ATLANTIC CITY - Warped chrome reflections of running nylons undulate in the hubcaps of a boat-long Lincoln Town Car. It slows down to drive-by speed as the middle-aged man behind the wheel peers with lounge-lizard eyes at a trio of hookers on the corner.
Streaks of red neon gather in roadside puddles, and cockroaches scuttle as I ease my Econo Lodge room's curtains back to reveal the sparkling slut that is Atlantic City, New Jersey.
I have a perfect view of hordes of tourists being sucked like specks of dust into the cash-vacuums of gambling behemoths like Caesars Palace, the Trump Taj Mahal and the Tropicana.
They arrive with such high hopes, only to end up dizzy, drunk and penniless after a few hours at the roulette wheel. Sometimes you see the real degenerates afterwards, gripped by vertigo, pale and ghostly, staring at pawn shop windows, drenched in the almost religious glow of neon signs that sputter sinister mantras like "Cash For Gold."
I let the curtains fall back into place and try to lose myself in a mounting blizzard of broken-television snow to avoid reliving my own hard luck - an uncanny succession of ill-fated poker hands from the night before.
I erase my anxiety-inspiring memories with a swig of whisky and head out toward the legendary Boardwalk Hall, where hometown hero Arturo Gatti is fighting Floyd Mayweather Jr. for the lightweight title of the world.
There's no place like a prizefight to see the caricatures of characters you thought only existed in the movies. Bent-nosed tough guys mingle with elderly cigar-chomping aficionados of the sweet science, while silicone-saturated Barbie dolls cling to real-life slicked-back Sopranos.
In the storied arena, I sneakily find a temporary seat near the ring, knowing I'll soon be ousted to the nosebleed section. I watch intently as the first unheralded under-card fighters saunter in like heavyweight champions. In reality they're unknown welterweights battling for meagre paycheques before a sparse crowd that seems largely uninterested.
As they enter the ring, I search the fighters' eyes for signs of fear. Despite their best attempts to exude unwavering machismo, I can see it. It's the fear that all young fighters must carry: the fear that they'll be embarrassed and exposed, that their dreams might end with the brain-numbing thud of a perfectly placed punch, that they'll never leave their mark on a world that seems intent on erasing them.
But their fear instantly dissolves and swirls away like a puff of cigar smoke when the bell rings to signal the start of the fight.
I watch them relentlessly batter each other with pulverizing hooks and uppercuts before an usher asks to see my ticket stub.
As I begin my inevitable trek up a virtual mountain of seats, I can overhear the trainer in one corner urging his weakening fighter on between rounds.
"Are you gonna let this guy take it away from us? You won't get another shot," he barks while applying grease to a widening cut. "It's back to the grind on Monday if this doesn't pan out, so let's go! Take him out!"
The brave but overmatched fighter nods. The ring card girl elicits a cacophony of catcalls.
Later that night, long after Mayweather destroys Gatti in a one-sided display of pugilistic prowess, I'm back in my room peeking out through the curtains once again.
A new set of hookers has taken the place of the old trio, but everything else looks the same.
The passing faces reveal a mix of hope and desperation. Three college-aged girls giggle in an inebriated post-slot-jackpot celebration. Behind them, an elderly man unhooks the gold crucifix from his neck and slips into a pawn shop.