almost painful yearning for the old, somewhat tawdry Atlantic City: the Steel Pier--where the fifth grade had gone for a class trip and a gang of toughs had swooped down and stolen a dollar right out of his hand—Nathan’s Hot Dogs, the Frontenac Hotel, the long-shuttered burlesque hall, and even those annoying bicycle surreys that leisurely transported tourists up and down the boardwalk. All of these were gone, including the requisite contingent of rough-featured, slightly unkempt old men in uncomfortable-looking polyester slacks, puffing away on large, odiferous cigars. There had always been an unofficial quota of these old men and their odiferous cigars, who were positioned strategically at regular intervals up and down the boardwalk. It was as if the equilibrium of Atlantic City depended on these old men. Where had they gone?
 
 
© Richard Klin 2017
 
Atlantic City is an excerpt from the novel Petroleum Transfer Engineer, to be published in 2018 by Underground Voices.

 

Narrated by Richard Klin.

POST RECITAL

Talk Icon

TALK

BR: Welcome, Rich. Thanks for visiting the Palace of Materialized Dreams. That’s Tom’s name for his studio.
 
RK: Well thank you for having me and I feel my dreams materializing as we speak, actually.
 
TN: This story is an excerpt from your new novel, Petroleum Transfer Engineer. When is the book coming out?
 
RK: It's coming out in March of 2018 via Underground Voices, which is an L.A. based publishing house.
 
TN: Petroleum Transfer Engineer… hmm… could that be a euphemism for a gas station attendant?
 
RK: Oh my God you just ruined the entire ending now.
 
TN: I'm sorry.
 
RK: No, just kidding of course. Yes it's a euphemism. The protagonist, Francis, is a college student whose life has gone on the skids and finds himself working at this gas station and I thought that would be something he would think of himself. A sort of clever, seemingly clever, phrase that “I'm a petroleum transfer engineer now.” It doesn't actually appear in the book but it felt like a motif, on some level.
 
BR: And apparently he visits Atlantic City at some point.
 
RK: He visits Atlantic City. He visits the new casino-incarnation of Atlantic City. Boredom drives him there and it accentuates how odd and out of kilter his life is.
 
BR: Well I’ve only been to Atlantic City a couple of times, over twenty years ago. Have you spent a lot of time there?
 
RK: I grew up right outside Atlantic City, south Jersey, about twenty minutes away. Even though I have to stress that the Atlantic City, and the south Jersey in this novel – they're fictional constructs. I wasn't trying for an authentic recreation, but yeah, Atlantic City was always there. It was vaguely foreign, not that appealing to a teen and a pre-teen but certainly I was aware of Atlantic City and actually spent a six month stint working in a Record World, right on the Atlantic City boardwalk, where I waited on Jerry Vale actually, and David Copperfield and other notables.
 
BR: Wow.... I loved Atlantic City the movie, 1980, old Burt Lancaster, young Susan Sarandon. The crime and dilapidation in contrast with those new casinos. It was like sleaze versus dignity, youth versus age. And did I mention Susan Sarandon?
 
RK: No you didn't mention Susan Sarandon. You didn't mention Robert Goulet either, who has a little a..... I don't know if you remember that... I think...
 
BR: No I don't.
 
RK: Yeah, it's very unforgettable. You were blinded by Susan Sarandon I think.
 
BR: Yes I was, yeah.
 
RK: It's a very accurate vibe, that movie, that does show the old Atlantic City and the new Atlantic City. And there was a sort of Coney Island vibe to Atlantic City and then... you sort of see that in the book too, that I put in the contingent of old men. I mean there was a part that always felt like Uncle Charlie from My Three Sons, like he would vacation in Atlantic City it felt like, and that movie - the Louis Malle film really... it's very, very accurate.
 
BR: Yeah. Well it's a strange milieu. I’ve driven through southern Nevada a number of times in the wee hours of the night and I was amazed at the threadbare old people planted in front of slot machines, sad roadside diners and rundown gas stations out in the desert. So is this desolation uniquely American? Eternal hope in the land of the hopeless. Is it part of what defines us, do you think?
 
