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Our Last Little Fun

By Erin Sroka

Prologue

I rang the bell at my neighborhood sweepstakes on a Monday morning in September. I was let in, and the desk worker, Vivian, left the game she was playing to program my machine. It was 10 a.m., and I handed her $20. Vivian looked tired, then and all the time. Her eyes were red and sleepy, and she moved slowly, like her body was hard to carry around. I heard both sweetness and insincerity in her voice when she asked me how I was doing.

Behind the desk, Vivian converted my $20 into credit for the Pot-O-Gold machine of my choice. The machines were all the same—clunky black cabinets installed with video gambling software copyrighted in 1991. Each one sat plugged in with the Pot-O-Gold logo shining out: a gold cauldron under a rainbow, the name in a vaguely Celtic typeface. A light spun in a swirl beneath the logo on some; on others it just sputtered in one corner.

After she set me up, Vivian went back to her stool where she continued tapping the play button on her game of superball keno. She played about twice as fast as I did. It was her habit to bet small amounts of money throughout her shift: sometimes $5, sometimes $10. She’d take breaks and work on crossword puzzles, then play again. She said she’d never won a jackpot.

It was dark in the sweepstakes in the morning (and in the afternoons, and at night). Natural light came in through the glass doors facing 17th Street, but it didn’t filter through to the heart of the warren. There were layers of cigarette smoke, both actively burning from the ends of players’ cigarettes and clinging to the ceiling and the walls after they had gone home.

I sat at a Pot-O-Gold machine, and a sleepy haze discouraged my limbs from moving. It was a pain-pill feeling, and it eventually made lifting my hand to press the play button seem like too much work. I wished for a remote control or a stick. I thought others must feel that way, although I never confirmed it. It was hard to have conversations there.

It was a pain-pill feeling, and it eventually made lifting my hand to press the play button seem like too much work.

Keno was the game we played, the game that lit almost every screen. It worked like this: a bright, numbered game board dominated the screen, and the play button blinked in the lower right corner. You touched the screen to select your lucky numbers, and then pressed play. Animated balls bounced wildly before you, accompanied by optimistic bubbling sounds, before they settled into slots, with any luck the slots of the numbers you chose. Get a minimum number of matches and you won back your bet; get more than that, you got ahead. When this happened the machine chirped with a rapid, high-pitched counting sound while a graphic spun your score higher. There was no sound for losing: The play button just silently blinked.

A retirement-aged man with a baseball cap that rode high on his head sat down at the machine beside me. I recognized him; he came in every day and would not reciprocate my small talk. Instead, he’d mutter threats to his machine and back them up with hard looks from his deeply-creased face. After a half-hour, it was time for him to leave. “I’m broke! Time to get my ass outta here,” he announced to someone, not to me.

Eric, the day shift security guard who had unlocked the door for me, walked around like he had too much energy. He was fit and in his 20s and barreled around the folding walls that divided the machines into clusters, looking for ways to straighten up the place. He stood out by the entrance in the light sometimes, and sometimes he would spray a can of air freshener around the building while he complained about the smoke. He didn’t play keno; he had kids and said his money was too important to him. He carried a look of tired annoyance in his eyes, from underemployment, maybe. Or from too much time with keno addicts. He was a cousin to Vivian, and their grandmother was a regular patron.

At one o’clock, Eric came inside and turned on the overhead lights, putting us under the ordinary fluorescence of work, school, and everywhere else. I don’t know why he did this. I had never seen it happen before. The light felt appropriate for the time of day, and seemed to speak of office spaces and productivity, hinting at what we should be doing. After a minute, he turned them back off and I felt better, cocooned again.

One

A white neon sign with a red “24/7” was the first indication that a sweepstakes was opening in my neighborhood. Soon, a green light bent into a shamrock was placed in the window of a once-dead retail space between a gas station and a dry cleaner’s. It was on: Our new local casino had plugged in gambling machines under the premise of selling phone cards. Sweepstakes were sprouting in strip malls all around the city, with signs that offered business services and Internet time where the market had not previously demanded them. Most Wilmington residents passed these new businesses without knowing what they were, but a few knew their true purpose. It was these people who came inside to play video games of chance.

I first entered the sweepstakes on a cold night in March, when my housemate Geilda and I were walking home from downtown. We’d been at a party, interacting with people like us—mostly white folks, young and creative, poor in a way we assumed was temporary. We rang the bell to be let in (the sweepstakes kept its doors locked at all times), and inside, our conversation stopped. It was 3 a.m. and a few silent women sat facing Pot-O-Gold machines. The childish noises of video keno dominated the room, creating a soundtrack of hope and disappointment to which one had the option of submitting one’s feelings. The desk worker who programmed my $5 onto a machine spoke softly, as though taking care to not disturb a room full of sleepers.

