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Atlantic City, baby
Two girls, a bunch of fighters, and Miss America
BY TANYA WHITON
I have this idea about gambling towns: since so much money is being dumped into creating facades, why not, when visiting, take the liberty of pretending to be somebody else? After a four-day weekend in Las Vegas, however, I buckled: Vegas was too huge, too hideous. Pretending to be somebody else there was like trying to get mistaken for a movie star in Hollywood. With my duct-taped suitcase full of Sinatra–moll duds, I was just another rube playing the nickel slots — when nothing is real, playacting is pointless. I couldn’t even get properly drunk, so overwhelmed was I by the jingling, clinking, blinking madness of the place. " Not for me, " I declared to all who’d listen.
Then my friend Heidi and I got offered free passes to the Ultimate Fighting Championship in Atlantic City (see " The Maine-iac, " Feb. 14). Atlantic City sounded quaint, old-timey, even, compared with Las Vegas. Vice Ville, as opposed to Sin City — a trip to a second-tier coliseum. Just a few hours from the heart of a waning empire at the start of yet another foolhardy conquest, we’d debauch like the rest of the Romans. Zooming along the Garden State Parkway in a caravan of SUVs with " Tap Out " stickers on their rear windows, we’d forget about the dizzying downward spiral of our democracy.
We’d also be giving my friend Joshua’s brother-in-law Ayr a ride. I was a little aggravated about carting Ayr, a longhaired radical, a complete stranger, down the eastern seaboard. I wanted to drive away from my conscience, not toward it, and I felt certain that — confronted with somebody who actually lives outside the capitalist system I routinely critique (while secretly coveting Gap clothing) — holes would appear in my carpe diem. This was a guy who’d lived outside for the better part of the last 16 years, who owned nothing but a mandolin, a sleeping bag, and a backpack’s worth of clothing. For two days in Atlantic City, I’d packed more than he possessed.
According to Ayr, everybody ought to get rabies shots before industrial collapse occurs. He leans forward into the space between driver and passenger seats, occasionally glancing over his shoulder to double check the passing lane I’m weaving in and out of, his mane of wiry brown hair obscuring the rearview. He’s been visiting friends down South — former vegans — who’ve begun harvesting dead raccoons, possums, squirrels, and rabbits from the roadways.
" Ee-yuck, " Heidi says.
" It was a bit much for me, " he admits, peeling an orange and offering us each a section. " They were always skinning something. "
He tells us his history in a detached, reflective way, without a trace of the self-righteousness I’d expected. He’s lived in Golden Gate Park, in squats on the Lower East Side, and spent a month in jail in Central America for refusing to acknowledge national borders and traveling without a visa. He’s hopped freight cars, hitchhiked across the country, and collected food for homeless people and fellow squatters with a bicycle cart.
" What have you guys been up to? " he asks after we’ve exhausted our questions.
" Well . . . " Heidi says, offering up the mostly interior, emotional journey of the past several years. I do the same.
Outside Worcester, traffic slows to a halt — roadblock. " Shit, " I say, and Ayr echoes my thoughts, saying: " Guess I’d better tie my hair up. " He twists it into a tidy knot, and looks, briefly, like a tamed but still bearded anarchist in a Ben & Jerry’s T-shirt and loose pants. When we let him out at exit 145 outside Newark, he undoes the knot and dons a round wool Sherpa hat. As we merge back into the flow of cars, I see him climb a guardrail beneath the overpass, bedroll and mandolin tucked beneath one arm, and disappear.
The names written across Atlantic City’s skyline are familiar: Bally’s, Caesar’s, Tropicana. We cruise in on the expressway, across a marshy plain of glittering lights studded with billboards. Our hotel is a behemoth — the Sheraton Atlantic City Hotel and Convention Center, located at number two Miss America Way. After eight-and-a-half hours in the car, I am a greasy, crumb-covered wreck, my hair tied up in a bandana, and I’ve brought too much baggage.
" How did you do that? " I ask Heidi, gesturing at her red TWA shoulder bag, which isn’t even big enough for a pair of shoes. This is the same woman who brought an entire fleet of pearlescent vintage luggage for a two-week trip to New Orleans.
" I just made a decision, " she says. I make a face at her.
The hotel’s lobby is edged with life-sized dioramas of the Miss Americas of decades past: a gown edged in ermine, an aquamarine chiffon stitched with jewels. A giant flat monitor airs continuous footage of previous pageants: accepting the crown, accepting the crown, accepting the crown.
" Miss Fucking America " I say, eyeballing myself in the elevator’s mirror, my lips cracked, my face puffy.
The last time I was in an arena with over 5000 people was when I went with my buddy Chris to see the Reverend Luis Palau save a bunch of Mainers from the clutches of Satan, and I have the same rush of heart-pounding claustrophobia upon entering Boardwalk Hall. Only this time, it isn’t hopeful sinners that crowd the stands, but 10,000 pumped-up Ultimate Fight fans, ready for some bloodshed.
And they get it. In a heavyweight bout between loud-mouthed pretty boy Phil Baroni and Oregonian wrestler Matt Lindland, the UFC’s supposed regulations — designed to keep critics from referring to their shows as " human cockfights " — grow lax. Baroni, after a WWF–style entrance clad in a satin robe and beach sandals, is taken down and pummeled brutally for most of the three-round fight. Spots of red appear on the mat, and close-ups of the men locked in tortured embrace are directly aired on two giant screens. I find myself watching the fight on screen, where inflated size makes it seem less real, less horrifying, than what is actually occurring in the ring. Seeing Baroni helpless and exhausted, his face cuffed repeatedly, I experience a terrifying thought: What will it look like if he kills him? What will it take to make me stop watching?
" Punch his face, he’s looking at you, " a Hilo boy in a black T-shirt screams during the next fight, a lightweight title bout between Japanese fighter Caol Uno and Hilo, Hawaii–native BJ Penn. That is it, I think. I’ve had enough.
(I won’t even mention Maine-iac Tim Sylvia’s three-minute victory over champion Ricco Rodriguez. He " knocked his ass out. " )
After the fights, we park ourselves at DeFeo’s, a local dive bar, and drink Miller Lites until three a.m., fending off Jersey boys with gold chains and wayward husbands out for a wild weekend: " Howya doin? You’s a couple of good-lookin’ girls. " We each get a sack of McDonald’s food on the chilly walk back to our hotel, and eat it while watching cartoons: Fred Flintstone sneaks out to audition for a hot-shot producer from Hollyrock, and ends up cast as the monster who takes the fall for the real hero, a Snidely Whiplash type in a beret.
" Oh Fred, " Wilma says, nursing her husband’s sore head and damaged ego back to reality. " You don’t need to be a movie star. "
" You’re right, Wilma, " he says.
Then, when the film crew comes back to town, he bellows: " Now where did you hide my monster suit? I’m gonna be a star! "
We spend the next morning poking around the thrift shops, Mexican bakeries, and oddball shops on Atlantic Avenue, and then get into the car for a long, hungover drive back home. At the second tollbooth off the expressway, I ask the attendant for a receipt, and he laughs.
" The country’s going bankrupt, you think this is gonna help? " he says.
Heidi and I both stare at him, wind riffling our pile of 35-cent receipts, and laugh. She puts in a Bruce Springsteen tape and we drive in silence up out of the Jersey Shore, past the place we dropped Ayr off on his journey west, across the Tappan Zee Bridge and north on 84, listening to The Ghost of Tom Joad, thinking our separate thoughts.
Tanya Whiton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org