A lot of ink has been spilled about the new casino downtown. The folks in charge would have us believe it’s a boon to tourism that will bring classy high rollers to our city to play a gentleman’s game of poker and then enjoy a “famous” chef’s $14 ($13 if you are a Total Rewards member) crab dip.
Lest we think it’s just a treat for the rich people, they’ve also promised the casino will bring much-needed funds to our communities, a kind of trickle-down economics, which is also a gamble that has never paid off. The lefty critics have already dug up the news that those community funds are actually going to a new little neighborhood known as the Horseshoe Casino. Others have pointed out that casinos prey on the poor and the hopeless, and that’s no way to fund our schools. The moralists think it’s just plain wrong, the health care folks are worried about increased addiction, and then there are all the people worried about quality-of-life crimes spilling out into and all over their neighborhoods. And oh, because this is Baltimore, there’s also that parking thing. For this field tripper, though, the casino means only one thing: penny slots.
I was back in Idaho visiting the parents when the casino opened, but as soon as I was back in town and had a free day I hopped on the bike, stopped at the local drugstore’s ATM for three crisp $20 bills, and snaked my way down to the casino, through Maryland Avenue’s Methadone Alley, past Station North’s nightclubs and fussy boutique restaurants, down the hill and up the hill through Mount Vernon’s fancy façade before joining the downtown westside traffic. I picked up the Gwynns Falls Trail on the other side of Conway Street and twisted through Federal Hill’s endless brick and Otterbein’s touch o’ history on my way through the tumbleweeded train tracks and old warehouses behind the football stadium that suddenly give way to the Horseshoe’s concrete stack of a parking lot and that red carpet and outdoor chandeliering that lets you know you’re somewhere special. It’s maybe a five-mile bike ride, but it’s a snapshot of so much of Baltimore.
The thing about the casino, though, is that Baltimore disappears there. Everything did, really, once I locked my bike up in the sizeable bike corral and headed inside. I’ve been to a zillion casinos, from the ones in Winnemucca where my dad would stop on the 24-hour drive from Boise to Los Angeles to visit family, so we could brush our teeth, to the ones in Reno where I celebrated every graduate school milestone as I trudged through a Ph.D. at Berkeley. When my mom wanted to meet my first super-serious ladyfriend, we all flew to Las Vegas and shared a room at the MGM Grand. I celebrated my 30th birthday at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut where I had a free room and a free cake because I was a Valued Member of their special player’s club. I’ve made the drive between Boise and Jackpot, Nevada, just at the state line, more than a few times for slot-playing jamborees with my mom and sister, all of us sitting at the penny slots, chugging greyhounds—a drink I only have at casinos, like how you only drink tomato juice on the plane—breaking only for the buffet. There was the riverboat casino in Iowa on one of my many cross-country moves, the casino in New Orleans that was conveniently located at the halfway point between my house and where all my friends lived. It was one of the first places to reopen after Katrina—this casino business is really ugly. And yet here I was, again.
All of these places feel basically the same to me, and the Horseshoe is just the latest. It’s all flashing lights and ding-ding-dings that gives the impression that someone is winning big. The place is not filled with laughing well-dressed women enjoying Girl’s Night Out, but older folks, the kind who have free time on a Thursday afternoon. That’s the audience for casinos—in Jackpot, you get a free spin on the big wheel if you cash your social security check onsite. There’s a spot above one of the bars for bands to play, and yes, there was a band—a guy on guitar and a woman on vocals—playing the greatest hits of the ’80s, ’90s, and today to an empty lounge. Cocktail waitresses in tiny outfits that somehow lack all sex appeal were zipping up and down the aisles and aisles of slots, delivering beverages gamblers had ordered from the interactive menu on each slot machine. It’s like a great Potemkin Village for the change-gathering machines.
I happily plunked myself down at one after another, betting 30-50 cents with each spin. That’s the thing with penny slots—you don’t actually bet a penny, but the casino magic that turns money into play tokens fools you into thinking it’s just a few pennies you’re losing (though it’s big money if you happen to win). I ordered a couple of greyhounds, tipped the server for good luck (and also because it’s the right thing to do), and managed to play on $40 for two hours. I think. Time disappears in casinos—it’s always around 8 p.m., and it’s just a little chilly to keep you awake. Two hours is a long time to not run out of money in my casino experience, so I somehow felt like a winner even though I had definitely lost.
I took a break to take a turn around the casino, peeked in on the high-roller section—those dudes are dumping some serious cash—and checked out the restaurants. The menu prices all read as spins to me. That $15 hamburger is like 40 spins on the Wizard of Oz machine, I thought to myself, and decided against eating altogether. And then, because I know that the only way out is to leave, I left, cash still in my pocket—victory! I unlocked my bike and rolled it through the party they’d set up outside. A band played for one couple dancing and no one was in line yet for the many food and drink stations that lined the perimeter of the dance floor. It felt a little like they were throwing a party and everyone forgot to show up. We’re not actually here for the free show—we’re here for the mindless and inexplicable pleasure of dumping our cash in the machines.