RK: I think it's exactly American. I think there really is something really, intrinsically American about this get-rich-quick idea, about instant fame. I think that there's something very typical of this country. People waiting for that million dollars, people desperate to become famous. It's unfortunately an American trait I think. I think that's exactly the case.
 
BR: Speaking of other casinos, I’ve also driven the Mississippi Gulf Coast a lot of times -- Biloxi, Gulfport. They have these big casinos along the beach there. Last time I was in one of them I really noticed the care that had apparently gone into the weird combinations of patterns and colors, on the carpet and the walls and like you said Rich, no windows, no fresh air, muzak, vibrating patterns everywhere, hypnotic. It’s not just bad taste. It’s really well-designed disorientation. You’re separated from everyday reality in there; you can easily forget your real life, your responsibilities, how much money you actually have. It’s a dream world in there.
 
RK: Yeah I think it's sort of a dystopian dreamworld. I think the set-up, as you mentioned, it's very deliberate and it's hermetically sealed and there's no sense... there are no clocks. There's no sense... you're abandoning your responsibilities by sitting there for hours and hours. And you don't really deal in money you deal in chips, and one can forget very quickly that this is money and I think it's all very... you know, it's a deliberate construction to get you to spend all your money pretty much.
 
BR: Yeah, yeah.
 
TN: Anyway, back to the story… there’s nothing in it that’s very out of the ordinary for a night in a boardwalk casino. So why do you suppose we selected it for The Strange Recital?
 
RK: I'm grateful that I think you picked up on the vibe. I wanted an undercurrent of “everything's out of kilter.” Francis even feels out of kilter about feeling out of kilter. Something is amiss. Nothing's radically amiss but it's constantly amiss on a small level. Every interchange doesn't quite follow for him and I think that's the vibe I was trying to send out and I imagine that's what you picked up on.
 
TN: The story’s closing image of the old men and their cigars, and the question, where have they gone? They symbolize change, the passing of generations. Does it seem like Atlantic City is always dying? And maybe always being reborn?
 
RK: You know I think the oddness is that it wasn't reborn, it was totally.... It's sort of like this grand rebranding in a way. It seemed like there was no transition. It went from, you know, a place where Uncle Charlie could vacation to the casinos. It's entirely different. The old Atlantic City was obliterated. In essence, what we're all too polite to say is that casinos are there to rook you out of your money. I think that it went from being low-level tawdry to more spic and span scummy in a way... you know. Instead of old men going off to the racetrack there was a sort of more plastic, more organized casino – casino culture rather. I think it was an obliteration. Suddenly everything changed. The Nathan's hot dogs went away and the various casinos came in. I don't know if that's a rebirth. It's a sort of rebirth but it's awful in a way, I think.
 
BR: “Everything dies baby that's a fact, and maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” Thank you, Mr. Springsteen.
 
RK: Should I confess that I'm not crazy about Springsteen? It's sort of a horrible admission. In the interest of honesty I certainly think he's a wonderful person but you know as a south Jerseyite  I never quite, never quite got the Boss, you know?
 
BR: Well there's no accounting for taste, as they say.
 
RK: No there isn't.
 
TN: Are you a gambler? Should we shoot some craps before we go?
 
RK: You know I really wish I was a gambler. I've wanted to construct that hard-bitten literary persona of shooting craps, drinking black coffee, smoking – but no, no. I'm a non-gambler. I have my coffee with milk and sugar. You know I think Hemingway would slap my face if he was still alive. No, if you'd like to shoot craps I'm happy to watch and even cheer but no, I do not shoot craps.
 
BR: I'm a non-gambler but I'd like to try it.
 
TN: Look...Come on. Listen, listen. I'll make some black coffee, we can smoke cigarettes and come on let's shoot some craps. Finish up.
 
