I remember the gardens at Saratoga more vividly than the racing. The horse racing is a blur of sleek brown coat and the smallness of jockeys. We stayed two days in Saratoga, in a towering Victorian mansion turned bed and breakfast with too many turrets and several spiral staircases. My parents let my brother and me place dollar bets on the horses. I always chose them for the clever names: "She's All Legs" and "Ride 'Em Cowboy". I don't remember if we won or lost, though most likely we lost. The gardens that surrounded the track were perfectly manicured plots of bright red and orange punctuated by spurts of green. We went in the late summer and I remember the aura of tulips. I'm sure there were lots of different kinds of flowers but I didn't know their names, so they were all tulips to me.
In Saratoga I gambled every night. I didn't gamble on the horses, though. My brother and I would sneak down to the arcade with quarters pilfered from our parents or advances on our meager allowances. I learned the term "advance" on that vacation; it was my brother's idea. After we ran through the dollar's worth of quarters our parents had given us originally, Jacob asked for his next week's allowance to cover the cost of our new addiction: the grabby claw machine.
This probably isn't the proper nomenclature for the machine in all its plastic glory. I will always call it the grabby claw. You know you've seen them -- maybe in the lobbies of cheap roadside diners or lining the boardwalk at tacky mid-Atlantic Oceanside retreats. It's a plastic box filled about a quarter full with stuffed animals and various other trinkets. There is a giant metallic claw that protrudes from the top of the box, and your job is to position the claw directly above the toy of your choice. You then push the button, and the metal monster descends, hopefully snatching up the right trinket and managing to keep hold of it until it drops down the chute and into your open cherubic hands.
They're not even good stuffed animals in the grabby claw machine. They're the generic variety. Maybe you really need that Mikey Mouse or Danny Duck with stuffing spilling out of its poorly stitched sides. It's not really about the prize, though; it's about winning. It's about that second of glory when you grab hold of the ear or some extraneous digit of the piece of crap stuffed animal. You somehow defy the laws of gaming and gravity and after that second of transcendence, you end up with a dingy plush staring back at you from your cradled arms.
I think Jacob and I spent a good forty dollars that vacation on the grabby claw machine in toto. Our booty was a single dirty teddy bear in a fraying Yankees uniform. I named it Don Mattingly.
I've barely wagered a cent since this seminal, desultory gambling experience. It just hasn't come up. Besides the slot machines in the Reno airport, I don't think I've even seen gambling since then. My doctor-parents idea of gambling is buying stocks instead of mutual funds. My idea of gambling is wearing a white t-shirt during a spaghetti dinner. Jews are a frugal, neurotic people and gambling isn't really in our lexicon.
Ever since my contemporaries started turning twenty-one, the idea of gambling has popped back into my consciousness. The closest legal gambling to my Providence-dwelling compatriots is Foxwoods Resort and Casino on the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Reservation in Connecticut. It's about forty minutes by car to Foxwoods, and though I've been twenty-one for a good nine months at this point, it never occurred to me to drive south on I-95 to waste my parents' hard earned cash. I prefer to use my barely-legal status to for the purchasing of alcohol.
"Don't go." My friend Nathalie admonished, "It's depressing as hell."
My vision of casinos up until Nathalie's statement were all shining cabana boys and flowing champagne; smiling casino workers spinning the lacquered red and black roulette table and Scrooge McDuck style swimming in vats of freshly won coins.
"What? Why was it so depressing?"
"You spend money so fast, you don't know what hit you. And the people there. Oh God, the people. It's all these old ladies just pumping coin after coin into slot machines. Literally I think some of them were on life support, and they just kept pumping those coins. One of them was carting her oxygen tank along with her. God, and mullets everywhere. Like white-trash mullets and lots of women with fanny packs. There were even retarded people there. Who takes retarded people to casinos? It was all dark and it made me claustrophobic."
"That sounds like a nightmare," someone said. But it was a nightmare I wanted to observe for myself.
There was a crinoline cloud cover that day; ruffled thick bands of white and little strips of ice blue peaking out. I've never been off the highway in that part of Connecticut before. You drive for eight miles on route two, a rural road with roundabouts and houses that are low to the ground. The trailers and cape cods squat next to looming trees and shrubbery.
