On luck, love, and desire in Las Vegas.
Las Vegas in the nineties was a terrific place to be young. In few other places was this true. Steve Wynn and other developers had used their mountains of money to nearly, but not yet fully, transform the city from a seedy backwater into a sunny haven for the middle class. In the early nineties, downtown Las Vegas was still dirty and strange, not quite a mobster’s paradise but not for families, either. Fremont Street lay open to the sky above and to heavy traffic, which meant sidewalk hawkers and hookers and mean-looking hatted men smoking in doorways. A common sight: prostitutes on big cruiser bicycles, tall curving handlebars like Harleys, riding up and down the street while at each corner stood teenagers snapping thick cards against their palms and handing one to every passerby. Each card was printed with a photo of one of those very cyclists or some other beautiful woman, not cycling but posed in another kind of readiness, along with a phone number and an apothegm about companionship or temerity. Prostitution was not legal in Las Vegas and had not been for nearly fifty years, but no one seemed to care. Presumably, the hookers did, when a raid scattered them, or when they needed help, or when they were arrested or hurt or sometimes killed.
But I did not think about any of that when I was fourteen and fifteen, out on Fremont Street alone while my mother and my grandmother gambled. I thought about what it would be like to touch a woman the way the pretty women on the cards invited me to touch them. Whenever a teenager snapped a card and held it out to me, I took it. I assembled a collection of hookers until I had a stack as thick as a poker deck, and with this I made my own game, matching the cards to the women on the street, and imaginatively to other women in other parts of the city, the showgirls outside the Glitter Gulch, cocktail waitresses in dark hose, young wives in the elevators, and sometimes to the girls at my high school, brunette farm girls with big white teeth. The cards were, like the decks at the blackjack tables, representative of value and possibility. Some afternoons, while my mother napped and my grandmother played video poker at the Fitzgerald’s bar, I picked up the phone and traced the numbers. Sometimes I had money in my pocket from sneaking the slots, or because Grandma hit a royal the night before. I could pay, and that meant it did not matter that I was a girl, or only fourteen. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to touch women whose job it was to be touched. I wanted real affection. But the price of real affection was set so high, in my other, daily economy.
One afternoon I was outside the Plaza having a cigarette while my mom and grandma played poker at the bar. The bartender, a sweet guy named Mac, always poured heavy for them. I remember it was summer and hotter than hell. I was probably almost sixteen. A cyclist I’d seen several times before rode by and caught me looking. She stopped a few feet from me and straddled the bike.
“You’re barking up the wrong tree,” she said. She was blonde and forty-ish, older than my mother was then.
I didn’t know what to say so I nodded. She was probably right about any number of trees. She stood a moment staring at me and then smiled.
“You having any luck at the tables?” she asked.
“I don’t play the tables,” I said.
“No shit,” she said. Then, “Got another cigarette?”
I shook my head.
“Stole that one, huh.”
I nodded. A silence lingered between us, and then I held out the cigarette and she laughed.
“You sharing or giving?” the woman asked.
I didn’t answer, stunned as I was.
“Giving then,” she said, and put the cigarette between her lips and mounted the bike and rode off down South Main.
I sat there awhile in the heat trying to figure out what I felt. The exchange had been more complex than I imagined. My grandmother came out with a cup full of quarters and stood next to me.
“You’re too young to smoke,” she said, and handed me the cup. But she was looking up the street where the woman had disappeared, and when she looked back, she smiled at me.
“What a place, huh?” she said.
My grandmother, a boot-wearing, chain-smoking Catholic, made a small fortune selling imported cars in the seventies with her Methodist husband. My grandfather was a man who loved ice cream and children. They were a poor match in everything but business. For many years my grandmother traveled by car through the Southwest with a female companion, first a much younger doctor named Pam, and then an older Dutch divorcee named Tatiana Vandertrapp. She loved a good hamburger and a clean bathroom, and used to say she knew every McDonald’s from Topeka to Los Angeles.