Sweepstakes were sprouting in strip malls all around the city. (Photo by Jeff MacInnes)
Sweepstakes were sprouting in strip malls all around the city. (Photo by Jeff MacInnes)

Geilda and I shared a machine and starting playing a game we didn’t understand. But the choices were simple enough—cash out or bet, and we went through a few rounds of lights and noises before our total spun $3 higher than where we’d begun. “Cash out,” Geilda advised, and we did.

We walked the three blocks back to our home, a dilapidated mansion where we rented an apartment for very little money. It was a grand old house built in 1911 along the city’s main road, which now roared with traffic I could hear through my bedroom window. There were 19 of us between the main house and its outbuildings: families, students, service workers, artists, a long-term unemployed couple whose raucous fights spilled into the courtyard.

Our ceilings were high and crumbling. We had great parties. We had German cockroaches forever in the dishwasher. We were three blocks from the sweepstakes and yet I already knew that few of us were likely to get stuck there.

I came home feeling like I had escaped something that I didn’t understand.

.  .  .

Months went by and I kept visiting the sweepstakes, wanting to figure out the allure of the place. One summer afternoon, I went during daylight hours, before most people were off work. It was hot and bright outside, but cool and dark in the sweepstakes. People seemed more alert than usual; two players even looked up and acknowledged me when I joined their cluster of machines. I took a seat beside a man in a baseball cap who was perched on a stool at an angle that kept his body open for conversation. He said he was retired from the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York, and talked about where his kids went to college, turning back and forth between small talk and his keno session.

“That’s good—your money still means something to you. After a while, it won’t.”

I had $10 programmed on my machine. This was an increase from my original $5 limit, which I justified by reasoning that I needed more time to experience the game. I selected my numbers and adjusted my bet. I liked how the decisions relied on a personal magic—there was nothing to be done about the vagaries of keno. This freed me to make emotional decisions about my number selections and the size of my bets. For a while, all my choices were wrong. I complained that “no one ever wins on these things.” The woman beside me, short-haired with cargo shorts and a tan that suggested a career in landscaping, said the machines didn’t really pay out until you put in $80 or so.

The retired MTA man said he won a jackpot once, but it was after he’d played all afternoon and all night. He’d hit at 5 am.

I bet slowly so that the $10 would last longer. I got up by a few dollars and my machine made a thrilling, cartoon-fast counting sound. I cashed out. The MTA man voiced his support. “That’s good—your money still means something to you. After a while, it won’t.”

Two

The loophole that let machine gambling into my neighborhood was based on a legal argument that said if states allowed McDonald’s and Coca-Cola to give away products from pull tabs on french fry packages and the undersides of bottle caps, so too could small businesses use video gambling as a promotion for their services. Under this justification, storefront after storefront opened in North Carolina with words like fax, phone cards, and Internet written on their signage, while their interiors housed rows of Pot-O-Gold machines, or computers installed with Internet gambling software.

Machine gambling was banned in North Carolina under the name of slot machines in 1937 and under the name of video poker in 2006. But the sweepstakes loophole, combined with the ability of software companies to update games faster than lawmakers could respond, created a boom in the late 2000s, culminating in as many as 900 storefronts housing thousands of machines across the state. In 2010, the state legislature banned sweepstakes, and in 2012, the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld the ban. But the law was only starting to be enforced, and the battle between the state and machine gambling may never truly end.

The spread of sweepstakes was part of a national trend of increased availability of gambling in the United States. Until the late ‘80s, casino gambling was contained to the two major resort destinations of Las Vegas and Atlantic City. In the decades since, regional casinos have opened in many other states, and more Americans are now within driving distance of legalized gambling. A national conversation about the impact of this industry’s exponential growth in our culture and communities has never happened, and much of the research on gambling is funded by the industry itself.

When there is discussion of the pernicious effects of gambling, it typically occurs in the initial courtship between a casino and a state. Before they can make a deal in which gambling in some limited fashion will be legalized in exchange for a share of profits, experts debate the possible benefits and harm. Casino supporters point out the advantage of extra (and often critically needed) tax dollars, job creation, and the opportunity for economic development in rural communities. Critics point out that a large portion of casino revenue, as much as 40 to 60 percent, comes from problem gamblers.

The notion that casino profits come from high rollers who drop large sums at table games like blackjack and roulette is outdated: It is the no-skill, highly-addictive gambling machines that generate the bulk of casino revenue. And critics argue that state casino earnings amount to a regressive tax, a tax collected disproportionately from those who can least afford it.

It is the no-skill, highly-addictive gambling machines that generate the bulk of casino revenue.

The sweepstakes model avoids this debate, enters without consent, and reaps profits for as long as it can get away with it. As operators grow in numbers, the industry’s lobbyists pave the way for making deals with states with generous campaign contributions. When legislatures move to enforce existing gambling laws, the industry counters by offering a cut of the profits. The possibility of a legal partnership was raised in the North Carolina General Assembly in 2009, when it was estimated that the state stood to gain $500 million from a regulated sweepstakes. This figure was floated during a budget shortfall, from an industry that was proving difficult, if not impossible, to control.

