So what does an Indian casino employee do on his days off?

Visit other casinos, naturally.

There are plenty of reasons for this. Sometimes it’s necessary to check out what the competition is doing by signing up for their loyalty program, participating in a promotion, or trying out a new restaurant or food special.

This has its perks. Once I’m in the casino’s system, they’ll try to lure me back with direct-mail offers. I don’t spend enough during my exploratory outings to make these offers very compelling, but every once in a while I’ll get one that’s too good to pass up. Casinos are generally good to their guests on their birthday, and every July my mailbox is stuffed with free play offers and discounts at dining venues that I can redeem all month long. I usually don’t take advantage of these offers, but it’s nice to be wanted.

(There was a time in my life where the only birthday card I received was from Southwest Airlines. Those were dark days, but don’t think I’ve forgotten my friends at Southwest.)

Another reason for scouting casinos is to catch up with old coworkers. Like most industries, employees move around from casino to casino, especially in the Southwest were casinos are plentiful. Where else is a blackjack dealer, slot rep, or pit boss going to go when they get laid off? When an employee goes in search of greener pastures, she’ll often take employees with her. A lot of people have been leaving Thunderclap lately, which makes the powers-that-be nervous. They don’t want their ex-employees sharing secrets with the competition, which explains why I was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement this afternoon.

(At least I tell myself that’s the reason. Unless they’ve found out about my alter ego’s side project…)

Anyway, my former supervisor now works at the casino that’s geographically closest to Thunderclap. The casino started out as a truck stop. It’s a little on the janky side, but that’s the thing about casinos, they’re always changing. An addition here, a new parking structure there, and before you know it, what began as a bingo tent and card house is transformed into a destination. Just this afternoon, I was attempting to cross the street by walking across a sward of grass, but the grass was gone and in its place was a bank of beautiful flowers buzzing with bees.

The players, of course, could give a shit. They don’t care about décor, they want action. Do they have my favorite games? Can I smoke? Is there plenty of parking? Is the staff plentiful and friendly? Do they remember my name? These are the things that gamblers care about. They aren’t interested in grand, Vegas-style entrances. They aren’t impressed by ostentatious displays of opulence. They could care less about the pedigree of the marble on the floor or who blew the glass in the windows. And they sure as shit don’t care about the authenticity of the architecture as it relates to its “Indian-ness.”

For that matter, neither do the architects. These days, Indian casinos are looking less and less like Las Vegas casinos, and more and more like Indian casinos, a style I call Faux Pueblo: a sprawling, low-slung cluster of boxy-looking buildings spackled in stucco and painted the color of sand with accents of terra cotta red and decorated of glyphs that may or may not have anything to do with the tribe. For example, there may be buffalo-shaped figures in places that never saw buffalo, etc.

Inside, it’s even worse. You might find totems in the Southwest, tepees in the Northwest, and iconography “borrowed” from the Plains. There are in excess of 500 Indian casinos in this country, and each is located on sovereign land. The tribal lands have specific names with known histories and are populated by proud peoples with fascinating stories to tell. Yet they’re decorated, by and large, in a generic style. There’s a sense that one symbol is as good as the next, which is both startling and strange.

This sameness was underscored by a recent trip to New Mexico, where the Indian casinos are as plentiful as they are in Southern California. The Faux Pueblo style of casino is all the rage in New Mexico. And why not? It’s the preferred domicile design as well.

At the airport, it occurred to me either there are too many casinos in New Mexico, or I’ve been in the casino business too long. While walking through the terminal and looking at the ads for various local casinos, I recognized some of the models from the stock photography company that caters to gaming establishments. In fact, we’d used some of the very same images in a campaign that never got off the ground. And as if that wasn’t enough, while driving through town, I was struck by how familiar the billboards looked for the biggest Faux Pueblo casino complex in town. When I returned to Southern California, I confirmed what I already suspected: the first of my four former supervisors now works there.

This is why I prefer the smaller casinos, particularly those that aren’t trying to be anything other than what they are: a gambling den, a music hall, a place where the laws of the republic don’t apply. There’s usually too much smoke in these casinos, but the drinks are cheap, and on weekend nights there’ll be live music. In the diner there are hot hogs and nachos and a long grill that looks reasonably clean by the light of the popcorn machine. The employees are all significantly older than you are, and those that aren’t are Indian. Their jobs are hard, and not necessarily easy to come by. The ladies behind the desk at guest services have served millions of people, but they still call me “sweetie” and “hon” and, should I forget, their scowl serves as a reminder that “please” and “thank you” still matter. And they will always, always, always wish me good luck, whether I deserve it or not.