I feel a little bit like I'm stealing this topic from Billy, but I thought he'd have written about it by now, so what the heck. Maybe he will weigh in on this topic, too, since he sees a side of casinos that I don't...
Wilco--"Casino Queen" (mp3)
Clive Gregson and Boo Hewerdine--"Sin City" (mp3)
I harbor a certain fondness for places that are artificial and decadent--Las Vegas, cruise ships, the French Quarter, the tourist sections of Key West. Aside from the obvious connection of activities and vices, these places share another quality--they make you forget about time and the outside world.
My daughter's return from Disney World a few weekends ago has had me thinking about this very topic, though the truth is that I've never been to Disney World, even though it meets both of my criteria above, albeit in the guise of good, clean family fun. But that is perhaps a topic for another time. One of my favorite created decadent worlds is the casino.
On the surface, since I'm not much of a gambler, you wouldn't think that this would be so. After all, the last time I was in a casino, during Christmas vacation, I put $20 in a penny slot machine, elected to play every line available (if you aren't a slot player, a "penny" slot can cost you 50 cents or more, if you want to have a realistic chance of winning), pushed the play button one time, won immediately in the form of "free spins," and after these and numerous bonus rounds, my winnings totaled $80. From one push of a button. I immediately cashed out and didn't play another slot the rest of the night.
Nor do I go there to play poker. In fact, these days, I usually don't go unless my dad is paying, but that doesn't mean that I don't cherish my time there. Or my timelessness there. Or the wealth of experience. I've been to all manner of casino--the big themed ones in Vegas, the cruise ship diversions, the sad imitations in Tunica, the Indian reservation variety, even the docked riverboats on the Mississippi.
I entered my first casino in Las Vegas in 1980. A friend and I were driving cross-country to California and stopped in the magic city for a night or two. Back then, nothing was too high tech or sophisticated. In fact, one of the lures for us was that casinos advertised their "All-You-Can-Eat" buffets for $.99. That's right, ninety-nine cents. You got cheap roast beef, pre-fab mashed potatoes, lettuce and maybe a few carrot sticks and Thousand Island dressing (the only choice), jello, and chocolate pudding. Maybe a roll and butter.
We stayed at a Motel 6 and frequented the Circus, Circus casino. My friend, long-deceased by his own hand, fancied himself a skilled blackjack player who eventually came to believe, later in the trip, that we could subsist in Reno on his blackjack winnings, would spend his time at those tables while I tried to keep from losing anything at the prehistoric slot machines and video poker and blackjack games.
From my perspective, always somewhat on the outside, what drew me to casino life was the desperation. If you like to watch people, there is no better place than a chair in front of a slot machine in a casino. Especially if you like to watch people on the edge. Especially if you are desperate yourself. My dominant memory from that first trip is a non-descript bride in a light blue dress trailing behind her newly-minted husband through the room of games and machines, her special day sullied by his desire to spend part of that day living casino life.
Today, you can see the same desperation in simple details: the casino card on a lanyard around a woman's neck, as if somehow enough senseless spending will reap rewards (those rewards will be discounts to encourage future trips to the casino), the ATM receipt left hanging in the machine, someone in too much of a hurry to grab it, the empty drink glasses and full ashtrays stashed between machines (because now the drinks are free and you can even order them using a button on the slot machine), the photographs of winners as you walk into the casino (the amount they've won to make the wall far less than it used to be), the willingness of all of us to believe the happy, smiling faces of gamblers that we see on the billboards. Inside a casino, the real look of a gambler is weary resignation, the look of someone in it for the long haul. Even if someone wins, the celebration is brief, the joy is transitory. A win keeps you gambling; it does not change your life.
And so, gambling, at least on slot machines, is about buying time. You know that you are going to lose, that given enough pulls of that machine, everything that you have will be taken. But that is a deal that you are willing to make, as long as the house will make those machines loose enough that you can spend the evening in that fantasy land of stale smoke and no windows and not have to go back to that ATM too many times.
I have a friend with whom I've gambled a time or two, and his goal is to win. He plays the big slots, the dollar slots, because he thinks that that is what he has to do if he is going to make money on the transaction. (NOTE: if I were Bob Dylan, I would stop here to write a song about how if you have to win, you're bound to lose)
One time when we gambled together, he ran through all of his money in about 10 minutes, while another friend and I nursed our investments and chugged free drinks at the cheapest slots we could find. The other time we gambled, which was actually in the Las Vegas airport, my friend who has to win actually got up on machine, but couldn't let it go, had to keep pushing buttons until his early winnings had dissipated, and we boarded the plane with that sourness in both of our mouths.
All of which may have you wondering why, exactly, I am enamored with casinos. Well, put simply, I like to be in places where pretensions are stripped away. My friend who has to win is a good, church-going man, and his self-allowance to grapple with these machines shows him one of his true selves that he might not want to see, but that we all need to be reminded is there.
I am much the same. Though I have no weakness for gambling, there is no doubt that every time I pull a lever or push a button, I have visions of a bell-ringing, everyone rushing to my machine kind of victory, the hope against all odds, even as I remind myself that I am no different from a primate in a lab pushing a button repeatedly in hopes that, randomly, if I keep pushing that button enough, something good will happen. Sometimes it does. So, it might again.
Couple that with the fantasy element of living, however briefly, in a small, self-contained world with few rules and a singular purpose, and you've got me hooked--on the experience, at least.