“He’s not the worst. Wait’ll you see what comes next.”
“Trump is nobody,” said Juliana Lykins. It was Friday, October 7th and at the Pic-a-Lilli Pub off the boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Lykins moved to Buck’s County, Pennsylvania in 2013 to run a farm, but she does marketing for small businesses and was in town picking up some checks from clients. “Down here, he is nobody and he doesn’t mean anything. He’s a shitty name on a building that fucked over poor people.”
According to Lykins, New Jersey’s first seaside resort town was about thirty miles north of Atlantic City. A tiny, windswept place called Tucker’s Island, it seems notable mainly for the bad luck that befell its residents. Children died in unusually large numbers and houses fell into the sea as the island steadily shrank. By 1952, it had disappeared completely.
When I left New York that afternoon, it was warm and the sun was out. In Philly a guy bummed a cigarette off of me and then burped the alphabet, which I think is Philly for “Thank You.” By the time I got to Jersey, the hot mic recording of Trump and Billy Bush had been out for hours and high-ranking Republicans were starting to jump ship. It was the last weekend of the Trump Taj Mahal and Atlantic City had a little less than a month to come up with a budget agreement that would avoid a state takeover.
“Burn it down,” Lykins told me, when I asked what she thought about the city’s financial future. I laughed, but she just took a bite of her buffalo roll and chewed evenly. “I hope it worse than defaults. Yeah, I think we should burn it to the ground. Last pirate on the island is king.”
The Trump Taj Mahal opened twenty-six years ago, on April 2, 1990. By now you’ve probably seen the GIF — Trump standing next to a tacky magic lantern, waving in the direction of the Showboat casino. Financed with junk bonds that carried impossibly high interest rates, the Taj had financial problems even when Atlantic City was booming and quickly sank when casino revenue began to dry up. Trump’s close friend, Carl Icahn, bought the casino out of bankruptcy court in 2014, but refused to reinstate workers’ healthcare and benefits, and since then he’s been locked in a battle with UNITE Here Local 54, which represents about 1,000 employees.
Like Trump, Carl Icahn grew up in Queens. The son of a failed opera singer, he’s in the habit of writing open letters on CarlIcahn.com to his casino employees, telling them that he, a billionaire frequently described as “ruthless,” has their best interests at heart and their union is what’s really screwing them. On August 3 of this year, it was announced that the Taj Mahal would be shutting down after Labor Day. Icahn claimed the union had “single-handedly blocked any path to profitability.”
“This was a great job for a long time,” said Christine Condos, a cocktail waitress who’s worked at the Taj Mahal since its opening day. “For people like waitresses, bartenders, housekeepers, bellmen, cooks. I mean this was a job where you could raise your family, provide benefits for them. Icahn talks about the spoiled people with the nice cars — -he’s talking about the floor guys. And I’m not saying they were spoiled! I’m saying they did a job, for which they were paid.”
By the time the casino closed, the Taj Mahal strike had lasted 102 days, the longest in Atlantic City’s history. “Haven’t had a raise in twelve years,” said Condos. She led me down to the boardwalk, where the union had set up tents and were holding the picket line in shifts. “[Icahn] was just using us as a laundromat. I went back to school, I got my degree. I’ll be okay, but there’s people — when we started here 27 years ago there were no computers. Some of these people [have never made] a resume.”
On one of the Taj Mahal’s boardwalk columns is a makeshift memorial to Esau Ivon Madrid, a cafeteria attendant who died of a heart attack a few weeks into the strike. According to union officials, Madrid was sending about eighty percent of his income to his children in Honduras and didn’t qualify for Medicaid. Gregory Natale Sr., a bartender who’s worked at the Taj since 1990, takes fourteen pills a day after he had a heart attack at his work station in 2012. Condos is a cancer survivor.
Unions have been a mainstay in Atlantic City’s casinos and they’re becoming increasingly prevalent in New York City hotels, but generally speaking, service and hospitality jobs that provide benefits are pretty hard to come by. According to the U.S. News & World Report, seven out of ten of the lowest paying jobs are in food service, and it’s not an industry that gets easier as you age, especially for women. It doesn’t matter how good you are at your job — getting hired as a cocktail waitress past forty is nearly impossible. A union is your best chance at survival, let alone stability.
“I’m a one-trick pony, I’ve been in the casino business thirty years,” said Curtis, a dealer at the Taj Mahal. He’s been offered a job in Maryland, but, reluctant to move, he’s working for a driving company at the moment. Many are considering moving to Maryland or Philadelphia as the threat of casinos opening in North Jersey looms. According the Chicago Tribune, Atlantic City has already lost 11,000 jobs due to casino closure since 2014. “When we lost our health care we lost everything,” Condos says. “I know the message is, ‘Oh, we won, he’s shutting down.’ No, he won.”
