Creative Nonfiction: High Risk

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Illustration by Emily Koffsky

 

Monday, November 6, 2017 - 8:10pm

Edward meets me at the bus stop on campus with our standard greeting: smiling and clapping his hands slowly, letting out a whooping, “O-K, O-K.” He looks like he always has, wide-eyed and enthusiastic but stifling a perceptible weariness, in a hoodie, skinny jeans and white Vans.

One of my best friends from back home, Edward is a student at Cornell University. He is, in many ways, exactly like me. We listen to the same music, we are both obsessed with basketball — playing and following — and our sense of humor is eerily similar. In fact, I’ve slowly realized that my still-tight-knit group of friends from back home is made up of, more or less, different racial variations on the same person. Or maybe — and this is most definitely true — everyone feels that way about their first group of friends. Either way, when you have spent a month and a half overcome with work and pressure and a poisonous sense of dejected alienation, you must leave, in some ways, to reconnect with a different, Ivy League version of yourself.

It’s comforting to see him, even if it has only been less than two months since we last hung out. It’s Fall Break, and rather than spend more of my parents’ hard-earned income on an insufficient trip back home to the Bay Area, I’ve decided to spend my own on a sabbatical to Ithaca, N.Y., the world’s most popular tourist destination. I initially figured it would be a standard visit, but Edward has notified me that, for some reason, we would be visiting a nearby casino in the process. After dropping off my baggage at his nearby apartment, we stop to grab lunch at a small sandwich place.

“So what’s the deal with this casino stuff?” I ask after we catch up on the necessary subjects.

“Yeah, that’s going to be sketch,” Edward laughs with a mouth full of Rueben. “It’s my boy’s 21st birthday, but we’re going to go to this random casino in the afternoon tomorrow.”

“Who goes to a casino for their 21st birthday? Isn’t that more of an 18th birthday thing?”

“I think he’s having something later that night with his main crew, but we’re just doing this with our friends.”

The main crew. I always found it odd that we demarcate our friends like this, as discrete groups occupying different hierarchies. It makes sense, I guess; commingling between social groups is an unfortunately uncomfortable experience. After a bit of silence, I ask Edward the question that, eventually, every guy asks their friend after a prolonged era of separation.

“How’s it going with the ladies?” I smile knowingly at him.

“Good one.” He lets out a big laugh, and then looks down at his sandwich. This is a running joke among our group of friends. We ask one another this same question, and we always laugh, providing some snarky answer. We all know it’s mostly a joke, but also, we all know that, buried somewhere, there is an aching, pulsing sadness at the heart of both the question and answer. As emotionally immature, college-aged men, we simply prefer to not address this explicitly.

For guys our age, the barometer of success in your reported life is often “how many girls you’ve hooked up with.” I deeply despise this, mostly in that “this is incredibly degrading to women” way — someone give me a medal for doing literally the least I possibly can for feminism — but also in that “why is this a thing?” sense.

***

On our way to this fabled casino, we stop to pick up three of Edward’s friends from their various fraternity houses. One by one, they pile into the back of the Honda CR-V Edward has borrowed: a long, lanky kid from New Jersey named Nishanth, who has an unfortunate tendency to talk about his finance major and “recruiting for consulting jobs”; a short guy in a “groutfit” named Chris; and the birthday man himself, a tall kid named John with a deep, lumbering voice. Off we go, this group of college kids in a CR-V, an hour and a half through rural, farm-country upstate New York toward Syracuse.

The casino itself is a curious entity. We pull into the parking lot of an incongruously modern building titled Turning Stone Resort Casino situated in the middle of a somewhat rural, antiquated community in central New York. It’s painted in a blinding white, and much of the exterior is made up of glass windows. The main building housing the casino reminds me of some kind of extravagant Dubai hotel, an insidious growth planted in the middle of a depressive economy and agricultural blight.

