Yesterday morning, seemingly days ago, I took the bus from Port Authority down to Atlantic City. Riding through the meadowlands of New Jersey right outside New York, I felt an immense sense of comfort, these same sights seen on numerous rides into and out of this city over the past decades, there not being much to the landscape but these various hulking relics of industry dotting the tan reeds of the meadowlands, streaks of overpasses painted over the scene, rusty bridges soaring across space, roads crossing, diverging, and merging, the chimneys every couple hundred yards apart puffing out steady streams of white air, speech balloons never filled in and trailing off into the atmosphere, thoughts never properly articulated, long umms fading into silence. There are the stacks and stacks of shipping containers, old rail tracks running alongside them. There are those three huge red poles growing from the marsh, transmitting something unknown, that the interstate loops around, a beautiful piece of sculpture that awes me anytime I take a ride out of New York City, their scale dwarfing the reeds at their base and yet a sense of proportion in their symmetry, a feeling that there is some order, some sense to the way the world works, in their equal spacing.
I didn't sleep much on the way down. I had taken some Zyrtec-D, had had a coffee, and despite being tired, felt very much awake. I read from George Saunders' new story collection, watched the landscape out the window, and watched Taylor sleep in the seat next to me.
The bus pulled into Bally's. We collected our slot credit voucher the casino gives you for riding the bus, and quickly blew through the voucher on the slot machines there, did so while enjoying the free cocktails that the city lubes you up with in order to make taking your money that much easier. I was already feeling the rush, the thrill, to be had from playing with money, this thing that we hold in such high esteem, to be frivolous with a revered idol, to play with luck, fate, and hope, and to be alternately made ecstatic, high almost, by the actualization of those aspirations, by winning some money here or there, and then also, always this part, to be disappointed, to fail, to stumble hard, and lose, and lose some more as you think that you can turn things around, that you have something on your side, some power, some luckiness, and that things will turn around. They don't, of course. And it is an emotional roller coaster, the type of feelings that we associate with a job we want, with a project we are working on, with a relationship we find ourselves in - it is all of these things on fast forward. That arc of hope and disappointment that normally plays out over weeks, months, sometimes even years, you have happen to you in one booze-filled evening as you hit the ATM machine again and again, down free cocktail after free cocktail, and keep on placing that next bet, knowing that this is the one that is going to be the one that starts your winning streak.
There was some time spent swimming in a pool, time spent lying next to a pool drinking tropical drinks, reading silly magazines, and pretending I was actually in some tropical locale. This was the brief moment of calm. This was before the fever hit me, before the frenzied rush of emotions overtook me for the next several hours.
It started at some penny slot machines. I was playing the Wizard of Oz slot machines, drawn, gay man that I am, to Dorothy, her ruby red slippers, and just as equally, perhaps more so, drawn to the woman coveting her shoes, the Wicked Witch. I was drinking some vodka drink and I had hit the bonus round, amazingly called Flying Monkey Bonus Round - a name so absurd, so fun to both hear and say that a sort of delirium is conjured by its utterance - much to the same effect that the fictional Japanese show "Super Terrific Happy Hour" had on Seinfeld. Delirium, unfettered joy, came over me whenever I would get to the bonus round. I would clap with joy about Flying Monkey Bonus Round and watch delighted as monkeys and a Wicked Witch flew across my screen. My heart rate would match the quick beat of the soundtrack, marching music for a demented monkey army.
The fever really took hold though when I watched Taylor play roulette and had him explain it to me, a game I had never played before. I sat down, gave the dealer some cash to exchange for chips and gingerly tried my luck at this game. Within two rounds, I was absolutely hooked. I had that thrill that is the reason some people make that trip to the casinos every weekend. I never wanted to leave the table. It was hours before I did. Those several hours were a fog of delirium. I was drinking whiskeys on the rocks and my stacks of chips got bigger and then a little smaller and then bigger and then smaller and I put in more money and then they got big again and then small again and then big. Ups and downs for hours, thrills with the dealer's every tossing of the white ball, waiting anxiously for it to to quit spinning and settle into the slot of a number, the dealer stretching her hand sorceress-like out over the board to signal no more bets, the casting of a spell over the board, a spell for luck.
We finally left the game, Taylor having lost too much, and myself walking away with only having lost about twenty dollars at this point. We went to the gay bar, Prohibition. It was piano night. We briefly talked to a Dolly Parton impersonator as we smoked on the balcony of the 13th Floor, looking down at the roof of the TaJ Mahal. We left piano night, ate some burgers, and again found ourselves scratching this itch, succumbing to the fever and ended up at another roulette table around one in the morning, playing with some Atlantic City characters and some terrible dealers. I was next to a woman who put chips on just about every number, telling me the significance of most of these numbers. Her nephew or grandson - I can't remember - had died twenty years ago on March 10th - "a good kid," she said. "Just in the wrong place at the wrong time." In remembrance of him, she would always put a chip on 10. The number came up quite often. There were other dates, birthdays, anniversaries of this or that, that she was betting on. The game a big game of hocus pocus, vague understandings of numerology as we put our chips on this or that number, my upcoming age because the next year is going to be a great year for me, a year of winning I tell myself. And my number did come up once, but just the once, and not enough to save me from losing quite a bit of money over the course of the night and the morning.
We finally dragged ourselves away from the table, went back to our hotel, slept, woke up, got each other off, gambled some more, lost more money, tried to invoke these spirits, to get into a groove with this board, with these numbers, to make life work in our favor, to manifest monetary winnings, yes, definitely that, but also, just as importantly, to feel in control for a brief bit, to think that things are perhaps not entirely chance, that there might be meaning and significance in these things, these events from our lives, birthdays, ages, dates when young good kids died.
We lost all of the money we had said we would bet this morning. Chance asserted itself, smacked us around a bit, emptied our pockets, and put us back on a bus to New York. On the ride back, I again noticed those three tall red utility poles on the side of the road, beautiful, syemmetrical, orderly.