The night before Kip and I drove to Atlantic City I had a dream about Lucinda Williams. I've been listening to her new record, West, for about a week now. In the dream, Lucinda was having a problem with her cell phone and asked me to see if I could do something about it. "Call the service provider," she said. Turns out, the service provider was HBO--something that could happen in a dream--and turns out only her brother has the passcode to get the phone to start working again. So I call the brother, suss out the passcode and Lucinda gets back on her tour bus and hits the road.
Casinos are like that, too, if you don't know what you're doing--and I don't. The rules are suspended. Everything leans toward the possible, not the impossible, and--if you look for it, if you want it--every tiny moment is filled with symbolism, foreshadowing and superstition.
I didn't want to touch the slots at first. They looked filty, coated in a waxy combination of cigarette smoke, alcohol and body grease. How many disgusting fingers have grazed this Bet Max button? Television's got nothing on them, I thought, watching the lines of old people,
tethered to their machines by a money card on a leash, gaze into the video screens, waiting for the triple 7, the double diamond, the whatever it was--Star Wars, Wheel of Fortune, I Love Lucy, you name it--to line up and deliver them from their misery. Rather, from their mediocrity.
Eventually, we sat ourselves in front of a nautical-themed slot and watched our $20 disappear. We played another $5 each at the Star Wars machines, and on that one I fared better, winning almost my five bucks back, before losing it again. I'd figured out how they worked by watching other players--how many betting lines, how many credits to bet--though there couldn't be any strategy.
How could it be that everyone was so old? They slid their wheelchairs up to the slots and, some of them, loaded $100 bills one after the next into the mouths of the machines. The card tables were filled with younger people, though not many of them in their 30s, and basically none of them in their 20s. Do we just not have money to gamble? Las Vegas has succeeded in transforming itself into a vacation spot for families, for middle class people who want to be entertained, as well as people who are itching with some streak of wildness that they understand can be expressed, then left behind, in Vegas. But Atlantic City is still just casino after casino, two miles of boardwalk and millions, billions of dollars.
On our way out of town, we visited Lucy the Elephant, an early example of zoomorphic arcitecture. We bought tee-shirts and took pictures. And, like in a dream, Kip used his Photoshop skills to put us in the same picture, even though we took separate shots of each other.
"Oh," I said later, "we didn't visit the Trump Plaza." Kip mumbled something from the passenger seat. "How is it different," I asked. Kip said, "Everything is sort of gold and combed over."
It wasn't a horrible trip, but it was eye-opening. I enjoyed watching the blackjack tables, the solid, fluid movements--the same way I like to watch machines stamp out sheet metal that is to become cooking pots, or a flurry of Coke bottles being filled by a series of lightening-fast spigots. Once I had really figured out each movement, each subtle signal to the dealer, it wasn't as exciting. And after it became a game, not a machine, I was ready to move along.