Yesterday I met my friend Allie for tea. Because it was under 70 degrees in New Orleans and no one has central heat or any sort of grit, everyone else in the city had the exact same idea, and the coffee shop where we met up was super-crowded. We lurked near the tables of the people with empty cups like vultures hoping for something to die, but to no avail. These were the 22-year-olds-moving-back-in-with-their-parents of coffee-shop-goers: they were going to hang on as long as they could.
So we got our big teas to go and went for a walk. We walked toward the bright, industrial lights of the race track and fair grounds, since they looked warm.
"We COULD go into that seedy bar," said Allie, indicating the The Sea Horse, where I had once seen a man straddle another man on a dirty pool table just to see how many times in a row he could slap the second man's ear lobes. The Sea Horse was on my List of Places To Go right under Dental Surgery Hut. "OR we could go to the casino."
The casino? There was a casino by the race track? I had no idea. I thought there were just horses and maybe a place where you could get brunch. (The hats people wear to horse races remind me of brunching hats. If you've never heard of a brunching hat, go to a horse race. Or a royal wedding.)
"I have never been to a casino before," I said. This was a partially true statement. I had never gambled. When I was in high school, my family took a trip to Las Vegas for some reason. The main thing I remember is that in all the hotel lobbies there were fake books on the tables. I just remember thinking that the cost of producing realistic-looking false books was certainly much higher than simply acquiring real books. I said as much to an employee at the hotel -- who was dressed as a swan, it should be noted -- and he said, "That's VEGAS, Sweetheart!" with the kind of cadence that you would expect from someone who was well-acquainted with jazz hands.
So we went to the casino. I was worried the man at the front desk would try to confiscate our teas, and I wasn't ready to part with mine yet. Allie said, "No, don't worry. As long as you look like you're going to spend money, you could bring a bomb into a casino in plain sight. They might even like that."
We played at three different machines. The first one was called "Jungle Madness." Here's what I understood about "Jungle Madness:" monkeys, the number seven, and a crystal fountain were all involved in some nebulous, tertiary way. That's really all I got out of it. Occasionally Allie would push a button and the screen would light up with lines across it not unlike the ritualistic satanic symbols I'd seen in the underrated psychological thriller The Skeleton Key. When that happened, the dollar value on the bottom of the screen would go up twenty cents or so. "Is there any strategy to this?" I asked. "No," Allie said. It took us three minutes to lose $5 at "Jungle Madness." I did not understand the appeal AT ALL.
"You have to play one where you pull a lever," Allie said. "Then you'll get it."
We played one where we pulled a lever. This time it took us ONE minute to lose $5. I did not get it.
Finally, after we had done a full tour of all the glittering machines in the giant room, and stared at the people glued to them like they were watching The Wire, and surveyed the menu of the sketchy-looking diner (where, for the record, you could definitely get brunch if you wanted to, hat or no), we were ready to go.
Then I saw a machine called "Kitty Glitter."
This machine had everything I could possibly want in a gambling machine. 1) A delightful pun in the title. That's the most important thing. 2) '90s-era GIFs of cats. 3) The cats were wearing tiaras. 4) THE CATS WERE WEARING TIARAS.
I put $5 into "Kitty Glitter." I knew immediately that I was about to understand gambling. I could see my future fading away into a real-life addiction. I saw myself, 80, penniless, clawing at the glinting, flashing "Kitty Glitter" display, as two security guards carted me out for the umpteenth time. I'm wearing my "Kitty Glitter" sweatshirt in the fantasy, and also I have a really cute pedicure that I obviously can't afford. Who knows where I got it. Fantasies don't always explain themselves.
I pushed some buttons. Sometimes lines would appear and I would win twenty cents. When that happened, the adorable GIF cats would flash on the screen, and I imagined them meowing. Then two minutes passed, and I had lost all five of my dollars.
Look. I'd WANTED to understand the appeal of this world. I truly had. I was totally prepared to buy into it completely. But I simply couldn't understand it. There was really no strategy -- you pushed buttons and "random" shapes appeared on the screen (but there's no way it's really random, right? I mean, casinos are multi-billion dollar operations. They are programmed to all work the same way, aren't they?). Then you lost five dollars. Nothing even meowed at you! You had to imagine that if you wanted it!
Maybe it's about this distant possibility of your whole life changing because all the Siamese cats appear at once, and suddenly you can buy a mansion. Maybe there IS some strategy that is way too advanced for me to understand. Maybe it's because you can smoke in there. Who knows.
But none of it is real.
The money isn't real, the machines aren't real, the people who sit at them aren't real. It's all just a way to avoid whatever is uncomfortable or not good enough about one's actual life. I get why that's appealing: that's why any addictive behavior is appealing. For a minute, you get a hit of dopamine in your brain that tricks you into thinking, however briefly, that everything is so much better than it is.
The challenge becomes learning how to sit with what doesn't feel good, with the knowledge that at some point, the uncomfortable feeling will pass. And you will find your joy in simple small things: birds and air and sleep and friends and real, actual, meowing cats. When life sucks, you want to run, but you can't really. You tell yourself that this one drink or cigarette or dollar will be just what you need to fill the hole in your life. But it never is, and eventually you run out.
We left the casino and walked the long way back to the coffee shop.
"Do you want to walk on the sidewalk or by the water?" Allie said.
"The water, obviously," I said.
"Well, you're taking a gamble if you walk along the water, because you might step in duck shit."
"I'll take my chances."