Monday, July 23, 2012

Slot Machine Miasma.

one-armed bandits
About once a month, I head up to Yonkers for field work. Invariably, I pass by Yonkers Raceway; a few years ago they added the Empire Casino. My older brother, once a Yonkers local, told me they upgraded the whole facility. He said it wasn't a bad place to go for a drink or a bite to eat. I wasn't hungry, nor am I much of a gambler, but there was some time to spare before I made my next stop. I decided to check it out.

The casino only has a license for electronic games, mostly slot machines. 5,300 machines, according to Wikipedia. Upstairs are electronic roulette and craps games. For me, the whole appeal of a game like craps is the interactive aspect; someone physically tossing two dice down the length of a table at least gives the illusion that there is some sense of control, some element of ability or Lady Luck involved. Not so with the electronic version; the gamblers watch a virtual croupier and animated dice. After watching the dispirited faces of the men and women placing bets for a minute or two, I took the escalator back to the main floor.

Walking through the cavernous hall, I heard the same monotonous drone I'd experienced in Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos: a lilting jingle that lulls the discerning senses into a vapid stupor. If someone were to put music to the experience of being blindfolded and slowly spun around in circles, it would sound exactly like this.

I'd never played a slot machine, and was wondering if there was some kind of preordained knowledge required to play. After five minutes watching the action at various machines, I determined that if you're able to push a red button, you can play a slot machine. Slot machines were legal in bars when I lived in Spain, but there seemed to be a bit more strategy involved; you could restrict certain reels from re-spinning, while "bumping" others forward, to try to get a complete row of lemons or bars or whatever ersatz symbols appeared on the dials. Not so here in Yonkers; the only variable seemed to be how much you wanted to lose on each spin. I also thought it interesting that most so-called "penny machines" had a minimum bet of at least 30 cents.

I checked my normally empty wallet, and remembered I had visited an ATM the day before; I had about $60 on me. I pulled out a $5 bill and fed it into an eagerly awaiting machine; the bill slot nearly sucked my fingers in as well. The wager options on the machine ranged from 30 cents to $1.50, with the assurance that a larger bet would engender all kinds of wonderful pay-off multipliers. Since I had absolutely no expectation of winning, I bet the minimum; I just wanted to push the big red button as many times as possible to see what would happen. To my surprise, all kinds of little half-matches and convoluted symbol combinations sprang up, briefly nudging my credit total into the positive column. Eventually though, those little profit rivulets dried up; I watched my life blood drain away, until I had a 10 cent balance. I dipped back into my recalcitrant wallet, feeding another $5 into the waiting machine. My mechanical benefactor seemed to sense it had a sucker in its grasp, and dispensed with the small payoffs this time, quickly depleting the balance to 20 cents. I hit the payout button to cough up my receipt. Spying a long line at the payout window, I headed for the exits, wondering how much money the casino pocketed from these little unpaid odds and ends.

I walked in the drizzling rain along the outskirts of the track to my car; several jockeys were slowly making the rounds on their trotters, apparently warming up their horses for an upcoming race. I'd never seen that, either.

These were living, breathing animals, as opposed to the jangling, clanging machines inside. The damp, freshly-groomed dirt track had a certain beauty in the fading mist, combining with the bucolic clomp of horse hooves. The idea that all this existed in time and space for the purpose of gambling took on an incongruous, bizarre quality. I experienced a similar sensation in Atlantic City--escaping from the bracing noise and noxious lights of Caesar's Palace onto the boardwalk and beyond--beyond being the placid peace of Atlantic ocean waves, gently rolling into shore.

endless sea, peaceful sea, horizon
Dichotomies like this hit me especially hard; I have no "money genes," for want of a better term. I feel like I'm standing on the sand in the dark, alternately staring at the casinos, then gazing at the sea. Knowing I can't reach the inky darkness on the sea's horizon by swimming, I want to walk on the water, with purposeful strides. Somewhere out in the deep blue I'll be released--from the grip of all that man wishes to seize and remake in his own alienated, estranged image.


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