These friendships were oddly intense and capricious. My grandmother spent a good part of the year with Pam or Tati, but often she was on the outs with one or both of them. Their quarrels left her shipwrecked in her dark, paneled living room in Topeka, where she watched game shows and dozed through the day until something in her resolve snapped. Then she would get her hair set and the car tuned up and take off on her own. But she had no one to gamble with. The absence of her friends provoked her fickle generosity and, in need of companionship, she bought my mother, and sometimes me, plane tickets to meet her in Las Vegas.
By the time I was eighteen, I had already been to Las Vegas a dozen times. My grandmother snuck me cocktails and twenties for the cherry slots. Walking up and down Fremont Street in the middle of the night, or near dawn, was the only real experience I had of urban life. My own parents were working class. My father had been raised Missouri Synod Lutheran by his German parents and we lived on the Kansas farm they’d bought from homesteaders. My parents, my sister, and I lived in the big farmhouse and my paternal grandparents lived fifty feet away in the farmhands’ house. Their influence was entire. The influence of Kansas was entire.
In Las Vegas in those days, the underage could move through the casinos but were not supposed to stop for more than ten or fifteen seconds by any machine or table. Back then the slot machines still took actual coins, so we carried with us half-gallon plastic cups printed with the names of the casinos. There were small hand wipes everywhere for cleaning off the dark grime left by the coins. Security was minimal, and more attentive to drunks and cheats, so I was able to play a few dollars at a time, sometimes more and longer if it was crowded. I was a broad-shouldered girl with a short haircut, and quietly intense. I wore ball caps and Carhartt jackets, and from behind I looked like a middle-aged man. Many times I got away with playing an hour or more, before someone’s drifting attention made me wary.
I never dared to actually sit down, but when I stood just behind my grandmother, I could reach over her shoulder and press the buttons, or pretend to be waiting for her while I slyly fed my own machine. Mostly I lost, as everyone mostly loses. But every longer session of loss was punctuated by fantastic wins, almost always when the money was nearly gone or despair had arrived to turn the thrilling act of gambling illegally into something depraved. The images on the slot reels would spin and finally settle in a row of perfect unbroken sameness—cherry cherry cherry, or seven seven seven—and the lights would flash and the klaxon sound, and I would stand back from the machine and close my eyes, sated because I was suddenly the object of good fortune, and because such small fates always seemed to prove, somehow, that I was alright.
What a feeling that was. You don’t have to be a gambler to know it. The long, daily boredom of life interrupted, suspended by improbability. The erasure of constraints imposed by one’s family or one’s culture, the connection humans feel to God, or to other humans when they are at the center of a coincidence. Daily life is long and boring, yet filled with obstacles and choices of real consequence. At its end is the fact of death. But every quarter or dollar chip, every spin or deal, is a single door opening into the future, a future emptied of everything but that one outcome, win or lose. How many people are walking the earth this very moment hoping for that feeling?
For decades now, Fremont Street has been covered by a barrel-vault canopy, closed to traffic and unlicensed business, and the prominent sight is not the hawkers or the cyclists but a laser light show that often features bald eagles and stadium rock. If you want to collect your own hooker deck you have to go to the Strip and actually walk it—which is a huge endeavor in the desert heat—along sidewalks too narrow for the crowds. You have to pass by the legless men and drugged-out women, who perch at the edge of the bright fantasy and ask for a coin or two, for some small souvenir of the fantasy’s promise. Part of the city’s transformation has been to limit foot traffic, or rather to delimit it, so that the huge resorts are set two hundred feet back from the street and connected with breezeways and automated guideways high above the desert. Where you go and how you get there are determined in advance by architects and engineers. The street life now happens elsewhere, where most tourists do not wander.
When I was a teenager on Fremont Street, the whole American institution of gambling was undergoing a transformation. The slot machines I played in the early nineties, with their big black handles and their actual reels, are now completely antiquated. Modern slots are controlled by circuit boards, not gravity, and they offer so many winning and losing combinations, and so many animated details, that often only the lights and the bells tell you if you’ve won or lost. Very little of the experience is material. Until the final reel plunks into place, your money is held in risk’s abeyance, and nothing else need be known or done.
