A late night talk in Atlantic City showed David Perez that he was going to college for way more than a degree.
The Flagship Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey, is a subdued tower at the end of the Boardwalk. It is a quarter-mile or so from the gaudily painted and lighted casinos one sees when entering into town from the west, separated from the crumbling glamour down Atlantic Avenue by rows of abandoned houses and sandy, empty lots.
My family—two grandparents, an uncle, my mother, and myself—had come here since my childhood for Labor Day weekend in a ritual born from my grandparents’ affinity for gambling, all-you-can-eat buffets, and proximity to the ocean. I was unsure why I decided to come when I could have stayed on campus that weekend and probably partied myself into the usual stupor. The fact that I was only an hour away from campus and that I had come here on my own gave me either a built-in escape route or no chance of getting out of this obligation at all. At that particular moment, though, any break from the vortex of self-doubt and drudgery that college represented felt welcome.
Earlier that evening, I had wandered upstairs to find my uncle and mother drinking as my grandparents played the slots. I smiled as my mom opened the door, her eyelids somewhat heavy: “Heyyyy, Dave. Nice to see you! Walk me back to the room.” It was only down the hall, and I wasn’t in a mood to object. I heard a quick “good night” from my uncle as the door closed. Mom looked at me, put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Well, Dave, your uncle decided to make Cosmopolitans for me and, well, one was delicious so I had two, and two…well, two turned into four pretty quick.” We laughed.
A year or two earlier, I would have been uncomfortable seeing my mom lit like this, but I had two full years of college partying under my belt and my tolerance for shenanigans had increased. Turnabout was fair play, and there were many instances when I still lived at home where I had awkwardly entered the apartment in great cheer to an all-too-sober and disapproving Mom. Even so, many nights of enthusiastic consumption in the company of social deviants changed little. My Catholic schoolboy notions of propriety, though tenuous, would not die easily.
“I’m glad you could make out here for the weekend with us,” my Mom said, jokingly supporting herself on my shoulder.
“As am I. Too bad I can’t join you guys tonight, but I’ve got a ton of work.”
“Ehhhhh, you can’t take it all so seriously.” My mother looked at me suspiciously for a moment.
“You’re not even old enough to drink yet, what are you talking about?” Her eyes were a bit bloodshot. It was true, I was 19, though my age had never stopped me from drinking myself into lampshade-on-head states of idiocy. She didn’t know that, though—or at least that’s what I told myself. “Just messing with you,” she said as we walked back to the room. “Love you, kiddo. You’ll do just fine. Don’t work too hard.”
“I won’t,” I joked as I gave her a hug. The door closed, and I looked at the brick-sized book in my hand. War & Peace, my intellectual hubris in physical form. I needed coffee.
I got up to grab a cup of coffee and sneak a cigarette before reading. I came back inside five minutes later to a clutch of people loudly waiting for the elevator to bring them downstairs. From their attire and the similar bleary-eyed looks to the one my mother had earlier, it seems there had been a party in the restaurant down the hall.
“Get the hell off of me!” said one woman in an electric blue dress with matching heels. “You don’t touch me!”
“What are you talking about, woman? I didn’t even touch you. You need to back the fuck up,” said a man who may or may not have been her boyfriend. The social dynamics here were in flux, and I needed to evaluate the situation, quickly.
My apprehension was well founded, as she soon launched herself at him, incoherently yelling as she was restrained by a man and a woman. The perhaps-boyfriend turned away to me, as I was standing to a side waiting for an opportunity to pass by, and raised his eyebrows in incredulity and said: “That’s a jealous-ass bitch right there, man.”
“WHAT’D YOU SAY ABOUT ME, MOTHERFUCKER? RRRAAAAHHH!!!” This had devolved into a full-on scene, and I slipped right back outside as a drink flew at the maybe-boyfriend and people tried to mediate. Eventually, one elevator arrived, then another. The woman’s girlfriends calmed her enough to get her on the elevator, and they left, the woman still yelling. The boyfriend-or-whatever, still wearing a look of bemusement on his face, talked with some people in the hall, all of whom seemed to sympathize with him. They got on the other elevator, and I came back inside.
The only people left when I finished my cigarette was a couple making out against a wall and a middle-aged man dressed head to toe in white. The man was staring right at me and for a moment, I though it was Donnie. Donnie was the head cook at my college’s cafeteria, an expert procurer of cheesesteaks, and an occasional drinking buddy. I smiled, and nearly said “Whatup Donnie, what you doin’ here?” but his doppelgänger beat me to the punch: “Hey man, you got a light?” Spared an awkward moment, I fumbled in my pockets for a lighter. He really did look like Donnie, but he was taller, older, and had a slight paunch behind his linen shirt.
