Saint Lucre

At 2 a.m. at an Indian casino, one can get broke and cynical

As any idiot knows, the Native Americans were swindled when settlers continuously encroached upon their land, disregarding the fact that the Indians were there first. After years of fighting, killing and displacing the Indians, the government allotted reservations for the Indians to call their own. Gee, how altruistic.

Of course, much of it was piss-poor land, and Indians living on reservations wound up having the highest unemployment rate and the lowest life expectancy in the nation. Not much different from a Third World country, really.

But in 1988, Congress rode to the rescue, passing the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which recognized the right of Native American tribes in the United States to establish gambling facilities on their reservations. One of the act's main points is to promote tribal economic development, self-sufficiency, and strong tribal government; the return of basic self-respect to the tribes.

And because of said law, in due comeuppance to Arizona, the state has burped up more than a dozen casinos on reservation land, which, for some Arizona tribes, is bringing economic salvation.

An economic strength borne of white man's greedy desire for quick fortune?
You bet.
So we chose the Phoenix area's newest and nearest gambling joint called Casino Arizona, located between Tempe and Scottsdale off 92nd Street, to have a go. This particular casino is owned and operated by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, and is open 24 hours a day.

The casino parking lot has inherited the desert's characteristic disregard for conventional distance, and even on a 2 a.m. weeknight, it was jammed with cars in every direction. And the casino itself is an imposing tentlike structure lighted less garishly than its Vegas antecedents--there's no glitz, no glam, and no outward appeal; picture Kmart next to Bloomingdale's.

And of course, unlike Vegas, there are no topless French dancers, no lines of 60-plus-year-old "girls" waiting to see Tom Jones, and no beautiful women in fuck-me dresses catering to an infantry of polyester warriors with too much Midwestern-earned cash.

And unlike Vegas, Casino Arizona's customers are not very intense about their games. There's a resignation, a hollowness, a tired familiarity.

Here, pallid, straw-haired tweakers with zero to lose pull luckless slots alongside unemployed water-sprinkler installers while grannies in pastel warm-up suits blow their grandchildren's inheritance. There's the occasional quick-eyed, leather-jacketed urchin with a two-day growth who could almost resemble a member of some elite gambling force, when really, he's probably just peddling meth.

The casino's interior is split in two (slots on one side, cards on the other) and sports a dull Southwestern color scheme, sterile as an airport. Cashiers with bored, gum-chewing faces and slacked shoulders exchange money on one end of the room. Vendors sell various artery-clogging items. There's a lounge, and a gift shop offering Casino Arizona tee shirts and trinkets. A good 250 low-volume slot machines bearing names such as "Wheel of Fortune," "Double Double Dollars" and "Black Widow" are quieted by virtue of rubber mats placed in each of the coin trays. (The slots have an odd hum instead of an aural assault, even when hundreds of winning coins are spit out.)

The crowded card area features 30 tables or so and is pungent with a low-key competence that keeps me out. Games played here include Texas Hold 'em, Asian Bingo and Maverick 21, among others. Without blackjack (state law won't allow it), I wonder, What is the point?

I read somewhere that a lot of elderly Indians fear losing their traditional values to the casinos because of things like corruption and greed, and that the younger ones are willing to face those stakes for the chance at a better life. But this night, I noticed a lot of Native American employees, a good sign, I think.

I went in with a lovely, fine-boned redhead named Amelia who has, by her own account, a healthy gambling addiction. We go in with $200 between us and stick to the slots.

At any casino, there will always be a mess of quarter- and nickel-slot enthusiasts wearing that thousand-mile-away blankness on their faces as cheery loops of 7s, or double diamonds, or little farm animals, or whatever, whir down to a stop. And when that stop offers no joy of renewal, the machine will then swallow more of that poor slob's rent money and repeat the same futile rotation. As soon as I started in, I became that.

Then a woman behind me with sleepy eyelids and high hair who looked like she could be named Marge unbelievably coaxed $34,000 out of a dollar slot machine. Ten minutes later, she won $4,000 more on another one.

Jesus.
And some define insanity as repeating the same mistakes expecting different results.

So with renewed vigor, I kept going; heart racing, hope, all that.
After 20 minutes of seesawing prosperity, I was done. I burned through the hundred or so I had on me, which was, basically, all the money I had in the whole world. I felt incredibly sober. The next day, I would starve.

Amelia, who says she regularly takes in an extra chunk of cash weekly from just the slots, was not in luck that night either. After an hour or so, she had gone through all of her cash, the working assets from her earlier shift that night as a bartender in Mesa. She was not happy. The next day, she'd starve, too.

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