Beer and Loafing in Atlantic City (and Elsewhere)

by Jim Knipfel

We were going to the worst place in the world and we didn't even know it yet. Hours away, 'bout a hundred miles down a highway that snaked through the industrial parks and toxic waste dumps like a main circuit cable plugged straight into the acidic guts of the American Dream.

The Grinch, my old cohort and bandmate, was in town from Chicago with Mr. Fun. The Grinch grew up in Atlantic City in the pre-casino age, when it was still possible to stroll down the Boardwalk and see signs advertising "See Bertha, the Amazing Gorilla Woman!" It was time to go back and check out the old neighborhood.

"Let's rock 'n' roll," he said as we piled into the jet black Rice Rocket and revved the four-valve, 108 h.p. engine. Snap an Abba tape into the $1400 sound system, clip the fuzzbuster onto the sun visor and nothing was gonna get in our way.

As we pulled south on I-76 East, we saw smoke pouring out across the highway from a smoldering lump by the median. As we sped past, "Dancing Queen" blasting at us from all sides, the lump resolved itself into the burning body of a dead dog, set afire and left by the side of the road.

"Y'know, if the Greeks were setting out on a journey and saw something like that, they'd say 'Fuck this shit,' turn right around and go home." The Greeks were smart folks. The sunny, warm Friday turned dismal and grey as we fled the Philly city limits across the Walt Whitman Bridge. "Y'know, Jim, you live in a really beautiful city," the Grinch said, gesturing to the oil tanks on our right and slums on our left.

"Hey, I told you as much. Would I ever lie to you?"

After a brief stop in Linwood, NJ, for a fake cheesesteak, watery Coke, and a brief tour of the black mud swamps where the Grinch used to sink stolen bikes, it was on to the black mud Atlantic, the glitz and glamour of a happenin' town--a land not only of Wayne Newton and Frank Sinatra, Jr., but of "Miss America--In Her Own Words" and dirty hypos.

Hitting 115 m.p.h. on the Expressway just wasn't fast enough to get us there. We needed more--more speed, more anger, more noise. Out with the Abba, in with Iggy ("I was ridin' on a concrete slab, down the river of a useless flab . . .")

Muscles twitching, feelin' just sick enough to know we were still alive, we saw it, rising from the sludge like a polished jewel. The city was ours.

Once in the city, we squealed past the porno shops and tourist traps (goddamn, but it's hard to tell them apart), lookin' for a safe place to hide the Rocket while we launched our assault.

An eight-year-old came out of the booth of the parking lot as we screeched in.

"How much d'I owe ya?"

"Five bucks."

The Grinch pulled out a five and a single. "Here ya go. Go buy yourself some crack."

"Gee, thanks!"

Walking down the cold wet sidewalk a few minutes later, the inevitable question came out.

"So, what's it gonna be, then?"

"Resorts. Wayne Newton's playing there in a few weeks--and if Wayne's playin' it, you know it's gotta have real class."

So in we trundled, ripped jeans, Marlene the leather jacket, Eraserhead, Damned, and Flipper T-shirts, cigars clamped firmly between our teeth--here to rub elbows with the tuxes and long dresses, the mobsters and the shoobies.

Merv Griffin's Resorts Casino is a glittering, clanging, humming mecca. Wayne Newton's greasy, fat, dirty-lipped skull grinned at us like Big Brother from every available wall. From the bar balcony, the casino floor opens up like a vast, electronic wet dream, the plush carpeting littered with ground-in cigarette butts and spilled drinks. Row upon row of shiny thieves cry out for any loose change, which disappears by the roll.

It was a place swarming with some of the butt-ugliest northern white trash ever to wrap their claws around a slot machine handle--which they do, again and again, plugging their hard-earned cash into the devices, their dull eyes transfixed on the spinning fruit in front of them. The more obsessive among them claim three or four machines at once, lashing out with brutal tongues and fists against any would-be invaders: "It's mine!"

It was this savage weakness that the Grinch played upon with such finesse. "I'm leaving now, so I'll only pull it once, okay?" he would ask. They always grudgingly obliged, only to watch in terror as he inevitably hit a jackpot, stealing every coin they had fed the machine. As he walked away, laughing, "Uh, gee, sorry 'bout that," he would grin, "guess I just got lucky."

Atlantic City is a place desperate people go to Have A Good Time. And boy, you could see the joy just scratched into their flesh. "I'm having fun , goddammit--now leave me the fuck alone."

