These scenes are a reminder of how adept we’ve become at pretending the glue-gunned feathers holding together our economic and moral fabric are going to hold.
I come from gambling stock. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side was a degenerate Scandinavian card player who died in a trailer outside Vegas back when Vegas was more holes in the ground than hotel rooms. My grandfather inherited some of those genes and fleeced more than a handful of of allied servicemen during World War II. My father was the kind of gambler that could have become problematic but stopped—like the drinking—in his later years. The narrative goes he was forced to give up his vices, but the older I get the more I think he just got tired of them. Or maybe tired in general.
I’m still not sure how I’m wired. I do have the lineage and I can count two shoes or two drinks worth of cards—whichever comes first. Then it turns into a game of fooling myself into thinking I haven’t seen many face cards in a bit. So, I’m a sucker.
But, I’m a sucker who knows it and that makes me better off than most. For me, gambling is like sex or drinking or a new series on HBO. I get a lot more excited thinking about it than the event itself. The involuntary constriction of my throat. The itchy palms and the filament hairs that stand up on my elbows. Later on, once the fun commences and ends—too quickly in all cases—there isn’t as much regret as there is the notion of that was sex and that was gambling and this is a hangover.
New Year’s Eve 2015 at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe was where my partner Robin, our son and I should not have been. We didn’t belong but we snuck in anyway to see how the-wealthy-enough-to-barely-be-there live. Rooms were going for $1,200/night for a double. And while the people in the face bubbles say online it’s clean there, there’s nothing special about the green and red floral carpet or the giant gas fireplace in the hotel lobby. But they were pouring free Champagne at check-in and I was greeted by the parking attendant with creepy familiarity. I was Jack Torrance only craving a Tab and seven.
We should have learned our lesson last summer, bringing a baby to a casino, when we used the resort’s pool and cut through the tables with the child in his stroller; itinerantly stopping at the slots to check and see what the progressive was up to and maybe invite them to eat a fiver. Robin was eventually eyed by the short-cropped balding rover with the secret service earpiece in the big-and-tall blazer and matching goatee. She was asked politely if she could take the stroller and its contents outside. I found that interesting: we’d like you to continue to play, so just park your baby by the double-door ashtray and we’ll keep your seat dusted off.
There was a firmament constructed around this country—sometime in 2008 or so—that gives us the illusion that no matter how hard we try to fuck it up, everything’s going to be OK. We’re still very optimistic but at the same time looking too much to capture past glories. I get that everyone, of every time thinks it’s the end. But really now, when you’re looking back so much, it must be. You know, “Making it great again” as if fast food sloganeering is going to bring back the security blanket of the Cold War and pre-deregulation. The collective morality is one tiny piece of granite skittering down the hillside at a time—so we don’t notice. The former us is pieces of pulp clinging to a glass ledge all fingerprinted at a vacated table after brunch. Our lexicon has diverted into bumper-sticker mumbo jumbo. Left and right both have their talking points but none of that equals a discussion. Nobody is listening. We used to have big bullies; prominent men of badness both domestic and foreign: Mao, Stalin, Hitler and McCarthy. But now the enemy lives in the shadows with a Twitter account and nobody fucking understands it at all.
Even though the conflicts are endless, men and women don’t really return from war anymore. Not in discernable groups or numbers anyway. There is no newspaper to hold up declaring victory, no black and white smooch captured in memory. And they don’t resume normal lives. They either die in underreported six packs leaving their families to weather the storm of grieving on a random Tuesday on line at Wal-Mart, or they come back broken, spent. Tired-eyed and tattooed. The facilities we have to house them, to fix them, aren’t enough. There are no jobs that suit that skill set. Only zombie jobs. And they are not zombies. They are fleshy and firm and desirous of some kind of action to fill the void. They are reminders of mistakes who can, sometimes, still walk around, still share. The problem is, they did everything right. They volunteered. They come home to some great reward that doesn’t exist.
And yet the rest of us soldier on with this formative notion that if we keep marching forward, something good is going to happen, eventually; whilst wanting nothing to do with the sacrifice it takes to get there. There have always been pieces of this society on display that aren’t working. The fallow faces that looked up from the barren landscape of the Depression. Blood down the sewer grate has been a constant pre-Civil War to present because we can’t seem to figure out a way to reconcile that everyone is still judged by the color of their peel.
But what we’re currently gripped by is this false notion of success. We’ve diverted what security looks like like a toxic river from community and family to strictly monetary. As a result, a generation of hubris and bluster is coming of age now. We raised it. And it only knows prosperity in the form of things. Communication in the form of a thing. The hopes and promises and the spoils of trying to do the right thing and be in the right place has been replaced with a lifeboat mentality. You don’t just have to be on the fucking raft, you have to be the one steering it.
We worship sociopaths and are craven for their endless feed of themselves. We so can’t get enough that we imitate it. It used to be, the common thread was we worked and we came home and we showered and we changed and we went to the school play and we let our children bask in that moment of notoriety in the auditorium. The audience knew the gray outcome but did not reveal the secret. Now everyone expects more. They want to be noticed, forever. Adults train their young to stand out. But they shouldn’t. It’s a fallacy. It’s not fair to them, the real them that is going to be—disappointed.
