I was in what used to be a high-roller lounge. It’s on the 50th floor of the former Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City.
End tables, beds, wall decorations, chairs, couches, bibles, remote controls and whatever else was left in the Taj when it closed last October had been strewn about the rooms, and the high-roller lounge is no different. Still, the crystal chandeliers, seven-armed sconces, baby grand piano, and mirrored walls do give it the whiff of faded luxury.
For one woman behind me, it’s a sign of the opulence of one man. “Ooooh, wow,” she cooed. “He really spared no expense.”
He, of course, is Donald Trump, former owner of the Trump Taj Mahal and two other Atlantic City casinos, and incumbent president of the United States. At one time, Trump had four casinos in the shore city. One has been demolished, another is empty, and a third has a different name and is owned by the same company that owns Bubba Gump Shrimp and Rainforest Cafe.
Then there’s the Taj Mahal, which originally began as a project of neighboring Resorts Casino. The Taj ran into financing problems, which led to a bidding war for the company between Trump and Merv Griffin. Lawsuits followed. The press took sides. Eventually, Griffin got Resorts and Trump got the Taj. Trump added his name to the building and financed the remaining construction with $675 million in junk bonds paying 14 percent interest.
In all, the Taj cost $1.2 billion. That woman was right: Trump didn’t spare any expense. In a segment for Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Robin Leach compared the casino’s April 1990 opening to Beatlemania. The casino took in $2 million on its first day.
It wasn’t enough—from the beginning, analysts predicted the Taj wasn’t going to make enough to stay afloat. They were right. Laden with debt, the Taj, which would eventually be slapped with fines for “significant and long-standing” money laundering, and had ties to Hong Kong organized crime, was in bankruptcy by 1991. Trump’s casinos would go through five bankruptcies in Atlantic City, with the future president’s ownership share dropping to just 10 percent in the end, essentially a licensing deal for the use of his name.
He eventually lost that share, too, when Trump rival-turned-backer Carl Icahn bought the casino out of its final bankruptcy in 2016. Amid a strike by the casino’s union, UNITE-HERE Local 54, Icahn closed the Taj in October of last year. He sold it to Hard Rock for $50 million earlier this year.
Hard Rock plans a full renovation of the casino, so the company brought in Ohio-based National Content Liquidators to empty it out. A 60-day sale began on July 6. The day after, I went with a friend of mine to check it out.
I wanted the authentic buyer experience, so we waited in line. And waited. A storm blew through. With groups of 50 only being let in at a time, people around us dropped out, but we held firm. U-Hauls pulled up to the front doors, with buyers loading $600 poker tables or used mattresses into their cars for their own poker rooms, motels, Donald Trump museums, or whatever.
When we finally enter the closed casino after two hours, we were all ushered to a set-up of sample items downstairs. Chairs went for $4, slightly-nicer chairs for $22, even-nicer chairs for $38. Beds are $99. End tables are $35. Lamps are $12. Wall hangings were as cheap as nine bucks. A whole room could basically be bought for a few hundred bucks. Irons, of which there seem to be hundreds, were $8.
Of course, this being a casino, not everything is what you see. You can’t just get a chair for $22. There’s a 10 percent buyer’s premium and the 6.875 percent New Jersey sales tax. After perusing the sample items, everyone rode the elevator to the 50th floor. From there, it was a free-for-all. But buyer beware: With wallpaper hanging off the wall, there was exposed mold in almost every room I visited.
The walk through the rooms at the Trump Taj Mahal felt as eerie as a Resident Evil game: I thought each step would be my last before the zombie attack started. Rooms were empty. Furniture was occasionally strewn about, knocked over by other visitors. Occasionally there would be an odd painting on the floor, ready to be taken away for a few bucks.
I’m a huge dork, but there were about 90 minutes of fun in this fire sale. I’d stayed in the Trump Taj Mahal before, but never was I able to walk around to every room, exploring each room to see what was inside. It was fun! It was also busy. There were people flittering in and out of each room, carrying lamps or chairs or paintings and talking about where they were going to put them.
After a while, though, everything—even the high-roller suite—seems to look the same. And people start causing mischief. Signs were ripped off the walls. Phones were stolen. I took a back-of-the-hotel-room-door fire exit map. My buddy kept trying every phone he passed, figuring he’d make an attempt to call another room and freak someone out. A news crew doing a live stream on the sale’s first day found a man taking a shower in one of the rooms. We entered one room and turned on the bidet; it immediately shot high into the air.
We left without buying anything. There was a long line to pay, and a poker chair with an image of the Taj Mahal on it didn’t seem worth an hour wait. But I was giddy. Much has been written about Atlantic City’s demise. Yes, the casinos are not as profitable as they once were. But Atlantic City is still generally pretty busy. People still go there.
But look at what the liquidation of the Trump Taj Mahal had brought us: Literally, it was the hottest new tourist attraction in Atlantic City. What else do people wait two hours in line for down there?
I went back late last week, eager for another wait in line and another look at the Trump Taj Mahal. I didn’t have to wait. The place was empty. It felt even more like a survival horror video game than it did before. Like many Atlantic City attractions before it, the Trump Taj liquidation’s popularity had a short shelf life.
The rooms, which had been in a state of disarray just two days into the liquidation sale, were now a complete mess. Someone had pried open the doors to a balcony, usually locked shut to prevent unlucky gamblers from jumping off the casino. Multiple people had shit in the toilets, many of which did not flush. Some of the for-sale items had simply been destroyed.
In one room—a corner suite, no less, with an ocean view—where I made my best discovery. A syringe was stuck to the wall.
Either heroin users or diabetics had been in this room before me.
It was much more depressing than last time—until I was about to leave. A kid, maybe 10 years old, stopped me at the elevators. He was holding the letters “T” and “J” in his hand and asked me if I’d help him get the “A” down. (People had been taking down the “TAJ TOWER” letters above the elevators.)
Never one to turn down a child’s request for vandalism, I obliged. I stood on a chair and began attempting to pull off the “A.” It took about five minutes. I hopped down and handed him the “A.” It was just in time, too, because another man immediately took the chair and loaded it onto a hotel cart. He was going to buy it.
I was about to leave the building when I realized: There was no line now. Now, I am the proud owner of a $39 (actually $45.85) Trump Taj Mahal poker room chair. It was one of the few times I walked out of an Atlantic City casino feeling like a winner.