In a dark casino, next to the stage, the elderly couple in wig and toupee took off their sneakers and slipped into a matching pair of patent leather dance shoes. The four shiny shoes were very still under the cocktail table, waiting for something. The woman in a Dress Barn outfit hugged her purse to her chest like a hot water bottle. Mona Lisa smile on her face, head nodding like a doggie car ornament, she seemed content listening to my droning ballad. The man, fidgeting, finally walked to the stage. He stood head to hem with my sequin gown.
“We’d like to dance.” he said. “We come here to dance.”
It was a Sunday afternoon on a beautiful spring day in Lincoln, Rhode Island. Inside the cavernous casino, the size of three football fields, there wasn’t any weather, any spring, any Sunday. Hundreds of slot machines clanged and whistled under flashing lights and piped in light rock music. Heavily painted, perky older woman and road weary, leathery men with cigarettes hanging from their lips pushed quarters into the noisy machines, hundreds of them, then went to the cashier to get more. There were several men and women in wheelchairs with oxygen tank hoses stuffed into their noses. Their husbands and wives pushed them from slot machine to gambling table to the bar. They were also smoking.
I asked a coughing woman about the smoke.
“They’ve got a state of the art ventilating system here, so it don’t bother us too much.”
My trio had been hired for the 2 to 6pm Sunday Jazz Series. The stage, dead center, had a nautical motif – a life-sized lighthouse surrounded with hunks of painted plastic resembling boulders. I was singing “Old Cape Cod” when the man in the dance shoes interrupted me.
“We need something with a rhythm, dance music. We come here to dance.”
His wife called to me from her table. “We enjoy a rumba.”
The lights on the stage were so bright that I could not make out their faces. All I could see were the shining shoes. All I could hear were the slot machines. I didn’t know what a rumba was. I faked “Besame Mucho” with invented Spanish. Suddenly, everyone was on their feet, alive and moving and happy. Shaking arthritic hips beneath pot bellies camouflaged behind unbelted shirts. Salt of the earth, spending money they didn’t have, manufacturing joy on a Sunday afternoon in a casino, the world that screwed them every day temporarily expunged from their minds.
In the dim light, they were young again, high on nicotine and vodka tonics, surrounded with the hope of a big win. My self righteous loathing for gambling and casinos evaporated. Where else could you take 50 dollars and turn it into an afternoon of possibility? Sure, a few would overdo it, but what was there to lose, really? A double wide trailer? If we all lost the little we have wouldn’t our lives be more exciting? Living under a highway, scavenging for food, a good story in our pocket about how we almost hit the jackpot? Isn’t that better than the drudgery of responsible serfdom?
I come from the same stock. The hardy folk shuffling around the dance floor reminded me of my parents and their ability to enjoy life at a VFW pot-luck supper or a Saturday night dance at the American Legion.
I’d almost felt superior. When was the last time I had enjoyed myself so completely? When was the last time I’d felt hope instead of cynicism? These people in their outdated clothes and sickly countenance had me beat. The casino, for profit, offered an afternoon of hope. An honorable business practice, in my opinion. No matter how futile, hope wins the day.