After a dreadful day at work, I choose the route that allows for fewer turns, lights, and traffic. Driving at seventy-five miles per hour, I am startled by the cool breeze on my arm. I stick it out the window while moving my hand to the beat of some 90s European dance hit. Life feels good again, even with the small crack in my windshield. I sporadically pass exit and restaurant signs, none of which will convince anyone I live in New Mexico. Subway, Applebee’s, McDonalds. No restaurants with El or Los in the name; not where I’m going.
I soon come up to Santa Ana Casino and notice the hotel still in progress. It’s a nice, Southwestern exterior, but without seeing the interior, I’m reminded of my childhood, lugging large suitcases to Atlantic City every weekend. I’ve been to Santa Ana a few times when I first moved to New Mexico in 2008, but couldn’t do much except watch people lose, curse, and scream. I think about renting a room for one night, so I don’t have to tell my mother where I was when she asks. I don’t have an answer yet as to why I’m waltzing in the front door at two o’clock in the morning. I only consider going if I’m wearing gambling-appropriate clothes. There’s a certain way to look when the risk of losing money is involved. If I show up in a t-shirt and ripped jeans, I may just want to be comfortable, but the minute I lose, I’m broke, disgusted, and look like shit. Tonight, I consider myself casino material. Black pants to match a black, off-the-shoulder top, and hair from 1989.
I wasn’t interested in gambling until I played a Rolling Stones machine at Atlantic City three years ago. At every other spin, Mick Jagger appeared on the screen and the red lips and tongue meant more money. Before then, I couldn’t fathom throwing money into a slot machine and calling it a fun night. My previous salaries never allowed it. The most I can play with while working a part-time job is $100, but depending on how much the machine pays, I can lose that in ten minutes, or be on the same twenty-dollar bill for an hour.
The first time I gambled on my own was in 2013, at Sandia, a casino I only go to now for free Bingo on Thursdays because their Quick Hits pay shit. When my twenty dollars went down to fifteen, I flew into a rage. I sulked and whined over a measly five dollars before I said, “fuck this,” and went to the bar. I ordered a screwdriver and simply stared around the place. The dress code was incomparable to that of the crowd at Atlantic City. Here, women and men sported jeans and flannels, sometimes shorts. The man next to me was from Arizona, and I saw him reading a collection of poetry. Out of all people, I’d be the one to do something like that, but I was glad there was someone else who was just as fucked up.
Knowing when to fold doesn’t just mean to forfeit interest in the game, but also knowing when to leave before my paycheck no longer belongs to me. A few weeks ago, after several hours of sulking in the chair over how broke I was, I walked over to my mother who had her eyes glued to a glowing screen, filled with howling buffalos, and I used the language she only can understand at one-thirty in the morning.
“I got to get the fuck to bed. Know when to fucking fold, hah.” She laughed and gave me twenty dollars. The gall.
One Wednesday night around Christmas two years ago, my grandparents, mother, and I were plopped on the couch after eating dinner. We had Alexa playing in the background, with a little bit of music from all three generations and could only swing a foot back and forth to the beat. We were too tired and full to move anything else. My grandmother turned her face in my direction with a guilty smirk. “You want to go to the C-A-S-I-N-O?”
“I’m twenty-four years old. Why are you still spelling it out? Because you’re guilty, that’s why.” That is the unfortunate difference between New York and New Mexico, nothing is open after nine o’clock. So, we give in, we go.
I sat down at the Quick Hits machine. Nine Quick Hits, at that time, paid around four-thousand dollars. Now, it’s a little over five. I bet the max of $1.50, sat back, touched the screen for luck, and watched my money disappear and reappear. An hour later, I had seventeen-hundred dollars in my wallet. Certainly not a bad way to begin the new year. Bells blared from the machine and all eyes were in my direction. I figured if I didn’t make eye contact, they wouldn’t talk to me, not even congratulate me. The attendant came by, and was the only one who did congratulate me, but she probably had to. She took my name, Social Security number and I.D to the office, and I was left waiting for another twenty-five minutes. I bit my nails to calm my nerves as I watched the big, bright red letters and animated coins float across the slot machine. I looked around for the attendant and sat up from my seat when I saw her finally approaching towards me with the crisp bills in her hand.
“Put your hand out,” She said.
I turned my right hand over as she neatly placed the bills in my palm. All I did was watch, but felt I needed to do more, so I quietly counted with her, under my breath. I looked her in the eye for approval and then back at the money. I was new at this.
Tonight, I’m reunited with the same old casino nostalgia I remember from my childhood. Cigarette smoke, dirty money, and the elderly on oxygen. An old woman sits down next to me and looks up and out of her glasses, either to make sure she’s playing the right machine or seeing what it pays out.
“Fucking bullshit, piece of shit. Get. The. Fuck. Outta. Here,” she whispered.
She yanked her player’s card from the machine and left. So much like my grandmother when she gambles. An impatient, loud woman from Brooklyn. My grandmother’s been going to the casino since the early 90s, and I began going with her in 1998, when I was six. The experience felt a lot like a school lesson. She taught me everything there is to know: what penny machines mean, sevens, wilds. The only thing I never learned was how to walk away. I take my uncashed vouchers and switch machines.
One summer night, my grandparents and I went to the Golden Nugget, formerly known as the Trump Marina. I sat along the psychedelic-colored carpet and watched people gamble, smoke, and curse all night. I was 17, and wasn’t allowed on the floor, not that I wanted to be anyway; I wanted to keep my money. After a while, I came back with a pretzel and Cosmopolitan magazine and moved from the floor to the couch.
I saw a guy coming up from the escalator and he quickly made eye-contact with me. He smiled as he got closer and his walking speed slowed down.
“You want to come to the bar? I’ll get you a drink.”
I waved my hand to the side and closed my eyes. “Thanks, but I’m seventeen and not interested.”
He smiled and walked away, but it didn’t last long. Within two minutes he came back again with another guy and attempted to pull me up off the couch. I tried pulling back before I said, “No. I’m here with my friend and we’re leaving soon. Let me get her.”
I ran into the gambler’s room without even thinking about my age or the consequences of what would happen had security found me and told my grandparents. I was expecting both of them to jump with rage and leave immediately, but my grandmother’s fucking free-play was still in session and that apparently was more important. My grandfather brushed it off, too, and didn’t say much about it.
The attendant tonight makes her way over to where I’m playing and asks if I want anything to drink. I haven’t been winning in a while, and it’s a Friday night. I have to make this a fun experience one way or the other.
“Hablas Español? I asked.
“Si. ¿Querer algo?
“Chocolate caliente, por favor.”
“Buena suerta, mija.”
I smiled at her, both for her nice thoughts and because I was impressed with my Spanish. I slurped the whipped cream from the cup like an ice cream cone – a hot ice cream cone – and continued. The Quick Hits are set up in a straight line along the wall of the back of the casino, and I don’t face much interaction, unless someone sits near me, and when they do, I’m nosy. How much does their “5 of a kind” pay out? I wonder. It’s just the sort of thing gamblers do, I suppose. Stare and compare machines. It’s the entertainment and attention I seek when my own machine no longer provides. The minute I went home and told my mother about my night and all that I won, I was given a lecture, and said I need to be more responsible. And I was. I used my own money that night.
Amanda Cartigiano is a poet and essayist. She graduated from the University of New Mexico with a BA in English. She is an Editorial Intern for Slutmouth Magazine. Her poetry has appeared in Beyond the Sea: Escape, Leonardo Magazine, and Slutmouth Magazine. Know When to Fold is her first published essay. You can find Amanda on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram