Casinos to laid-off workers: Happy Labor Day!


I was telling Swamp Rabbit about my Labor Day Weekend trip to Atlantic City, where three casinos are closing and more than 5,700 casino workers are being laid off over the next two weeks.

“Closed” stickers were slapped onto the Showboat’s front doors by security personnel at 3 p.m. yesterday. Just like that, 2,100 people were out of work. A stunned looking woman standing nearby told me she’d worked in the employees’ cafeteria for 25 years and still was hoping Caesars Entertainment, Showboat’s owner, would reverse its decision to pull the plug. Good luck with that.

The rabbit said he’s angry because the news media keeps assuring us the recession is over and unemployment is declining. “I was hopin’ to git me a job in the service sector,” he said. “At this rate, I won’t never be one of them high net-worth individuals.”

Showboat is the casino located closest to the $2.4 billion Revel, which was audaciously designed and built at the place where the ocean meets the Inlet. The sixth-floor casino has window walls overlooking the Boardwalk, beach and ocean.

When Revel closes Tuesday, thousands more will be jobless. In its casino yesterday, I strolled past the HQ nightclub and noticed that superstar DJ Scrillex was scheduled to perform Sept. 6. Tough luck, Scrillex fans. Take your molly somewhere else. An HQ employee told me she was hoping to hold on to her job for an extra week. This would allow her to miss the rush Wednesday, Sept. 3, when the newly laid-off will swarm the A.C. Convention Center to sign up for unemployment compensation.

Revel’s casino was far from crowded yesterday. It was hard to believe high net-worth individuals had thought a gambling venue so vast and expensive — you’d have to see it to believe it — would succeed in today’s economy. In fact, construction of Revel ceased for a long while when the Recession hit hard and Morgan Stanley stopped bankrolling it. It’s partly thanks to New Jersey’s genius Gov. Chris Christie that Revel was completed two years ago.

“You should get all this shit in your book, Odd Man,” the rabbit said. “America wants to know.”

I told him America already knows about Revel and at this point is immune to — I should have said asleep to — economic disaster stories. But yes, there is plenty about Revel in my novel Good Sal/Bad Sal, including this passage, which mentions the construction site in 2009:

…Salvy’s plan today was for us to stroll from Valhalla to G. Michael Mazilli’s office, at the end of the Pacific Avenue strip, in the South Inlet section, where the terrain was still bleak after 30 years of casinos and redevelopment schemes.

“Let me guess, your lawyer works out of a crack house,” I told him as we walked.

I could see the lighthouse and a few high-rises and the steel bones of Revel, the mega-casino project that was supposed to pull Atlantic City out of its death spiral by luring in an army of high rollers, as opposed to the usual busloads of geezers on Social Security who dominate at the other A.C. casinos, most of which are glorified slots parlors. Construction of the Revel stopped when the housing bubble burst and the Wall Street crooks stopped investing in commercial real estate. They won’t invest again in casinos, not unless they sense a critical mass of new suckers with real money to blow. The old casinos will be on their own, laying off workers left and right. And even if there is a Revel someday, it won’t generate enough business to keep all the casinos in business…

Posted in economic collapse, fiction, Great Recession, humor, mainstream media, NJ, The New Depression, unemployment, Wall Street | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Q&A on casino crap-outs in Atlantic City


The $2.4 billion fiasco called Revel. Photo by John O'Boyle. Newark Star-Ledger.

The $2.4 billion fiasco called Revel. PHOTO BY JOHN O’BOYLE, NEWARK STAR-LEDGER.

Swamp Rabbit joined me in the shack to puzzle over an online obituary for Showboat, Revel and Trump Plaza:

A time few could imagine during the not-too-distant glory days of casino gambling has arrived in Atlantic City, where two casinos will close this weekend and a third will shut down in two weeks.

More than 5,000 workers will lose their jobs in an unprecedented weekend in the seaside gambling resort, leaving many feeling betrayed by a system that once promised stable, well-paying jobs.

“What they mean by glory days, Odd Man? Is that like golden age? Do you talk about glory days in that Atlantic City book you wrote?”

I explained to the rabbit that glory days in this case meant the mid-1980s through the early 2000s, when the casinos were thriving and expanding. When Atlantic City was one of the only places in America outside of Nevada where people could gather to legally bet on table games and slot machines. When blowhards like Donald Trump were treated like geniuses by the media, simply because they’d shoehorned their way into a racket in which it was seemingly impossible to crap out. And yes, there is plenty about A.C.’s glory days in my novel Good Sal/Bad Sal.