Just as they conducted business in legal gray areas, the sweepstakes contained moral and emotional gray areas. It was these complexities that kept luring me back. Sometimes I returned sure that the place was evil, or at least predatory, there to take advantage of people who were too stressed out making ends meet to resist the allure of a pretend bubble where work and money didn’t matter. Other times, I sympathized with its workers and the small businesswoman who ran the place, wondering if the harm it did might not be so bad.

I wanted to take a closer and closer look to understand the pull of the place and find out what good it held, if any.

I wanted to know why I could escape its magnetism, but others couldn’t.

And as North Carolina moved to eradicate sweepstakes across the state, I wanted to know if this removal was really a good thing, and to see who would miss it when it was gone.

Three

As I got to know the sweepstakes and its players that summer, I became curious about the owner, Linda. When I asked about her, employees pointed to a locked office door and explained that she wasn’t there much. In July, on the night the North Carolina House of Representatives passed House Bill 80, commonly known as the Sweepstakes Ban, there was a light on in the office. Linda was inside on the phone, discussing what to do if Gov. Beverly Perdue would sign the ban into law, which everybody knew she would. That would mean five more months—from July to Dec. 1—before the sweepstakes would have to close its doors.

Gov. Beverly Perdue
Gov. Beverly Perdue

I sat at a machine tapping away $10 on a game of keno. Two young women played beside me. Both were still dressed in work clothes, one in a Hardee’s uniform and one in scrubs. They shared a machine and slowly lost a tiny sum of money.

For the first time, the office door opened and Linda emerged. She bustled past where I sat, hunched over and pushing buttons. “Where’s your enthusiasm?” she asked.

I wondered what I looked like. The desk workers stared at me like I might be a narc. I’d been coming in there with my notebook, and I wasn’t kin to anyone. Plus, I was white, and Linda was white, and everyone else there that night was black.

Linda hung around the money desk for a while making jokes with her staff, engaging them, making things feel warm like family. It was almost 10 p.m. When she left and the male worker locked the door behind her, there was a small, joyful outburst. “G-O-N-E,” one person said. “I didn’t know how much I was going to have to bullshit and for how long,” someone else said. There was talk about going to the store for cigarettes, for drinks. The female employee’s mother put in a request for a beverage, then someone said loudly, mockingly, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Oh no, not here.” I knew that was for me. I wished I could be on their side, the workers versus the boss, maybe throw in a couple dollars for a bottle of something.

I ran out of money. All I had in my purse was $10. I considered hanging around longer. I asked if they took debit cards. The woman said no, but there’s an ATM. I said, “Well, I guess I’ll go home so that I don’t…”

“Do that,” she finished my sentence. She and the man looked at me without suspicion for the first time. The man followed me out. “I’ll get that, sweetheart,” he said as he unlocked the door.

Four

Gov. Perdue did sign the sweepstakes ban into law that July. It was a decisive move in what one state representative called the game of “whack-a-mole” the industry played with the state. Indeed, each time the state moved to ban the machines, and district attorneys and county sheriffs would enforce the law through raids, the machines would show up again with new legal justifications and updated software.

The sweepstakes loophole has created opportunity through legal confusion across the country. In addition to North Carolina, at least a dozen states including Florida, Ohio, New Mexico, Virginia, New York, and California have faced or currently face similar challenges. Several software distributors have become practiced at locating and exploiting vagaries in state laws, but also at building relationships with lawmakers. Donations from individuals in the sweepstakes industry can be found in campaign disclosure reports for legislators on both sides of the aisle.

Chase Burns
Chase Burns

HEST Technologies and International Internet Technologies are two major players who’ve made their way through North Carolina. Each has become embroiled in litigation involving multiple states. Chase Burns, the owner of IIT, was arrested in Florida after an incident involving a fake charity and the resignation of that state’s lieutenant governor. Burns made the news in North Carolina, too, for being the largest individual donor to candidates for the North Carolina General Assembly in the 2012 election cycle, and again for having ties with current Gov. Pat McCrory who, prior to his inauguration, worked for a law firm retained by Burns.

Donations from individuals in the sweepstakes industry can be found in campaign disclosure reports for legislators on both sides of the aisle.

But it’s clear that costly litigation is worth the risk for owners and distributors. A low estimate for a single machine’s earnings is between $2,000 and $4,000 per week; some estimates go as high as $6,000 per day for a well-placed machine. And when the political climate is right, machines flood in to the point of saturation. The 24 machines in my neighborhood sweepstakes were flanked by four more in the gas station next door, and two in the convenience store at the end of the adjoining strip mall.

Five

Keno is a game of chance, no skill in it at all, and the way the game was boiled down to software for Pot-O-Gold machines made it particularly user-friendly. Pot-O-Golds were the aging, reliable moneymakers of the video poker industry. They’d been around since the ‘70s, had all the ease of slot machines with the harmless look of arcade games, ready to tuck into the corners of gas stations or barrooms without looking too flashy or dangerous.