It's a slow procession to Foxwoods, in the heart of the Mashantucket Pequot Indian reservation. After what seems like an endless stretch of brown grass and the beginnings of frost, the casino looms over the horizon. I expected something more garish, at least a few bright lights. But no, Foxwoods stood out against the muted browns and grays of late fall only because of its size. The casino and adjacent hotel sprawl over a goodly amount of the reservation's 1,250 acres of land surrounded by the tiny working class towns of Ledyard, North Stonington and Preston.
The camouflaged casino looks like its been there forever -- melding into the sloping hills of New London county, but in fact Foxwoods has only been around for a little more than a decade. The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation found gambling in the mid-eighties, starting small with high stakes bingo. Allowing any form of gambling, though, caused controversy in this relatively rustic area of New England. According to Mashantucket tribe member Teresa Bell, "We were very concerned about the different kinds of things that it (bingo) might bring here -- crime, prostitution" (). Somehow, I have trouble believing the little old lady bingo devotees were busy holding up convenience stores and hooking in the streets of Ledyard, but it was a worry for the tribe nonetheless.
The fears of increased levels of criminal activity were allayed by the incredible monetary success of the bingo racket, and so the MPTN decided to get permission from the Connecticut government to run a Class III gaming establishment on their land. Class III gaming "includes full casino style gaming, such as blackjack, slots, roulette, (and) craps" Zitzow 40).
The full-blown casino was completed in 1992, and has been an unqualified triumph for the Mashantucket Pequots and the state of Connecticut. An economic analysis by the University of Connecticut shows that Foxwoods generates $1.2 billion in Gross State Product and adding $1.9 billion to gross state income. This makes the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation among the richest in the United States (Cartensen 1).
With these notions of glittering accomplishment I walked in through the main entrance of Foxwoods at nine am on a Monday in early December. Most Americans are probably walking down the fenced-in corridors of their office buildings at nine am on a Monday in early December -- it isn't a major travel time or the end of a long weekend.
I went to Foxwoods then on purpose: I wanted the true gambler's experience. I didn't want to observe the fun-loving dilettante, the college student or bachelorette party or mid-life crisis-cases who weave drunkenly around the slot machines at midnight on a Friday or a Saturday; I didn't want to observe the kind of people who consider casino gaming "a fun night out" (which according to a survey in Casino Gaming in the United States is 75% of Americans). I wanted to observe the people for whom gambling is a lifestyle -- maybe even their only source of income (Mirkovich 2).
I wanted to talk to these people, too, but that idea was quickly quashed by the security and public relations folks at Foxwoods. They told me I would be "disturbing their patrons", and that they had security cameras and guards well placed, so I shouldn't try to interview people without express permission. I thought maybe I could surreptitiously have conversations with the ladies at the slot machines, or the sweatshirt-clad masses at the black jack tables, but most people didn't want to talk; they were too absorbed in their gaming to notice me.
The whole aura of the casino is purposely an insular one. Walking into the main corridor of Foxwoods, the carpeting is so thick and lush you can't hear your footsteps -- you can barely feel your tread on the ground. You don't walk immediately into a gaming room. You enter into the lobby of the hotel and can either take an escalator or an elevator up to the second floor.
Plastered across the muted lights of the elevator were advertisements for the elite Wampum Club, which gives premium gambling benefits to the white man. Emerging from the open doors, you see the names of the glittering gaming rooms: the Rainmaker Casino, the Great Cedar Casino, the Grand Pequot Casino; I almost expect something to be called "Squaw's Paradise" or "Redskin's Retreat", but the Pequot's stop short of fully exploiting their Native Heritage for catchy labeling.
There are security guards every two feet once you enter a gaming room. Even though I was decked out in my most grown-up looking, girl Friday journalist black pants and prim sweater, I was still asked for my I.D. upwards of three times. Kindly old security guards would call me "sweetheart" and say "you don't look 21 yet," as if it were the highest compliment any woman could receive.
