I’m sitting in my supervisor’s supervisor’s office when a helicopter buzzes past the window.
I’m here to present ideas for the coming month’s promotions, but upper management is understandably distracted. The news is reporting a high-speed chase on the reservation. The driver is considered “armed and dangerous,” and the police are in pursuit.
A senior executive talks on his cell phone, trying to get the low-down on what the hell’s going on out there, while another exec receives updates from various departments that have dealings with the reservation this afternoon. Meetings cancelled, shuttle service suspended, etc.
Eventually, I’m given the nod, and I present my concepts. The police activity works in my favor, and all of my recommendations are taken. In the grand scheme of things, the name of the summer slot promotion takes a backseat to armed and dangerous drivers.
Still, I am impressed by the executives’ composure. While this sort of thing isn’t exactly unheard of on the reservation, it’s a relatively rare occurrence here, comparatively speaking. This isn’t the Soboba reservation, where just last week a 25-year-old tribal member was sentenced for unloading on another tribal member with a Tec-9 when their pick-up trucks collided.
As I’ve written here before, casinos are magnets for people who thrive on high-risk, high-reward situations. There’s always going to be percentage of people who make dumb decisions and take ridiculous chances. People who gamble with their life. People, for instance, like me.
Not all that long ago, my substance abuse issues ran my life. My drug of choice was alcohol, with cocaine as its not-so-trusty sidekick. Alcohol was my mainstay; coke the wild card.
I could go days without drinking or drugging, but when I started, I couldn’t stop. I was the guy who never wanted the party to end, and by party I mean an anti-social celebration involving me, myself, and I. My ideal drinking spots were places where the bartenders knew me, but the clientele did not. The best kinds of drinking partners were those who left me alone. Unless they had a coke connection.
Whenever I had a bag, my behavior went from disorganized to obsessive. I arranged my days around the times when I could slip away for a quick bump. Eventually the bumps became short rails, the short rails turned into long lines. I always, always, always over-did it. After drinking too much, I used coke to “straighten out” but then ended up snorting so much blow it necessitated even more alcohol consumption to calm me down. The proverbial vicious cycle of overcompensation and overcorrection. I thought I was keeping an even keel, but was careening wildly from one extreme to the other.
If I drank at night, I’d start the morning at the liquor store, and doctor my orange juice with airplane bottles of cheap vodka to drink on my way to work. During lunch, I’d go to the bar. Then I’d get a few more miniature bottles for the ride home. Sometimes, when I took a hard turn, the empty airplane bottles floating around my truck would tinkle like wind chimes.
I had rules: don’t go to happy hour after work on days I drink at lunch, only buy a bag on payday weekends, don’t do drugs at work. I broke every one. I couldn’t help myself. I’d leave work thinking, Do not go to happy hour… Do not go to happy hour… And I’d still be thinking it even as I spun my steering wheel and turned my truck into the bar’s parking lot.
Then I lost a close friend to a drug overdose. I spent a month trying to cram as much drugs and alcohol into my system to steel myself for the news I knew was coming: the overdose was intentional, my friend had checked out on purpose. After an epic, sleepless run of drug and alcohol consumption one Not-So-Super Bowl Weekend, I came to my senses, sought help, and went into recovery. I’ve been clean and sober ever since.
When I started this series of dispatches, I hadn’t made much progress in my recovery. I was overly secretive, overly fearful of being “found out.” It’s not so much that I was paranoid, but on the flip side of my fear was the belief that my transgressions were so great that punishment was unavoidable. It was only a matter of time.
Looking back, I think this fear of being found out inhibited some of my reports. Of course, these dispatches coincided with a terrible economic recession, and no one wants to lose their job when times were tough. But back then, I blamed the casino for a lot of my problems. The stress, the smoke, the toxic personalities. I’ve come full circle since then, and now I appreciate my job in new ways. I could get fired today or promoted tomorrow, and neither would phase me. At the end of the day, it’s just a job. I’m at peace with the casino.
Sometimes I imagine walking the floor and suddenly every machine in the casino hits the jackpot, and everyone wins exactly what they need to rise up from their chair, and embrace the people next to them, and wander outside where they can feel the sunshine on their faces and marvel at the beauty of being alive.
Of course, that would be a disaster, but there are moments every week when I’m all but overwhelmed by the strange beauty of this place. After a coworker was killed in a car accident, his department held several events to help raise money for his family, each of which was overwhelmingly supported by team and tribal members alike.
Or earlier this week, down in the chow hall, a woman listened to songs on her iPhone—without any headphones—sweetly singing along with the words. When she realized that a large portion of the cafeteria could here her, she became embarrassed, only to be encouraged by her coworkers to keep singing.
Or the elderly woman on the casino floor who asked a slot rep for help, who said, “What can I do for you, pretty lady?” And the woman, who had been and was still beautiful, answered. “That’s what my husband used to call me. He died last year.” Before the slot rep and the casino guest were through, there were tears in both of their eyes.
On days like these, working here feels like a blessing. The casino puts me in contact a remarkable number of people on a daily basis, people for whom I discovered I have enormous empathy for. From the tribal members I work for, to the stiffs I work with, to the guests on the floor. There are so many broken people here, and they’re all nakedly searching for something that will make them whole. And though they strive, and struggle, and throw caution to the wind, they don’t ever expect to recover what they’ve lost, to reach that place that fills the yearning and allows them to say, “There, that’s over. Now I am whole.” It’s all so extraordinarily human.