PLAINVILLE — Maybe it’s because he reminded me of my brother — same age, same build, same deadpan humor — but halfway into our conversation, I stopped interviewing Steve and started trying to get him to walk away from the slot machine.
Opening day at Plainridge Park Casino was a smashing success — a dinging, bleating, flashing triumph. All around us, crowds waited for others to give up on Kitty Glitter, Black Widow, Temple Tiger, or another of the 1,500 slots and gambling machines, so they could sit down and try their luck. Long lines formed at the food court and the cash stations. Scantily clad, impossibly proportioned virtual dealers tended to players hunched over blackjack video screens. Cocktail waitresses took orders over the din.
Steve, who did not want his full name used, fed a steady stream of hundreds into the $20-a-bet slot machine — fast. He alternated between pressing the button and pulling the lever “for superstition,” he said. He’d put $7,000 into the slots here so far.
“I’m leaving,” he said. Then he slid another Benjamin into the slot.
So, does he have a problem?
“I’d say it was a problem,” he said flatly, as if the answer were obvious. “What are you gonna do? It is what it is. I do very well businesswise.”
The 45-year-old owns several fast-food places. He usually gambles at Foxwoods. He likes table games, especially blackjack, better than slots.
“With slots, you’re just depending on the machine,” he said.
One night last week, he left Foxwoods $43,000 up. “That’s one time out of 10 that I’m not negative $5,000,” he said.
My mother spent decades in the industry, dispensing drinks and change in veterans’ clubs where slots were the main draw. I worked in them, too, in my late teens and early twenties.
I have seen their benefits: My mother’s was a good job, allowing her to raise six kids alone, even though she had only a fifth-grade education.
And I have seen their costs. The bars where I worked were in poorer neighborhoods, where people had less money to feed into the machines than Steve does. But that didn’t stop them. I saw countless people in thrall: elderly people pouring their pension checks into the slots week after week; younger people whose habits left them reliant on friends for food and beer; they played like it was their job — fast, joylessly.
I pushed all of that depressing stuff out of my head as I took their money. I reminded myself that they were adults, making their own choices. It was the only way I could go back to that smoky, dingy dive day after day.
Plainridge is far more beautiful than the places where I used to work. And on Wednesday night, it sure looked like some of the gambling boosters’ promises would be kept. Money that would otherwise have gone to out of state parlors was indeed coming back to Massachusetts: Several of the punters I spoke to had chosen Plainridge over Twin River, in Rhode Island. The place was so jammed, it seemed entirely possible that Plainridge might actually meet its own crazy optimistic revenue projections — for a while.
And plenty of the people there were having a great time at the low-stakes slots (which make just as much noise announcing a $7.50 windfall as others machines do dispensing thousands), and walking away from them to eat dinner, see the band, or pose with the dancing showgirls.
It’s easy to celebrate all of that, as long as you can push the depressing stuff out of your head. As long as you don’t think about all the Steves, settling in for hours.
I watched as his balance dropped to zero again. Get out of here, I begged him. He stood up.
“I’m walking away,” he said.
Really? I’d convinced him?
“No,” he said. “On this machine I’m walking away.” And off he went to find another.