The Atlantic City Moth

Everything dies baby, that’s a fact
but maybe everything that dies, someday comes back. . .
Put your make-up on, fix your hair up pretty
and meet me tonight in Atlantic City. —Bruce Springsteen, Atlantic City

The Atlantic City Moth by Tony Fitzpatrick

There is a huge set piece in the Green Point neighborhood in Brooklyn.  It’s right on the water, and from a distance it looks a bit like a palace of some kind, or an urban mirage.  It is the set for Boardwalk Empire, the hugely entertaining tale of Prohibition-era Atlantic City on HBO.

It stars Steve Buscemi as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, who is based on the real-life politico and racketeer of the ’20s, Enoch “Nucky” Johnson.  It is thinly-veiled fiction and is filled with a lot of very good actors doing some of the best work of their careers, most notably, Dabney Coleman and William Forsythe, playing a couple of homicidally despicable motherfuckers, and the great Chicago actor, Michael Shannon, as a Prohibition agent with a bad case of Jesus.

Its plot line is dense and rewarding and historically somewhat accurate, even though it claims to be fictional.  If only the real Atlantic City were still somewhat like this.

The first time I ever went to Atlantic City, I was struck by the sheer polarities of its landscape.  Donald Trump had just built a huge, glittering obscenely fucking-ugly casino there (the Taj Mahal, I think) and directly across the street was the most austere ghetto I’d ever seen in America.  The people of New Jersey had been sold that “casino gambling” cultural band-aid. You can damn near forgive them.  It was 1978 and Atlantic City had to do something.  Like the saying goes, “A drowning man will grab a snake,”
which is precisely what Atlantic City and the state of New Jersey did.

Casino gambling was supposed to be the cure-all for schools, jobs and housing for the Jersey shore.  What it did was provide a lot of shitty service-industry jobs or make-work jobs and opened the door for organized crime to come in and loot the profitable elements; slots, dealers, food concessions, linen services, and garbage collection to name a few.  Atlantic City was a shithole with casinos.

Everyday the buses full of the geriatric trade would pull in from New York, Philly, and North Jersey and wheelchair-bound old, blue-haired ladies would pile off of them with their jars of nickels and play the slots for a few hours.  It wasn’t sexy like Vegas and, unlike Vegas, nobody in Jersey knew how to smile.  It was a city of gray, desultory old age limping through the sequential lights, or young men in SUVs, packing ‘nines’ in their waistbands, plying the crack trade on and around the Boardwalk, speeding down Ventnor and Atlantic Avenues being chased by squad cars and blaring rap music.

But boy, what it had once been!  Like Coney Island, it was one of those places wherethe playful American imagination took hold; a P.T. Barnum-type of place, complete with spectacle and architectural curiosities like “Lucy,” the six-story elephant ensconced on the 9200 block of Atlantic Avenue–kind of a knockoff of the one on Coney Island except, ’til this day, through a lot of local boosterism and fundraising, it still stands. . .like a  Looney Tunes Trojan horse for the American promise.

The spoils of the new gambling fortunes in Atlantic City were bitterly fought over by the Jersey, Philly, and New York mobs.  The “Chicken Man” in Bruce Springsteen’s sad, beautiful and elegiac song that bears the city’s name was Dominick Testa, a Philly gangster who tried to muscle in, along with the Bracco family on the Jersey and New York outfit’s turf.  They blew his house up–with him in it.

Casino gambling breathed new life into the organized crime of the East coast, including the nascent Russian mob who quickly took over the “street trades of drugs, guns and prostitution.  The Italians still had gambling, garbage and labor, still after all of these years, the best things to have.

Boardwalk Empire has also generated new interest in this place.  A lot of the Boardwalk is being renovated to old-timey, amusement-theme places and no doubt they will fuck it up.