RK: Okay, these are my realized dreams now. I think you're right actually, you know. Yep, I'm ready.
 
BR: Okay I think we have to start with, like “place your bets gentlemen” or something like that.
 
TN: Faites vos jeux.
 
RK: I'm ready.
 
BR:  Okay, okay. Here we go, here we go, come on 7 or 11, gimme a pass!
 
Sounds of rolling dice, laughter.

BR: Welcome, Rich. Thanks for visiting the Palace of Materialized Dreams. That’s Tom’s name for his studio.
 
RK: Well thank you for having me and I feel my dreams materializing as we speak, actually.
 
TN: This story is an excerpt from your new novel, Petroleum Transfer Engineer. When is the book coming out?
 
RK: It's coming out in March of 2018 via Underground Voices, which is an L.A. based publishing house.
 
TN: Petroleum Transfer Engineer… hmm… could that be a euphemism for a gas station attendant?
 
RK: Oh my God you just ruined the entire ending now.
 
TN: I'm sorry.
 
RK: No, just kidding of course. Yes it's a euphemism. The protagonist, Francis, is a college student whose life has gone on the skids and finds himself working at this gas station and I thought that would be something he would think of himself. A sort of clever, seemingly clever, phrase that “I'm a petroleum transfer engineer now.” It doesn't actually appear in the book but it felt like a motif, on some level.
 
BR: And apparently he visits Atlantic City at some point.
 
RK: He visits Atlantic City. He visits the new casino-incarnation of Atlantic City. Boredom drives him there and it accentuates how odd and out of kilter his life is.
 
BR: Well I’ve only been to Atlantic City a couple of times, over twenty years ago. Have you spent a lot of time there?
 
RK: I grew up right outside Atlantic City, south Jersey, about twenty minutes away. Even though I have to stress that the Atlantic City, and the south Jersey in this novel – they're fictional constructs. I wasn't trying for an authentic recreation, but yeah, Atlantic City was always there. It was vaguely foreign, not that appealing to a teen and a pre-teen but certainly I was aware of Atlantic City and actually spent a six month stint working in a Record World, right on the Atlantic City boardwalk, where I waited on Jerry Vale actually, and David Copperfield and other notables.
 
BR: Wow.... I loved Atlantic City the movie, 1980, old Burt Lancaster, young Susan Sarandon. The crime and dilapidation in contrast with those new casinos. It was like sleaze versus dignity, youth versus age. And did I mention Susan Sarandon?
 
RK: No you didn't mention Susan Sarandon. You didn't mention Robert Goulet either, who has a little a..... I don't know if you remember that... I think...
 
BR: No I don't.
 
RK: Yeah, it's very unforgettable. You were blinded by Susan Sarandon I think.
 
BR: Yes I was, yeah.
 
RK: It's a very accurate vibe, that movie, that does show the old Atlantic City and the new Atlantic City. And there was a sort of Coney Island vibe to Atlantic City and then... you sort of see that in the book too, that I put in the contingent of old men. I mean there was a part that always felt like Uncle Charlie from My Three Sons, like he would vacation in Atlantic City it felt like, and that movie - the Louis Malle film really... it's very, very accurate.
 
BR: Yeah. Well it's a strange milieu. I’ve driven through southern Nevada a number of times in the wee hours of the night and I was amazed at the threadbare old people planted in front of slot machines, sad roadside diners and rundown gas stations out in the desert. So is this desolation uniquely American? Eternal hope in the land of the hopeless. Is it part of what defines us, do you think?
 
RK: I think it's exactly American. I think there really is something really, intrinsically American about this get-rich-quick idea, about instant fame. I think that there's something very typical of this country. People waiting for that million dollars, people desperate to become famous. It's unfortunately an American trait I think. I think that's exactly the case.
 
