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On Casinos

I let out a small gasp when I use the ATM machine. My husband stands over my shoulder and sounds frantic, “What??”

“They allow people to take out $3,000 at a time!”

He looks relieved. He thought there was something wrong with our account. “You’re in a casino.”

We are at Hollywood Casino because I want a sure bet: The Epic Buffet. I know that with $10 a piece, we won’t exactly beat the house, but we’ll leave properly satiated. But in order to get the buffet, my husband and I have to walk through the frenzied lights and sounds first. That’s when I see the hordes; tired and bored Toledoans parked in front of penny slots, pressing buttons and waiting. There are the usual gray-heads, but a few younger people as well. They all have one thing in common: Desperate hope. . . and probably addiction. Hence the $3,000 cash allowance at the ATMs.

My husband and I eat our meal, commenting that we’re the youngest people at the buffet. While I fork through my dry baked cod, I get the itch. I try push it to the back of my mind and continue eating. But on the second trip to the food line, I can’t help but sneak a peak into the open gaming area, back at the color lights and fake cash register sounds. The itch gets stronger and when I return to the table with my over-salted chicken, I tell my husband: “We’re going to play with $10 dollars before we leave.”

He raises a brow before saying that he didn’t bring any cash. I brush off his concerns. “They have ATMs.” He nods and goes back to eating.

Addiction, in my family, is a bit of an issue. I can trace it back to the stories my mother told me about her father, Archie. My grandfather was a drinker, gambler, and from the way mom had a penchant for dramatic flair, probably a horse thief as well. He came home regularly without important items like shoes. Perhaps he lost his shoes in a card game? My own father, though I didn’t know him well, had a deep relationship with alcohol and a menagerie of drugs. My uncle, a Vietnam veteran, was more or less on a similar path. The war did its best to solidify that path. These were the men in my family.

My own flirtation with addition first came in the form of gambling in college. I learned how to play poker in my school’s cafeteria and I’d like to believe I got good at it, until I didn’t. A dollar a hand was easy enough, but when I began seeking out the game instead of going to class, it was cause for concern. I put an end to it before it affected my grades because I was more afraid of failing than falling into a legacy. But addiction has a sneaky way of mutating itself. Gambling turned into smoking. I only quit smoking because I was scared into quitting. When a day-long asthma attack couldn’t be abated with a simple emergency inhaler, I had to haul-ass to an emergency clinic. I was on bedrest for days after, trying to catch my breath. Though my family’s legacy and my own flirtations haven’t gotten me into deep trouble, I still regard every sip of alcohol warily. It could always become the start of something sinister.

So I should know better than to withdraw money at a casino. Also, you can’t just pull $10 out; it has to be twenty. I find a machine to break my twenties into four 5 dollar bills. I give half of it to my husband, fearing that if I do this all on my own, it will take longer. And if it takes longer, I’ll start to enjoy it. We each take our ten and split up. Sitting at my machine, I don’t notice that it’s a penny-slot. This bores the hell out of me but I do get accustomed to pulling the arm. You press a button, pull the arm, and watch the cherries line up. Press, pull, watch. Press, pull, watch.

This goes on until the motions are robotic. The frenetic jingle-jangle noise fade into the background as my only objective becomes these three actions: Press, pull, watch. I lose that first $5. I move on to another machine and lose that money as well. My husband breaks even though. He has managed to retain his ten dollars and is satisfied. Nothing fazes him. I should be thankful that he gets no real pleasure from gambling. It makes it easier for him to guide me out of there. Truthfully, when I look around, I realize I get no real pleasure for being here either.

Toledo was promised a great deal when Hollywood Casinos broke ground. There were supposed to be jobs and the surrounding community was to be “revitalized.” Whatever that means. Things haven’t really materialized the way people thought they would. Downtown Toledo still looks bombed out. The revenue hasn’t made a dent in the homeless population or help curb the state’s opium crisis. The people who sit at slot machines and stand around the craps tables know it too. This place hasn’t changed the community for good or bad, we’re all just. . . stagnate.

I pause before we leave. No one looks happy as they flush money down the toilet. The scene is a far cry from the billboards and commercials that show young, vibrant people blowing on dice before they toss; jumping in the air and hugging when they strike it big. Beside me, there’s an ancient women who’s hair is pulled into a small tight knot. She’s wearing a Garfield the Cat t-shirt and purple sweat-pants. Her walker is parked next to the machine. As she slowly pulling a rewards card, something of a quick debit card, out of her machine, she lets out a tired sigh.

Seeing enough, I turn to my husband. “It’s time to go.”

As we walk to the elevators that lead to the parking garage, I see a sign that advertises El Dabarge’s free concert tonight. Now if that isn’t a sign from the gods, I don’t know what is. While my flirtation with addiction leaves me feeling hollow, the Epic Buffet certain does its job of filling my belly. I am suddenly reminded that I have the things I need. My husband and I have the basics and a little more to enjoy a meal out of the house, a trip to the theater, and coffee and a book at Barnes and Noble. There is real, tangible joy from those things. They aren’t based in fluke or luck.