When I first started working at the casino, I got a thrill out of exploring the “back of the house”—the places the guests aren’t permitted to go and will never see no matter how much time or money they spend here.
I don’t believe this impulse is uncommon. Who hasn’t wanted to peak at the machinery behind the scenery at the amusement park? I’ve always loved that moment in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy is commanded to “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” It represents the end of her enchantment, but it also represents the end of fear. Then, another kind of wonder sets in as she tries to unravel how this little man was able to fool so many for so long. We all want to know what’s behind the curtain, and what could be more Oz-like than an Indian casino?
But there are limits to what I can tell you. For instance, I can’t say anything about the casino’s security system, the “eye in the sky,” the network of over 1,000 cameras that watch over everything, keeping track of every transaction. That’s because I know next to nothing about what the people who work in Surveillance do, what their job entails. There’s a very good reason for this: the vast majority of theft that occurs at casinos is committed by employees, but that’s a dispatch for another day…
Unlike many of the properties popping up around the country, the casino wasn’t built all at once, but evolved over a period of time. It started back in the early ’90s with a simple bingo pavilion and a dirt parking lot. When slot machines were added, the pavilion was converted into a gambling hall that was subsequently expanded to accommodate the addition of card games, shops, restaurants, entertainment facilities and lot and lots of slot machines. Eventually, the main hall was dwarfed by all the additions.
For most of our guests, the experience of visiting the casino and moving from wing to wing is pretty seamless. The walls inside and out are painted with regularity. The carpets are routinely replaced. Cleaning occurs around the clock. And the slot machines are constantly being rotated as new games are brought in and old games are phased out. Everything feels exciting and new.
If our guests have no interest in peering behind the curtain, it’s because they believe their fortune is in the here-and-not-too-distant future. If a guest gets disoriented, however, they assume that we’re trying to lure them deeper into the casino so that they can’t find their way out until they’ve spent all of their money. These guests give us too much credit. The truth is much simpler: the casino was built by people who had no inkling of how successful the enterprise would become, which is a nice way of saying they didn’t know what they were doing.
This hodgepodge of additions and expansions makes maintaining the casino a huge challenge for our facilities management personnel. For instance, instead of a single uniform heating and cooling system, we have several that have to be rigged together. Same goes for the electrical and plumbing. It’s more like a compound than a casino.
This labyrinthine quality makes wandering around the back of the house a fascinating experience. If I want to get from one end of the casino to the other, instead of proceeding down a simple, straightforward corridor I have to go through a half-dozen passageways, up and down stairs, in and out of closed-off rooms whose purpose has changed a half-dozen times since the casino was built. What is now an employee conference room was formerly an overflow chamber for poker tournaments and before that it was the VIP section of a nightclub. Everything is always in flux here.
As the casino expands, the layout is reconfigured. There are countless places where a quick fix has become a semi-permanent solution. Like those schools where the trailers intended to be temporary never get taken down. For the casino employees it’s a constant struggle for space. Front-line employees get a locker. Those who work in the back of the house are crammed into whatever space can be found. Offices, cubicles, even desks are shared. If a cubicle goes empty, the chair will disappear, the office supplies will be pilfered, the computer’s parts swapped out. Then it will quickly fill up with boxes of printed matter, old signage, and out-of-date vouchers. People will stop thinking of it as a cubicle and see it as an ad hoc repository. The phone will ring and ring and ring because no one can reach it in time.
The casino never closes; it is a 24-hour mirage. There are three shifts: day, swing and graveyard. Over a thousand employees cycle in and out of the casino every day. Our goal is to be there for our guests when they need us. The rest of the time we are invisible. We move through the casino’s restricted spaces and secret passageways like ants, quietly going about our business.
The dreariest, least Oz-like place in the casino is the employee entrance. Buses shuttle us to the casino’s doors from remote parking lots and we all enter through the same entrance and leave by the same exit. A tunnel connects the shuttle stop to the entranceway where we show our badges to security officers and clock in at one of a dozen time clocks.
This is one of the oldest parts of the casino and the one most resistant to change. The walls here are painted a dingy off-white that’s just a little bit lighter than the beige tiles on the floor. It is reminiscent of soup kitchens and rooms where old smokers have slowly committed suicide. It is the color of industrial depression, good intentions gone to seed. The ceiling is painted the same color as the walls and the fluorescent lights are relentless and brutal. The sound of bad air noisily circulating through the vents drowns out nearly everything so that when a security officer needs to take a closer look at a badge he has to shout and everyone jumps.
The employee entrance isn’t exactly cheerful, but it’s a circus compared to the cafeteria. Everyone is exhausted here. Employees sit slumped over the tables, their bulky bodies perched on the flimsy frames of cheap chairs. They sit in groups segregating by language: Spanish, Vietnamese, and Tagalog. They poke disinterestedly at their food. Used newspapers cover the tables. The televisions are too loud and each one is on a different station. Telenovelas compete with talk show catastrophes.
And then there are the cameras. I am used to being watched on the floor. I don’t mind them because they are hidden; but down in the cafeteria they don’t bother disguising the cameras and they’re everywhere. They never want us to forget we’re being observed.
I used to like coming here to eat and read, but I avoid it now. I prefer the excitement of the floor. Upstairs there’s a fantasy for sale. Surrounded by jackpot jingles and colorful lights, I get to participate in the magic; but lately the feeling disappears whenever I go to the cafeteria. On the floor I’m an ambassador of fortune; downstairs I’m an underpaid employee of an enormous 7-Eleven. After a dismal hour underground with the loud televisions and silent cameras, I start to feel like I’m trapped inside of an ant farm, and where’s the wonder in that?