My colleague Amy Ziettlow’s new report, Seniors in Casino Land: Tough Luck for Older Americans, reminds me of meeting Callie Adamson. She’s in her 70s. She lives in Macon, Mississippi, about 60 miles away from Philadelphia, Mississippi, where my mother and I met her at the casino not long ago. We were all three sitting in front of a row slot machines, and I was watching her watch me, as my mother and I were playing, or at least trying to, and she was sitting quietly in front of a nearby machine, not playing, waiting for her daughter, it turns out, who also lives in Macon, and who had come with her that morning to the casino. She told us that she and one or both of her two daughters come to casino about twice a month.
It was about 2 p.m. on a Monday afternoon, and the huge, dark-with-flashing-lights casino was busy – lots of people, lots of noises. Mrs. Adamson is African American. She is overweight and has a bad knee that makes walking a bit difficult. She has thin gray hair and a kind, smooth, discerning face.
I ask her, with the usual southern deference and indirection, does she know how to play this machine I’m sitting in front of? She says she does, and moves over to sit by me. She shows me how to play. To get started, the machine will take either your card or cash. (“Oh yes, they all take cash!” she says with a laugh.) I put in a ten dollar bill and sure enough the machine gobbles it up.
She says, how much do you want to bet? I say, let’s bet the most we can with each spin. She shows me the buttons I need to press. I make a mistake or two at first, but after several spins, I’ve got it, and in about 90 seconds the ten dollars is gone. I put in another ten dollars and keep going, as she watches with interest, making sure I don’t mess up. On one spin, the lights start going crazy, the machine goes ping ping ping, I have won what seem to be a lot of credits, amounting, the machine finally says, to about $32.00.
“Quit now!” my mother says. I decide to keep playing. I’m suddenly feeling lucky, like things are going my way for the moment. About three minutes later, all the money is gone and I have nothing. I put in another ten dollars. This time my mother presses the buttons. The money is gone in about two minutes. We look a bit dejected. Our new acquaintance is friendly but dispassionate, watching us and watching her words.
After some casual conversation, with none of us playing the machines, she says to me, well, if I’m being honest, when I was first watching you, I thought you were a preacher. I knew you were with your mother (she smiles at my mother) and I thought, this man is a preacher. You can just tell, if someone is preacher, and it just seemed like you were. I knew you didn’t know what you were doing with that machine, she says with a laugh.
Are you having some luck today, I ask? No. She’s lost $100 today at the slots, and that is it for her today. (She says she never plays the table games and doesn’t even know how to play them.) That’s why she’s been sitting, not playing any more, waiting for her daughter to come find her. (Her bad knee makes walking hard.)
I ask her, why do you like going to the casino? She says, well, sometimes you get lucky. She says one time she won a thousand dollars on one spin.
She then says going to the casino is something to do. About all she does in Macon is go to church, and maybe visit friends every so often. But that’s about it. There isn’t much to do in Macon, and so she and her daughters enjoy making the trip to the casino. They go about twice a month.
She tells us with a smile that people go to casino to “pay the light bill.” I wanted to ask what she meant by that, but I didn’t. I thought about it afterwards, and still do. Did she mean that she goes to the casino hoping to win enough money to pay her light bill? Or was she speaking more poetically? Like going to the casino, for her, was paying for something unstated and bright that she wanted, or needed? I never figured it out to my satisfaction. Maybe she was just saying that she puts money into the slot machines, hoping for them to light up.
She is certainly aware that “paying the light bill” in this way is costly. Sometimes you get lucky, but most times you don’t. Almost everyone ends up losing more than they win. She knows this.
She also believes that all the machines are basically the same in terms of how they work and your chances of winning – although she knows people who strongly believe otherwise. But she does point out that the different machines have different names, which interest her, as well as their own specific sounds and patterns of play. Double Diamond, Lobster Mania, Indian Princess, African Diamond, Kingpin Bowling, and Texas Tea are some of the names of slot machines we saw that day.
By the time we parted company we were friends and all felt good about having had the chance to meet one another.
The casino is the hub of a giant gleaming modernist high-rise complex. In that part of very poor, spare, run-down Mississippi, this monstrous white creation looks a space ship from a 1950s sci-fi movie that has landed in the middle of nowhere. It’s called the Golden Moon Casino and Resort. It’s owed by the Choctaw Indians and is officially located in Choctaw, Mississippi – Choctaw being, essentially, that part of Philadelphia, Mississippi, in Neshoba County, that is owned by the tribe.
The casino is open 24/7. It has several restaurants (buffet style seems to be the most popular) and some shops. It has lots of ATM machines, in case the players need money. Ashtrays are everywhere (even in toilet stalls) and a great many of the players are smoking. The soft drinks and iced tea in small cups are self-serve and free. The casino’s ads describe the casino as “Vegas with Sweet Tea!”
There a few table games, but the vast majority of the casino’s floor space is devoted to its 3,100 slot machines. The clientele is racially mixed, largely female, and largely older. The first person I saw, when I walked onto the floor and was letting my eyes adjust to the semi-darkness, was an older white woman in a wheel chair.