Last Days At The <strikethrough>TRUMP</strikethrough> Taj Mahal

Atlantic City often gets pegged as the East Coast Las Vegas, which is unfair to both of them seeing as how AC predates the westerly Sin City by half a century, and for all its indefensible crimes against culture, Las Vegas has yet to cede property to the tyrant king of tastelessness, somehow-president Donald Trump. For the better part of the 80s and 90s Atlantic City was Trump Town, a municipal monument to conspicuous consumption of the lowest, most brain-damaged variety.

If Vegas is the Great American Mirage, a manifestation of pure wealth sprouting from the sterile Nevada desert, then AC is the Great American Scam, where the very idea of money is stretched to its tackiest, least plausible breaking point. Nowhere on earth is as cheap looking — and my personal reference points include Soviet-built housing blocs in the Kazakh sticks as well as a DIY floating school in Nigeria’s largest slum. The casinos look like brutalist 70s government buildings wearing dollar-store casino costumes across their facades, and they tower over the most bombed-out residential strips this side of Gary, Indiana. Detroit looks like a Lecorbusier by comparison.

Growing up in Atlanta, I learned that running sky-bridges between buildings has less to do with projecting a futuristic aesthetic than with preventing members of the indoor class from having to observe or interact with the street-dwelling set, and Atlantic City’s resort blocs boast the most skywalks per capita of any city I’ve seen in America. Steve Wynn even convinced the city to build a direct off-ramp from the Atlantic City Expressway Connector to his would-be casino so that his out-of-town patrons wouldn’t have to pass through the city’s surface streets on their way to gamble. (Donald sued the city over this “private driveway” to Wynn’s property but withdrew the suit once he got his own exit; justice.)

All the safeguards aren’t keeping AC’s local low-rollers insulated from much. Even by casino standards, the resorts of Atlantic City’s boardwalk paint a dismal picture. It’s depressing enough to see the same dozen or so retail chains and restaurant franchises in cities across the country, but the absence of any chains is a very distinct sort of sad. It’s practically un-American. Apart from a Dunkin Donuts and a Howard Johnson that looked to be pushing 50, the strip along which the Tropicana, the Showboat, and the Taj Mahal all sit is as devoid of corporate signage as East Berlin in the 80s. The only residue of branding I saw was a billboard for Guy Fieri’s Chophouse-Steakhouse (evidently its proper name) sandwiched between stock images of suspiciously happy gamblers outside the very empty Bally’s Atlantic City. Even Guy’s frosted tips appeared weathered.

When Trump first set his eyes on the jewel of the Jersey Shore, legal gambling in Atlantic City was just six years old. Not even old enough to gamble itself! In what would become classic Trump fashion, the Donald masked his salivating bucklust with an air of arrogant pseudo-/not-quite-philanthropy. His first great You’re Welcome to the city came with Trump Plaza (né Harrah’s at Trump Plaza), built in partnership with gambling titan Harrah’s and quickly stripped of their name to distance the operation from their low-stakes reputation. Sorry, I mean to distance Trump’s operation from Harrah’s low-stakes reputation — I agree that could’ve gone either way. As reported in the New York Times, Harrah’s acquiesced to the rechristening “reluctantly” and “only in response to [Trump’s] frequent and impassioned requests.” After a year of shitty performance, Trump sued his partners for mismanaging the Plaza, telling the court “I gave them a Lambourghini and they didn’t know how to turn on the key.” Chalk it up to my middle-class upbringing that I didn’t know Lambos have keys that themselves need to be started.

