28/04/2013 by Don Quijones
A Personal Account by Marcus Peyrera.
It’s still cold but I’m not complaining. I’ve had more arduous journeys to a casino before. I lived in Ann Arbor a few years ago, a university city in Michigan State, and my wife was traveling while I — once again — was bored and idle. Approxmately 40 kilometres away, across the border with Canada, was the city of Windsor, jam packed full of casinos.
I reached the border by night. But with my visa expired my only hope was that, by faking an accent, they might treat me like a US citizen and not ask for documentation. It didn’t work. They asked for my passport, they made me go to an office and amiably explained to me that my visa had expired. I tried to agree as calmly as possible, but in the distance the casinos were calling me — I could see the lights through the office’s window — and I eventually lost my patience.
“OK,” I said. “I don’t have a visa but I’m going to the casino and I’ll be back in a while. Let me through.”
“Oh, so you already knew your visa had expired?”
“Of course, I’m not an idiot.”
Everything changed. The official pressed some button and in a flash two policemen appeared and handcuffed me. Then they escorted me to my car, where they removed the handcuffs as a group of other policemen looked on with the hands glued to the weapons on their waists. I made the journey to Detroit — the closest US city — by myself in my car, but followed by two police cars in my rearview mirror.
Because of stuff like that, the fifty steps that separate me now from Ceasar’s Casino aren’t that bad — despite the cold. Ten minutes later I’m sitting down at another blackjack table. Here there’s only a black woman called Ann. I think that this could be a new beginning, until fifteen minutes later Tom and Eileen show up. Of all the twenty casinos in Atlantic City, of the twelve that are on the boardwalk and the innumerable blackjack tables in the city, Tom and Eileen decided to come and play here. They are euphoric. They shout instead of talk to the two croupiers (Jerry and Dan) and drink and party all the time.
Ann is still to my right, and doesn’t stop smoking my cigarettes while she asks the table manager how long it will be before hers arrive. Apparently her prize for playing is tobacco, and she needs it now.
“You told me that the cigarettes would be here in fifteen minutes and that was more than an hour ago. Where are my cigarettes?” Ann asks the supervisor.
The employee leaves without saying anything. Ann plays hands that are worth fifty dollars and the cigarettes are worth eight. I want to shout at her to buy her own fucking cigarettes instead of smoking mine and to stop talking about cigarettes and above all to stop asking for more cards like an idiot: I’m losing money, more than I had accounted for. But when I’m about to explode, the inopportune moment arrives. On the table, Eileen – Tom’s girlfriend – doubles the bet and needs a figure to beat the bank (and so that eventually we can all win). The figures are the 10s, 11s and 12s and you can refer to them as a “Monkey”.
“Shout Monkey,” Ann, a black woman, says to Eileen.
“I’m not going to do that!” replies Eileen, who would rather lose than be called a racist.
We all stop to see what Eileen will do.
“Come on girl. All the Asians say that and they always win,” insists Ann, but Eilieen is fighting within her own mind and steadfastly refuses. I’ve got quite a lot of money on the table and feel that this discussion is sucking me dry.
“Go on, just say Monkey!” I say.
Eileen looks at me a little startled and whispers:
The croupier gives her a king of clubs and in passing a twenty-one to Ann, who also wins.
“Happiness for everybody!! They’ll hear me every time I win!! Not when I lose, but I want them to know about it when I win,” shouts Ann and everybody shouts some more. Everybody except me because I go bust and lose the hand.
I’m in a rotten mood. It’ll be for the best if I leave while I still have money and cigarettes, so I get up. They all protest, especially Eileen and Tom. They think we’re something like blood brothers because we shared two blackjack tables. If I’d drunk as much as they had maybe I’d feel the same.
I leave Cesar’s as best I can and return to the Trump. I pass by reception and consider going up to the room for a while. I’ve been playing for seven hours and maybe some rest would be a good idea. Besides I’m not exactly on a hot streak. But I think of the word “streak” and in doing so start laughing at myself: there’s no way I can rest, especially when I’m losing.
I enter the hall of the TrumpTajPlaza and sit down to start playing again. I choose the table the same way I choose my cards: badly. To my right there is a drunk and irritating Colombian.
“Che boludo, you’re Argentinian, boludo? Great! Boludo.”
I smile the first time. By the fifth time I want to hit him. Luckily he’s not got many chips left. He loses in half an hour and leaves, the word “boludo” following behind him.