The rabbit scratched himself with his dirty claws, and said, “OK, what happened? What’s all this here guff about people gettin’ betrayed by a system that promised good jobs. Who promised?”

That’s just the reporter’s way of dramatizing really bad news, I told him. Anybody with an ounce of sense knows there are only so many people inclined to throw away their money on suckers’ games, and that the pool of suckers will become smaller if there’s an economic downturn and the suckers realize they don’t have money to throw away, what they have (or had) is credit. And that a downturn plus legalization of casinos in other states would add up to disaster for A.C. unless it evolved into a resort that didn’t depend almost entirely on gambling to attract visitors.

“So how come they dint start evolvin’ when they had the chance?”

They gave it a halfhearted try. There are restaurants, nightclubs and live music venues, a pier that was made into a mall, and other diversions. Borgata and a few other casinos are turning a profit. But for the most part the casino owners stuck to the path of least resistance, busing in the sort of customers whose idea of a good time is to feed their rent money and so forth to the slot machines. And for three decades the owners, in cahoots with corrupt and incompetent politicians, did almost nothing to change A.C. from a slum to the sort of town where tourists, not to mention residents, could feel safe walking the streets. That’s it in a nutshell.

“Goddam, Odd Man, if you’re so smart, how come you ain’t rich?”

“Shut up, rodent, you sound like my ex-father-in-law. You don’t have to be too smart to see what went wrong with Atlantic City. But you have to be incredibly stupid and greedy to have messed it up so bad.”

Posted in casinos, economic collapse, fiction, humor, mid-term elections, NJ, unemployment | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Message in a bottle to literary agents


new ms

Swamp Rabbit broke the seal on the bottle of Wild Turkey I’d just given him. This was his reward, in advance, for his advice today. It’s a tradition here at my shack in Tinicum.

I told the rabbit I’ve been around the world and I’ve been nowhere, searching for an agent to represent my novel Good Sal/Bad Sal. “Around the world” in that I’ve accessed a ton of information about literary agents that wouldn’t have been available before the Internet. “Nowhere” in that I’ve accessed nothing really useful. Agent X is looking for young adult, self-help and psycho-killer memoirs. She lives in a yurt. Agent Y plays Gaelic football and has read Gary Shteyngart but is looking to sign the next Gillian Flynn.

It’s irrelevant, all of it. None of the agents I’ve queried — or, more realistically, the interns they hire to read unsolicited queries — have expressed interest in my novel, which is about the enmity between two brothers in casino-era Atlantic City. I’m 0 for 24.

The rabbit spat into the swamp and said, “What’s your point, Odd Man? What you’re doing is like sendin’ a message in a bottle. It’s like playin’ poker and tryin’ to fill an inside straight. You got more chance winnin’ the lottery than hookin’ up with an agent.”

The rodent was right. Information isn’t access, and too much information is just noise. A simple example: Some agents swear a snappy synopsis is the key to attracting an agent who will read your work. Others say exactly the opposite. Here’s Betsy Lerner, an influential agent/author/blogger:

I think [synopses] are as boring to read as listening to a person’s dream. And they don’t give an agent or editor a clue as to what the writing will be like. In other words, more can go wrong with a synopsis than go right.

I wonder what Lerner meant by synopsis. Maybe she meant outline.

The rabbit cussed me and jumped into the swamp. Then he hopped back onto the porch and said, “Stop bellyachin’. If you wasn’t so freakin’ odd, you’d have a referral, like them writers who get published. Somebody to separate your slush from the other slush. Ain’t nobody’s fault but your own.”

I must have looked like I might take away his bottle. “Sorry, Odd Man, just tellin’ you the truth.”

I threw a beer can at him. “Stupid rodent,” I said. “If I wanted the truth, I wouldn’t have asked for your advice.”

Footnote: I’ve mentioned Betsy Lerner before, she’s a good writer and probably a good agent. But I’ll stick with sending queries that include a synopsis.

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Robin Williams, media vultures and the art of fiction


Swamp Rabbit was watching the news on my laptop and feeling blue. Comedian/actor Robin Williams had killed himself, and the media vultures were picking over the details of his life and death.