When the Taj first opened Trump famously called it, “the eighth wonder of the world.” When it was busy it looked like a weird, gaudy mall, but abandoned it finally had a certain romance — somewhere between Roman ruin and chill funeral home. “Management, like everybody else, gave up a long time ago,” said Curtis. “Place is run down; insects, mice. They just let it go.”
At the center of the building, three enormous chandeliers hung over a golden elevator. The only person in sight that day was a woman in an Ocean City, Maryland sweatshirt, who put her cigarette out in her drink and spat on the floor. A security guard stood stared blankly at a Wonder Woman game. Inside the casino newsstand, they were still selling Trump t-shirts and bobbleheads.
The boardwalk is especially quiet in the off season. Without ambient noise, all that could be heard were ads and music, piped out from a casino or a bar or a Cash-for-Gold place. Televisions along the railing kept playing an abbreviated, rockabilly cover of Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” that obfuscates the fact that the actual song is very sad. Outside the front entrance to the Taj Mahal, a bunch of severed fish heads were scattered around the sidewalk. They didn’t seem prominently displayed enough to be the work of protesters, they were just sort of there.
As an organization, Local 54 is strongly anti-Trump — according to Eater they’ve recently launched a boycott of his businesses — but internally there’s more ambivalence. There are a few vocal Clinton supporters, but the vast majority seems quiet and worried. “I mean he got a lot of people to vote,” said Pedro Martinez, a room-service cook, of Trump. Martinez has worked at the Taj Mahal for ten years and used to play hide and seek there as a kid. “All of my family, they’ve never voted before, now they have to ’cause they don’t want him to win.”
“We’ve reached out to Trump many times,” Christine Condos told me. (New Jersey Senators Cory Booker and Steve Sweeney have both supported the strike, as has Hillary Clinton.) “We think that if your name is on a building, you would want your name off that building. Or you would wanna do something about it. You’re the guy who came down here and did this. You showed other people — you gave them an avenue and a map — to do this to the middle class.”
I was introduced to three different people over the weekend, each of whom I was assured was Mister Atlantic City. As in, “Oh, you gotta talk to this guy, he knows everything.” One was a bartender, one was a limo driver, and one of them I think just hung out on a bench most of the time. None of them was voting for Trump, all of them agreed the issues he’d been campaigning on were insane, but as far as his effect on their hometown — they shrugged.
“I mean yeah, he had some bankruptcies,” said one Mr. Atlantic City, a bartender at the Chelsea Inn. “Bankruptcy is a way of life here.”
“He’s not the worst,” warned another. “Wait’ll you see what comes next.”
The last night of the Trump Taj, a Bon Jovi cover band played on the boardwalk across from the picketers. No one seemed to know who was responsible for booking the band. It wasn’t organized by the hotel or the union and frankly it seemed very cruel. These people were all about to lose their jobs, what kind of monster would make them listen to Bon Jovi.
Inside the casino, the debate began, playing on mute over the handful of gamblers inside. No one seemed to care. Someone had set up a flatscreen TV and the strikers were huddled around it, watching Trump squint into the camera. A man dressed as Neil Diamond walked up, wearing bell bottoms and a turquoise, sequined shirt. “It’s just such a small wig and I have such a big head,” I heard him tell someone.
They were with Triumph the Comic Insult Dog, whose handlers were responsible for the Bon Jovi cover band and the TV. He talked to some strikers and made a joke about a toilet. (“The Oval Office” was the punch line.) Off to the side, Neil Diamond checked his hair in the mirror. The strikers mostly just looked cold, but eventually they started laughing and the dog’s handlers began trying to recruit a group of bros who were walking down the boardwalk. Reluctant at first, they were won over pretty quickly. “We’re gonna be on Conan, dude!” They talked to the dog.
At around two in the morning, with four hours left until the closing I tried to find a place in the casino to get a beer. People seemed to have drinks, but it wasn’t clear where they were coming from. Two women sat on the steps, holding plastic wine glasses and laughing. At what looked like it may have once been a bar, a man was watching the circle of televisions, all of them playing ads for missing girls.
As of 5:59 a.m. on Monday, October 10, the Trump Taj Mahal shut down, and 2,800 people lost their jobs. No one I spoke to believes it will stay closed though; they’re convinced Icahn is just waiting until next summer, when he’ll open it up as a non-union facility. Taj Mahal management denied this, although workers were doing repairs on the facade even on its last day. When I left for the bus station, about two hundred members of Local 54 were pressed against the doors on the boardwalk, chanting “We’ll be back.”