Video poker was successful in South Carolina, take-your-paycheck successful, and North Carolina lawmakers were wary when the machines first crept over the border in the ‘90s. Authorities saw no difference between Pot-O-Gold machines and slot machines, but the industry argued that, because the game Pot-O-Golds were known for was poker, skill and dexterity were required elements of play. A debate between skill versus chance was thus employed, an argument long used to draw the line between healthy games involving competition, like sports, and unhealthy games involving the devil, like gambling. The skill argument didn’t hold, however, against the reality of players perched on barstools in the corners of gas stations, chain-smoking cigarettes and mashing the same two buttons over and over and over; it could only be more passive if one didn’t need to lift one’s finger but instead think, next hand. By the time the sweepstakes set up in my neighborhood in 2009, the ability to look at a hand of poker and decide whether to hit or stand was no longer necessary.

In 1962, the French intellectual Roger Caillois wrote what came to be known as the first typology of games. Caillois put games of chance into a category called alea, a name derived from the Latin word for dice. A feature of alea-type games is that the player has nothing at all to do with whether or not he wins, Caillois wrote. Everything is outside the player’s control, in the hands of destiny, and if a win occurs then that player must be favored by destiny. And more than that:

Alea negates work, patience, experience, and qualifications. Professionalization, application, and training are eliminated. In one instant, winnings may be wiped out. Alea is total disgrace or absolute favor…It seems an insolent and sovereign insult to merit…[the player] counts on everything, even the vaguest sign, the slightest outside occurrence, which he immediately takes to be an omen or token—in short, he depends on everything except himself.

At the sweepstakes, jackpots worth up to $2,500 were the prize for depending on everything except oneself. Of course, they were almost never won, and for habitual machine gamblers, jackpots were not the point. For folks captivated by machine gambling—whether in a hall of slots at a Vegas casino or holed up in a gas station in the rural South—winning big is less important than spending time on the machine. There is a certain state wherein the game takes a player’s full attention, to the exclusion of everything else. Jackie, a friend who developed an interest in sweepstakes around the same time I did, called this state “the bubble.”

“You get in that bubble and you don’t want it to end,” she told me. “Nothing else matters, the money doesn’t matter, you just want to stay in that bubble.” This state of single-minded interaction with gambling machines can be so compelling that those stuck in it can lose track of time, obligations, or basic bodily needs like eating, sleeping, and using the bathroom. It is this state that produces horror stories wherein small children are left alone for too long at home or in a car, money for electricity bills is gambled away, and players win jackpots only to play them down to nothing.

Anthropologist and machine gambling researcher Natasha Dow Schüll calls it “the zone.” In the zone, players escape into bubbles that “negate work,” as Caillois puts it, for extended periods of time. So the experience of negating work, and depending on everything except oneself is now a wildly successful consumer product, and one that appeared at a time when work in the U.S. was precarious. The rise of machine gambling nationwide coincided with a wage stagnation for the American worker that stretched back to the ‘70s.

The rise of machine gambling nationwide coincided with a wage stagnation for the American worker that stretched back to the ‘70s.

In North Carolina, the sweepstakes arrived as unemployment soared following the housing market crash of 2008. Over and over, patrons said they came to the sweepstakes “to relax,” and maybe it was relaxing, to escape into a world where one’s value was not tied to work, and where money didn’t matter. Who wouldn’t want to escape the market-imposed double bind of trying to make it in an economy where jobs were fewer and lower paid, yet the full responsibility for success or failure rested with the individual?

Six

Of course, not everyone will get stuck in a bubble in front of a gambling machine. The National Center for Responsible Gaming estimates the percentage of pathological gamblers among the general population is 0.6 percent, with a 2.3 percent incidence of problem gamblers. (The NCRG is funded by casino stakeholders and supplied the grant money for the studies that produced this figure.) A 2013 paper by the Institute for American Values argues that a more accurate sample consists of people who gamble frequently rather than the general population. In this sample, the percentage of problem gamblers shoots up to 15 to 20 percent, and for people who gamble exclusively on machines—like Pot-O-Golds—the number can be higher. This same paper estimates that 40 to 60 percent of casino revenue comes from problem gamblers.

But the NCRG’s minuscule figure paints a picture of an industry that is fundamentally harmless to all but a small group of people, people who have something wrong with them. It’s useful in the same way the National Rifle Association’s “Guns Don’t Kill People; People Kill People” slogan is useful for the image of firearms. It’s like the emphasis on consumer choice that Coca-Cola cites in its public statements on obesity: The solution for a healthier world is not just in getting soft drink companies to lower their caloric content, but in getting the consumer to make better choices. (Select one of our aspartame products and get yourself some exercise.) Individual responsibility is leveraged to absolve manufacturers and interest groups of promoting unhealthy products.

But how much choice does a consumer have if a product or an experience is addictive? And where does culpability lie when products are designed and marketed to be as widely available and irresistible as possible? The processed food industry continuously updates its research-based techniques for injecting the most irresistible foods into the marketplace, often to the detriment of public health. To be a U.S. consumer today is to be offered a wide range of products that are highly sophisticated at turning understanding of individual behavior and biology into profit.