Inside, we are treated to the sights and sounds of your average gambling floor — or so I’m told. This might be as good a time as any to admit I’ve never actually been to a casino. I grew up in a Muslim household, went to Muslim Sunday school for 10 years and even went on the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca during my junior year of high school. I like to say I’m more culturally religious than actually so — read: “not very” — but nonetheless, there were many opportunities I was denied as a child: dating, alcohol, pork products (bacon! I know!) and gambling. My family has been to Las Vegas, sure, but we visited that unknowable city armed with the same mentality with which Indian families visit Lake Tahoe — not to ski, of course, but to “see the lake!” I was never allowed to witness the casinos that lurked underneath the hotel rooms we stayed in; my sister and I were always ushered past them quickly, for absurd fear of our being whisked away by the seductive whispers of the devil. And so, the prestige and glamor of the Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona, N.Y., is my first taste of the distinctly American phenomenon of gambling.

What lingers, however, both then and now, is the people. As one would expect in upstate New York, they are overwhelmingly white, and so there arrives the immediate, familiar and admittedly irrational discomfort that accompanies any racial minority. There are old ladies in the standard costume of light-khaki capris; thick, ungainly tennis shoes; and oversized blue T-shirts; they slump over the chairs at the slot machines, their glasses lit up by the spinning numbers and cash signs, with plastic cups in hand. There are older men in “Members Only” jackets hunched over at the blackjack tables, and the dealers — of which there are noticeably more minorities — do their monotonous job with ruthless, robotic efficiency.

I begin to realize, though, that I, along with my compatriots, am probably financially better off than most of the patrons. I am a part of this cadre of liberal, ivory tower elitists, encroaching upon a world that is not mine, so who am I to preemptively judge its citizens? What gives me the right to look down upon them, to try to decipher, as I often cruelly do, who were the bigots I had been taught to expect and who were simply people whom the world had abandoned? I resolve to spend my four hours here with as open a mind as possible; understanding is nothing more than a bridge to be crossed, by two willing parties.

Chris decides he wants to stay at the blackjack tables and put those probability charts to good use, but the four of us, intimidated by the process, leave in search of the poker tables. Our search is initially fruitless, but in our travels around the floor, I am caught off-guard by the casually surreal rows and rows of slot machines, each one occupied by slight variations on the same old, white archetype I have now seen innumerable times.

“Dude, this is fucking creepy, man,” I whisper to Edward.

“What is?”

“Like, look at these people on the slot machines. Doesn’t this kind of freak you out?”

“Oh, yeah, that shit’s weird. Like they’re just in the zone.”

We turn to stare impolitely, just watching.

“Do you think they’re, like, gambling their life savings?” I ask.

“No way, man,” Edward replies. “How do you know they’re all, like, poor?”

“That’s true. Why do you think they do this then?”

Edward is silent for a bit, searching. “I don’t know, man. Probably just, like, they know all the people here and it becomes a thing.”

This kind of vague explanation is characteristic of friends that can’t even enumerate the sources of their own unhappiness. We don’t know why, exactly, people gamble, but we can make a guess. And what surprises me is that his estimation isn’t some kind of treatise on the adrenaline rush that one endures, or the tricky allure of taking money from other people — rather, it’s simply a nebulous portrait of some web of interconnectedness, an improperly defined community in which people find themselves in one another.

***

Of the few card games I know how to play, poker is by far the one I’m most enthusiastic about. A few summers ago, I experienced a harmless online poker phase, a year before my somewhat more socially damaging card trick phase. But the environment I am about to enter is completely new terrain: I have never had so much personal investment (money) in the games I’ve played. The thought of losing my $80 is, to me, wholly terrifying, and I realize this will be obvious to anyone playing against me. So instead, I compromise. I cash in $40 — a slightly less demoralizing amount — for chips, and ask the floor manager for an open spot.

The poker room is smaller than I expected. It’s decorated like an old-fashioned salon of sorts, with wood paneling lining the walls and tables and chairs. The carpet is par-for-the-course hotel flooring, complete with the nonsensical loops and deep crimson shade. In one corner is a small bar, and in another is the cashier’s booth, where three tellers stand behind vertical bars like a prison, exchanging stacks of chips and cash underneath. The room isn’t full, but a few tables near the end are, populated by mostly silent men with headphones on.

