I heard this phrase mumbled in the parking lot and turned around. The man who said it was only a few feet away, and he was talking to me.
“Lost all my money, man. She’s gonna kill me,” he said, shaking his head but also laughing. I chuckled back, not really knowing what else to do, curious as to where this conversation would lead. “Well, what are you going to tell her?” I responded, as we walked side by side.
“It happens,” I said as a fork in the parking lot caused us to diverge paths. I told him good luck, and he quickly faded from view. I don’t know if he even had a car in this lot or if he was walking or what. Before entering my car, however:
It was 5:30 p.m. on a beautiful Friday afternoon, and this was my first introduction to the casinos of Hollywood, Florida. This conversation occurred only because I was walking back to my car to retrieve my ID. After a long week, all I wanted to do was withdraw a little money, play about 30 minutes of blackjack, and then be on my way. Walking into the Seminole Casino, that seemed like a realistic goal.
I was the youngest person in the casino by 30 years. Easily. Weaving through slot machines, I glared in wonderment — Why were these people here? — and those who looked up from their games reciprocated. How long had they been sitting in this cigarette-smoke fog machine of a room? And how long would they stay?
Finally reaching the $10 blackjack table, the lowest possible buy-in, I asked permission of the table’s two participants if I could join. The older woman, a glamorously weathered Blanche Devereaux, nodded positively, just as a puff of smoke briefly made her face disappear. The man next to her didn’t acknowledge my question, because he was staring at the televisions above.
My eyes followed his eyes. On the television were SportsCenter and a clock reading 2:45 p.m.
All of the televisions were on Pacific Time. I couldn’t help but laugh at that blatant act of disorientation and trickery. Regardless, as $70 in chips were pushed my way, I gave myself a time limit: 15 minutes. Once that TV said 3:00 p.m. PT, I was standing up, cashing out, and leaving.
Fifteen minutes later, I did just that. And after a chips-for-cash transaction, I walked out of the Seminole Casino toward my car, $100 richer. What a solid afternoon.
In my gambling history, which is not long but most certainly not positive, never had I shown anything resembling self-restraint. If I won, the assumption was that it was “my day,” and if I lost, the assumption was that, eventually, on that day, it would become “mine.” I’d thought this way because I tend to assume things will work out for me in the end.
A casino is the one place that has fully, and repeatedly, rattled that guiding principle. I was thrilled, however, that I’d managed to have a “my day” moment, even if for only 15 minutes. So I left and drove two miles to my hotel.
I didn’t know what to make of my cab driver’s statement, but apparently he thought my target demographic was 75-year-old women. Maybe it was my Hawaiian shirt, an attempt to blend in with the older crowd. Regardless, through some combination of cabin fever and it being “my day,” it was now 12:10 a.m. and I was getting a lift back to the casino.
As we approached the Seminole, however, my cab driver drove right past it. Shortly after, I realized why. Across the street from the Seminole Casino: the Hard Rock.
From the exterior, this place was the polar opposite of the Seminole. While the Seminole looked like a spruced-up barn, the Hard Rock was a fortress, bordering on a small town.
And those polar opposites only intensified upon entering the venue.
This was Hollywood, Florida’s night club. Most of those present were overdressed by way of being comically underdressed, the energy was high, the lights were bright, and “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” was blaring. Again, I felt out of place in a casino, but it wasn’t age this time — now I was all alone. This was very much a couples scene or a breeding ground for large, rowdy groups celebrating some life event.
Not enjoying myself in the slightest, I wandered, aimlessly, looking for an open blackjack table. Nothing was available. I began to notice my movements had caught the attention of two employees. Assuming this would end with my getting thrown in a dumpster, never to be seen again, I spotted the exit and left.
I lasted 10 minutes in the Hard Rock Casino.
From the exit, I immediately collected my bearings. I knew exactly where the other casino was. It looked to be a 10-minute walk, so why not? That was where “my day” started, after all.
I get so excited.
Ooh, how I like it.
I try but I can’t fight it.
In a matter of hours, the Seminole Casino had changed. Drastically. Yes, it looked the same on the outside and the crowd within still leaned older, but instead of quiet and borderline-depressing, it was now bustling.
A great deal of thanks for that change goes to the cover band loudly performing jams inside. As I walked in, it was “Too Close” by Next, which bled nicely into a string of Prince hits that got quite a few slot players out of their seats to dance.
This was exactly where I needed to be.
I walked straight to my blackjack table with confidence and exchanged my previous winnings for chips. My tablemates this time were two brothers in their fifties, one who did not speak and the other a source of commentary on every single thing that was happening. Everything.
There was his disgust over not getting drinks comped, there was the time he almost got into a fight after hitting on 14 when the dealer had 13, and there was the time he came into a casino with $25 and left with a grand.
