"I always play the same numbers, and sometimes I get three of four matches, but usually nothing," says Norman, a short, gray-eyed man. "And then I think, I won't play. But what if that's the week my numbers win?"
Norman's tiny blond wife, Sylvia, nods in affirmation while the rest of the crowd at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino (5731 S. State Rd. 7, Hollywood) at 2 p.m. on a Monday sits transfixed. They're watching rock videos on television screens of various sizes, playing bingo-based pseudoslot machines, and competing at card tables. Recreational fun? Perhaps. An air-conditioned nightmare? It's certain.
Sylvia, who just walked away from the pseudoslots $30 higher on the horse, seems pleased with her takings. "I knew when to get out," she says, and adds, pointing at her husband, "like I told him to do with his stocks in the late '90s."
Norman comments: "I should have listened to my wife... But that's not really gambling."
"It is like gambling," she insists.
Not far away, at the circular bar in the center of the bright casino, a woman pushes a $20 bill toward a pseudoslot, which conveniently (for whom?) is built into the bar top.
"Do you ever win?" I ask her.
"The other day," she responds -- as if it's an answer to the question -- "a man sitting down there at the end of the bar won $1,500."
I persist with logic, "And what about you?"
"I won a hundred dollars once, but I usually just end up drinking it."
"Good luck," I say.
"Thanks," she replies.
But what had I given her? Luck is the equivalent of getting a contemptuous peck on the forehead from destiny when you were really shooting for a mind-fragging, Gatorade-by-the-mattress shag fest. Then again, as the chain-smoking, spandex-heavy scene in the air-conditioned nightmare demonstrates, gambling is hardly the most alluring way to court fortune.
Which isn't to say that the five-month-old adult arcade -- stocked with rock memorabilia, a Hard Rock Café, a concert venue, a nightclub, and more, more, more to come -- doesn't have something. The pool bar alone, situated among a rock structure topped off by a waterslide that spills down into an enormous horseshoe-shaped pool, transports me.
But there's something fatiguing about the place. What, when the carnivalesque temptation is stripped away and you meet yourself in the mirror, can you honestly do without?
Beyond the casino's great white walls may be greater temptation on the way. On November 2, we will vote on a state constitutional amendment to determine whether Broward and Miami-Dade horse and dog tracks and jai-alai businesses should be allowed to install slot machines. When voters get done with this thing, there may be dozens of South Floridian places for gamblers to overindulge, overspend, and be overwhelmed by, well, greed.
At the lightly occupied bar, a pseudoslot player named Sherri told me about the viper sucking the life out of the wallet of her boyfriend, 23-year-old Johnny. Ten years his elder, she was clearly not his keeper. The ne'er-do-well, she said, was over at the card tables, losing an average of $400 a month. "But," she added, "his mother always covers him, so he just keeps doing it."
A mama's boy and a gambler? Shit. "You should dump him," I suggested.
"No," she said.
What's left to do but test myself against the force that's felled so many?
I put a dollar in the slot built into the bar counter, but the machine did nothing.
Sherri assisted me. "It costs $1.25, and you have to pick a bingo card first." She pointed to the numbered card in the top center of the screen.
Annoyed at the additional expense, I put another dollar in the slot, picked a bingo card, pushed the button, and lost. Now, I had 75 cents left in the machine and would have to insert another dollar to hit the button again, against uncertain odds. I went to a cheaper machine and tried twice more. Both were big, fat losers. I was three bucks in the hole.
Perhaps fortune's kiss was lingering elsewhere in the casino. So I took a $20 bill over to the seven-card-stud poker tables, bought a stack of $1 chips, and sat down with seven stone-faced people. Three young men in baseball caps were sitting to my right. An older man was across the table from me, and at the end was an elderly woman, puffing on a cig.
Everyone else was obscured by the dealer with long, blond hair and fast hands who, just as I was lighting up a smoke, thinking I might intimidate the table with a reckless persona, informed me that I couldn't smoke in the chair next to her. Shit, they knew I was a first-timer. Forgetting to ante up one dollar on the first round didn't help either.
The freckle face to my right said, "You have to put a dollar in." Was he trying to help me along? Or eager to get a fool's money on the table? You never can tell.
My first hand was a matchless combination of low numbers and different suits, so I folded. Down four bucks now.
Second time 'round, a pair of tens kept my mind in the game, and I matched a raise, losing three bucks in fewer minutes. I'm down $7.
As the rounds continued and my chip stack shortened, the old man across the table pulled a pair of jacks, and freckle face muttered to his friends, "The old man's getting my jacks" as he eyed him suspiciously.
Glances flew around the low-stakes table. I watched the thoughtful faces decide whether to raise 'em or fold 'em when all of a sudden, I was distracted by the realization that I had two pairs, nines and fours. So I was totally in, and I raised two bucks at a time, and the old lady was matchin', and she's so cool that it irked me.
The three guys at my right have folded, and they're looking at me, saying, "She's got it."
Then I call it, and we show our cards, and I think I must be blind 'cause it belatedly occurred to me that one of my nines was an eight and that I had only one pair. The lady took the booty, and my tablemates threw me disdain. That's $22 in the hole.
What sucked the most was that I really wanted to redeem myself with another hand, but I had only one chip left. Hey! That's enough to ante for another round.
I could get really good cards. I should just throw it in and play. I've got ten bucks burning a hole in my pocket, and if my cards are good, I could clean up the fucking pot.
But then there were the two pairs that weren't two pairs at all. Freckle face is belligerent. There's the smoke and the pressure.
I stood up. I grabbed my chip, and no one looked up from the table, which, as I walk away, blended into the sea of tables. The clusters of people watching one another intently, throwing chips with suave fingers, know, one hopes, when to walk away.
So, I cashed in my chip for one coarse, green unit of real currency.
As I leave the casino, I pass through a lobby, where there's a curious, bejeweled, middle-aged man in a sheeny, gold, button-down shirt with spider webs on it. He sits at an electronic keyboard, accompanied by a nondescript bass player of the same age. There's no crowd, so I walk right up for a listen.
"Whaddaya wanna hear?" the keyboardist asks.
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"Dunno," I reply.
He busts into Mose Allison's "I Love the Life I Live and Live the Life I Love," the performance fully loaded with humorous body shifts and hand gestures. When the serenade is over, he kisses my hand.
Twenty-two bucks in the tank in 30 minutes sucks, I think as I walk out past the 50-foot guitar in front of the casino. But all the free kitsch a girl can handle?
Well, yeah, but you still gotta know when to run.