The holidays are upon us once again. I spent my Christmas with my cousins in Short Hills, at their luxurious home. My cousin is an attorney. Her husband sells Italian sports cars to Arabian clients. Between the both of them, they have boatloads of cash, and spend it lavishly on their two little girls. Each does not know want, and gets everything they want in the world.
While we were eating our Christmas feast, someone asked about a photo on their dining room wall. It was of myself and my cousin down in Atlantic City. We’re standing there, outside the casino, dumbfounded by the lights and sights of the strip.
That was our first trip to AC, back in March of 1996. We went to see The Moody Blues at the Circus Maximus Theatre at the Ceasars Hotel and Casino. Both of us were huge Moody Blues fans and were psyched to see them live for the first time. Neither of us had ever been to AC, as our families were strictly against gambling. It’s true that we come from religious Protestants, but our family was judgmental Protestant, nevertheless.
Gambling was for degenerates. Atlantic City was for losers. But here we were, young and wild, out for the weekend in AC, with no supervision. We arrived early. We ate dinner, but I can’t remember where. The show was amazing. Afterwards, we decided that it couldn’t hurt to enter a casino and just go for a short walk. We ended up at Trump Plaza after walking up and down the boardwalk a few times.
Neither of us knew the first thing about gambling. We were awed by the lights and sounds, overwhelmed, really. The people seemed old, seedy, and well outside of our usual social circles. Just as we were about to end our five minute tour of the place, a greasy-haired man of about fifty, with tinted glasses five sizes too big, walked up to us. He commented on my cousin’s eyes, and then proceeded to compliment me on my own. He guessed we were sisters. We laughed and explained we were cousins.
Neither of us were really very interested in carrying on this conversation. But the short, balding man continued. He explained that he was a widower, and he came to AC every month, and has been doing so for the last twenty years. He was clearly trying to be friendly, but my cousin and I were nonplussed. He asked which games we enjoyed. My cousin quickly responded that we were in AC for the Moody Blues show.
He couldn’t believe it was out first time there. He correctly guessed our ages within two years, and managed to get it right that my cousin was a law student, and I was pursuing nursing. I began to get freaked out, thinking he was some kind of psychic stalker. But then something weird happened. I’ll remember it to this day. He said to me, looking right through me, “You are a gem. You’re probably going to make a million dollars, easy. If nursing doesn’t work out for you, don’t sweat it, kid.”
I was flabbergasted. I had been thinking in the weeks prior that nursing might not be my thing. I had recently started working as a real estate agent, and was in the midst of a post-breakup crisis. I did not know what to say. He continued, “So here’s my wisdom, earned over sixty seven years of life in New Jersey: Follow what makes you happy. That’s it.” My cousin balked. “67?!” she exclaimed. “You look really good for someone that age.” He didn’t flinch. Instead, he silently reached into his sports jacket pocket and pulled out a handful of chips.
“Here’s a few chips to get you girls started. Gambling is a waste of time, but since you’re here, why not waste some time?” He smiled, and this time he reminded me not of a sleazy gambler, but of my now-deceased grandfather. We were shocked. I had never experienced a stranger exhibit so much generosity, and my upbringing, while religious, made me slightly suspicious of anyone with their hand out. Now here we were and some random old man was gifting us with what looked like about a thousand dollars in chips.
He smiled, winked, and walked into the crowd, the din so loud that my mind was reeling. My cousin and I just looked at each other. OK; it wasn’t quite a thousand dollars, but each of us had been gifted with $350 in chips. How very strange. For some reason, I had tears in my eyes. My cousin was the first to speak, “What in the world was that all about?” I shrugged my shoulders. I just didn’t know what to say. I was still thinking about what he had said about my future, trying to process it all.
Neither of us spoke again, and we walked together through the casino, armed with enough chips to try a bit of everything. Blackjack was fun. But we lost. Poker was confusing. We lost again. Roulette was cool, but we lost yet again. Then we got to the slot machines. I was down to my last fifty dollars, and I settled in next to a gaudy machine that kept flashing red and blue lights, like a police car. An elderly lady had just left, cursing the casino, and the machine was open.
My cousin had already exhauster her funds. “This is why we were taught never to gamble. What a waste!” she lamented. But then something odd happened. I won. And not just a little bit. The chips kept coming out. In all, I won $4000 dollars. I was speechless. I had overdrawn my credit card the month before, and was $3000 over-limit. I needed that money, because having to ask my parents to pay would be humiliating, because they wouldn’t respect me for mismanaging my funds.
We left the casino after that. Walking back to our hotel, neither of us spoke. I was too stunned for speech. I had redeemed my chips and had a neat stack of fresh hundreds in my purse. My mind was blown. Right then and there, I decided that nursing wasn’t my thing, and that real estate was more what I considered a worthy way to spend my time. I knew my parents would balk at wasting their money on a good education, but I had decided.
I didn’t return to AC again for another three years. But since that time, I’ve gone more times than I could count. I even rented a limo to drive me down a few times. One time I opted for a vintage Bentley. Life is strange. We are directionless; I could not have predicted the events unfolding as they did, but apparently some random old man could. Maybe it was not so random after all.