I knew a kid whose grandma took the bus from Baltimore to Atlantic City three times a week. Minimum. I’d never been to Atlantic City, but had heard my parents talk enough about the shithole it was, and had ridden the iron pimp enough times to New York to know the ever-present smell of fried chicken was strong enough to make starving you gnaw off your arm as soon as Wilmington, DE. The trip was long and I was not interested.
But, apparently, this was a thing: old black women taking Peter Pan Trailways three hours up I-95 like a morning commute.
I didn’t get the allure of it all until I spent three straight hours at a slot machine in Reno, drinking watery May Days because it seemed like I should be drinking something ridiculous. Though the gambling was “eh, whatever,” and my collection of quarters was pathetic, damn if that casino wasn’t the spot.
It wasn’t the menagerie of light bulbs, not the middle-aged men hugged on the back of someone else’s chair, watching the river card. Not even the hope that Casino could happen then and there, and Joe Pesci would show up, hand over mouth, pointing to FBI agents and mumbling, “these fucking guys.”
It was the fact that, in those carpeted walls, time stopped. No single clock. Absolutely no windows. I had to take an escalator, which was so far back in the lobby of the hotel, down a floor, by the time I saw the tables, the door was a memory and I was committed to forget it.
Time stood but things kept happening — still the arc of an hour’s narrative: Johnny Cash shot a man just to watch him die; levers and dealers’ hands; an occasional squeal met by the sigh of a machine powering down after a malfunction. The whole room was like a slow dance that’s more than enough foreplay. You ain’t got to move your feet. Just sway and push yourself up against something hard enough to knock you over.
It’s a foregone conclusion that liquor eventually will make me want to grind on somebody. In Reno, the slow dance didn’t start with the May Days. Space that wasn’t spacious turned me on, handsome as nighttime itself — those hours asking me to do things in the dark I’d (usually) never do during the day. If it’s late enough, or even if it just seems late enough, everything that isn’t sleep turns a slight right toward taboo.
Tampa’s so lonely — too far from Miami, close to Orlando’s fairy tales but not the kind of close you want. The nearby Seminole Hard Rock Casino doesn’t impress me enough to make even that short drive. And I’m real lonely in Tampa.
How great would it be if a room could replace a man? Since it can’t, I go out, equally determined and tired. On the nights I spend at the Hub (a favorite bar which a friend of mine calls “the place where they sell you beer then host your house party”), where the train barrels down Franklin Street and sirens almost convince me this is a real city, the doors hold any outside lights at bay and I can’t help but sway with the jukebox.
I’ve got singles stashed in my pockets. I’ve got change. I get the titillation those old ladies must have felt just waiting for the bus headed down the shore. My hands smell like metal and machines and more than enough Rolling Rock.
I’ve never checked to see if there’s a clock. Maybe there’s just the cable box’s digits or zeroes mocking you because they don’t flash, like those on my stove. I lose hours and don’t care, don’t even notice them passing like they did in Reno. And I’m ok feeling like a loser leaning on the back of a bar stool for Tuesday night drinks all alone. What isn’t there to love about being in the dark where it’s bright only because you’re standing right by the pinball machine? I’m dark and it’s darker. It’s a pastime whether or not I buy it.
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