I tried to distract the rabbit by talking about fiction. Some good fiction compels you to read faster, I told him — to hurry up and find out how the writer will resolve conflicts in his/her story. But there’s another type of fiction that doesn’t rely on story. The art is in the imagery and insights about human nature that you definitely won’t find in the news. Passages like this, from Denis Johnson’s short story “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” might compel you to read more slowly:

This morning I was assailed by such sadness at the velocity of life — the distance I’ve traveled from my own youth, the persistence of the old regrets, the new regrets, the ability of failure to freshen itself in novel forms — that I almost crashed the car.

The sun sank behind my shack. I said, “Notice what Johnson does here. He compresses the story’s theme into one sentence that more or less describes the arc of the narrator’s life. A stream of vague regrets collides with a vivid reminder of death’s finality. Why this juxtaposition, rabbit? Doesn’t it make you want to wake up to the here and now, like the narrator does?”

The rabbit took a swig of Wild Turkey then ruminated on a carrot. Finally, he said, “It makes me want to go out back and hang myself.”

He spit into the swamp and added, “I’d think twice about gittin’ into a car with that Johnson fella, especially if he was drivin’.”

I said, “You’re confusing the writer with the first-person narrator, but that’s OK. It’s a common mistake among the unschooled to assume the narrator’s thoughts and feelings are the writer’s.”

‘Phooey! How can you write the truth about somebody’s feelings if you ain’t seein’ through his eyes? And what’s that narrator got to do with Robin Williams? He weren’t no failure.”

“Failure’s got nothing to do with it. It’s fiction, you dumb rodent. There are no easy answers. The narrator is a construct, a vehicle that conveys the story’s multiple meanings.”

The rabbit took another drink and said, “Don’t gimme that Roland Barthes bullshit. The writer is the narrator. Maybe not all the time, but most of the time.”

I read Johnson’s entire story to the rabbit and told him my favorite part is where the narrator gets a phone call from his ex-wife Ginny, who is dying and wants to forgive him for being a bad husband. Her voice is weak and distant. He tells her he’s sorry for his various lies and infidelities. He has a panicky moment when he wonders if he had misheard her and is actually speaking to his other ex-wife, Jenny. But then he realizes it doesn’t matter, because “both sets of crimes had been the same.”

“He’s learning to accept who he is,” I explained. “A terrific alternative to suicide, if you can manage it.”

“Very funny,” the rabbit said. “I still wouldn’t git in the car with that Johnson fella drivin’.”

Squinting at me, he added, “Or with a driver who likes that de-pressing shit he writes.”

Footnote: The New Yorker is allowing non-subscribers to view its content this summer. Part of an online marketing campaign, I guess… Johnson also wrote the great and influential short story collection Jesus’ Son.

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We tortured. It was wrong… That’s all, folks!


Swamp Rabbit was looking over my shoulder at my laptop, chewing Lucky Charms and getting crumbs all over the keyboard. “How come you don’t do that blog no more?” he said. “I used to like readin’ all them lies you wrote about me.”

I explained to my rabbit friend, and not for the first time, that I’d vowed a few months ago to drop everything and finish writing the second draft of my novel Good Sal/Bad Sal. I did finish it but I’ve been reluctant to resume blogging, because I’m afraid it will rekindle unhealthy habits, such as following the news. Already I’ve read a story about President Obama’s torture speech, the one with these immortal lines:

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we did some things that were wrong. We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks.

But there’s no point in being “sanctimonious” — that’s the word Obama used — regarding Dick Cheney, his sock puppet George W. Bush and the other good folks who made torture part of U.S. foreign policy. We’re not going to charge these folks with war crimes, they had really tough jobs…

I told the rabbit I wanted to ask Obama what it was we’d done right in reaction to 9/11. The Iraq war fiasco? The hopeless effort to create a pro-American Afghanistan, which has cost the U.S. more than the post-World War II Marshall Plan? But folks like us don’t get to ask such questions, and the mainstream media folks are too cowardly to ask them for us. Am I right or wrong, folks?

“Don’t rave at me,” the rabbit said. “I ain’t Obama.”

“I’m just demonstrating how upset I get when I read the news,” I told him. “Most folks will know what I mean.”

“So keep the blog, but don’t pay no mind to the news,” the rabbit suggested. “You live in this here shack in Tinicum. Write about how hard it is keep the roof from leakin’ and to keep from getting caught when you lift food from the Super Fridge down the road. Take that French guy’s advice and tend your own garden.”

“This is a swamp, you dumb rodent, not a garden.”

“And write about that book you wrote. Ain’t nobody gonna know about it unless you tell ‘em.”