Trump’s two major casinos, the Plaza and the Castle (site of syndicated game shows Yahtzee and Trump Card, hosted by Larry Hovis from Hogan’s Heroes and third-round NFL draft pick Jimmy Cefalo, respectively), stumbled along to moderate success through the end of the 80s before Trump pulled the trigger on his biggest eyesore yet, the Trump Taj Mahal. Pior to Trump’s involvement, the Taj’s original contracteur was James Crosby, whose first company, Unexcelled Chemicals, was fined for using child labor in the 1950s, and whose second, the Mary Carter Paint Company, was fined by the FTC for falsely advertising a “buy 1 get 1 free” offer on paint cans which were only sold as two-packs. That plucky little paint company became Resorts International when their business model shifted to casinos in the 1960s. It may also have been a CIA front involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion and included Meyer Lansky and the Rothschild family among its investors, depending how tinfoil-hat you want to get, but suffice it to say, not the squeakiestly clean of real estate concerns when Trump outbid Merv Griffin to buy it following James Crosby’s death.

While its namesake was built in memory of 17th-century Indian emperor Shah Jahan’s beloved wife, the Trump Taj Mahal was built in living memory of its new namesake. The word Trump was emblazoned not just on the casino’s exterior wherever space allowed, but upon every available surface therein. Chairbacks, matchbooks, phone directories, emergency escape-route maps all insistently reminded their user to whom they should direct their thanks. It wouldn’t surprise me if the bible in each room had an additional stamp on its flyleaf so that it read “Provided — TRUMP — by the Gideons International.”

The Trump Taj Mahal also cost roughly $300 million more to complete than its Indian predecessor (adjusting for over 300 years of inflation), although it did beat the Taj Mahal Agra to its grand opening in a third of the construction time. And how grand an opening it was! As Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous graciously publicized in 1990, the red-carpet inauguration of the Trump Taj Mahal was attended by then-unsullied Michael Jackson along with other turn-of-the-decade notables in a saturnalia of garish black-marble opulence and the kind of cretins who are drawn to it. A veritable bukkake of bad taste.

Twenty-seven years later to the day (give or take a few months) a much differently-attired mob crowded the Taj Mahal’s voluminous entryway. Well, honestly not that different. The line of untucked shirts and ill-fitting jeans snaked its way around the Taj’s port caleche and down the driveway, undeterred by the grey summer drizzle or the fact that it was a workday. A pair of Atlantic City cops directed incoming traffic to the sidestreets, past the closed and empty parking lot beneath the casino’s famous round sign, the ribbon above “Taj Mahal” bare white where bold red text once proclaimed its owner’s name. At some point before it closed last October, the word Trump had been methodically scrubbed from every place it had previously festooned. So methodically that there wasn’t even a palimpsest on any of the walls, chairs, tables, or placards that for decades had barked that commanding syllable at every passing eye.

Despite the newfound Trumplessness of the former Trump Taj Mahal, the pickers who queued patiently for the liquidation sale starting that morning had come not so much for the cut-rate deals on poker chairs and extremely well-used bed linens (the flatscreens may have been another matter), but for the opportunity to plunder the halls of our somehow-fucking president’s grand monument to winning, and to take home a memento mori of its ultimate loss. That or a pool umbrella.

The liquidation sale was being run, in remarkably hands-on fashion, by Don Hayes, whose company North Carolina LiquidatorS (NCLS) has been selling off the detritus of Trump’s failures for going on four decades. Perched on a stool in front of a display stage piled with sample goods — including a king- and queen-sized bed, several light fixtures, and three copies of the same framed print of a palm tree — Don explained the mechanics of the sale to each fresh wave of shoppers through the lobby in a five-minute spiel that sounded like it had been repeated somewhere in the thousands of times. Every item up for purchase had a tag with its price and item number (the sample goods bore oversize mockups for the near-sighted and easily confused); for big items or ones affixed to the wall you were supposed to write down the number on a little white form and bring that to the cashier — otherwise whatever you could carry to the elevator was yours. Don closed with a joke about dragging a bed into the lobby that he’d clearly ceased expecting laughter for sometime in the last decade. Then he wished everyone an awkward “happy shoppings” and gave himself a 30-second breather before starting again.