“No doubt,” I mumbled as I handed him my lighter. I checked the time on my cell phone: 12:13 AM. This was going all wrong.
I walked back into the lounge, War & Peace still on the seat. As I sat down and opened the book to page 150, I was surprised to see the man follow me in and plop himself down into the chair next to mine.
“Can you believe that shit?” he asked as he handed my lighter back to me and inhaled. I’d forgotten my lighter. Of course I had. I wasn’t aware that we could smoke inside. I’m pretty sure that we couldn’t, not that it mattered. I could smell the liquor on his breath as he spoke. Turnabout indeed.
“These women…” He trailed off and closed his eyes. “Crazy.”
“Man, that guy was on the dance floor and he starts dancing with a girl, right? Then that girl comes over, and says, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing, dancing with her?’ I said, ‘Ahh, shit, here we go,’ because I’d been dancing with her before and…” His explanation went on for 10 minutes. I yawned, said “Yeah, man” a lot, and lamented my lot in life.
The man’s expression, sleepy even as he described his failed attempts to get a woman to give him a real number, perked up when I replied “Of course” at one point during our one-sided dialogue. Fatigue and a few days around my family turned the word “course” into “cawse.” I noticed it as well, and of course it brought the inevitable question: “Hey, where you from, man?”
“New Yawk.” It was no use now. “The Bronx.”
“The Bronx?” He sat up. “You Puerto Rican?”
“Yup.” I turned toward him, and smiled. “You black?” We laughed, and he put a hand on my shoulder. “You got another cigarette? I’m flat out.” I pulled out two.
He was in his early 40s, a carpenter from Atlantic City, single, no kids, no college. Turns out that the party was some sort of singles night for locals gone awry and that there had been some hair pulling and watered-down drinks that I had missed out on. He shared many similarities to my bachelor carpenter uncle sleeping upstairs, save for the fact that my uncle would take a belt sander to my face if I ever offered him a cigarette. The work of a carpenter, as ever, was uneven, but he was grateful for what he had. As he talked, I picked the book off of the floor and brought it to my lap.
“It’s War & Peace. I gotta read it for school,” I said sheepishly. His eyebrows raised, then furrowed, as he looked at me and then looked at the book.
“Wait, you’ve gotta read that whole thing? Damn.” I smiled and shrugged.
“You do what you gotta do, you know?”
He then said something that I did not expect. “You gotta make it for us.”
I knew exactly what he meant, and I immediately felt guilty. After barely surviving my freshman year, I had settled into a pattern of avoiding class and any general responsibility while doing the minimum to keep myself afloat. As it was, even coasting at Swarthmore involved hard hours in the fortress-like library, and even this turned into an often-lost battle to hand my papers in on time. Given how much effort it had taken to get myself into a great college on scholarship, I felt a constant sense of disgust with myself. Not living up to his potential was a phrase that I feared more than any other, in part because I seemed to do a very good job of making my fears reality.
“You know how it is out here. Your folks, my folks, me—we didn’t have the chance to do what you’re doing. You’ve got to keep doing what you’re doing.” I mumbled my thanks and nodded. Receiving sage advice from drunken old folks was nothing new, as there had been many times during one of my mother’s parrandas growing up that some old fogey with a few beers in him took it upon themselves to throw an arm around me and share their secret in life. I learned to tune them out in the most polite way possible. This, though, felt different. He sounded like he actually meant it.
It was also a reminder that a lot of things had gone right my life. I was blessed with a great family, a sharp mind, and near-delusional idea of my capacity. While my fanatical self-belief had (mercifully) faded over time, the mantra I absorbed from watching too much Reading Rainbow (“IIIII can do anythiiiiiiing”) had taken me far. My life had not been some sort of Down These Mean Streets nightmare-scape, but I knew from both experience and what the demographic data said that Puerto Rican boys from single-parent households in the Bronx were as likely to end up incarcerated as in college. He knew the odds, too. His recognition and encouragement, even if it was on a very early Sunday morning with 4 or 5 drinks in him, was what I’d been seeking.
He took his leave of me shortly afterwards, leaving me to my thoughts and Tolstoy. I could no longer fight the urge to sleep, so I slipped upstairs and caught a few hours of rest. When I woke up, you gotta make it was the first and seemingly the only thought I could hear inside my head. After breakfast, I caught a train back to Philadelphia and opened up War & Peace. I was doing what I had to do, in no small part because an inebriated carpenter from Atlantic City gave me the confidence to do so.