Likewise, machine gambling manufacturers do what they can to continuously increase the potency of their games. Schüll has detailed the industry’s technological strategies aimed at making their games as compelling as possible. Speed is one: A player can make a bet on a slot machine and know the outcome in as little as three to four seconds. But more than that, the industry has come to understand the bubble, and the player’s desire to simply keep playing. Extreme losses and wins can disrupt the bubble, and create an emotional spike that can cause a player to walk away from a machine. The industry has responded by creating games that are less dramatic and last longer, a shift “from volatility to volume,” Schüll writes. Spending happens in small increments over a longer period of time, and creates the kind of experience in which a problem gambler is likely to remain immersed until losing an entire stake, or, in industry terms, until extinction.

…slot machines know much more about players than players know about slot machines.

In general, slot machines know much more about players than players know about slot machines. Even when odds are posted, players have little knowledge of the technological sophistication at work to induce them to spend more money. Schüll writes about the relationship between the individual gambler and the industry:

The relationship that exists between players and the industry…is an asymmetric interdependency between a system of value extraction that plays by the economic rules of the market, and a fleeting zone of nonvalue in which those rules are, for the player, suspended.

Gambling machines deliver players an experience in which money loses its value; in fact, everything loses its value except for the continuation of play on the machine. Players and machines collude in this fantasy, and respond to each other until the player runs out of money, at which point, the relationship ends.

Seven

That September, Vivian’s face became a barometer for the changing fortunes of the sweepstakes. The talk changed daily on whether North Carolina was going to rid itself of the industry, or whether some deal would be struck and it would be allowed to stay. Vivian had a stake in the sweepstakes staying open, as did her cousin, the security guard Eric, as did their grandmother and Vivian’s mother, who both played there. And though Vivian’s mood shifted depending on the most recent estimations, the decisions of the state seemed distant and unknowable.

Most often, Vivian talked about the approaching closure like it wasn’t a sure thing. Another lawsuit could swoop in and save them, she said. “It doesn’t hurt anybody,” she explained. She stood behind the desk where she slipped some money into a black box to program a player’s machine. “I don’t know why they’re trying to shut it down,” she said. Like many players and owners, Vivian had seen video poker go through good times and bad. They’d seen it out and legal, and they’d seen it thrive underground in the backrooms of stores and houses. It never really disappeared. This game of whack-a-mole was part of the business just like armed robberies were part of the business, costs that went along with making easy money. For workers, job security was not part of the deal, though the sweepstakes had provided Vivian with steady employment for nearly a year. “If they shut it down, I’m going to lose my job,” she said. “And it’s not easy to find a job.” She looked over her shoulder, eyebrows knit, like the state was lurking somewhere making its callous choices.

Sometimes it seemed like the only reasonable thing to do was to shut down places like this, the way they lured people in and separated them from their money at all hours of night and day. But sometimes it seemed heavy-handed. It was, after all, a social center. The staff and patrons, many of whom were actual relatives, shared an easy banter, like family. I saw the same people there all the time, and Vivian told me that most of the people who came did so every day. When I asked her why people loved it so much, she said, “People come in and play just to relax. That’s why I come in here on days I’m not even working, just to relax.”

I saw the same people there all the time, and Vivian told me that most of the people who came did so every day.

A cork board hung on the wall just behind a machine where I’d once lost $30. The board was tacked with photos of the owner Linda, her staff, and a few of the regular patrons. Several of the players leaned back at their machines with hands draped across play buttons, holding cigarettes. Vivian was in one photo; she sat at her desk, sleepy and beautiful with her eyes half-closed. All the shots were dark and each person seemed to be asking, “Why are you doing this?” as they smiled.

Linda asserted the phone card aspect of her business by partitioning her 24 machines into little clusters, each with a handwritten sign that said Phone Time I, Phone Time II, Phone Time III, etc. On exactly one of my visits to the sweepstakes, an employee printed off a slip of receipt paper with PIN numbers printed on it. She handed it to me and remarked that the numbers did actually work, if I wanted to use them. “Or you can just give them to a homeless person,” she said.

Eight

At 50 years old, Linda told me she was surprised to find herself making a life in the video poker business. She’d worked for 10 years at the county hospital, then got into construction as a general contractor until the recession made it hard to find work. Her brother suggested she open a sweepstakes. He was in the video poker business himself, so he knew what he was talking about. And now here she was sitting behind a desk taking a $20 bill from a woman at 9:30 a.m. on a Tuesday and feeding it into a black box. The box inhaled the bill into its electric mouth the way vending machines do, and Linda punched some numbers on its keypad to send credit to the machine the woman had chosen. As she did this, she looked at me and said, “You see, I don’t gamble.”

