My buddy Mort got married on April Fool’s Day, his reasoning at upwards of forty years old somewhere between practical concern and blissful capitulation. Before that, there was a celebration, or a collective lament, as bachelor parties go. The thing began at a Chicago Franklin Street steak house known for its asinine attitude toward the pleibians who frequented its halls hoping to brush elbows with the nation’s elite. Consequently, the prices were jacked to beyond even reasonable extremes, said elite enjoyed the comfort of the first-floor bar and cushioned seats, and the rest, well, they (we, mind you) were relegated to a cavernous dining hall upstairs where the volume of conversation from neighboring tables seemed to forbid even the possibility of communication rendered in anything under a shout. Thankfully, I had to work through most of this first portion, so I missed out on contributing my $100-plus to the final tab when I got there, Mort and company on their ways out the door and each of the men in his own way — some surreptitiously, some outright ogling, to the point of even snapping off a few pictures of the man — with his eye on the dignitary across the room, Mr. Keanu Reeves, aka Neo, aka Ted in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, by far his best flick. The man taking the picture, a character I knew as the organizer of the evening’s festivities, a man close to my own age, younger than most in this party of near middle-agers, was collared by the bartender and reprimanded very haughtily. I laughed a little too loud for the situation’s gravity, and the organizer blushed mightily. I chanced a long glance Neo’s way on our forced way out the door: Keanu Reeves had to be nearing forty, at least, I figured, though he looked the very picture of 28, my own age. I clutched my chest; the possibility of death, on a night like this, was ever near.
And then we were afloat in Jack Binion’s Horseshoe Casino — in Lake Michigan just off the coast of Hammond, Indiana. On each floor of the casino, way off in a corner but close enough to the stairwells to be quite conspicuous to the more than casual observer, there were placards with directives as to the appropriate course of action in the event of the boat’s capsizing. At first I thought it had to be a joke on the part of the owners, as clearly this quadruple-decker casino was in no conventional sense a boat, i.e. we were not sailing or, I suspected, even floating to any significant degree. Mort filled me in, though, on the machinations of the last decade of Midwest casino law, in particular that of Illinois and Indiana. The latter beat the former to the punch by allowing casinos to open at all, in the early 90s, following a decision by the state of Iowa, in turn, in the late 80s to allow gambling during sailing excursions, the rationale being that if casinos were relegated to the state’s waterways, any attendant social disruption in the surrounding communities would be avoided. Of course such a rationale assumes gambling to be inherently immoral, and doesn’t fit with the perceived American ideal of the ease of business. The Iowa and subsequent Indiana casino-gaming industries, hoping as they did to encourage tourism, thus struggled from the beginning, as Mort said — the inconvenience of waiting to sail and then return proved a boon to prospective customers, in particular the idle tourist-gambler. The method seemed to encourage only the dedicated, really, who were wily and prone to winning, so the take of the operator was incorrigibly low. And then Illinois, sandwiched between the two states and within striking distance of residents of each, introduced its own version of riverboat gambling but quickly went “dockside,” following the Mississippi model, whereby boats could remain “docked,” allowing for permanent air-conditioned gangways, free 24-hour access to and from the gaming parlors, and popular participation, generally, the drawing in of suckers from all over the region. This killed Indiana’s enterprise, initially. Until, that is, they followed with exactly the same thing. Hence the relative absurdity of life-preserver directions, I had to think.
Or maybe not.
Mort couldn’t enlighten me on the logistical, physical question that remained re the method behind the boat’s “docked” status — i.e., was it actually floating on the water or was it somehow moored by a solid structure under its base, immune to any possible rising or lowering water level and from the rocking attendant to the arrival of any tsunami- or otherwise smaller-size wave? “It’s a boat, man,” Mort said. “Boats float.” Mort is a lover of life, temperless, it would seem. I wish he and the wife well. As for me, I wasn’t convinced; death, yes, was on the mind. And still coming out of the end of one of my typically insane bouts of hypochondria, I remained half-convinced I had lung and throat cancer (as I continued to chain-smoke ultrastrong hand-rolled cigarettes), diabetes, and astronomically high blood pressure all at once and that my heart would give out at any moment. Over the course of the night, after every beer consumed, cigarette in hand on the walk back to the bar in the high-stakes parlor on the third level, my heart pounded harder at every imagined keen of the floor, the absolutely level whiskey in the glass atop Mort’s chosen slot machine be damned. The ship was sinking, I convinced myself; at any moment things could turn for the worse. “Do you feel that?” I said after my fifth trip to the bar. Mort, self-described “slot junkie,” was engaged now with a machine that had a winning hit matrix extended beyond the normal single line across the slot screen to include a myriad other possible combinations along a grid that took up the majority of the display. “Feel what?” Mort said. He hit the maximum bet button, in this case equal to a ten-dollar wager, and the rolling symbols turned, stopping with a series of BARs spread diagonally across the display grid. The machine bleeped happily, but this put Mort up only two dollars. Intrigued, I continued to watch. The improved odds on this particular style of machine seemed to feed the addictive properties of the compulsive behavior. Mort lost a hundred dollars on this one alone, but it took him damn near two hours. The veritable apotheosis of the law of diminishing returns, the slots will hit on a maximum bet occasionally, and you’ll still be down two bucks, depending on the corners of the grid you match. Only rarely do you score a direct hit. Then it’ll let you win a buck or two back, then go down only four after betting ten. It’s a total bullshit game, and this I told Mort. “I’ve won before,” he said. Of course. This is the attraction of the casino. As in life, anything’s possible, you tell yourself, and maybe even rightly so. You know your own history, anyway, that time you went up $200 on a single-line slot and cashed out and called it a night. And Mort did go up overall after a big hit on another machine, and I was like, “You oughta give it up right there, man.” But Mort only grinned, sarcastic under his handlebar mustache, and took his ticket on to the next machine. “If I quit now, I’m only up fifteen bucks for the night,” he said. “Shit, I’ve done better than that.”