My favorite images of Atlantic City come from the elegant Louis Malle film from the early ’80s that starred Burt Lancaster, in the best role of his life, and a ripe Susan Sarandon who, at one point, squeezes lemons all over her delightfully naked upper body to rid herself of the scent of seafood, while Lancaster surreptitiously  watches.  The look on his face is one of sadness, regret and animal longing.

A few scenes later, Lancaster is trying to explain this place to a young, idiot wannabe coke dealer. As they are walking down the boardwalk, Lancaster, resplendent in a wintery white overcoat and fedora, suddenly stops and looks the punk in the face and tells him, “See that ocean, kid?  Now 30 years ago, that was something, that was an ocean.”

The dope doesn’t understand, but at this point, we sure do.  At one time, this was a place of dreams; and Lancaster remembers because he now knows he is this dream’s last, faithful inhabitant.

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Published in: on November 29, 2011 at 6:17 pm  Comments (1)  
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Songbird for Moe Dalitz

Songbird for Moe Dalitz

“We’re bigger than US Steel. -Hyman Roth to Michael Corleone in THE GODFATHER II

There is a scene in the movie Bugsy, in which Benjamin Seigel is standing in the middle of the Nevada desert taking a leak and as looks around, reading the landscape; he sees it. . .his future and the future of the American mob.  There is not a goddamn thing out there other than scorpions and sagebrush, but is his mind’s eye, Seigel can see it; a Utopia for sinners and gamblers, servicemen in need of relaxation, a neon-lit Sodom and Gomorrah where “we the people” could indulge our darker and more libertine impulses.  And to Bugsy Seigel, Moe Dalitz, and other members of the Chicago, Cleveland, and Kansas City mob, it was a place about a fundamental American thing–freedom.  You want to gamble away the rent? Eat cheap prime rib? Get blown by a showgirl? Welcome Sir, your room is ready.

After WWII, the American male was ready for a little R&R.  The decades of conformity and the straight and narrow was for squares.  In Vegas, you were free to do whatever the fuck you wanted, as long as you didn’t bother anyone else.  Gone was the moralizing about what was proper and what wasn’t.

Moe Dalitz was one of those brainy, visionary outfit guys of the Meyer Lansky mold; a tough Jew from Cleveland who bootlegged, racketeered, and otherwise muscled  his way into the inner sanctum of the American mafia.  He was a builder of alliances between the world of entertainment and the underworld.  He had done much to help the careers of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin early on, and was good at being an architect of the mob’s ambitions from behind the scenes.  He was a gentleman gangster who eventually owned the Desert Inn.  He also was one of Vegas’s primary philanthropists, building schools and raising money for the indigent and for hospitals and orphanages.  He was also one of UNLV’s primary benefactors.  Whatever rep he had as a mobster had certainly been out shined by his reputation as a community leader later on.

In The Godfather II, Hyman Roth explains his love for Moe Green (a character based on Bugsy Seigel) and thunders at Michael Corleone: “He was a tough Jewish kid with a great dream and that dream became Las Vegas and nowhere in that town is there a statue or a plaque to remember him.  And when they shot him through the eye, I accepted it because I told myself, ‘This is the business we’ve chosen.'”

History is almost always written by the victors and their narrative is what must pass for the truth.  The victors designate for the rest of us just who was good and who was evil.  History is the lie we’ve all agreed upon.  I learned a long time ago that the American story owes as much to “bad” men as it does to the virtuous ones, in fact, maybe more so.  American history has always painted the Mob as the bad guys, when in fact this country in embracing the idea of  freedom and revolution, became our first Mob.

Some will read that thought as subversive, and they would be about half right.  Ask the English and the Hessian and he will tell you about the dishonorable way the settlers fought their revolution; from trees and behind rocks, rather than marching in the middle of a field with a bright red, easy-to-shoot jacket on like a fucking moron.

This one is for the bad men.  They are at least half of the story, whether you like it or not.

Published in: on May 12, 2010 at 10:36 pm  Leave a Comment  
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