Brian Jacobson
Deep-Fried Romantic

Once Pandora’s Box is open, you have to deal with it

By - Jan 13th, 2010 02:11 am

slotsSomeone close to me, we’ll call him Joe, went missing. I did something I’ve never done before: I went looking for him.

Many of us who are close to him knew where he had gone — to the casino. It’s been an issue for Joe for a good number of years, and he has sought treatment and seemed okay. He relies on the Potawatomi Bingo Casino in Milwaukee to relieve him of boredom and stress during emotionally and physically trying times, at the trade-off of relieving him of a couple hundred dollars in the process.

Anyone who’s taken a trip to the casino, even if just to play the slots and take in a show or meal, knows that one hour equals $100. It’s just the nature and math of playing the two- or five-cent machines alone: if you play one line, then you’ll never win. If you play 10 lines, your luck might fluctuate. But inevitably, the $20 you enter into a machine will be gone in five minutes — if you are even aware that it was that short of a time period.

casinoflameLet me explain this loss of time and space by looking at the model of a casino.  In this scenario, we’ll pick on the newly renovated and expanded Potawatomi levels. There used to be one parking structure and overflow traffic would fill the industrial Menomonee Valley streets surrounding the flame-themed entrance. Now, there is a twin parking structure, a giant overflow lot for employees and a valet drop-off where the glorious lobby once stood. This lobby is now diminished with slot machines crowding what was open space and decor. In fact, slot machines and other games of chance now crowd out every last space in the casino, even where beautiful forest displays once stood.

slots2Any place that once had slot machines near an exterior wall with views to the outside world now blocks them with more machines. I didn’t see any clocks in the casino, or at least they weren’t obvious. The floor plans have also drastically changed so that finding a clear exit or space to roam without gambling is difficult. The bingo hall is the size of a full gymnasium, but it was mostly empty on my visit. If a patron manages to stop gambling, there are other attractions to keep them occupied like a sports bar, a stage show or several restaurants. Some areas are sectioned off like the new Off-Track Betting parlor and the re-vamped Poker Room, and of course the shadowy and unknown luxury of the Solstice Lounge for high-rollers.

rouletteLooking for Joe in all of this was not like looking for a needle in a haystack, but a needle in an enormous pile of needles. Everyone looks the same there, even if they are different ages or ethnicities. Everyone looks somewhat downtrodden, or at least in a trance. This is not the stuff of shows like Las Vegas, where the patrons are young, well-dressed and bubbling with happiness. You can’t really even hear too many voices over the constant and familiar ‘doodle’ electronic music of slot machine tumblers going around and dinging for short wins.

Within 20 minutes, I had looked down every aisle and had been in every room on three floors. Down the last aisle of the last room, I spotted him. Joe looked to be in a stupor, like everyone else, punching the feeder button.

slotfaceThis is one of the low culture aspects of the slots. There is enough money in the casino coffers to make each machine look new or just replace ones that look old. Most machines run a kind of game like Monopoly or Wheel of Fortune in bonus rounds, giving the gambler both a feeling that there is a skill involved in winning or that even losing was, at least, entertaining and worthwhile.

Imagine if the slot machines were the old-fashioned ‘777’, BAR and cherries with only the middle line being a winner. Imagine that you got a shock every time you hit the repeater button. There is something beyond the lure of winning big (or “Pays Big,” as the empty advertising for this casino promises). There is a simple pleasure principle involved, like a sedative. Gambling on such a feeble level of chance offers the promise of return that is amplified when you spend a larger amount in it. You know you’re likely to lose, but there’s a chance, right?

I couldn’t walk up to Joe. I stood back one row, just watching. What would I say? Did I have the courage to do this now that he was found? But within a few minutes, he saw me. I approached, and here’s the basic conversation:

Joe: “What are you doing here? Are you here playing, too? What have you been playing?”
Me: “I’m not here playing.”
Joe: “How often do you come here?”
Me: “I don’t.”

This is true. It had been a year since I had any disposable income and spent a few hours there. I play the Powerball on occasion, but that’s it. I’m sure that if I had extra income and the false fantasy of getting ahead by running the blackjack table, I would be in the same boat. Somehow, poverty for me acts as a great clarifier for me instead of a wound that the casino can salve with a warm interior and bright lights. For Joe, all you could see was a glazed look in his eyes.

Me: “C’mon, let’s go.”
[Joe tries to maneuver around me with a $20 bill in his hand.]
Joe: “In just a minute. I’m going to do one more.”
Me: “No, forget it. Leave with something. Let’s go.”

My hand is on his elbow, but he gets around me. He plays one more machine, and I watch. We get up and start walking. It’s a very long walk, and he starts drifting behind me like a child in a toy store. We reach one of the entrance lobbies, and he opens up his wallet with another $20.

Me, begging quietly: “Please.”
Joe: “What is wrong with you? I’m not done yet.”

This goes on, and I don’t want to make a scene. I turn and abruptly leave as he is in mid-sentence.

Potawatomi Bingo Casino does appear to take a concerted approach to what it calls “responsible gambling,” which sounds so much better than “problem gambling.” It’s approximately the same amount of care that a tobacco company gives to warning labels or liquor companies give to anti-drunk-driving campaigns. There is a Gamblers’ Anonymous programs in the area, but they are sparse and intermittent for users. Potawatomi is even a major contributor to the Wisconsin Council on Problem Gaming.

They even have a self-responsibility program. Patrons can register with the casino so that if staff see them, they can ask the patron to leave. But again, problem gamblers have to initiate this program themselves. It doesn’t matter how much friends or family members beg, the person at fault has to take responsibility. There is no policy toward turning away incoming patrons who don’t look like they should be there. Men and women with poor haircuts, clothing and hygiene abound. If you’ve managed to get cash money somehow, you’re allowed to play.

If Pandora’s Box is open, then so be it. It’s easier to deal with possible sadness and wrong than to prevent it from ever happening. But Pandora’s Box keeps getting bigger, more convenient and shinier.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us