Linda was gregarious and masculine, smiled easily and wore rugged shoes, had sparkly eyes and was good at making jokes. She had been through a divorce, and liked to say that she was much freer now that she didn’t have a wife. It was early November, less than one month from the effective date of the statewide sweepstakes ban, and as I sat with her behind the desk I thought I would be witnessing the death of her business. All I was witnessing so far was Linda being very busy—taking people’s money, hopping up to unlock and lock the door as players came and went. For her first foray into the video poker business, it was going well.

She set the place up in one day, plugged in four Pot-O-Gold machines and added four more at a time once they’d earned their keep. She kept a little table by the door stocked with carafes of free coffee and a radio that constantly played one station: Jammin 99.9, purveyor of upbeat love hits by Jackson 5, Al Green, and Madonna. The kind of songs that made you feel better about being in a dentist’s office. Linda left a note on the radio asking that the station not be changed.

Over and over, patrons said they came to the sweepstakes “to relax.” (Photo credit: Jeff MacInnes)
Over and over, patrons said they came to the sweepstakes “to relax.” (Photo credit: Jeff MacInnes)

Linda’s was a sweepstakes that did not bother with fancy chairs or nods to Las Vegas. The whole space was about half the size of a Taco Bell with a tile floor and low lighting. It was smoky as hell with nothing decorative, not even a plant. A person’s lows could get pretty low in there. At least if we’d been on the Strip, there would have been something to distract us from our losses: liquor drinks, Celine Dion, a simulacrum of a famous city.

But video poker players weren’t expecting Las Vegas. They weren’t even expecting the Harrah’s on Cherokee land, North Carolina’s one legal casino. They were in a different market from people who gambled on vacation; for them it had to happen close to home. And of all the business decisions Linda made, the location may have been the most crucial. She picked a neighborhood where people would make it a habit to stop in everyday, incorporating gambling into everyday life.

Looking out from the glass doors of the sweepstakes, you could see a tattoo and art studio where hip-looking white people hung around outside with bicycles. You could see the edges of the strip mall that housed the sweepstakes. Two doors down was a plasma donation center where you could earn $20 for certain components of your blood.

The sweepstakes was one block from the mansion where the chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington lived. Oak branches bearded with Spanish moss reached over the street from her yard. Twelve blocks away was the Bellamy Mansion, a big, white house built before the Civil War, and rented by modern brides who posed for photos on its porch to capture that antebellum look. The house’s slave quarters had recently been restored.

Downtown Wilmington is an old southern city where wealth gathers along the main roads, and poverty is at a close periphery. The sweepstakes sat at an intersection of all that—within walking distance of giant homes along Market Street that housed people who would never set foot in a sweepstakes, as well as poor neighborhoods that housed many people who would.

Census data showed that the poverty level for the area surrounding the sweepstakes was over 19 percent. The tract was part of a larger urban area where the poverty level shot up to 28 percent. An investigative report by two North Carolina journalists showed that sweepstakes were pretty much always put up in neighborhoods like this. It was unsettling to think that it was no accident, that poor neighborhoods were specifically chosen. It was hard to think of Linda—who I considered a likable, reasonable person—as predatory.

When I asked Linda about the location of the sweepstakes, she said, “This is a working neighborhood, so I don’t worry about this one.” She had just unlocked the door to let two women out who were finished playing. It wasn’t yet 10 a.m. “See those two women? They left so they could go to work.” Her sweepstakes farther uptown was in a poorer neighborhood, and that one did cause her some worries, especially in the form of employees who stole from her.

As she told me this, a man came up to the desk. He’d just gone through $20 on his machine, and he asked if she would spot him another twenty. “I’ll pay you right back, right back,” he said. Linda consented, pulled a twenty from her wallet and fed it into the black box.

“I’ve seen people who I know are poor go into that gas station and spend a hundred dollars on lottery tickets…”

I asked Linda if she thought her customers were poor. She shot her hand up to point at the gas station just beside us. “I’ve seen people who I know are poor go into that gas station and spend a hundred dollars on lottery tickets,” she said. Her eyes got wide and her posture squared; eye contact became uncomfortable. Linda got up and tended to some business on the other side of the desk with quick movements. Someone rang the doorbell. “Put it this way,” she said as she went to answer it, “If I thought it was a terrible thing, I wouldn’t be doing it.”

I wanted to think it wasn’t a terrible thing, but the data suggested otherwise. Smith Worth, program administrator of the North Carolina Problem Gambling Program, said the number of calls made to her program’s helpline resulting in intakes had gone up about 30 percent over the previous two years as hundreds of sweepstakes opened across the state. “Which is ironic,” Worth said, “because our problem gambling funds are going toward something that’s not supposed to be gambling.” The program also reported an increase among problem gamblers of financial problems like credit card debt, borrowing, and trouble paying bills. This, too, lined up neatly with the period of the sweepstakes’ greatest success.