The NCLS staff was about as mixed as lots come; a haphazard assortment of college-age kids, folks just north of retirement age, and a middle ground that I could only describe as obvious job-seekers. Questions and more often than not the questioners too were directed to Don, who responded off-microphone and mid-spiel with the kind of patience that seems purchased at the eventual cost of sanity. His contempt for the type of customer this type of business entices to drive upward of three hours on a Thursday morning — a contempt he did a superhuman job of hiding through most of his interactions and in his general mien — nevertheless showed through his eyes during these impromptu Q&As, and with perfectly just cause.

My own questions abounded as I entered the lobby, though of a markedly different ilk than the ones taxing Don on his stool:

Who would buy all this crap? Or more pressingly, who would buy any of it?

Vases and planters a hand taller than me were arranged in rows three deep next to the old concierge’s desk. Each of the lobby’s three chandeliers bore a price tag in the low four figures. Surrounding the escalators stood a phalanx of waist-high clay garbage cans like the terra cotta warriors of Xi’an if they were garbage cans. I had my answer on this last item almost immediately: A mom and her teenage son were lugging a can to the somehow already 20-person-long checkout line.

“Do you guys run a hotel too?” I asked. “No,” said the teen, with a mysterious sense of excitement, “We’re going to put it in our backyard!” “Ah,” I said to them. “That makes sense,” I said to myself, to which myself replied, “Pardon?”

After selecting two pool loungers (25 bucks!) from a cordoned-off area of the old casino floor filled with outdoor furniture, I convinced an eager 20-something NCLS employee to watch my chairs and made my way to the elevator bank. The liquidation sale was being done floor by floor, with the top four open first and the next ones down to be unlocked as each preceding story was exhausted. Well, not quite the top — floors 46 through 50 had been readied to be rifled through — the 51st floor was the penthouse and off-limits to us liquidatees.

“I don’t even have the key to that floor,” confessed the elevator operator, another NCLSer. He let our car out on the highest floor he could access and everybody hustled down the un-air-conditioned hall to claim some crap. It was only half an hour into the sale but all the rooms looked picked clean. Actually, ransacked is a better word. There was nothing clean about it. Pillows and couch cushions strew the floors, mattresses lay half off the beds as if someone had hoped to find a wallet hidden beneath them or a cache of pornography, wallpaper was torn in wide strips halfway down from the ceiling. I unconsciously expected to see a murdered body every time I entered a bathroom. But no, just another heavily stained toilet.

The 49th and 50th floors’ suites were a little more promising. Brown leather sofas sat tagged in front of electric fireplaces, and a couple of VCRs and leopard print “fainting couches” were still up for grabs. The separate bedrooms had jacuzzis on a carpeted plinth surrounded by mirrors, naturally including the ceiling. On the control panel for the water jets of the first hot tub I saw, I noticed a square patch of glue where somebody had removed the instruction placard. And then again on the second one. It was only down the hall in a suite that hadn’t been fully stripped that I found one still attached and realized why these little metal signs were worth prying off: engraved at the top in drop-shadowed capslock were the words “TRUMP TAJ MAHAL.” They were the last overlooked indicators of the place’s once-proud owner.

At the end of the Trump Taj Mahal’s first year, the casino was poised to default on its investors. This wasn’t because it was doing bad business. Unlike the Plaza and the Castle, the latter of which famously raked in a whopping $250,000 in its first six months (undoubtedly Harrah’s fault, or their name’s, or somebody’s — not Donald’s though!), the Taj was something of a cash cow. So much so that it drove its competing sister properties into bankruptcy. The rub was that Trump, the credited author of the The Art of the Deal, had financed his endeavor with bonds tied to a 14% interest rate. To avoid having to declare bankruptcy right off the bat, Donald’s dad, Fred, stopped by the Taj and bought $3.35 million worth of chips, which is either a hell of a nice Christmas present or a severely illegal loan depending on whether or not you’re the New Jersey Commission on Casino Control.