As it is, there are four spots open, but they’re two to a table. We decide to split up — me and Edward, John and Nishanth — because each of us is too frightened to play a game alone. Edward and I take our measly stacks of chips and sit down at the oval-shaped table to which we are ushered. I peek in at a different game at the table behind me. There are eight people playing, a middle-aged man leans over his backward chair as a woman — presumably a resort employee — massages his back. A young woman wearing a “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” hat sits across the table. Holding a glass of wine in one hand, she’s prone to loudly commenting on peoples’ moves as the rest of the players stay silent; I notice she’s currently the table leader, with an enormous pile of chips at her disposal, and I begin to suspect this brashness might be a strategy of some kind.

Turning back to my table, I try to formulate my own game plan, but I’m reminded by the sobering reality of my small, $40 stack of red chips that a strategy is futile. I will be relentlessly bullied by the others, no matter what I try. As the dealer sets up the table, I survey the rest of the players. There’s an old man to my right and an old man to my left, both with headphones on. I would think this to be some form of cheating, but I notice it’s a common trend; many people around the room do the same, unnervingly silent and their hands covering their mouths as they watch the dealers. Edward sits across from me, and next to him is a young, well-built man in a military haircut. He has diamond stud earrings, and he wears the hood of his gray Nike sweatshirt over half of his head. Sitting beside him is another young guy in a gray hoodie, his hair in dreadlocks. He’s scrolling through his phone with one hand and flipping his formidable stack of chips in the other. Rounding out the table are older men, each one wearing earbuds and slyly sizing up the other players out of the corners of their eyes. It’s a dispiriting, but not unsurprising, fact that I have the least amount of chips at the table. I sigh as the dealer begins to deal.

For the first few rounds, I fold, pre-flop. It’s a horrible way to play, I know, but I am deathly afraid of putting my money on the line against complete strangers. I can hear my parents’ disappointed sobs as they cry somewhere in the metaphysical ether over the fact that their son has been lost to Satan. “But I haven’t even bet anything yet!” I cry back to them, but they don’t respond; the damage is done, and they begin to divert all the necessary funds toward my sister.

When I do finally receive a good hand, I cautiously throw out a bet: $15. It’s a bit high, but I have pocket jacks, and I’m feeling decent about this one. My heart is racing, nonetheless, as I see my own money in the pot, up for grabs and susceptible to the worst of fates. Unfortunately, the other players are not complete idiots, so they all fold, leaving the scraps of big and small blinds for me to embarrassingly slide into my pile. Still, I begin to understand the appeal — I’m indescribably happy, even at the smallest of returns, that I’ve actually won something. I am filled with cheap adrenaline, ready for the next hand immediately.

“No way I was going to play that, my man,” the guy with the crew cut says to me. I’m surprised, since no one has said much of anything up to this point.

I smile, unsure of how to respond. Edward looks at me, laughing silently. He’s the better poker player between the two of us, but so far, he’s employed the same strategy as I have.

“Man, Chris, you really don’t screw around, do you?” says the other man in the gray hoodie. He’s addressing the dealer, and it seems the sphere of conversation has opened.

Chris, whose nametag is quite small, is a balding man who looks to be in his late 30s. He’s seen it all before, I can guess, and players chirping at him are nothing new. Ever unflappable, he smiles and mutters, “If you don’t mess with me, I don’t mess with you.”

The man laughs and tosses him a chip, for which Chris thanks him and promptly slides into his secured tip repository underneath the table. Theirs is now a joking and playful relationship, and the game continues.

“Man, I’m not even supposed to be here,” Crew Cut sighs a couple of hands later. He sounds somewhat remorseful, but he remains at the table. The other players, with their earbuds still firmly jammed into their ears, look at him but don’t say anything. “My boy OD’d on some shit yesterday and his funeral’s tonight.”

Edward and I shoot each other confused looks as conspicuously as possible, but no one else at the table seems to register the shock value of what he’s just said.

The man with the dreadlocks responds: “Oh, yeah? What’s up?”

“Yeah, heroin or some shit. And he was, like, my cousin, too.”

“I feel, man.”