Anything’s possible. Rob, a very tall man who like me was here only on behalf of our mustachioed bachelor and consequently only interested in the drinks at the bar, got married at one of the lored drive-through chapels in Las Vegas. An auto aficionado, you might say, he and his gal went on a long road trip in the ’61 Chrysler he’d kept up since the mid-80s in Florida, in the 90s hauling it up to Chicago where it spends the winters in a garage and still gets along quite well, so he says. The romantic all-possibilities sense of their trip took its toll, as he explains it — plus they’d bandied the idea of a Las Vegas wedding about in the weeks preceding the excursion, so with the juggernaut they rode approaching the desert casino city and the ease of obtaining a marriage license ($55 and a valid ID) high in their minds, they jumped.
Las Vegas is of course the envy of all locales that would bolster a tourist economy by offering big-box casino gaming; their cheap marriage licenses are part of the draw, as are requirements written into the local code that large hotels with a particular number of rooms come with any particular square footage of casino space, thus ensuring a built-in tourist-marketing apparatus to any new casino project. Indiana’s nowhere near there; looking around I recognize more than a few faces from the city and a number of men who have that hangdog tired look one gets from working at a steel mill all day (Gary Works, not to mention a number of other large factories, is 15 minutes down the road), and in general the air is full of local desperation. Indiana doesn’t require the existence of large hotels along with their riverboat casinos, as does for instance Mississippi, where Biloxi on the gulf coast and Tunica county just south of Memphis are both quickly becoming destinations to rival Atlantic City. And Hammond, along with much of the industrial northern Indiana lakefront shores, with the long-finished collapse of the American industrial economy is a veritable bastion of economic death. It seems obvious to me that this casino can only serve the purpose of sucking the region’s desperate denizens dry, monetarily, a hastener of their own little deaths. Naturally, though I live among the bright lights of Chicago, this includes me.
The more disgustingly drunk I got, the less hope I had.
An outstanding place for a bachelor party, don’t you think?
By the end, I would pull a hundred from my bank account and wade through slots, emulating Mort’s machine-picking method, whereby he sort of waves his arm in front of each until one makes a sound he deems to be a winner. My emulation would prove much less lucky, or less developed if you like, than his. It took me a mere twenty minutes to wipe out my hundred dollar investment. Fuck it. I found Rob by a blackjack table with the remainder of our party, sans the bachelor still wading through slots on the floor above us. We were below-decks, essentially, and minus the continual bleeping of the slots, one could strain one’s ears and almost here the telltale creak of the floating or sinking contraption, or one could imagine it, as I did. Rob and I watched the folks at the blackjack table engaged in a to-the-death round, and it quickly became clear that the party’s organizer was something of a gambling junky. He was losing big-time but was all wide eyes and glee. The only female with us — a lesbian who in a bit of fence-hopping Rob at least couldn’t approve of (in fact, he was adamant about his disapproval, shaking his fist at one point high in the air and bemoaning the fact that she) would be attending the bachelorette party as well (“Boundaries,” Rob said, “boundaries, dude. They exist for reasons.” I tipped back my last beer and laughed heartily)…anyway, this gal — Jen was her name — she was pulling in gobs of money. And as we stood there, waiting, Mort walked up alone and shot his thumb to the door. But the rest of the folks weren’t ready. Mort wanted to make last call at his favorite bar back in town, but these folks were high on the lesbian’s winnings, or on the organizer’s losses, or both. I smoked a cigarette and closed my eyes. “This motherfucker’s floating,” I said. “I can feel it.” I let my head roll back.
“It ain’t Fool’s Day yet,” Mort said. “Shut the fuck up.”