And yet the slot machine has become one of the biggest generators of casino profit, tribal wealth, and tax revenue in the U.S. They are played by tens of millions of Americans each year, in casinos and online. Today’s slots are the offspring of much simpler devices popularized in the late nineteenth century, which dispensed candy, fortunes, or love advice. The development of modern slots, where money itself was the reward for money, added the element of chance to the transaction. One might spend money and get nothing at all. People love that sort of thing. Many gambling historians argue that this advance allowed the casino to thrive by creating the sense that something besides one’s own will determined the result.
Most of our modern casino games began as fortune-telling practices in rural and indigenous communities. Our inclination has been, through the centuries, to use these games to tap into the unexplainable and the unknowable, and in that way learn something about who we are or might be. This power to reveal and define also makes gambling a perfect mode of control. The great empires of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries traded or stole what became casino games along with religion and microbes. They used them to swindle the less powerful, by exploiting the sense of destiny and propriety generated by games of chance (think of the Bertram playing “speculation” in Mansfield Park, a novel shadowed by the link between love and colonialism). Most gambling legislation in the last thirty years has been enacted piecemeal, state by state and often game by game, for the purposes of regulating economic advantage. Gambling legislation literally sets the odds by mandating how much individual games or casinos must pay out. This number is always well below a hundred percent. The gambler’s losses are instantiated as a matter of law. Luck has very little to do with it.
But we don’t really care about that. I certainly didn’t. Luck, as both transcendence and approval, was what made me feel free as a kid. Free to participate in an economy that promised jackpots, financial or affective, and in a place that seemed to suspend all the normal rules. (What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.) Setting apart the experience of luck allows us to retain the feeling that gambling is an act of transgression even while it is increasingly quotidian and regulated.
This should sound familiar to all of us, living in the twenty-first century. The sense that a game of chance asks or answers a private, wordless question, and that luck reveals our moral worth, is central to the magic of many modern things. The strategies used by casinos and gaming machines are some of the same used by social media sites and other algorithm-based economies that rely on advertising revenue and personal disclosure. The psychological and technical systems originally built for casinos have found great admirers in Silicon Valley, where slots are seen for what they are: loud, lighted Skinner boxes. The goal of the casino is virtually the same as that of dating apps, Twitter, and iPhone games: to trap the user in a ludic loop of loss and pleasure, approval and refusal. As Jia Tolentino put it in the April 29 issue of The New Yorker, such platforms “encourage compulsive use by offering forms of social approval […] as though you’re playing a slot machine that tells you whether or not people love you.”
Indeed. What our obsessions reveal—what casinos exploit and also undermine—is our desire for luck in a divine, emotive form, unmediated by the constraints of modern life. Gambling technologies are designed to mimic this karmic affection, and to obscure their aims by preventing us from looking ahead, and, later, from looking back. Most importantly, they are meant to make us feel that their use is a marker of personal freedom, and that they exist, in some essential way, to tell us who we are.
And yet, I did learn who I was by playing the slots. I did encounter luck that way. I was free in Las Vegas, because my choices were no longer constrained by my family or my region, by my class or my sex. That they were constrained by something else—something new, and unsaid, and therefore unknown to me—is merely a truth of growing up.
It wasn’t winning or losing that made me free. I don’t remember any particular jackpots or how much money was won or lost. Such things are merely representative. What I remember is what happened next, when the bells rang out and people turned their heads to see who had been touched by fortune. My grandmother would smile around her cigarette and take the crowd’s attention so that I would not be revealed. When they moved on, she would slap my arm and say, “Okay, baby.” We would turn then, back to our own machines and our own private accounting with chance. That moment brought me everything I wanted, a sense that I was chosen by luck and that my grandmother adored me. Outside were women whom I might actually touch, whose affection was not governed by any precept that excluded me. They might approach me with a candor that admitted my own strangeness. The ringing bells marked my place in the real ontology, where I was, indeed, loved.
In 1994, when I was fourteen, there were approximately fifteen legally operating modern casinos outside Nevada. In 2019, there are nearly a thousand in forty-four states. Recent statistics suggest that about 2.6% of Americans have a gambling addiction. Considering the number of casinos in the U.S. and the number of people who visited them last year—a self-reported thirty percent of the adult population, or almost seventy million people—this is a vanishingly small number. The great majority of people who visit casinos, even frequently, are not gambling addicts.
