The Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort is officially closed, but the slot machines are still blinking inside. They spin and whir insolently, kind of the way my laptop takes its sweet time powering down after I’ve slammed the lid shut.
I don’t know what you call this stage in the life cycle of a defunct megaresort–a liminal phase maybe–but this is the way a casino dies, apparently, in the small hours of an unseasonably cold Monday morning in early October. The Taj, the alleged Eighth Wonder of the World, and one of the many saviors of Atlantic City foretold by the prophets, passed into oblivion at age 26.
It had been in poor health for some time.
When the Taj opened in April 1990 with its actual white elephants out front, Donald Trump himself led the festivities, with personal guest Michael Jackson at his side and Robin Leach narrating. Experts tabulated the acreage of marble leading the way to the Alexander the Great suite and the length of fiber optic cable needed to keep the place lit. But Sunday night Trump was in St. Louis, representing the institution formerly known as the Republican party. A few meager ghosts stalked the slot machine rows, and the restaurants were all closed. The only celebrity here was Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog from Conan O’Brien’s late-night show.
On Pacific Avenue and on the boardwalk in front of the Taj, workers from Local 54 commiserated and tried to stay out of the wind. They’d been on strike for 102 days. They started in July when it was hot. Now it was October and they were bundled in their red hooded sweatshirts against the cold. Some exchanged hugs. Some of them were crying. Nearly all of them were losing their jobs.
A woman, a baker from El Salvador, was walking by herself in the little loop the union had set up in front of the boardwalk entrance. She’d worked at the Taj since it opened. She had no idea what she was going to do with herself tomorrow. Maybe go back to school, she said.
In front of one casino entrance, a flat-screen TV broadcast the Clinton-Trump debate to the cold and mostly empty boardwalk. The Conan people had set it up as a gimmick. Beside it was a table filled with kitschy artifacts–a stuffed peacock, a bullhorn, various gauche urns, a portrait of Vladimir Putin–that Triumph joked had been smuggled out of the Taj in a body bag, “business as usual” for Atlantic City. Pedestrians would wander past and Triumph would recruit them into his comedy bits. A few times he pulled in striking workers. Earlier in the day, Robert Smigel, who created and voices the Insult Comic Dog, assured the picketers that he was there in solidarity, but this didn’t exactly feel like Johnny Cash at San Quentin. Some of the Local 54 people seemed unimpressed.
Among the union faithful there’s some hope the Taj will reopen, maybe next spring when the weather turns. A piece of legislation is moving through the state house that would effectively penalize a casino owner who closes a property in the middle of a labor dispute and prevent the owner from “warehousing” the casino license. It is aimed at Carl Icahn. The rest of the casino industry does not seem opposed. This is cause for some optimism.
The boardwalk of Atlantic City can be a sublimely depressing place even when 2,800 people aren’t being put out of work by a vindictive billionaire, but there’s still a real freak energy about town, so if you see a man strolling the boards in an Elvis costume, you may not immediately connect him with the TV show that is filming out front. It turned out the guy I thought was an Elvis impersonator was really a Neil Diamond impersonator, and he was there to film with Team Coco. The man in the suit, whom I mistook for his manager, was a Roger Ailes.
How does one get to be a Roger Ailes impersonator?
Your agent calls you after the Fox News Chairman gets done for sexual harassment and starts advising the Republican nominee.
Candidate Trump is the gift that keeps on giving.
Neil and Roger and me stood on the boardwalk and chatted for a while about Atlantic City’s problems, as you do. They each had thoughts on what’s wrong. Everyone does. I couldn’t believe Neil wasn’t freezing hits nuts off, as the job required he have so much chest hair on display.
Neil and Mr. Ailes were super nice and weren’t condescending about Atlantic City at all. Neil couldn’t believe how much they’d tried to charge him to stay at a casino. Maybe that was Atlantic City’s problem. They want to keep the rooms for the problem gamblers, so they’re priced for vacancy.
Neil Diamond had been to Asbury Park recently. I have not. But we agreed Asbury Park with a few billion dollars a year in casino revenue sounded like a winning formula. Maybe Atlantic City would go in that direction.
Because this is the Atlantic City boardwalk, there are 24-hour party people who solicited us. I was standing with two union guys when one man, visibly inebriated, approached to ask if anyone had a cigarette.
The union guy was smoking a cigarette.
“Nope. Sorry, man,” he said.
But I’m looking at you. Smoking a cigarette. Right now, the drunk guy seemed to say.
“I have three cigarettes left, and I’m going to be here all night. Sorry.”
But just then the drunk man looked up and noticed a police car a block down the boardwalk and announced he would go down there and ask the cop if he had a cigarette.
“That guy’s been arrested like four times this summer,” the union guy said, after he’d walked off. One time he did a barrel roll over the fence into the al fresco dining area in front of the Hard Rock Cafe, while actual diners were dining al fresco.
A few minutes later he came back and asked one of the union guys if he could have a pull off the cigarette he was at that time smoking.
Because it’s my last one and I’m trying to enjoy it.
That’s alright. I’m just trying to be funny.
It ain’t funny. I just lost my fucking job. There’s nothing funny about it.
A few hours later, the sun came up and hit the Taj Mahal facade. “For 102 days we held the line against Wall Street’s attack on the American worker,” the union said on its website.
“We held the line.”