Information on the longer-term interplay between gambling and communities can be found in lottery and casino studies. A national study published by Duke University in 1999—well before the creation of the North Carolina Education Lottery—found that the percentage of per capita income spent on lottery tickets increased as income and education levels decreased. Studies of regional casinos show that they extract wealth from the communities around them. The matter of whose losses become profits is an issue, too: Their patrons are disproportionately low-wage workers, retirees, minorities, and the disabled.

When states collude with gambling enterprises to collect a share of these profits, they are, in essence, collecting a regressive tax—a tax that draws disproportionately from the lower classes. Critics argue that this exacerbates existing patterns of inequality. According to sociologist David Nibert, lotteries make it seem normal that most people have little money while a few have enormous wealth. And while lotteries are making inequality seem normal, “[they] help to divert attention from problems and social arrangements that affect people’s lives. Questions about who makes major economic decisions, why certain decisions are made, why the quality of life is slipping, why working conditions are frequently tedious and unrewarding, and related questions, are seldom publicly contemplated in meaningful ways.”

Of course, Linda wasn’t thinking about the legitimation of inequality when she set up her business. She had other worries, like how to not get busted by police, how to avoid armed robberies, how to keep employees from stealing from the massive amounts of cash that came in each day, and how to maintain a good relationship with the city and the state. To this end, Linda had done everything she could. She paid her taxes. She kept a copy of the order of injunction that protected her until Dec. 1 taped to the wall. She had a decal from the fraternal order of the police affixed to the door, hoping.  

“It’s the best living I ever made.”

She hoped, too, that a lawsuit filed by a pair of Internet sweepstakes companies would come through, but she had no way of knowing if that would happen. Overall, she didn’t have much hope in the political climate of North Carolina, and she was partly resigned to the idea of having to upend her life and move to another state come December. She didn’t want to leave Wilmington, her whole family was here, but this was how she made her living now.

I asked her if it was worth all the trouble. She smiled a big, uncomplicated smile and said, “It’s the best living I ever made.”

Nine

One night I invited my boyfriend to come along to the sweepstakes. Afterwards we would walk next door to the Domino’s and pick up a pizza. It would be a kind of date.

By then, my spending had climbed to levels which were still low compared to the players around me—$20 to $25—but I was not necessarily proud of this trend. I was at a point of no longer discussing dollar amounts with the people in my life unless I came home with a win. I had gotten used to the place, liked it even, and in my mind a sweepstakes date would be fun.

He was kind of a high-risk boyfriend, always standing too close to other women, talking wild about World Trade Center 7. He was a filmmaker and it was unclear how either of us would make a living. As a friend put it in a bar one night, not about him but the next high-risk boyfriend, “There’s no future there.”

But it’s fun to take chances. We programmed money on different machines within sight of each other. I was hoping I would win some pizza money and impress him. I didn’t. I lost my whole $10 and felt stupid for it. He backed away from his machine with a similarly dejected look. It was unattractive to see each other rejected by fortune in that atmosphere, our clean hair made foul by smoke.

Ten

Only 26 days before the sweepstakes was set to close, a beautiful woman in a long dress sat on a stool calling the male staff members “sweat pea” when she wanted them to put more money on her machine. She was witty and compelling, and the men puffed up by threatening each other and calling each other out for acting up just because there were women around.

It was Friday night, pizza night, and two mediums sat on the counter. Some people came up and put a slice or two on paper plates, some just grabbed a slice and held it with one hand while they hit play with the other, which is what I did. A male desk worker named Jay was on duty. He’d greeted me with a long, intense look that made me picture my head getting bashed against my machine, and made me want to crush him in some way. I felt like whatever normally kept me safe outside of the sweepstakes was gone. Then he called me a pet name. The whole place was in weird, high spirits. There was a circus feeling, and I wondered what was to stop everyone from being drunk and on pain pills.

I liked the woman, her presence, the way she said things. She made a joke whose punchline was, “Not my left tittie,” and it was a hit. She said it again, “Not my left tittie.” The men laughed and repeated the phrase around the room. She had them at her full attention every time she moved or spoke. Seven o’clock came, and it was time for the nightly drawing. The winner would add another $50 to their machine.

The men had everyone write their names on a slip of paper. Jay instructed me to join. “Write your name right here and get entered into the drawing, sweetheart,” he said. “There you go, honey.” Sweethearts and sweet peas and honeys abounded. It felt less like a business than the living room of an unhealthy family.

Linda once told me that she didn’t appoint any of her workers to act as managers; she liked everyone to be on the same level. But when Jay was working, he was the boss. Middle-aged and fit, with a face that looked like it had been split open and healed back, Jay had been a boxer in his youth. He thought he’d make his living that way, but it didn’t work out, he said, because he didn’t know anybody. He dressed sharp. That night he wore a fedora and a vest.

He announced that it was drawing time in a crazy, circus voice, “Is it high or is it low? Is it high or is it low?” He sang it.