Yet the American Gambling Association’s definition of gambling addiction as risk-compulsion that significantly disrupts daily life seems to me an affliction suffered by us all. Each year, seventy million Americans hope for good fortune in a rigged game, but many more are chasing another kind of private accounting, whether they think of it that way or not. For most of us, gamblers or smartphone users, luck is about the ability to risk ourselves in the void and yet sustain minimal loss. Which, it hardly needs saying, is neither luck nor risk. Las Vegas, like so many other places and things in the twenty-first century, has turned luck to brief anodyne. It was Max Weber, writing a century ago, who proposed we’d vanquished God and the divine and thus made “calculable and predictable what in an earlier age had seemed governed by chance.”
Luck, by any number of definitions, is determined not just by the event, but by what follows. Most of us qualify what follows by proximate and not ultimate circumstances: the luck of drawing an ace depends on what card you need and what game you’re playing, and then on whether or not you win. Hardly anyone thinks about what winning that hand may cause a year or a decade down the line. It would be maddening to think about such things. Certainly we don’t call that kind of accounting luck. (Etymologically, luck has taken over from an obsolete meaning of speed as abundance or power, as in Godspeed, tying the notion of fortune to the experience of great velocity.) But maybe we should think of luck in longer, slower, and ultimate arcs, involving both the company and the fate of others. When the arc of luck is long and complicated, when we choose to look at it this way, we find proof that our freedom is meaningful whether we risk it or not.
My grandmother spent her last years on the bad side of Topeka, in a nursing home. She could have afforded someplace much nicer, but it was the only facility in the county that would allow her to smoke whenever she wanted to. I visited her there many times. The anxious focus that had driven her charisma and her restlessness had turned into an anile repetition of facts: She had been born in Holton, Kansas, before the war and when she died my mother would inherit her diamonds. Once she won a poker jackpot in Laughlin so improbable the real sharks came by to talk with her and shake her hand. She had been married, but now she was a widow.
I missed her long before she was dead. We had a graveside service on a summer day and she was lowered into the dry ground. I was the only one to speak. The rest of my family huddled under the tent out of the sun. The folding chairs caught the hot wind and sailed off across the cemetery. They lay against the headstones, and no one went to retrieve them. I told as much of the truth as I could, and when I was finished, my grandmother’s children and her grandchildren fled the tent and began to drink and talk of themselves. Tati was dead and Pam had moved to Glendale. My grandmother, in her misery, had estranged everyone but me.
What I didn’t say at her funeral: One night long ago in Las Vegas, she and I sat smoking on the curb, watching the hookers ride and the smoke spill from the open doorways. Fremont Street narrowed and disappeared under the constellating lights of the Plaza carpark. Without looking at me, she said that had she been born when I was born, she could have been a lesbian. She smoked and looked past me into the lights, and because I was young and embarrassed, I said something stupid like, Good for you!
She laughed, threw her head back and laughed for several seconds.
“Just luck, really,” she said. She turned and smiled at me then. I remember that just behind her head Vegas Vickie snapped out her neon boot and appeared to kick my grandmother in the ear. I smiled back and let the conversation end there. I had no idea what to say.
But god, the questions I should have asked! Not least what she meant by luck. Bad luck to have been born too soon? Or good luck to desire whatever she desired, perhaps her girlfriends but more likely just some form of freedom? Or good luck for me, getting to live now? Or maybe bad luck for me and good luck for her, for being born too early and missing a sad fate like mine?
I like to think now that she meant good luck for us. To know each other and to be together, in a place so wonderfully strange. We think of luck the way the modern world created by casinos has taught us to think of it, as personal, individual, and private. Good luck is getting into the college you want, or hitting the jackpot. In this way, luck is reduced to something finite. It has very little to do with the feeling I had at fifteen, when the klaxon rang out and I pleased my grandmother, or when, for the briefest moment, we sat together as two dykes, lucky to be alive.