This story takes place at an opulent casino and hotel in rough-and-ready Atlantic City many years ago. The Taj, as the locals called it, was a garish entertainment behemoth boasting over 2,000 rooms along with hundreds of table games, thousands of slot machines, and at least 15 restaurants, including Sultan’s Feast, an all-you-can-eat buffet where dinner costs a sultan’s fortune of $30. I have always been a fan of all- you-can-eat buffets, because I take the all-you-can-eat part as a dare.
When I get stressed I turn to comfort food, and my favorite comfort food is all the comfort foods in one place. Buffets are celebrations of waste and plenty; a successful civilization is one whose cup runneth over with gravy. One of the downsides of modern life, though, is the constant feeling of emptiness. A proper smorgasbord leaves me feeling full. I love that feeling.
At a buffet I can usually find foods that summon happy memories: casseroles that remind me of snow days, piles of pasta that recall Boy Scout potlucks, and shrimp — preferably piles of shrimp — that bring me back to a popular restaurant my family often visited after church service, whose all-you-can-eat buffet climaxed in a magnificent pyramid of tiny pink crustaceans.
But I wouldn’t say I found myself on a $15 bus to Atlantic City solely to visit a buffet. I didn’t have a plan, really — I was there just to escape problems that were nothing special: medical bills, wobbly employment, family crises. I sat next to an elderly woman who spoke of the Taj with wonder — she’d been told that the slots, which had always been “tight,” were recently “loosened” — and excitedly told me I’d get a gambling voucher when I got off the bus. She probably had problems of her own, too, but the promise of a payout beckoned to her, and the promise of a voucher cheered me. I had enough money for a round-trip bus ticket to Atlantic City and not much else.
This story has a happy ending, of sorts. That night I would wind up bent over plates of casserole and pasta and shrimp, but today I’m much better at managing my stress. I suffer through yoga. I have a therapist who teaches me how to breathe. I eat lots of farro, which is like rice with a New York Times subscription. But this was long before the Taj was shuttered forever, and I was doing the best I could.
The 17th-century emperor Shah Jahan built the white marble Taj Mahal — a masterpiece of Mughal architecture — to house the tomb of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child. The real Taj Mahal sits on the Yamuna River in India; Atlantic City’s flashy look-alike sat on the Atlantic Ocean in South Jersey. Both are, in their own ways, monuments to loss.
My seatmate grinned as we turned off the highway into Atlantic City. While Las Vegas’s glittering cathedrals of chance exist in a manufactured fantasy where adults can forget their worries and overindulge their senses for a reasonable price, its less ambitious northeastern cousin, Atlantic City, exists in reality. It offers its guests a nice boardwalk, a handful of casinos, and some dark, gritty corners where they can debauch themselves. That’s about it.
My seatmate asked me if I’d ever been to a casino before. A few here and there, I told her. “Well,” she said, “take my advice.” Then she sang the chorus of the classic Kenny Rogers tune “The Gambler”: “You got to know when to hold ’em / know when to fold ’em / know when to walk away / and know when to run.”
She giggled, then suggested I try video poker instead of slots because video poker is the slowest way to lose your money. “Do you know you get free drinks while you play?” I did know this, but I didn’t stop her. “I suggest you only drink whiskey sours or white Russians because they taste like candy,” she said.
We wished each other luck.
I walked up and down the famed boardwalk for a while. Seagulls honked. Little children fueled by cotton candy sprinted ahead of their parents. Once upon a time this place had been a wonderland of recreation, where working people could come enjoy the rare day off. It still is, but armies of one-armed bandits beckon. I could have spent the day moping in the sun, but I decided to go in, $10 voucher in my pocket. It was as good a plan as any.
The truth is that I quite like casinos. I’ve never been much of a gambler; I prefer to throw my money at booze or romance or video games. Money has always been a burden to me, but a casino is a place where it’s rendered an abstraction, where a dollar bill meant to pay a debt or rent is transformed into a fun ticket that makes colorful machines beep and boop and clang clang clang. It’s almost sacrilegious.
The Taj rang with the sound of quarters dancing out of slot machines. I took my seatmate’s advice and started out by playing video poker. I was dealt a hand of animated cards, held a pair, earned a few quarters. The next hand was bad and I lost a few quarters. I sipped a weak, sugary whiskey sour and won a few dollars, which I lost in the next game. Then I hit a small jackpot. It went on like this for two hours, until I had turned my $10 voucher into $35. Luck is all a matter of timing, so I stopped playing.
As I strolled around the casino with my winnings, I passed my seatmate. Her coin bucket was empty, but she was laughing. Friends — new or old, I couldn’t tell — were cheering her on. I would have caught a bus back to New York right then and there if I hadn’t passed by Sultan’s Feast. My stomach growled. I decided to commemorate my good fortune with a meal.
Like most casino buffets, Sultan’s Feast featured multiple stations manned by staff serving up gigantic portions of anything you could want. I had a strategy: I started by touring the bounty while lazily nibbling on a slice of pizza, like a royal adviser. I said no to chowder in a bread bowl; there is a time and a place for soup, but a buffet is neither. I passed by the prime-rib station, where a chef was carving slices under a red light; I knew the light was there to bring out the red of the beef, and that without it, the prime rib would most likely look like a gray, unappetizing plug of meat. Finally I hurried over to the seafood section and loaded up on plump steamed shrimp, careful to avoid the crab legs — always too little meat for the trouble.
I loaded up my tray with plates overflowing with pasta and meatballs, egg rolls, fried chicken, and macaroni and cheese. (If there was any traditional Indian cuisine, I didn’t see it.) At a table by myself, I peeled and ate three servings of shrimp, a gallon of cocktail sauce at my side. After I finished, I sat among my empty dishes like a sated predator surrounded by the bones of his prey. A few hours later, I was on the bus, heading back to New York City and all of my problems. At least my belly was full.