He parked his walker on the side of the giant slot machine–the kind with a bench the size of a station wagon in front of it, the one meant for newlyweds to share a game, the sort placed in a popular aisle to draw the attention of those who equate bigger with better. Everything about it represents an exaggeration of exaggeration, a celebration of more. The pull lever resembles a boat oar; the push button is like a big red a dinner plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet; each spinning wheel as big as a human corpse.
When the wheels light and spin it looks and sounds like a new ride at the county fair–the zapper or the mongoose, or perhaps the megaboom. Set up a cotton candy booth next to it. Gather the kids, carnies, and a runaway goat. Bring a date to the double ferris wheel and gaze down upon it from your swinging bench when it stalls above the midway.
Unable to sit straight or steady himself due to the condition that forced him to use a walker, he leans across the bench on his right elbow. His head shakes in small circles as if he is moved by a soulful song. Every five seconds he slaps the red button with his left hand. The wheels turn. The wheels stop. He slaps. Over and over. Fifteen dollars a hit.
A small crowd forms–a young woman with make-up and freshly purchased pants who appears to be patiently waiting for someone, a biker couple in matching leather and dust, three former soccer moms, now weekend casino queens, and us. We’re the people who come to watch and play, taking equal pleasure and pain in both. The zombie retirees addicted to slots, the chain-smoking baccarat players, and the baseball-capped poker fiends don’t linger. Their games are too serious. They are like the straight gin drinkers who don’t have time for idle talk at the bar. We’re the cheap beer chatters.
As his balance disappears, he begins to alternate slapping the red button with sliding 20s into the blue slot. He does this until he begins to hit. In seconds he is a hundred up, then two, then three. His pace remains constant, never slowing to contemplate loss or savor victory. He makes no secret hand gestures to conjure the luck spirits, nor does he talk to the machine. He seems to know that luck is something bought with time and that benefit comes from stopping at the right moment. The hand of god is not at work–just his own hand’s slap at the button.
But when will he stop? How much money did he put into the machine before we arrived? 200 or 300 dollars is obviously not his goal. All or nothing, and “all” must be tens of thousands. New passers-by become new observers. One comments about how lucky he seems to be. 400. Then the total begins to fall again, fifteen dollars at a time. I have to leave the spectacle.
And I think of the observation of a friend of mine that modern gambling works in the opposite fashion as it should. Rather than the rich subsidizing the poor through gaming excess wealth, the poor subsidize the rich one roll at a time.