At this point, I completely forget about the game. This is fascinating, riveting, and I am enthralled, in the way that a museum patron gawks at a particularly interesting painting. I had never heard something so shocking be delivered so casually. Needless to say, I fold for a few hands.

“You smoke weed, Chris?” Dreadlocks has returned to his affable banter with the dealer. Chris smiles but doesn’t respond.

“How about we smoke a blunt after this? You gotta smoke weed, Chris. When I got shot in the arm, who was there for me? When my mom kicked me out of the house, who was there for me? Mary Jane’s been the only girl I’ve ever loved, man.”

Crew Cut laughs, nods and enthusiastically gives him a knowing handshake. A cynical thought creeps into my head: This all sounds so outlandish, so implausible, so what if it’s some sort of genius strategy? I haven’t even paid attention to the last few hands. Perhaps I’m being played.

But I can’t deny the genuine rapport that’s been building between the two of them, even between Dreadlocks and the dealer. I smile at Edward, one of my oldest friends, and shake my head at the absurdity of it all.

A few rounds later, I’m dealt pocket kings. Thrilled and overconfident, I place larger and larger bets, until the only two players left before the river — the final community card — are me and the man sitting to my right. I don’t have much betting power left, so I go all in with reckless abandon. Based on the cards on the table, this guy probably doesn’t have much better than pocket kings.

He has pocket aces. I lose $40, and I leave the table. In one fell swoop, I am now dejected and in possession of a slightly smaller net worth. The world, once again, is cruel.

I learn that Nishanth has accrued an absurd amount of chips. I walk over to their table and happen to come upon a hand in which he goes all in. It’s him against a man sitting at the end of the table. He’s talking a bit of trash, but nothing big. The dealer asks them to show their hands, and Nishanth wins — and wins big. I notice a flash of sadness in the other man’s eyes before he continues laughing and jawing at him. Nishanth, now sufficiently well-stocked, decides to cash his chips — $340 worth — and leave.

As we make our way out of the poker room, I look back at my old table. Dreadlocks gets up to go to the bar, but not before asking Crew Cut, “What’s your drink?”

“Bud Light,” he responds.

***

As I lie to sleep that night, on a futon that is indescribably uncomfortable, I should be angry about my loss, but all I can think of is the two men from our table. I’m still amazed by the confessions they spouted, but I’m even more impressed by the quick friendship that was so easily formed. The two of them have, very likely, endured tragedies of which I would never know, but simply the enunciation of these was enough to initiate a relationship formed across the table of a casino.

It is not, I surmise, the thrill of gambling that drives people to casinos, but rather, as Edward hypothesized, it may be nothing more than a chance at belonging. The same hope that drives me to wander into coffee shops unprovoked, the desperate pull of the unknown, buried relationships that we may never excavate — this may be the identical motivation that leads them to spend their Saturday afternoons risking their money in statistically futile fashion. We are nothing more than creatures that yearn for a sense of community. Yet there is no true happiness without the chance of sadness, no true satisfaction without the possibility of emptiness; these states of being are defined by what they are inherently not. Human relationships are not rich if they are not colored by the shadow of loneliness.

I realize, then, that I have been massively hypocritical. For the duration of my afternoon, I simply projected my own presuppositions onto the people I saw, as if they were characters I could manipulate and bend to my own condescending will. I took no time to speak to them, to reach out into the void of human existence and offer my own hand. This is my burden: this inability to connect. The blank stares into slot machine screens, the silent murmurs in the Bingo Room, the easy back-and-forth in between folds and calls and raises — what’s the difference? What are they searching for that I am not?

There is so much uncertainty involved in reaching out. I am but one of millions of people out there like me: perpetually alone and constantly complaining about it. But while the reasons for complacency are innumerable — fear of rejection, low self-esteem, etc. — aren’t they all subservient to this one ideal of connection? An ideal that, in practice, is infinitely harder for people who are symptomatically predisposed to avoid it. We crave it, though. We yearn for what we can’t do, what it seems everyone else can. The casino, then, is not some abstract environment through which I aim to focus my true critical interests — it’s a place where the dreams of one man brush up against the hopes of another. It’s a place of futures bet and chances lost. It’s a place of, for better or worse, communal risk.