As he spoke, I watched Obama on the Internet, threatening to bomb Iraq, where American military involvement ended in 2011, haha. Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction, but sometimes it’s as predictable as rejection slips. Know what I’m saying, folks?

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Tone-deaf Obama sings Walmart’s praises


walmart

Swamp Rabbit and I had just watched a PBS show about “nightmare bacteria” — insidious, human-killing organisms resistant to all antibiotics. Pretty scary. Then we saw a news item about Barack Obama appearing at a Walmart to praise the company for using green energy. Really scary.

It occurred to me that Obama is the nightmare Democrat, an insidious organism resistant to all strategies and tactics for progressive change. During his time in office he has methodically hacked away, along with most Democratic legislators, at what remains of the Democratic Party’s credibility. There is no campaign promise he hasn’t broken, no Republican legislator he hasn’t caved in to, almost no Democratic constituency he hasn’t betrayed. He has disappointed on climate change, jobs creation, income inequality, regulation of big banks. He has eagerly pursued the so-called Grand Bargain, devised by right-wingers to shred the social safety net and put the final nail in the coffin of FDR’s New Deal. He is the anti-FDR.

I tried to express my feelings to the rabbit, but he wasn’t having any of it. “You way over the top, Odd Man. This here Barry fellow was a fake Democrat from the git-go, a neoliberal, a tool of the Wall Street posse, a brother to George W. Bush when it comes to violatin’ our First and Fourth Amendment rights. You sayin’ you was surprised when he went out of his way to make nice with Walmart?”

“But it’s not fair, you dumb rodent,” I shouted. “Obama walks like a progressive, he talks like a progressive. Man, does he ever talk! But the loftier his talk, the more perverse his actions. I mean, why would a Democrat single out Walmart for energy efficiency, even if it didn’t actually lag behind other some large companies on renewables? Walmart is the enemy of workers’ rights, the antithesis of everything the Democratic Party is supposed to stand for.”

The rabbit started chuckling when I said “not fair.” When he came up for air, he offered me a hit of Wild Turkey and invited me to take a swim in the swamp with him. I told him no thanks, I didn’t want to get infected by nightmare bacteria.

“Then you should git back to writin’ that book of yours and stop readin’ about politics,” the rabbit said.”That way you don’t git infected by no more nightmare Democrats.”

Posted in climate change, economic collapse, globalization, humor, liar, mainstream media, Obama | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Preaching to the choir about the GOP


I read to Swamp Rabbit part of Charles Pierce’s reaction to the Republicans’ successful effort last Wednesday to block a Senate vote on whether to raise the minimum wage to $10.10:

Can we just drop the pretense now and admit that one of our two major political parties is perfectly fine with pauperizing the American middle-class in order to “redistribute” wealth upwards? Can we please lay the myth of the Republican moderate to rest, at least on this issue?

“Depends who Pierce means by ‘we,'” Swamp Rabbit said.

Exactly. If he means those of us who are aware the country has become a plutocracy, then he’s preaching to the choir. Educated paupers have known for a long time that “pauperizing” of the middle class is a tactic being used by the rich to make themselves even richer, and that there are no Republican “moderates” on this issue.

However, if Pierce is referring to poor and nearly poor voters who helped elect the very pigs who blocked the minimum wage vote, then the answer to both of his questions is “not yet” — not by a long shot. It would take a lot more money and messaging to get through to those who, even in these hard times, can’t see that Republican office holders invariably advance the interests of the rich at the expense of everyone else.

The definition of insanity — and of denial — involves doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

And so it is that many uninformed working people continue to vote for the likes of Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and others who are destroying the social safety net and further enriching the 1 percent.

“‘Uninformed’ don’t quite say it,” Swamp Rabbit said, right before he hopped out of the shack and into the swamp. “You mean stupid.”

And liberal commentators such as Pierce continue to state the obvious about Republican office holders rather than propose strategies for convincing working people to stop voting against their own interests.

Clarifications: The Democratic Party as it currently exists is only marginally more pro-worker than the GOP. A $10 minimum wage is better than no increase, but it’s still a disgrace. Also, the term “middle-class,” as used by Pierce and many others, is applicable to fewer Americans every year. “Formerly middle-class” is a more accurate tag for those whose incomes can’t keep up with the cost of living.

Footnote: For what it’s worth, here’s where to register your support for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s call for a $10.10 minimum wage: http://www.dccc.org/page/s/minimum-wage-2013?source=LR_em_PET_2014.05.06_b1_an_min-wage

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