He steps out of the cab and into the neon haze of Atlantic City, and his eye contact with the valet quickly leads to one of those brief but forceful man-hugs that guys enjoy, more like a collision than an embrace. Folks here don’t just know Joey Palermo. They love Joey Palermo. Joey admits he’s not much to look at — bulky, dressed in the current barhopper uniform du jour of jeans and an untucked striped button-down that struggles against a gut he’s developed over a decade of hearty eating and hard partying. But with his buzz cut and boyish face, he could pass for a few years younger than his 30. And Joey’s a charmer. As we head into the nightclub at Trump Marina that once treated him like a king and still treats him like a prince, he’s ready to show me his town. “I used to get so hooked up,” he said to me a few days before this Saturday-night social safari. “The stories I could tell you … “ He paused, perhaps imagining his wife of one month lurking over his shoulder. “Fuggedaboudit.”
Along with his childhood friend and wingman John Franchini, an attorney at a Center City law firm, Joey leads me to the velvet ropes. Again, he’s greeted by name with a beaming smile and a hug. No $10 cover. No questions asked as John and I walk in with him. Our modest entourage is led around the dance floor, where a crowd of mostly women in their 20s and 30s is gyrating to a cover band fronted by a brunette in a mini-skirt and a diminutive rapper we dub “25 Cent.” Like in the Swingers scene where Vince Vaughn’s crew subverts a waiting line by strolling through the kitchen to the VIP seats, we’re escorted down a narrow hall behind the stage, then into a reserved lounge in the back of the bar. This is where the pimps, players and moneymakers run free.
Joey folds a 20 and slips it to our waitress, who’s all sweet smiles and exposed flat belly. He always has a 20 or a 50 ready for palming. She keeps his Dewar’s and water coming, and her hips shaking. A pride of vixens in tight pants sits nearby, shifting ever-moving eyes on us as the security manager greets Joey like a long-lost friend. Joey turns to me and shouts over the music: “I could hit you over the head wit’ dis chair and they would throw you outta here!”
As the house band segues from Mary J. Blige to Maroon 5, it’s hard to believe there are at least three women — many of the young-and-attractive variety — to every guy here. A crush of high-heeled girls pours into the VIP area, and it doesn’t take long for them to make Joey’s acquaintance. They’re sorority sisters from Rowan University — Delta Zetas, known more for their beer pong talents and powers of seduction than their GPAs. One of them, a petite blonde who looks like Tara Reid before the boob job and booze, can’t decide who she likes more: the suited CFO from a rival casino checking her out, or Joey, despite the wedding band he’s clearly displaying.
“Go work him,” Joey tells her, smiling at the exec. “He can get you a job!” Minutes later, she’s doing her best pole-dancing routine on the executive’s leg.
This could be a night out in Old City, where guys like Joey and the CFO mingle with Delta Zetas like atoms in some sex-and-Stoli-charged particle accelerator. This, however, is the new Atlantic City. One week after Labor Day sounds the death knell for the rest of the Jersey Shore, A.C. is still flooded with under-35ers looking for a good time. You’ll find folks with the zombie stares of seasoned slots players, sure. But Atlantic City is alive. The renaissance has begun, and as Joey Palermo leans back in his throne overlooking the dance floor, soaking in the music and the midriffs, he feels like its poster boy.