Wednesday, January 2, 2013

after all, we're only ordinary men

Casinos are places of unusual camaraderie. I am not a fan of camaraderie of any sort, but in casinos it particularly unsettling. I have observed on many occasions that the overwhelming population of people that visit casinos look as though the last place they should be is in a casino. There is an “Us Against Them” feeling among most casino patrons. It’s a feeling of we, as gamblers, are in a battle against the nameless, faceless, evil entity that is “The Casino” and it is our duty to take down this Goliath. Defeat is achieved by bankrupting the giant and since we are “all in this together”, we are entitled to know the status of each member of the campaign. This is a group to which I do not wish to belong, nor do I wish to be recruited.

Because of the configuration of casino’s slot machine areas — wide open floor space with row after row of machines  — non-playing spectators are offered easy access to view and comment on the activity of total strangers and a lot of them take full advantage of the situation. And once someone occupies the machine next to you, they are granted full disclosure to your financial situation. Or so they believe.

My wife and I spent the final days of 2012 in Atlantic City as guests of Harrah’s Casino Resort. In the afternoon, Mrs. P and I ventured into the casino for a little gaming before attending a New Years Eve party for invited guests. My wife sat down at a slot machine and slid a twenty into the bill acceptor slot and the machine sprung to life. She hit a few consecutive winning combinations, each one tendering a fairly high payout. I stood quietly behind her and expressed my pleasure of her luck. The older woman seated at the machine to her immediate left paused her playing to also express her pleasure.

“Oh good for you!,” she exclaimed in a cigarette-roughened voice, “That was a good hit!” and then, she questioned, “How much did that pay?”

We both looked at her without answering. My wife pushed the “Cash Out” button, grabbed the printed voucher and we left. We found another machine, one themed to the 1984 Bill Murray supernatural comedy Ghostbusters. This particular machine is set up as a pair of consoles with stereo speakers integrated into the bucket seat. The two machines are connected to a flat-screen monitor that displays game graphics, scenes from the film and simulcasts of the games in play. The game is loud and fun and — if you’re winning — even more fun. While Mrs. P played, a man walked up to watch the action. At first, we thought he was a companion to the woman playing the Ghostbusters game next to our left, but we soon realized, by her reaction to his unwanted commentary, he was not. This man’s comments got louder and more frequent as the time went on. And the longer he stood by us, he deemed himself the official Ghostbusters slot machine play-by-play announcer. He described each and every outcome of each and every spin of the electronic reels. “Hey, that was a good pay!” and “Yes! Five of a kind! That pays great!” were coming at us every few seconds. He emphatically cheered when the three “Bonus Game” symbols appeared on the center reel, indicating additional play-within-play for supplemental payouts. He offered his views on which were the better Bonus Games, which were his favorite, which gave the highest payouts — all without anyone ever asking his opinion.

Despite the fact that she was doing well, Mrs. P had had enough. She stabbed the “Cash Out” button with her finger. As she grabbed the newly-printed voucher, the man, now standing well into our personal space, asked, “Are you guys winning?” We did not answer as we pushed past him and made our way deeper into the casino.

The news is full of stories of people being followed, attacked, beaten, robbed, carjacked, and murdered in the areas surrounding casinos. Crooks will observe a winning patron and tail them to a secluded, dimly-lit area of a parking lot and help themselves to the winners’ stash, sometimes with the help of a weapon. Some winners have even been followed home by determined thieves. So why on earth would I confirm to a random someone in a casino that I am winning? Why would a complete stranger feel that my monetary status at that particular moment is any of their goddamn business? Would these same people stand outside of a bank and inquire about the balance in my checking account? Would they feel that the contents of my monthly Visa bill is within their right to know? Do they believe that my weekly pay stub should be public knowledge? My income tax return put on display?

Humans. I will never figure them out.

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