Desperation is the name of the game in the flashing maze, and if you didn't get desperate, the whole morass gets pretty dull pretty damn quickly. A few cigars and a lot of rum inside us, the whole mumbling circus gelled into one big, slow hum. How many rich folks can you elbow, how many feet can you step on, how many people can you encourage to "bet it all on 28 black--trust me" before the novelty's gone?

So back out into the rain. The Grinch wanted to find his old high school.

"It's around here someplace," he promised me and Mr. Fun as we sloshed through alleyways, over the prone bodies of the homeless, "As long as they didn't turn it into a parking lot."

Then he recognized a wall. It wasn't a parking lot. Worse. A few walls remained, a few more had been glued on, and the interior had been gutted.

"This is it!"

"This is a Quality Inn, Grinch."

"No! No! This is it ! It was a jail before it was a high school--and a Quaker Meeting House before that."

"And now it's a Quality Inn? Well, that's an interesting progression. We really are wandering around the society of the spectacle."

"Christ, they don't even have bars in Quality Inns."

The Grinch looked forlorn.

"You can't go home again, " I offered. It didn't help.

As we spoke, Mr. Fun ran and called a friend of his in New York. He returned, smiling.

"Circus of Power is playing tonight. We're on the guest list, and there's a party backstage after the show."

After two hours in the Las Vegas East, we just couldn't take anymore.

"So let's blow this popsicle stand."

After letting a stray and soaking cocker spaniel into the casino, we hopped back into the Rice Rocket and slid out onto the Jersey Turnpike, the power of rock 'n' roll drawing us straight into the caverns of the Big Asshole.

"Where are they playing?" the Grinch asked over the yelps of the Russian Meat Squats ("Fuckin' society sucks so bad/Fuckin' society sucks. . . .")


The car screeched across two lanes of the rain-slick highway.

"You mean I haven't been to New York in ten years, and when I finally do get back, I'm going to fuckin' Queens ?"

From the back seat, I piped up out of my stupor with some Ramonian wisdom--"Sittin' here in Queens, eating refried beans, we're in all the magazines, gulpin' down thorazines . . ."

Again, it didn't seem to help matters.

On we drove through the dark rain-swept night. Past the Elizabeth exit, home of the Grinning Man, past the factories and through the small towns, screaming past the other traffic, to the gaping entrance of the Holland Tunnel.

"Can we choose to just be eliminated here, rather than going on to Manhattan?" Mr Fun asked the man in the toll booth.

"Nope. Good luck."

A strange transformation seems to take place in just about everyone when they enter the city limits. We become different people; we assume wholly new identities. Maybe Frank Lloyd Wright was on track when he said that architecture dictates people's lives. In our case, three mean-spirited, grubby rock critics became our own worst nightmare. We became the Ugly Americans in America. We became the Beverly Hillbillies, in town for no other reason than to insult the natives.

As luck would have it, I had to make a phone call. And, as luck would have it, we found ourselves in a swanky-pants East Village gay bar to make that phone call.

After I hung up, I turned back into the bar to see the Grinch, holding three fingers of Wild Turkey, winking at me and grinning like a pig. Mr. Fun had found a new friend.

"You guys aren't from around here, are you?" the drip in the silk suit asked.

"Where would you guess we're from?"

"Oh . . . maybe upstate . . ."

"Upstate ? Whaddyou take us for? Upstate. Jeez."

"You are new faces in here. This is primarily a gay bar, and we seem to have a lot of turnover in here."

"Well, surprise, surprise!" the Grinch cackled. Then he whispered to me, "Hey, Jim, let's leave Mr. Fun alone with his new friend and see what's on the haps back here."

(As we left, Silk Suit was telling Mr. Fun that he "made three times as much money as anyone else here." "Ya can't eat it," Mr. Fun responded somberly.)

"Maybe we should invite him back to the car and get his wallet."

"Yeah, whenever someone returns to a small town from New York, the first question is always, 'Well, didja get mugged?' and we'd be able to say, 'No, we mugged someone!'"

So we leaned against a wall and hurled Meatmen-isms at the passersby until Mr. Fun was able to shake that hand off his ass. ("Look at you . . . !")

After picking up the Grinch's old friend Laura on 89th Street, it was about time to make our rendezvous with destiny. As we drove over the 59th Street Bridge into Queens, I couldn't help thinking that if Paul Simon knew where he was heading, he wouldn't have felt nearly so groovy about it. This time we all joined in: "Sittin' here in Queens . . ."

