All In: Oklahoma


First Person

The second part of “All In,” by Eric Neuenfeldt, will be published tomorrow.

Martin Hyers and William Mebane, Vegas, 2008

Martin Hyers and William Mebane, Vegas, 2008, color photograph.

There are more than a hundred casinos in Oklahoma, more than there are in Germany, more than in Canada, the UK, or in all of Central America. Within half an hour, I can drive to at least seven of them. Fifteen miles to the north, just before the Kansas state line, two massive casinos sprawl on Indian land. One has a hotel. To the southeast is Osage Casino, which was once a small, smoky trailer. To the south are 7 Clans Paradise Casino and Two Rivers Casino. To the west are Tonkawa East and, right off I-35, the newer, larger Tonkawa West Casino. I remember reading a few years ago that Oklahoma was the nation’s second-largest gambling market, with nearly four billion dollars in revenues. Thank God for tribal land, Oklahomans say. No need to plan a vacation to Las Vegas anymore, not when you can stop at, say, the 7 Clans Deli Mart/Travel Plaza on Highway 77 just outside of town, a convenience store that has more than a hundred slot and video-poker machines inside.

Oklahoma has plenty of large casinos—with hotels, restaurants, valet parking, and players who wear suits with loosened ties—but I liked the small, gritty places. I had a theory that most of them had looser machines, which paid out more frequently. I favored one spot in particular, a dim and smoky casino in Tonkawa that played loud rock music. It’s the size of a small warehouse, tucked away down a desolate road in the country with open plains stretching out for miles. Wednesdays it had cash drawings every hour after five in the afternoon, but it was never very crowded. 

Martin Hyers and William Mebane, Vegas 000924, 2008

Vegas 000924, 2008, color photograph.

When I first found the casino in Tonkawa, I was new to the area, having just taken a teaching job at the college nearby. I liked the casino not least because I knew nobody there. Some people have told me that casinos are the only places they like to go by themselves; they can have a drink and play slots and meet people easily. But for those of us who are antisocial, who visit casinos in large part to forget our jobs and our problems, there’s nothing more irritating than running into someone we know and having to make small talk.

I once asked a friend why he liked to gamble alone. “I didn’t want to be bothered,” he said. “I wanted to go on my own time and get into my own zone. It was like a different state of mind.” He told me that he knew someone who didn’t like hitting the jackpot because it meant the machine would lock up with a “Congratulations! Jackpot Winner!” message splattered across the screen until an attendant came over.

The machines’ animations, their music, all their ringing and noise make it easy to forget about life. My friend said that he walked into a casino one morning. Hours passed, and soon it was dark outside. When he finally lost all his money, after midnight, he realized that he hadn’t eaten all day.

I can exist in that zone, even in Las Vegas, where I used to go before the casinos were built here. I’ve stayed at the MGM on the Strip several times. I’ve stayed at Caesar’s Palace twice. I’ve stayed at Circus Circus and Bally’s and Treasure Island and downtown, at the old Plaza. Each trip got worse: the more I went, the more I found myself sneaking away and playing alone. Once, back in 2001 or 2002, someone close to me advised me very earnestly not to go. I went anyway, with a friend. We stayed at Caesar’s, and, after splitting up one evening, I lost track of time. He found me playing dollar slots late in the night. “Where have you been?” he asked. “I thought we were supposed to meet at the bar two hours ago?”

Martin Hyers and William Mebane, Vegas 002324, 2008

Vegas 002324, 2008, color photograph.

At some point I quit going to Las Vegas, mainly because in Oklahoma you can gamble just about anywhere. Most of the people who frequented the small casino in Tonkawa that I liked were working class. One young woman I saw several times was a slender Native American who looked to be in her twenties. The only reason I noticed her was because she carried a small stuffed teddy bear whenever she visited the casino. She played a machine near me once, but I never spoke to her until we bumped into each other at the used-record store downtown. She didn’t have the bear with her. When I said hello and asked whether she’d been to the casino recently, she stared at me as though she couldn’t place me. “No,” she finally said.

After she left, I told the guy who was working at the store about the stuffed bear. “I wonder if it was for good luck or something,” I said. “Strange to see an adult carrying a stuffed animal in public.”

“I used to go to the Osage Casino every fucking day,” the guy told me.

Another time, I sat next to a fifty-something woman at the Tonkawa casino who smelled of urine and smoke. I was playing a slot machine called Kaboom, one of my favorites. It’s an animated, noisy, five-reel game in which the symbols drop down from above, one reel at a time. The game moves fast, and it’s addictive enough that I rarely paid any attention to anyone else. On this day, however, the woman, who was playing at the machine next to mine, leaned over and apologized for her cigarette smoke. I’m sure she’d seen me fanning the smoke, but still it struck me as odd, and a little invasive. Most people who smoke in a casino don’t care about their smoke bothering anyone else, and they certainly never apologize about it. I told her I didn’t mind. Later I noticed that the woman kept rubbing the screen of her machine and whispering to it. I knew what she was doing because I’d done it, too. You want to comfort the machine, to loosen it up. At some point she started praying aloud: “Please, God. Please, God. Please, God.”

People who play slot machines persistently usually want to avoid some aspect of their lives they don’t want to think about. I asked my friend whether he ever touched the machine’s screen or if he talked or prayed while playing. He said he used to pray. “One time I was at a Comanche casino, and the chairman of the casino came up and asked if I was doing any good,” he said. “I told him no, and he told me to pray to the Great Spirit. It didn’t work.”

William Mebane and Martin Hyers, Vegas-010222, 2008.

Vegas-010222, 2008, color photograph.

The same friend told me that he once played slots near a guy who kept falling asleep at his machine. “His head would lean forward and hit the screen. Then he’d wake up and start punching the button again. Then his head would lean forward and hit the screen. Then he’d start punching the button again.” I’m sure that this has been happening in Vegas or Atlantic City for years, but it’s still relatively new here. My friend calls it an unrecognized epidemic. I’ve seen people slumped over machines late into the night. I’ve seen them snap awake when a security guard nudges them and makes them leave.

One afternoon when I was in my late twenties, I drove to a casino in Concho, just outside Oklahoma City, and played until I could barely stay awake. When I left, it was past midnight. I know this: I didn’t think about loneliness or about sitting in an empty, dim apartment with poor insulation. I didn’t think about my job or girlfriend. I know that my heart jumped a little each time I hit a bonus on a machine. I know, too, that I avoided going to the restroom because that meant walking by more machines, and I was broke, and walking by more machines was too much of a temptation. I pissed in a paper cup on my drive home.

Brandon Hobson is the author of Deep Ellum and Desolation of Avenues Untold. He is the winner of a Pushcart Prize, and his writing has recently appeared in Conjunctions, NOON, and The Believer.