ATLANTIC CITY, NJ — Of all the slot machines on the Borgata's desolate floor Friday night, four had the steadiest stream of players — mostly women, mostly alone, though some men were drawn to the double-screens and neon pink lights, too. They glowed: Charlotte, Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Mr. Big.
"I love this game," says Jennifer Hess, 43, parked at the Sex and the City slots. "I've been here half-an-hour and won $90 already."
It's 8:30 p.m. She orders a coffee and cream from a waitress in a black bustier and fishnets, then bids $5 more.
"You've got to be a fan, though. You've got to know the story," Hess says. "I made my dad play once and he just didn't get it."
A reported 10 of the 12 Atlantic City casinos opened Friday — their first day back in business since Oct. 28, the eve of Sandy's landfall near the gambling town. No casinos released their numbers Saturday, but the upscale Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa seemed busy compared to the others, despite its closed shops, restaurants (including Wolfgang Puck and Bobby Flay properties) and nightclubs. Along with Harrah's and Golden Nugget, it's positioned far from the damaged Atlantic City boardwalk, more convenient to the highway.
Still, by Friday night standards, the place was dead — row after row of empty slots and green felt-top tables. It could have been a Tuesday morning, except for the packed bar and keno room. And, of course, Sex and the City.
"The Borgata is my happy place. If I'm gonna spend my money, this is where I'm gonna do it," says Hess, eyes still on the machine. "I think people here need a stress reliever right now. I do."
Hess is an administrator at a nursing home in Ocean View, about 30 miles south of Atlantic City. The home has 126 nursing patients and 55 assisted living residents. The management team slept at the facility for three nights, Hess says, tending to patients and reassuring them that everything was OK during Sandy and its aftermath. They were ready to evacuate if the power went out. "Miraculously," Hess says, it never did.
Tonight she needed something to take her mind off work. She called a girlfriend as soon as she heard the Borgata was open and drove up from her home in Stone Harbor, a Jersey borough far enough south to have dodged Sandy's assault.
Hess says she's not a frequent gambler. In fact, alongside the chain-smoking, geriatric regulars, the Borgota is full of people tonight who don't identify as frequent gamblers. They're Sandy survivors, looking for something to do on the first Friday night after the most damaging storm in state history. The casino offers a new kind of post-storm service — a shelter for the restless, those who need distraction.
Like Angie Sciarillo, a 36-year-old from Margate City, a shore town five miles south of Atlantic City. She evacuated with her three daughters — a 4, 10 and 12-year-old — early this week, driving the girls to Pennsylvania to stay at the hotel where her husband works, then back to her sister's place in Jersey when the hotel lost power, then back to Margate when the bridge re-opened and heat and electricity were restored.
"I needed to get out of the house tonight, so I asked my mom to babysit and drove up by myself," Sciarillo says. "It's been a long week. My girls have been fighting, and all I hear is cheer routines, and all I smell is nail polish. That's their thing right now."
The destruction in Jersey is awful, Sciarillo says, but she thinks reports in Atlantic City are overblown. Driving in at night, it's hard to spot the damage, unless you're near the boardwalk. The lights still dance at Bally's and Trump's Taj Mahal, even if there's no one to see them.
"All they show on TV is the flooded inlet," she says. "Well, the inlet always floods during a storm. It's not as bad as people think."
Kelly, a 44-year-old from the shore, is playing the Monopoly slots at Borgata a few rows over from Sex and the City. She asks that I not use her last name, then leans in to tell me I shouldn't order a drink with ice tonight — there's still concern about water contamination, despite officials dropping the boiling water advisory. She says I should come back on a "real AC weekend."
"Normally this place is packed," Kelly says, drinking a Corona. "You can't even get a seat at Sex and the City."
Back there, 20 minutes later, Hess is still playing. She says her winnings will go to her pet boston terrier, a therapy dog at the nursing home.
"I need to buy him some fancy biscuits," she says. "But that's me — I'm a Charlotte."