I said nothing to him, but my head was constantly nodding in approval of everything he said. When a man and woman walked over and joined us about 45 minutes in, the gentleman in the couple lost his first three hands. His response to his subpar gameplay: “I always bust when I sit over here.”
The talkative one: “That’s what she said.”
Dead silence at the table. He smiled, looking for some acknowledgement of the joke, but his brother remained silent, the dealer looked away, the couple left, and I pretended as if there was high-level math involved in counting my three remaining $5 chips.
After the next hand, I lost my last $15 and walked away, as did the two brothers, who, at two in the morning, decided it was time to call it a night.
Looking for an ATM for one final withdrawal, because I couldn’t go out like that seeing as it was still “my day,” I stumbled on a section of the casino I’d yet to see. And inside that room, a giant area dedicated only to bingo.
A bingo banquet hall.
I wanted to know everything about this. It was closed, with casino staffers cleaning the room, and there were no signs saying when it would reopen. Taking a breather outside to use my phone, I looked up “Seminole Casino Bingo.”
Bingo matinee: 11 a.m.
I had nine hours until bingo and, at that point, that statement equated to “I have nine more hours in this casino.” If I went back to the hotel, dreams of bingo were over. And that was unacceptable.
Now knowing what the future held, I decided I needed to pace myself, a mind-set I’d take into account right after more blackjack. Finally finding an ATM, I withdrew some money and found a new table. Still feeling confident in the “my day”–ness, I launched into the card game.
Fifteen minutes later, I was back at the ATM.
It just happened so fast.
It’s not even like I played recklessly, it’s just that the dealer got 21 on five out of eight hands.
That wasn’t my fault. There’s just nothing I could do about that.
That’s what I muttered to myself as I made this final ATM withdrawal. I couldn’t lose any more money. And I wouldn’t. The goal was no longer to profit, but simply to break even, and then, you know, once that happens, try to make a ton of money to pay for all of next year’s rent.
I found a new table at 2:45 a.m. After my first hand, I knew this would go poorly. And it did. And 15 minutes later I was again out of chips.
It was 3 a.m. and I was done. Furious at myself, I sat at a slot machine and sulked like a child, moments away from a tantrum. It was at that point that I realized “my day” had ended at midnight.
Finding $4 in my pocket, I played a Viking-themed video poker game. It didn’t go well. As this was happening, I looked two seats over at an older lady playing the same game.
She knew what she was doing. There were buttons to hit and she knew when to hit them. There were smart wagers to make and she knew when to make them. And there was a screen to touch while all of this took place, and it was as if I was watching live-action Minority Report.
I’ve long heard adults speak in wonder as they watch teens text away with an alarming speed and ease. This was my equivalent, watching this wheelchair-bound, Marlboro Red–smoking woman go Grandmaster Flash on video poker.
After I stared for 10 minutes, she left. Then I left — I couldn’t stand what had happened at the Seminole Casino. So, at 3:30 a.m., it was time to go back to the Hard Rock.
I appreciated the Emerson, Lake, & Palmer hospitality from the casino. Believe it or not, I was glad to be back. And I wanted to give this place a second chance.
While emptier than before, limos and expensive sports cars were still showing up as I entered the venue. Hoping my luck would change in this more hip, age-appropriate den of sin, I went to an ATM for the final time and found an open blackjack table.
It was just me and the dealer. She was an older black lady who did not have it in her DNA to lead me down the wrong path.
By definition, she was my protector. If she would have looked me in the eyes and said, “Just go home, child,” I would have walked straight out, never to return. But she didn’t. Her statement:
This was now a team effort. I couldn’t leave now; we had money to make.
That was the first thing she said to me. The last thing, 30 minutes later:
Who was this woman? I’d been hoodwinked. Bamboozled, even. How did this casino know my greatest weakness, older, warm, inviting black women with names like Janis? WHO IS THE MOLE?
After I left that table in disgust, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Maybe this whole “stay up until bingo” idea was a horrible plan. All roads pointed toward abandoning the bingo dream, calling a cab, and going back to my hotel.
And then, over the speaker system:
Matchbox Twenty was urging me go home. Or was this casino home? I didn’t know, but I hate Matchbox Twenty, so I knew at that point I was not quitting, if for no other reason than to spite Matchbox Twenty.
And for a final time, at nearly 5 a.m., I went back to an ATM.
The people still playing blackjack at 5 a.m. are an interesting crowd. It’s a mix of those trying to hold onto as much of a magical night as they can, and those desperately trying to make up for an evening’s worth of squandering. One set is in great spirits, the other not so much, which makes for entertainment when those two forces collide.
