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Casino, 1 A.M.

Tags: realism

The ads feature smiling faces, awash in the glow of the lights and the glint of cascading gold coins. An arcade for adults. A shangri-la, a shelter, an escape. Plus, you win money. Everybody wins money. Everyone wins, come join the fun!

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Slot machine, themed after American Idol.

If the reels land in a certain way, she gets to go to “Hollywood”, where a second set of reels turn, giving her a chance to win a jackpot. Sharon has played this machine every day for the last three years. She works four blocks away. The first time she wandered in after work, she won $300 on this machine. Since then, she’s lost over $22,000 on it. She never says a word, she simply stares at the machine, and thinks. At first, she thought about what she would do with the $25,000 grand jackpot if she ever won it. Now, she thinks about how great it would be to just get back even. She will stay until she exceeds the daily limit set by the cash machine, then she will go home. Tomorrow she will be back.

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Craps.

JoBeth and Danny got married about 13 hours ago in their small hometown. They drove 3 hours to get here, where they will board a cruise ship in about 9 more hours. Their hotel is across the street; a bouquet of roses awaits in their room, as well as a bottle of champagne that by now sits in a warm bucket of water. Their parents pooled money they don’t even really have to take care of the room and the cruise, to give them the kind of storybook honeymoon they never had. He hasn’t carried her over the threshold yet, much less taken care of that other thing that is associated with wedding nights.

JoBeth and Danny are enraptured by something else. She is jumping up and down in her heels, both hands on Danny’s shoulders. They started with $100 and now have $6,500 in front of them. She has no idea what the maze of bets on the felt all mean. All she knows is they keep winning them. JoBeth sees the promise of a prosperous life right in front of her. He promised her they would find a way; maybe they already have. She married a wonderful man. Tomorrow her feet will be blistered from standing for hours in her white high-heels, but right now she doesn’t even notice. She loves Danny, and they have money. A nest egg, she is already calling it. She grew up dreaming of a different kind of wedding night. Since they walked in the door, that constant dream has not even occurred to her. She grabs the dice and tosses them down the table, her dreams sparkling in her eyes. Another winner.

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DeAngelo and Kevin stand in an open area, holding their phones in that way that people do nowadays, without even knowing it. Kevin nudges his buddy, and they both look down a row of slot machines.

Barbara just won a few hundred dollars on a nickel machine. To some, it’s not much money, but to Barbara, it’s a blessing and a delight. She and Harry had been coming to the casino for years. They befriended all the waitresses, knew the staff. They showed off pictures of their grandchildren, gabbed about television, and told of their latest worries about Medicare, as if they were good friends. To Barbara and Harry, these people were their friends. When Harry passed, Barbara kept coming. The empty house was unbearable, her children and grandchildren lived hundreds of miles away. She was alone. Here, in the casino- their casino- she is less alone. Of the four hundred dollars she wins, she gives almost a hundred to Allie, the waitress who she knows has a son going through expensive speech therapy. Allie gives her a warm hug, then promises to come back with another diet Coke for her favorite customer. Barbara thinks of her grandson Toby and earmarked much of what was left for an elaborate train set that she knew he had his eye on.

DeAngelo and Kevin watch Barbara pull out her wallet and shove a thick stack of bills to the side to make room for the newest additions. As soon as she exits into the parking garage and walks between the cars, well outside the gaze of a thousand high-resolution security cameras, they will quickly and roughly relieve Barbara of her purse. By the time she stands up again, if she manages that on her own, they will be long gone. DeAngelo is already guessing there is more than two grand in that purse. Daddy needs a new flat screen.

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Blackjack.

Neal sells insurance in Texas. His face adorns three billboards, his friendly face smiling down on the traffic in the city he’s always called home. His customers swear by him, his children adore him, his wife is trying to learn to trust him again after he was caught in an affair. Months of therapy are starting to pay off.

He spoke at a one day seminar in Alabama; that was three days ago. He told his wife he was mistaken, that it was actually three days long, but for the last two he has really been sitting at one of two blackjack tables near the center bar. He borrowed a thousand dollars from his credit card and turned it into three thousand dollars in chips, but those chips never made it into cash. Each time he goes back to that window and signs paperwork, borrowing more thousands from his credit cards, he thinks about how easy it was to win that three thousand. It was just a matter of time before it happened again. All he has to do is bet more money when it happens.

Neal drained his savings account, his investment accounts, and his kids’ college funds yesterday. He just got his last six hundred dollars from his credit card. He kept his company credit card locked in his office, so no options there. The casino takes three days to approve credit. The bank will not be open until Monday even if they were willing to lend him money on a signature. He has no cash, and just lost another hundred-dollar bet, so now he has five hundred dollars to his name, in the form of small black plastic disks. No savings. No retirement. A $20,000 credit card debt.

His wife opens the mail, pays the bills. If he doesn’t win it all back, he knows he’s ruined. Even then he would have to explain what happened. This is the last straw with her. His last five black chips are gone within three minutes. His life, his family, everything he believes in is gone, they just don’t know it yet; but they will. He never should have persuaded himself to stop here. In another two hours, Neal will be dead.

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Poker.

Gavin is wearing an Italian track suit, a designer cap, mirror-lens sunglasses and headphones. An older man across the table slams his cards down as the dealer pushes a mountain of chips in Gavin’s direction. He wordlessly stacks them with precision while the older man mutters to himself. He asks Gavin a question. Gavin ignores him. Gavin ignores most everyone.

Minus the track suit and underwear, he wears the same exact thing every day. Gavin is a professional, this is his office. He does not play high-profile tournaments, he is not on TV. He doesn’t know any of the major poker stars, but everyone that plays a lot of poker here knows Gavin. Everyone that’s interested in making money gives him wide berth, preferably by playing at a different table. Gavin takes money from tourists, from kids that saw it on TV and think it must be easy, from people whose eyes broadcast what cards they hold, from players who don’t know the math, who aren’t very smart, and who play tired, drunk, or stoned. Gavin’s better than just about everyone he plays with. People admire him, he’s kind of a legend here, but he’s a stranger to everybody, and he always has been.

Being the poker king has gotten him lots of attention from girls, only to have them walk away insulted minutes later. He has no friends, only acquaintances who limit their exposure to his prickly ways, who shrug and just say: “that’s Gavin.” His parents haven’t spoken to him since he dropped out of college, ending their dream of their only son going to medical school. A benevolent Aunt sent him a few hundred dollars for his birthday last month, which he promptly sent back with a note indicating that he doesn’t need it, and he doesn’t. Gavin is 23 years old and has a checking account with just over $800,000 in it. He has lived upstairs in room 812 for the last 15 months. Last week he handed the hotel manager two bricks of cash and told him to let him know when that no longer covers his room expenses. He pays Toni, a hooker who herself pays good money to work the center bar without hassle, for sex about three times a week. For the first few months, she pretended to tolerate Gavin, now she almost likes him. She sees that he means no harm, he just doesn’t relate to people. Everyone has their quirks. Toni the casino prostitute knows Gavin better than his own parents.

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He waits at the credit window while the clerk walks away to use the phone, reading the numbers off of his Visa card to the person on the other end of the line. He hopes there is no hassle, he should have at least a few hundred dollars left on it. He sees the public service announcement nearby, a gambler’s hotline. Do you have a gambling problem? Here is the number. He blinks his eyes hard then looks back toward the clerk, hopeful.

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The daycare is closing. The loudspeaker blares. It’s embarrassing that we have to do this. Janice Higgins, please return to KidzQuest, your child is waiting. Who keeps their kids out until 1A.M.? We were supposed to close an hour ago. Who prioritizes gambling over their children? If she doesn’t come soon, we’ll have to call Child Protective Services. Maybe she’s sick. I hope she’s just sick. This job makes me sick. Her child is unfazed. This isn’t the first time.

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Excuse me, there’s an old lady lying on the ground out there, about six rows down, just past that black pickup truck. I think she’s been robbed, she needs help.

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Hey man, I said nice hand! Is your music so loud you can’t even say thank you?

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Congratulations, you too. My shift is over, it’s been a pleasure. Make sure you walk away with most of that, you hear? I’m not supposed to say this, but don’t give it all back. You’ve had a good run.

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I’m not sure, but a guest says they saw a man jump from the roof. Yeah, a man. Well, judging by the room they’re staying in, he would have landed on top of the casino, not on the street. Okay, send him up. Let me know.

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Excuse me, ma’am. I notice you’re here a lot. Would you be interested in enrolling in our Player’s Reward program? You can earn points toward extra cash to play with. Just let me take your ID, and I’ll bring you back a Player’s Card.

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I know it’s late! I’m on a run here, I’ll call you when I’m on my way home. Better yet, go to bed, we’ll catch up in the morning, babe.

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Everyone wins, come join the fun!

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