In the same way, the casino for me is less enticing now. It feels like a glass ornament in free-fall. We took turns, Robin and me, taking care of our little charge who ran up and down the granite of the hotel lobby cautiously ducking behind an oversized leather chair arm when a stranger drew too near. I wondered whether any of this would be standing when he’s my age. Perhaps not. There is scorn, not joy in the faces of the people here. So I can only imagine what those who can’t be let in are feeling, plotting.
He was fascinated by the Christmas lights and continued to investigate the consistency of the rote flame on the fire. Robin went and tried the slots to see whether she could hit that progressive from the summer. While she was away, a pair of nihilistic young women sat down across from me. Folks of that age—past college, but pre-serious job/relationship/life—used to stop and coo at children, marvel at them perhaps. Used to give a shit—feel a tug towards something. Linger maybe a moment. Notice something beyond arm’s length. Now there’s a lens pointed back to them at the end of their reach. What more could you need? These two were sharing the same story of the night before OVER one another.
It went like this:
Girl 1: And so when I walked in, I saw M and I couldn’t believe she was with that guy.
Girl 2: So I went up to the bar and saw B. I don’t even think he remembered we hooked up. At least, he pretended not to see me.
Girl 1: The last time I saw her she was so pissed at this other girl dancing with her ex-boyfriend—at the wedding—she took like a glass of something and poured it down this girl’s back. It went all over.
Girl 2: And so while I was waiting for MY drink and him to notice ME, I looked around and saw this other guy that I thought he was friends with.
Girl 1: And she turned around and gave me the stink face. Like you poured your drink down my friend’s back bitch. Don’t be looking at me like I started some shit.
Girl 2: I walked right BY him and he didn’t even see me. Or he pretended not to and I went to start to talk to his friend who was playing that video card game whatever.
GIrl 1: So I’m like do I SAY something to her or is she going to wait till I turn my back and dump something on me?
Girl 2: His friend was like way not talking which meant he was either retarded or was waiting for someone else. By now I had my drink.
They’re young. It was New Year’s Eve. Who am I, guilty of a thousand equally pointless conversations, to judge? But I’m not sure whether this is something they’ll grow out of. This constant communication in a vacuum defines them. A pair of 28 looking 40 or 40 looking 28 men with the hair and the jeans and the teeth unmounted their luxury SUVs and mercifully plucked the chatty pair for dinner.
Robin returned to relieve me for my shift in the casino. I debriefed her on the conversation I’d overheard and she shrugged. What I was telling her was nothing new.
The expectation and whimsy quickly faded once I went in and was engulfed by the massacre of breath and smoke around me. The first table I sat at this tiny man started complaining that the last five drinks he ordered were Malibu and Coke and this one VERY DISTINCTLY tasted like a Captain and Coke. The craps table next to us was surrounded by amusing mascots of the intolerable. And the little man’s complaints were soon drowned out by barking and laughing of the pack over the carcass of chips, two small squares and a stick. The semi-circle of cuffed shirts and leveraged credit drowning in whatever cocktail of energy drink and cocaine they’d not-so-radically ingested in the room. The room they’d vacated in haste after knocking the flatscreen off its brace and broken the coffee maker. As if leaving would fix things. Because that’s the answer now. Break it and move on someone else will clean it up. Were they to all start puking blackness all over the felt, it would have felt violently appropriate.
Two hands in, I got up to make way for a blazer and beanie on my six and snuck over to a haven more congruous with my stacks—the bank of penny slots near the sports book—away from the action in the morgue of perennial losers. The veteran cocktail waitress seemed to be hiding there too, cowering really. She put a napkin in front of me as I sat down to play 300 credits at a time in Kitty Glitter. “No thanks,” I said. “My two-year-old is in the lobby.” I wished I could say she at least blinked at the comment before moving on, but she didn’t. The woman two machines down was playing some vaguely oriental-themed machine entitled the Lotus Flower. She was in the middle of a constant audible fit. Tourettes with a cigarette, she declared the whole of her was getting lucky tonight with her lucky nicotine gum and her lucky cocktail napkin and her lucky ashtray. Lotus Flower was paying. She was up about 5,000 credits which was $50.
She kept smoking and talking and snapping her gum and laughing and then hitting the machine’s screen in attempts to make it pay more. She was like lightning. I think she was probably my age but worn thin like a bridesmaid’s dress from two summers ago. It looked like she’d just been taken out of the glove compartment and unfolded for the cop. “This one’s no good,” he’d hand her back. “Do you have the current one?”
I was radically up as the feral computer felines with diamonds in their eyes kept multiplying my total. I cashed out at 7,000 credits; enough to buy that little man a bottle of Malibu on the way out.
I located Robin and my son in the lobby and it was time to go. She had similar reactions from spying on similar people. Hers were children no older that 14 who were complaining about dinner or the cold or their clothes or their parent’s clothes. And then, mid-sentence, they’d cut off as the glow light of their phone shone on their faces. Then silence. Then a sigh of relief from their caretakers and a passive few steps more toward the door. That’s OK, teenagers complain, I said. She shook her head. It was different than that. The parents didn’t seem to notice them.
The boy was scooped up in her arms, head on her shoulder. I hoped more than anything I was right at the onset. I hoped we didn’t belong.