The cards immediately start improving, as does my mood. I don’t know what time it is. I’ve got a lot of chips. The chips are the casino’s best invention, and the reason why people stay and play instead of running away from dumps like this. Why do they use chips instead of money? Casinos have various explanations, and over the years I’ve heard them all: they’re more hygienic than paper, they don’t break and they’re difficult to forge because they have a chip inside (I don’t believe that’s true).
Of all the reasons though, the most obvious one is the one they never mention; they are useless for everything else except gambling. And any gambler with chips in their hand quickly forgets that they are playing with real money.
The atmosphere round the table has improved. Now that I’m winning, everything becomes agreeable. I have Petrona Gutierrez to my side (a Philippine lady who, despite her name, doesn’t speak a word of Spanish) and also Angelina, a young, fat girl with a nice face, accompanied by a friend that keeps pestering her for money.
“Come on Angie, give me something to double up. I’ll win and then I’ll give it back,” is the phrase that’s repeated every two or three hands.
Angelina gives him everything she wins and in the meantime explains that she had to leave her house because of the hurricane. The house was only partially destroyed, but as far as the government is concerned that’s enough. The demolition was planned for this month and now Angelina is living with her aunt and uncle.
“I shouldn’t stress about it, you know,” says Angelina pointing to her stomach. She’s six and a half months pregnant, saying the number “six and a half” between mouthfuls of cigarette smoke.”
I look at her.
“I’ll quit smoking when she’s born,” she says and puts her cards on the table.
The croupier is a Colombian called Luis and isn’t particularly lucky. Which, of course, means that we are! Petrona, Angelina, Angelina’s friend and I begin to nonchalantly win, while we talk about life, drink and whatever else we fancy. It feels like being on a beach at sunset. I start getting comfortable and decide to bet heavily, and that’s when a drunk guy called Evan appears on the scene and spills a glass of something orange and sticky on the table. He wets the whole deck. The croupier reacts quickly with some kleenex and mops everything up in seconds, but the cards are ruined.
“We can’t carry on here. This table is closed,” says the croupier.
Petrona has a thunderous look on her face.
“You’re not closing anything, goddamnit! Always the same thing happens when I’m winning! This is all a scam, a scam! Get another deck of cards and we carry on playing.”
“I’m sorry, there aren’t any more cards.”
What follows is pure indignation and chaos. Everybody – except the drunkard – complains energetically, even though deep down I know that I’m exhausted anyway. I’m tired: it was too many hours for me.
Petrona, on the other hand, is older than I am – she’s over sixty – and still displays a fierce will to fight her corner despite having been awake all night. Shouting, she explains to the casino staff that she had let a bus back home leave, so that she could play and if they don’t open the table she’ll have stayed for nothing and she’s on the verge of breaking down and she wants a rest but she doesn’t have a room in the hotel because she was going to gamble all night.
Petrona is a force of nature that anybody with any sense would want to avoid. Anybody, that is, except the casino: we all know that Petrona could walk a few metres and go to another gambling den with dry cards, but Petrona knows that no casino likes to lose customers. Before I’ve finished my cigarette, Petrona has keys to a complimentary room in her hand, on the house, but she still doesn’t leave the table. Nobody does.
Angelina surveys the scene with a bored expression while whistling drowsily what sounds like the song “Under the Boardwalk”. When the sun goes down / and the evening falls at last / I want to forget the moments / I spent under the boardwalk (?????). I look at her, surprised.
“The Drifters,” she says. “Have you heard the Springsteen version?”
To be honest I thought it was by Gabriel Carámbula.
“I didn’t know Springsteen had recorded that song,” I say.
Angelina takes out her phone, goes onto YouTube and under the search “Hurricane Sandy, coming together” appear Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and Steven Tyler singing “Under the Boardwalk”. Fixing the boardwalk, I’ll know afterwards, cost more than fifty million dollars. And the musicians raised most of that money at a concert. It’s a beautiful song and even though we’re not playing, for a moment we’re having a good time. Even Angelina’s friend stops asking her for cash.
“There are cats under the boardwalk,” says Petrona. “Hundreds of them. The cats of Atlantic City are really famous. People were worried because they left with Hurricane Sandy, but now they’ve come back and there are volunteers here from all over the country who come to look after them. People don’t have homes, but they look after the cats.”
Translated by Son of Seitan
The English version of “Blackjack in Atlantic City” will be published in four sections. The forth and final instalment will be posted on Thursday 2nd May.
Marcos Peyrera is a lawyer and writer. His novel Te sigo, published by Libros del Zorzal in 2012, was highly acclaimed by critics.
His article Blackjack in Atlantic City was featured in the 12th issue of Orsai magazine. To see more articles, illustrations or comic strips from Orsai (in Spanish), click here.