I started teaching in Atlantic City “B.C.”—which means before casinos. First day of school, September, 1976, the superintendent welcomed the staff by urging us to get everyone we knew to vote for the casino referendum coming up in November. “If we don’t have casinos,” he warned, “Atlantic City will become like Asbury Park.”
I taught English to ninth graders with less than third grade reading levels. They were officially called “Terminal.” True, these kids didn’t have a lot going for them, and more than a few never made it out of their teens, but they should never have been called Terminal. And as hard as most of my colleagues and I tried, few of them were capable of doing academic work and going to college.
“We be Dops” one of them told me that first year.
“What’s a Dop?” I asked.
“Man, you don’t know shit,” the kid answered, and he was right. I didn’t “know shit,” but neither did he. In fact, none of them could tell me what Dop meant, but that didn’t stop them from calling themselves Dops. A few months ago I ran into a former colleague. “By the way,” I asked, “did you ever hear the word ‘Dop’?”
He started laughing. “That’s what Smitty used to call his numbnuts.” Smitty (his name has been changed to protect the guilty) was a special education teacher. “Dummies on Parade,” he answered.
Eventually, my students instructed me what to call them. They added to “We be Dops” by saying “We be bad” and “We be freshmans,” so I called them “We-bees.”
Fast forward fifteen years to May, 1991, right before the Memorial Day weekend. My “We-bees” were lobbying for a free period. “C’mon, man,” one girl said. “Why can’t we just not do nothing.” A perfect triple negative. Her friend looked at her and said, “That’s why.”
I started the lesson that day with a poem. I picked up a paper and began to read Edward Arlington Robinson’s poem, “Richard Cory.”
“I wish I was that rich,” said one “We-bee.”
“Me, too,” said another.
They asked why he shot himself. One student responded and said he did it because he was unhappy—and that’s what unhappy people did.
What my students were saying, though they didn’t have the language for it, was that Donald Trump doesn’t have enough of an inner life to kill himself.
“Man,” said another, “he’s just like Donald Trump.” Then there was silence as they considered this. There was rarely silence in this class, but they all knew who Donald Trump was, and he demanded serious silence. Trump dominated the Atlantic City skyline in huge letters on three of the dozen casinos operating at the time. Thanks to him, Atlantic City was the boxing capital of the world with prize fights taking place at casinos and the famous Convention Hall, which was connected by an indoor walkway to the Trump Plaza next door. Evander Holyfield had just battered George Foreman a few weeks earlier in a Trump-sponsored contest that was billed as “The Battle of the Ages.” It was the highest-grossing boxing match of all time and held that record for three years.
Although Trump was at the peak of his fortune in 1991, not everything was going Great. His first divorce was Huge, and his centerpiece casino, the Taj Mahal, which opened the previous year with Michael Jackson and a crowd of 70,000 in attendance, was about to go into its first bankruptcy.
Finally, a girl spoke up and said her mother worked for Donald Trump. Another student added that her grandmother did too. One chimed in that Trump was rich, really rich, but didn’t seem human. They considered if Trump would ever kill himself.
“Nah, he too greedy,” one wee-bee finally said.
I hadn’t said anything since reading the poem. They were sitting in their seats, thinking hard, comparing the Donald Trump they knew to the “admirably schooled gentleman,” Richard Cory. What they were saying, though they didn’t have the language for it, was that Donald Trump doesn’t have enough of an inner life to kill himself.
Six years later, Mark Singer, writing in the New Yorker, came to the same conclusion. “‘Trump’—a fellow with universal recognition but with a suspicion that an interior life was an intolerable inconvenience, a creature everywhere and nowhere, uniquely capable of inhabiting it all at once, all alone” (May 19, 1997). And more recently, Trump was quoted in The New York Times, “When you start studying yourself too deeply, you start seeing things that maybe you don’t want to see” (September 8, 2015).
