By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
This place, with its leftover knee-high sinks between kid-scale restrooms, is filled with people who have wagered tuition -- and in many cases, their jobs -- that they can start new lives. Thirty-four-year-old Jay Vong, a slender, reserved fellow, used to deal in Minnesota but a few months ago moved to Florida because the weather here reminds him of his native Vietnam. It's this or construction for him. Efrain Palencia, an 18-year-old with a faint mustache, works food service at the Seminole casino across the street and sometimes attends class in the white tuxedo shirt he wears to that job, orange grease splatters and all. On a lunch break one day, Palencia sits alone at a table, shuffling. When he deals a mock hand, the cards often flutter and land face-up. "I've been awake for more than 24 hours," he explains. If he can't get it right, it'll be back to the snack bar.
They're learning alongside Marsha Lerner, the hairdresser; Candice Niddrie, the 50-year-old former Playboy bunny; Giovanna Garcia, the former baccarat dealer from Lima who just quit her job at Baby Gap to get into poker; the current cruise ship dealer who could lose his job if his name appears here, who says he wants to trade up to the casino because "it's more stable -- this place is going to be there forever;" and John DeSisto, the cruise ship poker dealer with a Taz tattoo on his right forearm who wants to run the game while sitting down after 27 years of standing.
Student David McKenna, who used to sling cards in Vegas, recalls a poolside lingerie party at the Hard Rock casino there. It featured girls wearing negligees and nothing else, if you know what he means. "But I'm not supposed to tell you that," he says. "Because what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas."
There is optimism here. Some of it seems born of desperation. After class, Janny Mason, a stocky, 35-year-old Peruvian with baby-blue eye shadow and blond highlights in her chestnut hair, rests behind the school on a wooden picnic bench left over from the building's primary-school days. The seat is ankle-high and abuts a wall painted blue with a smiling sun and a cockeyed rainbow.
Four years ago, she would have never thought she'd be here. She was practicing family law and was general manager of the chamber of commerce in Iquitos, Peru -- "in the jungle," she says. Then she and her husband split up, and he tried to take custody of their 2-year-old daughter, Alexandra. She strategically skipped the continent for South Florida with the toddler in tow to rent a bedroom from a friend of a friend. After crying for two straight months and maxing out her credit cards, she pulled her head together enough to apply at McDonald's, where she worked as a cashier for four miserable days before quitting.
Shortly after that, a friend introduced her to a Casino Princesa manager, who hired her as a cocktail waitress on the ship. A couple of months later, she moved up to working the slots, where she stayed for more than a year, when she and a surveillance manager named William Mason took a liking to each other. Company rules forbade such a romance. So she quit. On New Year's Eve 2001, the two married.
"My life in these four years is like a soap opera," she says, laughing. She'll be a perfect fit with the Seminole.
Janny just quit her most recent job managing property to be here, because working nights at the new casino would allow her to attend law school during the day.
"I know there's going to be a lot of sacrifice I'm going to have to do, with my daughter, my family, and everything," she says. "But that's the only way to get it."
Nearly an hour after class has ended, she returns inside to deal and play hands until the instructors nudge her and the few remaining students out the door.
The executive enters the unfinished hotel room and walks past the dust, plastic sheets, wood scraps, and construction worker napping on a plain board. Doug Pattison, president of the Hollywood Hard Rock complex, steps onto the balcony a dozen stories above the ground. He has black hair, an open face, and a confident, relaxed air. He might have made a good game show host in a different life.
The scenery from this perch illustrates some of the inherent challenges for this multimillion-dollar bet. In the distance, beyond a sea of trees, rises the hazy, jagged outline of downtown Fort Lauderdale. Nearer, just across State Road 7, is a dirt pile flanked by transmission shops and musty trailers hawking cheap cigs. Near the corner of Stirling Road is the chickee where a New Jersey man named Jim Archer sells "live, disease-free" turtles and plastic terrariums. To the north stretches parking for the thousand-odd construction workers who, just weeks from opening day, are toiling to ready this edifice, stirring little dust storms amid shells of what will be high-end shopping, nightclubs, an Irish pub, a Hooters. Just below the balcony stretches the grayscape of the casino rooftop, interrupted only by a few turquoise, rectangular skylights above the center bar.