December 20, 2004

High Roller

I'm back from the 3rd circle of purgatory, better known as South Jersey. The sun didn't come out for four days, so all we had to tell the time was varying shades of gray. Luckily, they didn't need us last Sunday, so a few of us took a day trip to Atlantic City. I called Melissa to tell her where we were going, and asked her to cash in Matthew's savings bonds. She was not amused.

"The A.C." is a truly unique place. Personally, I wasn't dazzled by the huge buildings and the sparkling lights because I found it all very sad. 200 yards from all these glitzy casinos was a long stretch of pawn shops and fleabag apartments that showed the net effect of gambling on the city. People were reduced to abject poverty hoping that their ship would come in somehow, that they would catch a lucky break, and escape their worries.

Probably the most eye-opening bit of education that I got while attending UGA was working at a liquor store on the rougher side of town. Oglethorpe Package had the required assortment of characters come through the door: The frat boy wannabees pooling their money to buy a suitcase of Schlitz, the guys who tried to sneak a 40 of "Johnny 3-Legs" out the door in a puffy jacket, the scraggly old man who kept begging me to buy his daily flask of rotgut gin, and occasionally, the redneck-just-come-into-money who drove a $30k truck but still drank Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. However, the scariest thing about that store was the Lottery machine.

When Georgia started up the lottery in the early 90's, it met with overwhelming support. The net proceeds would go to fund education and scholarship programs, so everyone could feel all warm and fuzzy about small-scale gambling. Most middle-class participants, myself included, only played a dollar or two a week in "The Redneck Retirement Plan," so we saw no harm in it. When we bought our tickets in the suburban gas stations, we only saw other people like ourselves, buying the odd ticket with their tank of unleaded.

What we didn't see was how the games affected the lower-income areas. Working at that store, I saw the ugly flip-side of the lottery. For these people, the lottery wasn't just a throwaway game, but a treasured lifeline of hope. These were good people at heart, and they truly believed that this was an opportunity for God to reward them and take them out of this life. The lottery wasn't a "stupidity tax" as some called said, it was exploiting people's hope, dangling it like a carrot in front of them. These people were addicted to hope and a sense of justice in the world, and it took what little money they had away from them.

Some people spent hundreds of dollars a week in lottery tickets and scratch-off games, and whatever scant money that they won, they gave right back to me to buy more tickets, thinking that they were lucky. One mother came in every month, cashed her child support check, and spent it all on alcohol and lottery tickets in the same visit. During my year of work, I only paid out five winning tickets, the highest being $250. Of those, only one had the sense to walk away from the counter without putting the majority of their winnings back into tickets.

So when I came into Atlantic City, it made me sad more than excited. I saw the people devoid of life, on both sides of the dealer's table. I saw rows of senior citizens feeding dollar after dollar into video slot machines, dreaming of retiring well-off. A 70 year-old woman wheeled her oxygen tank up to a counter and bought a pack of Marlboros for $10. A man with advanced Parkinson's sat down at a "Let It Ride" table and bet $50 per hand. His hands were shaking so bad, the dealer had a hard time figuring out if he wanted to stay with his cards. He lost $300 in ten minutes.

The day wasn't entirely depressing, however. We walked on the Boardwalk. I bought Melissa some salt water taffy from the place that claims to have invented it. I smiled as the streets that I'd come to know from playing "Monopoly" went by. As an homage to "Dogma", I even played me some Skee-Ball in one of the arcades.

I was fascinated watching the Craps tables, since you can bet on pretty much anything. The numbers, if the dice roll past a certain line, if doubles come up, and many other things I could barely guess at. For a moment, I was impressed that the players could understand a game this complex, and then I remembered trying to explain a Playstation 2 game to someone. ("Okay you move with this stick here, jump with the X button, switch weapons with the triangle button, hold the R1 button to aim and hit square button to fire...")

It started getting dark, so we made our way back from the Taj Mahal to the Sands, where we were parked. Before we left, I enjoyed an $18 roast beef sandwich, which tasted identical to a $5 sandwich I bought at Subway.

Footnote: I don't want to hear anyone ever tell me that acting classes don't teach you anything useful. As I was leaving the office on Friday, the client manager wished me a "Merry Christmas." This was the same woman who wanted me to stay until December 23rd, have me, the wife and kid fly into LAX on Christmas Eve, and have me bring my laptop to work remotely while I was there on my vacation. It was my training as an actor that made it possible to fake a smile, and thank her. I lacked the skill, however, to wish her the same regards with any believability, so I didn't try.

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