BR: Speaking of other casinos, I’ve also driven the Mississippi Gulf Coast a lot of times -- Biloxi, Gulfport. They have these big casinos along the beach there. Last time I was in one of them I really noticed the care that had apparently gone into the weird combinations of patterns and colors, on the carpet and the walls and like you said Rich, no windows, no fresh air, muzak, vibrating patterns everywhere, hypnotic. It’s not just bad taste. It’s really well-designed disorientation. You’re separated from everyday reality in there; you can easily forget your real life, your responsibilities, how much money you actually have. It’s a dream world in there.
 
RK: Yeah I think it's sort of a dystopian dreamworld. I think the set-up, as you mentioned, it's very deliberate and it's hermetically sealed and there's no sense... there are no clocks. There's no sense... you're abandoning your responsibilities by sitting there for hours and hours. And you don't really deal in money you deal in chips, and one can forget very quickly that this is money and I think it's all very... you know, it's a deliberate construction to get you to spend all your money pretty much.
 
BR: Yeah, yeah.
 
TN: Anyway, back to the story… there’s nothing in it that’s very out of the ordinary for a night in a boardwalk casino. So why do you suppose we selected it for The Strange Recital?
 
RK: I'm grateful that I think you picked up on the vibe. I wanted an undercurrent of “everything's out of kilter.” Francis even feels out of kilter about feeling out of kilter. Something is amiss. Nothing's radically amiss but it's constantly amiss on a small level. Every interchange doesn't quite follow for him and I think that's the vibe I was trying to send out and I imagine that's what you picked up on.
 
TN: The story’s closing image of the old men and their cigars, and the question, where have they gone? They symbolize change, the passing of generations. Does it seem like Atlantic City is always dying? And maybe always being reborn?
 
RK: You know I think the oddness is that it wasn't reborn, it was totally.... It's sort of like this grand rebranding in a way. It seemed like there was no transition. It went from, you know, a place where Uncle Charlie could vacation to the casinos. It's entirely different. The old Atlantic City was obliterated. In essence, what we're all too polite to say is that casinos are there to rook you out of your money. I think that it went from being low-level tawdry to more spic and span scummy in a way... you know. Instead of old men going off to the racetrack there was a sort of more plastic, more organized casino – casino culture rather. I think it was an obliteration. Suddenly everything changed. The Nathan's hot dogs went away and the various casinos came in. I don't know if that's a rebirth. It's a sort of rebirth but it's awful in a way, I think.
 
BR: “Everything dies baby that's a fact, and maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” Thank you, Mr. Springsteen.
 
RK: Should I confess that I'm not crazy about Springsteen? It's sort of a horrible admission. In the interest of honesty I certainly think he's a wonderful person but you know as a south Jerseyite  I never quite, never quite got the Boss, you know?
 
BR: Well there's no accounting for taste, as they say.
 
RK: No there isn't.
 
TN: Are you a gambler? Should we shoot some craps before we go?
 
RK: You know I really wish I was a gambler. I've wanted to construct that hard-bitten literary persona of shooting craps, drinking black coffee, smoking – but no, no. I'm a non-gambler. I have my coffee with milk and sugar. You know I think Hemingway would slap my face if he was still alive. No, if you'd like to shoot craps I'm happy to watch and even cheer but no, I do not shoot craps.
 
BR: I'm a non-gambler but I'd like to try it.
 
TN: Look...Come on. Listen, listen. I'll make some black coffee, we can smoke cigarettes and come on let's shoot some craps. Finish up.
 
RK: Okay, these are my realized dreams now. I think you're right actually, you know. Yep, I'm ready.
 
BR: Okay I think we have to start with, like “place your bets gentlemen” or something like that.
 
TN: Faites vos jeux.
 
RK: I'm ready.
 
BR:  Okay, okay. Here we go, here we go, come on 7 or 11, gimme a pass!
 
Sounds of rolling dice, laughter.

Music on this episode:

Gadu Vade Reprise for Lovers by Studio Stu from his album Fools in Love.

Used by permission of the artist,

THE STRANGE RECITAL

Episode 17121

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