How I came to find myself standing beneath an abandoned casino in Atlantic City on a late spring morning when I should have been watching the Humpback whale migration is something of a long story. It is well documented that I can barely get myself off the Island for debatable necessities like “clothing” and “medical care”, and also that I clearly prefer the simple joys of the coast like watching Herring Gulls steal food from innocent beach goers, or waiting for Piping Plovers to poop and then taking pictures of it. The poop not the Plover, of course.
Had someone asked me a year ago to set the odds that I would be standing here in downtown Atlantic City, beneath the eerie ruins of extreme coastal decadence on such a beautiful morning, I would have put them at squarely zero and immediately bet the whole farm on the assured outcome. I’m glad I didn’t because somehow I made it here, and in one sense, it really only took a few small nudges to get me to this most unusual place under some most unusual circumstances.
If anyone can successfully convince me to break my routine, change my stubborn & lazy ways, open my eyes, my mind, and my heart, and experience something other-worldly, it is surely New Jersey’s legendary biologist Kathy Clark. Even if that thing it involves leaving my precious Island paradise and going to, of all places, America’s Playground, Atlantic City.
This is especially true when Kathy says she has a story to tell.
Standing in the massive shadow of the once bustling but now completely abandoned Atlantic Club on Boston Avenue is thrilling. It’s sad, it’s nostalgic, it’s thought provoking, and, just a little bit, downright creepy. Allow your mind to tease and explore for a moment the bottomless allegorical significances and eerie powers of such a sight. I won’t enumerate them here. You get it.
The Atlantic Club has a checkered past which all began with bang when it first opened its doors as the Golden Nugget in 1980 during the Golden Age of Atlantic City casino building. Built by the infamous Steve Wynn & Michael Milken, it was a giant cash machine and entertainment mecca for one, glorious decade. Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Dean Martin… they all did their schticks here in the Nugget’s famous theater, then retreated to its luxurious penthouses for shenanigans we probably can’t even imagine. The Atlantic would change hands many, many times over the years, first becoming a Bally’s, then a Hilton, then the “ACH”, and so on, until it finally shuttered its doors for good in 2014. Since then it has sat abandoned, empty, lonely, and waiting for the glory days of Atlantic City to be born again, or a very foolish developer to come along and make a new set of mistakes with it.
I count myself lucky to have had the kind of modestly negligent parents who did things like take their children along to Monmouth Race Track on Sunday after church, or for an obligatory, debaucherous weekend in Atlantic City in the Summer. While I mostly remember the grotesque amounts of Salt Water Taffy I would consume while my parents tried their luck at the tables, I do remember the palpable vibe of sheer exhilaration and wonder and magic that defined the city in the late seventies.
It was therefore quite a shock to pull up to the grande, golden doors of The Atlantic where I was to meet Kathy, only to be greeted by a lonely feral cat eating sloppily from a small dish in the same spot Sinatra probably signed autographs just before ducking into his Limo.
As Kathy arrived, the massive padlocks on the the Golden Doors were unlocked by Ramona, the lone security officer on duty watching over this monster of a structure. Ramona led us towards the elevators and up to our destination on the 23rd floor. Only for some unexplained reason the elevators no longer reached the 23rd floor, so we stopped on the 20th and headed for the stairs.
As we walked the desolate hallway, passing room after empty room of well dressed suites that could have passed for the real thing if it weren’t for the strong musty odors and signs of water damage on the floors and ceilings, I got an obvious and distinct “The Shining” vibe and immediately asked Ramona about ghosts.
“I don’t really like to talk about that,” she said with a cautious grin. Understandably. I can only imagine the visions you have and the things you hear and the strange feeling you get being all alone in something that was meant to be filled with intoxicated, noisy revelers.
Looking through the glare of the salty, dirt crusted windows you’re instantly overwhelmed by the beautiful breadth of the sea. And once you get tired of that, you might start to notice the large number of dead bird carcasses strewn around the ledges just outside the window. Looking past the gleaming white elegance of Sinatra’s piano we notice a freshly killed Clapper Rail lying limp in its shadow. Truly there are few signs of life in this place.
But the 23rd Floor of The Atlantic is anything but lifeless. To be accurate we should call The Atlantic “empty”, and not abandoned. Because there is actually one spectacular suite on the 23rd Penthouse Floor which has remained consistently occupied for the last fourteen years, by one particularly persistent resident who not only refused to leave when The Atlantic shuttered its doors for good in 2014, but who clearly prefers having the 23rd floor all to herself.
Reliving Atlantic City’s colorful past was surely a thrill, but that’s not why Kathy came here today, and that’s only part of the story she wanted to share. This is also a story about the future.
And so we left the luxurious but decaying comforts of the Sinatra Suite and headed cautiously down the hallway towards the back of the building. There at the end of the hallway was a small, crowded, butler’s kitchen with a large glass door. This was the door to the Penthouse Suite we came here to see. But this particular suite is the last still occupied, and as we approached the end of the hall there was suddenly a unexpected flash of dark shadow cutting through the eerie stillness of the empty floor.
And there she was, watching us through the window. Lady Katherine had heard us coming.