Incidentally, the guy next to me in line the morning of the sale, a former card dealer at the Taj named Art, told me he hoped to buy a bunch of old chips and doctor them up to cash in at a solvent casino, though he eventually claimed to be joking. Whether or not he was (his accent made it tricky to tell), none of the casino’s old chips or cards was for sale. Maybe one of the other Trumps had attempted another last-ditch bailout.

In addition to all the tagged fineries, the Trump Taj Mahal left behind some 3,000 employees when it turned off its slots — about twice the number of jobless card dealers and bootblacks the Plaza left in its wake two years earlier.

Walkering down the hallway of the 50th floor was an older gent in a Trump Plaza windbreaker. His nurse was carrying a vase a few steps behind him. A few very slow steps behind him. When I asked what he did at the Plaza (my initial question, if he had in fact worked at the Plaza, was met with a Don Hayesian eyeroll) he said he “wandered the halls and answered questions,” which I’m only now recognizing for the withering burn it was. He then muttered, “Yep, it’s the end of an era.” When I asked him if it was the end of a good or a bad era he just kept moseying away and began to hum something I’m about 80% sure was “Que Sera Sera.”

At one end of the 50th floor was a club room with a kitchen and baby grand piano priced at a couple thousand bucks. As I clanked out the theme from Top Gun with my free hand and readjusted my grip on a $25 combination VCR/DVD player in the other, a boisterous young frat type came in carrying an armchair, tailed by his permissive girlfriend.

“Dude! You just missed me taking a shower!” he proudly announced. “No I didn’t,” I thought as I waited for the two to clear the room before trying my hand at the theme song from Life Goes On.

On the stairwell to the 49th floor I bumped into a local news crew, one of at least four covering the sale as evidenced by the number of microwave vans in the driveway, and immediately thought of the proud showerer and his poor, poor girlfriend. Sure enough, if you google-news Trump Taj Mahal, there are multiple stories of a young man taking a shower (in his boxers (lame)) during the liquidation sale, with his girlfriend standing there, holding the chair, going, “I can’t believe you’re doing it, Chet.” Multiple stories. On days like these, I can see why Trump hates the fucking press.

Although the original decor didn’t meet most people’s (present company excluded) definition of classy, I was disappointed to learn that at some point following Lifestyle’s 1990 exposé, the Trump Taj Mahal had undergone a full refurnishing. The black marble countertops in the suites and maroon bidets still bore the stamp of Donald’s aesthetic imprimatur, but otherwise the color palette was the muted mousey browns and cremes that Crate & Barrel was hawking in the mid-00s.

No one expects a New Jersey casino owned by Donald Trump to be tastefully accoutered. No one, apparently, but Donald Trump.

This is to me the man’s cardinal sin — above the bullying, the smug bravado, the aggro business practices, the illiteracy (both social and regular), the open lying, the bad diet — as well as potentially the root cause of all the above: The guy has no sense of self-awareness. None whatsoever. A self-aware Donald Trump (just attempt the paradox with me) would embrace his tackiness. He would take a poker den named for one of the greatest architectural marvels in human history and just garish the ever-loving shit out of the place. Neon lights, leopard print everything, infinity mirrors on all the walls, not just his name but his FACE staring at you from chips and matchbooks and the backs of chairs. Instead, you have this pathetic suburban mom attempt at class: decorative wicker balls, brass pineapple finials on the bedposts — burnished brass, not shiny — faux archaeological stoneworks mounted on the walls and labeled “pop art” (this one could be NCLS’s fault).

These are the signifiers of a person who earnestly believes himself to be the paragon of wealthy refinement; the housewares equivalents of his scotch-taped neckties and million-dollar weave. As Esquire reporter and all-around master journalist Ron Rosenbaum discovered when he interviewed Trump in the mid-80s about his desire to negotiate nuclear arms talks with the Soviets and France, there isn’t an iota of irony in Donald’s worldview or self-appraisal. He believes everything he says and assumes the rest of us do too. Hence his insistence on declaring criticism of him categorically “false.” This is even spookier in light of his outings in supposed self-parody. When he takes the ring in Wrestlemania Whichever to piledrive whoeveritwas, he isn’t joking. Look at his face: This is a man who believes he’s the type of natural “tough” who can take a ripped 20-year-old athlete to the floor.