It's true; I did stand out because of my age. I was probably the youngest person there by at least forty years. I thought the casino would be pretty empty so early in the morning. Though it was far from packed, the level of bustle was beyond my expectations. Pairs of older couples -- sometimes men and women, the men with their pants hiked up to their nipples and the women with comfortable white orthopedic sneakers -- but mostly pairs of women, with bad orange and yellow dye jobs covering their gray hair and sweaters with sparkling appliqué flowers.
I decided to do some gambling of my own. I inserted a twenty -- the only money I had on me, into a slot machine. The directions informed me that each play was fifty cents, and proceeded to list the combinations of characters that would make me a winner. It was a long list, and all I remember was that cherries were very, very good, and pretty much everything else was bad. I pulled the lever down slowly, watching my expression reflected in the plastic face of the slot machine. My mouth was wide open in heightened expectation.
On my first pull a cherry and two sevens appeared on the dial in front of me: I won. I won a whole dollar from only fifty cents. It was far less exciting than I thought it would be. I decided to quit while I was ahead and wander around the game room some more. I moved to another slot machine, and sat down next to a woman who kept her coin cup in between her legs for easy access. She must have been about sixty, and I watched her as she put coin after coin into her machine. She pulled the lever down so quickly and barely reacted when she won, or when she lost for that matter.
After a minute or two of staring at her unnoticed, I tried to put a coin in the slot. It kept rejecting me, over and over again. Instead of moving to a new machine I kept trying to shove the coin into that slot, until finally the woman next to me said sharply, "That's a fifty cent piece. That machine only takes quarters." I flushed and giggled nervously, "Oh, hahah, I didn't notice. It's only my first time gambling!" I smiled at her. She shook her head a little and turned without expression back to her machine.
I didn't have enough money to wager at any of the tables -- black jack or craps or poker -- even the cheapest tables required bets of at least twenty dollars. I abandoned the slot machines, having lost their luster, and made my way across the giant atrium towards a sprawling promenade.
This promenade, The Pequot Trail, is designed to feel like an old New England sidewalk. The floor is almost cobbled -- it is made of the same patterned stones of outdoor pavilions in towns like Newport. The storefronts look like Swiss chalets -- wooden and gingerbread-y and inviting. These storefronts house mostly high end products. There's lots of electronics and expensive clothes and even a jewelry store so that when you hit it big you can blow your proverbial wad without even leaving the confines of the resort.
It's maybe ten a.m. by now. It's hard to know exactly what time it is, though, because there are no clocks in Foxwoods and the lighting everywhere is dim. There are a few windows, but they have some sort of tint and so it's impossible to see where the sun lies among the Connecticut hills.
I'm tired. I've been up since six and all the excitement has made my young bones weary. I sit on a bench abutting the retail district near a bank of elevators and I watch people. Even though it's newly December, there is already Christmas muzak pumping through the stereo system. The elderly bob to and fro before my eyes: a lot of canes, a lot of big dyed hair; buoys in the sea of retail detritus. They all lump together as one big geriatric mass.
I get sick of watching people move so slowly in front of me so I follow a woman in a wheelchair back to the Rainmaker Casino. A woman, whom I assume is her nurse, plops her in front of a slot machine. The wheelchair woman must be pushing ninety. Her wrinkled moue pulls into a decided frown as she stares at the lights of her twirling fate. She is so infirm that she cannot even yank the lever of the machine herself; the nurse does it for her. The nurse puts coin after coin into the slot machine and the old woman watches, soundlessly, as her purse becomes shallow. I think the machine returned two of her fifty some-odd quarters.
This woman is sad. These people are sad and old and infirm and tacky and I'm clearly better than they are. They're uneducated and lazy and just looking to make a quick buck. They don't even view gambling with a snarky ironic distance; this isn't just entertainment for them it's a way out -- a way to a better life. They've lost hope in the real world, so they escape to this isolated woods covered fantasy world where, even for just a few hours, they can pretend to be rich. "That was it finally, wasn't it," a gambler writes, "Money. If I could make some money, things would be different. Money as an agent of change or liberation was a horrible, banal concept, one I had denied every day of my adult life. Yet I believed it to be true now" (Alson 130-131).