I sat down at a table with three others present, all slightly bummed, but also hopeful that their luck would change. For the most part, however, everyone was in good spirits and, for the first time of the night, the conversation between gamblers and the dealer seemed to take precedence over the money being won or lost.
I realized this was the first time all night I’d actually had fun. Additionally, I didn’t know if I actually enjoyed gambling. This whole “alone in a casino thing”: never again. I’m definitely wired to have a gambling problem. A lot was happening in my mind at 5:20 a.m.
As genuine laughs were being exchanged throughout the table, a horrible couple on their last leg stumbled over to our remaining empty seat. The guy had a stack of chips and a penchant for yelling “I’m the man” while getting his neck kissed by his lady lover.
With the rest of the table laughing at this mess, he put all of his chips in and said “Watch this.”
Thirty seconds later, he won, doubled his fortune, grabbed his girl, and walked away. That was the unofficial end of all of our blackjack nights. That was all the sign we needed.
It was time to call it a morning.
With 6 a.m. approaching, I didn’t think I could make it another five hours. But I was starving, and the only place open happened to be in the Seminole Casino. So, again, I made the walk.
A life low point.
This was no way to treat the body that had gotten me this far in life, but it was delicious. Also, the perch where I’d landed to eat this 6:15 a.m. meal offered a unique perspective on the casino. There were things that I never noticed about the casino as a member of the gambling community, but were revealed to me as a member of the dining community.
Like the gigantic Judge Judy game. Or the Deal or No Deal game. Or the Pawn Stars game. And, at that point in the morning, each game was occupied.
Someone was playing a Judge Judy game for financial gain and/or loss at 6:15 a.m. on a Saturday.
I’d vacillated all evening and morning between finding joy and feeling devastatingly sad that this was a daily routine for some people. Watching someone become enraged by Judge Judy, however, mixed with the fatigue and the “chicken” and the sadness that is my gambling luck sent me over the edge.
I couldn’t stop laughing. Probably seven straight minutes of giggling in the Seminole Casino restaurant area.
I was staying until bingo started.
To do this without loitering, the goal was to play slots, the cheapest game, until 11 a.m. I didn’t expect to win anything, but this would have the smallest financial footprint on the remainder of my lackluster debit card. But then this roulette table presented itself.
I’d played once earlier in the night, put small amounts of money on a few lucky numbers, and come out a loser. It seemed harmless enough to give it another try, so, ever in superstition mode, I picked a different seat and entered some money.
For the first 30 minutes, I was in uncharted territory. Wary to let that phrase “my day” slip back into my brain, I settled with “my seat.” I’d found my seat and maybe — just maybe — I’d have a fun few hours before bingo.
A few minutes later, I got extremely cocky and put most of what I had on a specific number (15), color (black), number ranges (1-18 and 13-24), and odd/even selection (odd).
And then, just like that, I hit 15 and won all my night’s money back.
I’ve seen that moment in movies before, the great gambling victory, typically in roulette or craps, but the person’s usually surrounded by throngs of people and the celebration is plentiful and everyone’s ecstatic.
When it hit 15, I excitedly looked around. No one cared. At this point, dealers, custodians, and security guards outnumbered customers, including those who were arriving at the casino to begin their days of gambling. It was one of the more anticlimactic moments of exhilaration I’d ever felt.
I quickly cashed out and walked outside:
It had rained, apparently. Also, it was a beautiful morning. The all-nighter I’d just pulled should have temporarily paralyzed me, but the reality was that I made it out of the hole and I was amped.
And I knew the Hard Rock had breakfast. Real breakfast.
Greeting Emerson, Lake & Palmer again at the seven o’clock hour, I walked into the casino, skipped the games, and went right for the cafe. I purchased an iced coffee and took a seat outside in the rocking chairs.
It was 11:05 a.m. I opened my eyes and saw that I was still in the rocking chair, iced coffee still in hand.
BINGO STARTED FIVE MINUTES AGO.
Power-walking back to the Seminole Casino, I arrived to a packed room of bingo players in the middle of gameplay. Still slightly disoriented, I wanted to participate, but couldn’t have been more intimidated.
This was a room full of professional bingo players, with large markers and screens and contraptions I’d never seen before, and it didn’t look like the place to ask questions. Also, there was no stealthily sneaking into the room.
It was like showing up 20 minutes late to a lecture class, with the only door being at the base of the room. You had to own up to your lateness in this bingo room, and that was something I was ill-prepared to do.
So I just watched. For 30 minutes. Realizing that at some point staring through a glass as if this was some elderly incubation chamber was even too creepy for me, I walked away.
Eleven hours for this bingo experience: worth it.
Leaving the casino, I spotted my old friend, roulette. And my seat was open. I walked over, pulled out a $5 bill, and bet it all on black.
It landed on red. Thank god. I was free.