Back in the lobby the checkout line had grown longer than the entry line, which itself was — against all logic — still growing as the rain kept coming down. Someone from NCLS had found a stable of luggage carts for shoppers to haul their loot in. I requested one to make my pile more portable, but the waiting list was 12 names deep. By this point I had accumulated an electric fireplace, a poker chair, two large framed prints (one of the original Taj Mahal, a comparison I wouldn’t have been eager to draw were I in the interior decorator’s shoes), an orange patio umbrella without a base, the lounge chairs, and a folding luggage rack, oh yeah! and my DVD/VCR, all being dutifully minded by my young NCLS staffer, who informed me he’d had to chase away numerous scavengers while I was upstairs — probably humping for a tip. I left the goods in his care once more to see what everyone else had scrounged.

Two young ladies had stacked a dining room’s worth of chairs on their carts in the teetering manner of a classic acrobatic routine. “Saves me from having to go to Ikea!” one of them cheerfully chirped by way of explanation.

Two middle-age men behind her seemed to have secured every lamp shaped like a camel from the open floors, some 15 total. “We’re going to keep these in a closet to give out as gifts,” they reasoned, as much to me it sounded like as to themselves or each other. Nestled amid the lampshades was their real score, an ice bucket with “TRUMP Hotels & Casino Resorts” printed on one side. This was the original name of Trump Entertainment Resorts, Inc., the company Trump founded in the mid-90s and to whom he sold the Taj for $890 million as a way of shuffling around the mountainous debts he’d accrued in its construction and first year of operation. Without snitching on my lamp buddies, I checked in with Don Hayes on the status of such rare Trump-branded merch.

“Those should have all been cleared out,” he told me, “We can get sued for selling anything with his name on it. He’s done it before. If anybody finds anything with Trump on it, it’ll be taken and thrown in the garbage.”

I nervously felt my pockets for the shape of the jacuzzi placard, as well as two travel-size bottles of Trump-brand mouthwash and moisturizer I’d discovered rifling through the drawer of the lobby shoeshine station. Don had fielded enough questions, I decided, as I returned to my pile and set to figuring out how to lug it into line for checkout.

The failure of the Taj Mahal isn’t much of a shocker for today’s Atlantic City. Two years before its closure, four of the other big boardwalk casinos bit the dust, including Trump Plaza. It’s a hard racket. And Donald pulled out all the stops to try and make it work. He opened a franchise of loathsome NYC strip club Scores in the main building. He tried to use eminent domain to evict octogenarian homeowner Vera Coker from her octogenarian home so he could annex the property. He even filed a lawsuit to prevent Stockton University from using the neighboring Showboat casino as a campus instead of a gambling warren (college kids are notorious low-rollers).

It’s possible that his accumulation of terrible karma is what finally 86'd him from AC, but as Trump supporters love to point out, every successful businessman has a few failures under their belt. Of course, if Trump truly bought into this defense you’d think he wouldn’t mind having his name on old casino flotsam being sold to the kind of chuckleheads who’d dedicate a Thursday morning to standing in line for the honor of buying them. It feels like “You win some, you lose some” — like most books in his house — is a saying Trump’s never read past the first comma.

In Percy Shelley’s meditation on vanitas “Ozymandias,” helpfully digested for Trump-style movie-learners by the villainous robot in Aliens: Covenant, the titular pharoah has ironically foretold the crumbling of his glorious empire by engraving on the plinth of his leggy statue the injunction: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”

In Trump’s version, the epitaph would have been sandblasted clean years before the traveller from an antique land surveyed the colossal wreck and he’d be prevented by court order from mentioning the decay round which the lone and level sands stretch far away.

And in the meantime, of course, dude is still cranking out plenty of works to look on and despair.

Originally written July 15, 2017

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