L' Amour, a smarmy heavy metal club with room for about 2,500 sweaty white teenaged males with foofy hair, couldn't have been more aptly named. The place just oozed with l'amour. It dripped down the walls and pooled on the floor.

As the Electric Angels left the stage, a voice boomed over the PA, "Now just sit tight, 'cause cummin' right up we've got the teeny-weeny bikini contest, and then Circus of (fucking) Power!" (Apparently, they had changed their name since the last album.)

The hormonal malfunctions scattered across the floor grunted and hooted in unison.

The Grinch leaned over to me. "Y'know, we came to New York, home of the cutting edge in music and the arts, and that's exactly what we got."

To the throbbing of Van Halen and Motley Crue, four local strippers gyrated out on stage and, one after the other, slid out of their bikini tops.

"Why, Grinch," I shouted over the clamor, "those are the teeniest-weeniest bikinis I've ever seen."

And still it wasn't enough for the neanderthals who had been raised in an Empty-Vee culture. "We want Bush! We want Bush! " they chanted, while pressing against the stage, groping for the slightest touch of naked flesh against their hairy palms. I always knew that the recent heavy metal phenomenon was tied in closely with a swing back to the political Right by America's youth. At least it's good to hear that they're more politically aware now than, say, five years ago.

After the women bounced off stage, Circus of (fucking) Power, the reputed Next Big Thing (but aren't they all?) stumbled onstage to play a two hour set of awful, bland, heavy metal grunge. Before the show, the singer told Mr. Fun that the drummer was in the middle of a series of stomach operations and still had a gaping, festering hole right below his ribs. The only excitement of the set came in waiting for an alien to burst out of his chest and all over the drum kit. But no such luck.

After their set (and after pushing the wrong button in the bathroom, causing all the urinals to overflow, soaking the feet of six Angry Young Men with reconstituted Budweiser), it was time to get backstage for a taste of, as the Grinch called it, "the topsy-turvy world of Heavy Metal Rock 'n' Roll."

This is where the fun was going to begin.

As we dodged our way past the bouncer, we came face to face with the bassist, a grubby, fat dude in a BOC shirt who gave us all the once over. He knew Mr. Fun and the Grinch and Laura, but planted a meaty paw in the middle of my Eraserhead T-shirt.

"He don't get in."

"Yer about to make a big mistake," the Grinch drawled, "That's Knipfel."

"Knipfel ? Oh, jeez, man, I'm sorry--I . . . I didn't know you were gonna be here. It's an honor to meet the Baddest S.O.B alive."

That was more like it. So here we were, surrounded by HM women in short leather skirts and fishnet stockings, HM dudes in faded denim and Big Hair, all trying desperately to lick other's asses as they crawled to the top of the garbage pile. No drugs, no sex on the floor, no hard liquor, no catfights. Just a bunch of boring people exchanging boring chitchat and drinking 7-Up.

It was like most of the academic cocktail parties I was going to a year ago (except that nobody was using any words bigger than three syllables, and nobody was talking about Foucault). So the Grinch and I found another wall to lean against and hurled more insults.

"If this is rock 'n' roll heaven, I'd hate to see what rock 'n' roll hell is like."

By now it was four a.m., and we'd been moving since about ten the previous morning. Thoughts of facing the turnpike again, our brains numb from the heat and smoke and inanities, were unspeakably horrifying. So we crashed at Laura's place. A few short hours later, jostled awake by the sweet strains of crashing garbage cans and howling loonies outside the barred window, we filled our aching heads and screaming guts with caffeine, said toodle-oo to Laura, and went to pick up the Rice Rocket from the parking ramp.

"How much I owe ya?" the Grinch asked the grubby figure behind the booth's window.

"Seven bucks."

"Seven bucks ? Hell, where I come from, I could get my dick sucked fer seven bucks!"

But we paid anyway and only dented one silver Jag on our way out of the garage.

The moral of the story?

As Werner Herzog says, there are several places in the country where all the lines of power intersect--places like Dallas, Las Vegas, and Plainfield, Wisconsin--places where, in an instant, you can get a perfect little photograph of everything that is going on in the country at that moment.

I guess in Atlantic City and Queens we found ourselves at the vortices of Doom and the End Times, the places where everything that is bad and wrong and empty come together to tell stories and bore each other. Adorno was right, and the Turnpike is still as beautiful as it gets.

Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the Welcomat. Illustration by Russell Christian. All rights reserved.

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