Went up to Atlantic City while I was on vacation to see if the blackjack tables had turned kinder since I'd last plunged a dollar or two. Kinder? Mean as a mongrel is more like it. Patricia, a dealer at the Golden Nugget, relieved me of three days' pay in two hours.

I mean, this lady buried me, folks. I lost the first five hands. I lost 10 of the first 11. I was so flustered that I forgot to order a cup of coffee from the cocktail waitress. I barely remembered to get my parking ticket stamped. Sheesh!

But as depressing as it is to lose, it's even more depressing to wander around Atlantic City, 1983. Gambling may have brought glitter and jobs to this down-at-the-heels resort town, but it has also brought sad, desperate people like Mike.

Mike was about 30. I found him standing in the cold February wind beside the Tropicana on Pacific Avenue, perhaps 200 yards from the boardwalk and the ocean.

Actually, Mike found me. He walked up and asked me straight out for $5 -- not for the classic affordable quarter, but for a bold five bucks, the minimum bet at an Atlantic City blackjack table.

The wind chill might have been in the teens if it was lucky, but Mike was in shirtsleeves. Some macho rite? No, he had hocked his coat, Mike explained. Oh, but he'd get it back as soon as his luck turned. "And it will," he assured me. "Sure as my name is Mike."

I told Mike I'd give him the five if he gave me some straight answers. "Shoot," he said.

How long had he been in Atlantic City? "Two weeks," he said.

How much had he lost? He didn't know. Come on, Mike, you want the five or not? "Well, maybe three thousand." Maybe? "Yeah, three thousand. A little more, probably."

You work, Mike? "Sometimes." What do you do? "Carpenter. Philadelphia." Where did the 3,000 come from? "Borrowed it from my girlfriend." She know what you planned to do with it? "No, I told her I needed it to start a business." What do you tell her now? "I don't know. If I win it back, though, I don't have to tell her nothing, right?"

I gave Mike the five. He thanked me, and walked right into the Tropicana as if he were about to win the deed to the place.

Down the block was a corner office of a local bank. A hotel desk clerk had told me this was the only place within miles where you could cash an out-of-town check. I figured the bank would be busy. It was.

"All day, every day. It never stops," said an assistant manager, as she looked out of her office at the eight people waiting to see her.

"Stories? They tell all kinds of stories. It makes you sort of cynical, actually."

The stories get even wilder, she confided, when she informs out-of-towners that the bank will provide cash advances against major credit cards, but will not cash personal checks under any circumstances.

"The worst story? One old man said he needed to cash a $500 check to buy flowers for his mother. It was Mother's Day." And she rolled her eyes toward the heavens the way Groucho used to.

Time to start the long loser's haul back to Washington. Heading west on U.S. Rte. 40, I realized I hadn't eaten lunch. A diner loomed. I pulled in.

Beside the door to the kitchen, I immediately noticed a hand-lettered sign: ALL CARRYOUT ORDERS MUST BE PAID FOR BEFORE ORDER IS PLACED WITH KITCHEN.

Two things about the sign were particularly striking: how hastily it had been written, as if in frustration, and how emphatically the word "BEFORE" had been underlined. I asked the waitress to explain.

"The boss just decided he'd had enough," she said. "We were getting gamblers that would order a meal and then grab it and run out the door without paying. Y'know, gamblers who didn't have any money. We've got a lot more of that kind around here than we used to, that's for sure."

It is a haunted, unhappy place, this Atlantic City. And that's not sour grapes. I've won at casinos before, including those in Atlantic City. But in Las Vegas and Puerto Rico, there isn't the ugly feeling that jumps at you from Atlantic City's streets. I won't be back soon.