Gut Instinct: Sin and Surf

art19719nar Are you taking us to the bar surrounded by police caution tape?” my friend Kelly asks, pulling on a Camel Light in the cool, salt-breezed Atlantic City night.

“Umm…” I mumble, transfixed by the dark bar bathed in flashing red-and-blue cop lights.

“Nice choice, bar writer,” says Kelly, a compatriot who’ll soon be betrothed. Our adventure to Atlantic City was planned as one last hurrah, a rampage on Las Vegas by the sea: quarter peepshows, stale-beer dives, all-night pawnshops eager to exchange gold for cash. Let zombie-eyed grandparents pump quarters into the slots—we craved rough trade.

Till this 2:14 a.m. moment, the day was a sordid triumph. After arriving via the clean, comfy ACES train (it knocks the socks off crowded casino buses), we devoured overstuffed coldcut heroes at White House Sub Shop (2301 Arctic Ave.,609- 345-1564), where Frank Sinatra’s used towel is proudly displayed, before slurping hoppy All-American IPAs at microbrewery Tun Tavern (2 Miss America Way, 609-347-7800). At Kelly’s Corner Pub, filled with broken men wearing sweatpants, we chugged seven-ounce Bud bottles, served in an icepacked pail. “It’s six times the happiness,” said one bearded boozer, patting his bucket as if it were his trusty basset hound.

Now, our pudding legs have powered us down the wooden boardwalk to the Irish Pub and Inn (164 St. James Pl., 609- 344-9063). The local institution is outfitted with dark wood, live Gaelic balladeers and recession-cheap burgers. Better yet, the Pub never shutters—well, until now. But like an intoxicated Boy Scout, I’m always prepared: “Plan B,” I tell Kelly, directing us across the block to the Pic-a-Lilli Pub (231 S.Tennessee Ave., 609-344-1113). The elbow-worn saloon contains a scratched horseshoe-shape bar, where several drunken Jerseyites are pretending to be Canadian (“We’ve got nationalized health care, eh,” says one, apropos of nothing) and a haggard duo wearing do rags are enthusiastically swapping spit.

“Love’s in the air tonight,” says the pin-thin bartender, pouring us 32-ounce pitchers of Bud. Against my gut’s better judgment, I also order chicken wings and Buffalo-style onion rings—deep-fried onions swaddled in spicy, oil-thick wing sauce.

“It’s greasy genius,” I tell Kelly, feeling as if I’ve discovered a new and impossibly delicious species of animal.Too bad the rings read better than they taste:These novel ovals are artery-hardening evil.They’re as messy as the meaty, crispy wings but unsatisfying, like getting a lap dance while wearing corduroy pants.

“Shh! Shh! Quiet down, everyone!” the bartender commands, cranking up the TV newscast’s volume.The kids stop mimicking Canucks, the couple ceases tonsil hockey. Kelly and I watch as a reporter stationed in front of the Irish Pub details a tragedy that occurred hours earlier: a psycho stabbed two employees, breaking a bouncer’s heart with his blade.

“You tried taking me to a murder scene,” says Kelly, aghast.

“It’s not like these things were planned,” I reply, soothing frazzled nerves with foamy beer. Danger, I reasoned, is forever intertwined with escapist Atlantic City, an anything’s-possible town where dashed dreams and desperation crash into town like frothing ocean surf. Win big, lose bigger, narrowly miss a murder, meet a biker named Wildman.

“What’re you doing at the Pic?” asks the African-American biker, a septuagenarian wearing a leather coat displaying his name and numerous stained patches.

“We were celebrating,” I say, motioning to our inexpensive suds and gnawed wings. It seems bad form to be festive, what with the nearby crime scene and all.

“This ain’t the spot to celebrate,” Wildman says. “Come with me to La Grande Fromage. I’ll give you a ride in my van.”

“Aren’t you a biker?” I ask.

“Tonight, I’m driving the van.”

“What can we expect at the La Grande Fromage?”—the big cheese, in English.

“Excitement, cheap beer and casino workers,” Wildman says, his eyes drifting off to a faraway, happy place. “I’ll drive you.” He burps beer and awaits our answer. It’s now 4 a.m. La Grande Fromage serves drinks till 8 a.m. In New York City, the night would be lurching to completion. But in sweet, seedy Atlantic City, the night is still young.The eve is pregnant with endless possibilities, both good and, at this hour of irrational judgment, bad.

“Excitement?” I ask Wildman, gathering my coat and bag.

“Excitement,” he says, standing up and leading us into the coming dawn.