These words were not written by a senior citizen with a sixth grade education. They were written by a Harvard graduate -- Peter Alson, in a book called Confessions of an Ivy League Bookie. Alson found himself in his early thirties, an out-of-work writer with an Ivy League degree that seemed more useful for kindling than for career advancement. So he decided to screw writing and became a bookie in a shady bookie's coven in Brooklyn along with a Brown graduate and a Dartmouth man.
The parallels I see between Alson and myself do not end with a penchant for writing and an Ivy League background. Not only is he a struggling writer, but he also found early success. As an undergrad Alson published a story that "had been anthologized in a book called First Flowering, my name in the index after James Agee's and Conrad Aiken's" (Alson 9). This summer, I reveled in seeing some of my nonfiction work published in Salon.com alongside novelists Augusten Burroughs and Jane Smiley and Anne Lamott. Alson's family is from Westchester and he has a penchant for melodramatic interpersonal relationships with the opposite sex. My family is also from Westchester and my last relationship ended in a screaming match and then a-urination-on- car incident that I don't care to describe in detail here.
Alson even, while mired in the bogs of bookie-dom, retains that slight sense of superiority. He describes one of his co-workers as having "a gambler's twitchy nicotine face" (Alson 57). Although he is ostensibly a gambler for a living, he still distances himself from the REAL gamblers. At least he doesn't have a gambler's face . . . yet.
Part of the draw of gambling for Alson seems to be this sense of getting back into control of his life -- the possibility of easy money will help him be less of a failure, to bring him back from the girlfriendless, jobless rut he's been in for the past few years. If nothing else, gambling evens the playing field. The lower-middle class old ladies from rural Connecticut have as much chance to hit it big in the casino as I do.
Gambling, indeed, can change lives for the better, at least monetarily. The Mashantuckets know this more than anyone. In the course of twenty years, the Mashantucket Pequots went from being the poorest ethnic group in New London County to being the richest. Native Americans, a historically disenfranchised group, can take control of their monetary success through gaming.
I think about Alson and the wheelchair woman and the Native Americans and all the other people I've seen as I'm walking away from the Rainmaker room. I pass an arcade and sitting in the foyer, near the entrance, it sits, beckoning me silently. It: the grabby claw machine. I look into my purse: I have a good six dollars in quarters left from the slots. The arcade is completely empty. I haven't seen anyone under forty-five my entire time at Foxwoods. I imagine that the kids on the premises are either still asleep or watching early morning cartoons.
Subsequently, there is nothing and no one standing in the way of my grabby claw glory. Gingerly I place a quarter in the slot. The machine comes to life. I see my goal through the murky plastic: a one-eared generic Bugs Bunny doll. It actually has two ears but one of them has been so smushed into submission that it is plastered to the side of Bugs' plush face.
I use the controls to poise the claw directly above the bunny's one good ear. With the claw in perfect position, I press the big red button and the claw descends upon its target. The dainty silver tongs grace the tip of the bunny and press into the fleshy pink innards of the long ear. The bunny hovers above the rest of the stuffed animals, by chance it has been chosen for liberation and it looks down upon the masses of bears and dogs and ponies.
Just as the bunny is about to reach the drop slot, the ear slips quickly from the tongs' grasp. The bunny falls gently back into the pot with the rest of the stuffed toys and various plastic goodies. I look longingly back at the grabby claw for a second. I briefly consider putting more money in the machine, trying my luck another time. But it's getting late. Like Alson says, "It's just human nature. The guys who stop playing, they all stop because they're losing. You ever see a winner stop? No. It never happens. People only quit as losers" (Alson 49).
I back away from the arcade and walk back down the Pequot Trail, out of the Casino, and into the low December sunlight.
Alson, Peter. Confessions of an Ivy League Bookie. New York: Crown Publishers, 1996.Cartensen, Fred. The Economic Impact of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation Operations on Connecticut. Storrs, CT: Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis, 2000. http://www.lib.uconn.edu/ccea.
Mirkovich, Thomas R. Casino Gaming in the United States. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1997.
Foxwoods Resort and Casino site
Last modified 16 December 2003