In the first Republican Presidential debate Donald Trump bragged, “I had the good sense, and I’ve gotten a lot of credit in the financial pages, seven years ago I left Atlantic City before it totally cratered, and I made a lot of money in Atlantic City, and I’m very proud of it. I want to tell you that. Very, very proud of it” (August 6, 2015).
Trump was infamous for stiffing his contractors, forcing many to declare bankruptcy, a tactic he used himself four times when his casinos failed.
We’ll never know what the fictional Richard Cory did to earn his fortune, whether he created his own empire or inherited it, but we do know that Donald Trump received “a small loan of $1 million” from his father to get started” (CNN.com, October 27, 2015). While we don’t know what happened to Cory’s “people on the pavement” after he pulled the trigger, we have reams of information about Trump’s rise and fall in Atlantic City, and while he may have “fluttered pulses,” it hasn’t been very glittery for those left behind. Trump was infamous for stiffing his contractors, forcing many to declare bankruptcy, a tactic he used himself four times when his casinos failed.
Casinos spend a lot of time and money to make us believe the fantasy that we can beat the house. However, few people become millionaires by pulling a handle and coming up with three cherries or doubling down on Twenty-one. In fact, the casinos call their business Gaming, not Gambling, so people forget what they’re doing there. Before Atlantic City became successful, Wall Street ignored the industry. But once the millions started rolling in, they became interested. Trouble is, investment banks acted like delusional players hurling dice across the felt to make a killing.
In 1990, Marvin Roffman, a Philadelphia securities analyst at Janney Montgomery, posted a negative financial report about the soon to open Taj Mahal saying that it would be unable to pay its bonds. Trump threatened to sue the firm if he didn’t recant. Roffman refused and was fired. He in turn sued both, and was awarded $750,000 from Janney and an undisclosed amount from Trump. “I did not come here to bury Donald Trump,” Roffman gloated after Trump failed to make a $47 million interest payment a few months later. “He does a pretty good job of that himself” (Philadelphia Inquirer, October 4, 1991). While Trump’s name is still emblazoned on the Taj Mahal, he no longer owns it.
I began my next class that day, honors English, by again reading “Richard Cory.” What followed was a thorough, but dull by honors standards, discussion of the poem. No one made the connection to Donald Trump. I included “Richard Cory” in my lessons for the remaining decades of my career, but that magical conversation never happened again. “Richard Cory” was just another thing that some kids liked and some kids didn’t.
Atlantic City A.D., after Donald, is hurting. While he may be proud of the money he made here, most people I know are glad he’s gone. That said, the only thing worse than working for a mean-spirited, self-centered boss is not working at all. Since the 2008 financial collapse and the approval of legalized gambling in neighboring Pennsylvania and New York, four Atlantic City casinos have closed, putting thousands out of work, not just in the gaming houses, but in the bakeries, dry cleaners, florists, limousine services, bars, and restaurants that support the industry and its employees. Even the bottom feeders, the twenty-four-hour “Cash for Gold” pawn shops along Pacific Avenue, have been shutting down. Atlantic County has the highest foreclosure rate in the country for more than a year. Each Monday, the local paper dedicates a dozen pages of its sports section to Sheriff Sales.
After a poetry reading I gave at the Atlantic City Free Public Library last year, a man told me his name and asked if I remembered him. Robert was African American, mid-fifties or so, average height, dressed like he just came from work at a construction site. “Sorry, you’ll have to help me.” He said that he had been my student in ninth grade in 1976, my first year teaching. He was one of the original “We-bees.” He was proud to tell me that he graduated from high school, has a family and a job and that he’s doing all right. I hugged him. I wanted to cry.
I think of the 1991 class of terminal students who read “Richard Cory” and realized what millions of Americans have not about a man who might become the next President. I wonder where those “We-bees” are today and what their lives are like. I hope that, like Robert, they have families and are happy. I hope they have good jobs and are productive. I hope they be registered to vote.