I picked up my notebook. I wanted to write down something I’d heard the woman say to her machine, in the exact words she’d said it, a long stringy thought: “This machine needs to put out ‘cause I just been hitting the fucking button. What’s going on?” Jay got really close to me. I thought I’d told him I was there as a writer, but I wasn’t sure. My back was to him while he sang, “Is it high or is it low? Is it high or is it low?” He was practically over my shoulder when he said, “Oh! She’s over here writing things down!” He said it again, announced it to the room. He bent down, got his eyes close to my notebook. “You writing things down over here? What you writing down?”

I tried to obscure my writing just by will, by making my eyes a little fuzzy when I looked at it. “Oh. Notes,” I said.

“Oh, notes,” he said. He continued to look. “I thought you were writing down what people say in here.”

“Oh. No,” I said. A lie.

“Well, since you’re over here writing things down, why don’t you pick out a number,” he said and offered me the coffee tin full of names.

I reached in and picked one out. Somebody else won.

Eleven

As November crept along, the sweepstakes on 17th Street was full of people who would miss it when it was gone. They were the regulars, the lifeblood of the place, the ones who came everyday and likely fit the textbook definition of problem gambling. And there were visitors, too, just there to feel what there was to feel, or not feel, before the place was gone for good.

Studies of regional casinos show that they extract wealth from the communities around them. (Photo credit: Jeff MacInnes)
Studies of regional casinos show that they extract wealth from the communities around them. (Photo credit: Jeff MacInnes)

I came in on a weekday just before 7 p.m., and I had to wait for the desk worker to program other people’s money before he got to mine. A woman named Sandra was in line behind me, and as she handed $20 over the desk, I heard her say, “This is it for me. After this I’m going home.”

It was a crowded hour at the sweepstakes, close to the $50 drawing. Sandra was entered in the drawing, as was I, as was the man next to us who said he came in for it every night but had never hit. I’d seen this man several times before, and I knew him for his public displays of prudence: He played $10 at a time, never more, and frequently announced this fact to everyone in the room. “I play $10, then I get on out,” he’d say.

Sandra was one of the nicest people I’d met in the sweepstakes, and I was glad to have her company in Phone Time I, the non-smoking alcove, along with the prudent man. Sandra liked talking almost as much as she liked keno, and she had no problem doing both at once. Only rarely did she look up from her machine.

The security guard walked around and recorded the machine numbers of people who were currently playing, and as soon as he had that info, he called out the number three. It was the prudent man next to us who hollered. He was pleased. The $50 went straight to his machine, and the rule was that you had to play it for 15 minutes before you cashed out. His plan was to play slowly. He called someone special on the phone and asked to be picked up in 15 minutes. “Now I’m ready to eat!” he said to the person on the phone, and then louder for the rest of the room, “Now I’m ready to eat!”

He happened to be sitting at one of the few machines in the place that allowed five-cent bets rather than the default 25 cents. He lowered his wager all the way down and tapped his play button at his leisure, all the while letting Sandra and me know how slowly he planned to play it. He seemed proud of his self-control, and sorry for the rest of us who were acting stupid.

He was the only player I met who talked about how much money he was spending while he was spending it. If it was true that he kept it as low as he said he did, $10 at a time, that made him an exception. Most people played in increments of $20; to refill a machine two, three, or four times was normal.

It was also normal to see players zoned-in to a machine for hours at a time, and to hear people talk about playing through the night. Players attached to machines with what looked like commitment. Sometimes they left to take care of personal matters and returned later to reclaim their spot. Sometimes they brought their commitments with them. I once saw a player’s elderly grandmother set up in front of a keno machine. A tiny-boned woman wrapped in an afghan, she sat still with the keno lights blinking before her, a pack of cigarettes within reach.

After months of visiting the sweepstakes, it was still hard for me to feel the pull of keno. I was interested in trying to win small amounts, to leave the sweepstakes with a few dollars more than I’d come in with, which told me that I was not really entering the bubble that my friend Jackie talked about: Money still mattered. But when I played blackjack, things were different.

Blackjack on a Pot-O-Gold goes like this: You’re dealt a hand of two cards. Then you choose to hit or stand. The game ends there when you lose, or it continues on to another choice when you win. I switched over to blackjack for a few minutes that night in Phone Time I. I chose wrong almost every time. I liked it though. It felt good, and I found myself pressing the button faster than usual. I flew through my money 50 cents at a time. It was simple decision, hit or stand, and I didn’t care what happened. I just wanted to try. I loved it. After $5, I made myself stop.

Sandra was playing seven-liner, the slot machine look-alike where you hit a button that spins three rows of fruit. She talked gently to her machine, asking it to hit. Not a jackpot, but something. “$200, $200 would make a big difference.” She said she’d won a jackpot one time, but years ago, back when the place was called something else and owned by a man named Mr. Cherry from Myrtle Beach. She thought it might’ve been illegal then. Mr. Cherry had to close it down, though, after a security guard was shot and killed. I asked her when that was. “That was so long ago, child, I can’t even remember.” She’d cashed a $500 paycheck and put the whole thing in the machine (this was when you fed money right into them), and she felt bad about it. She actually felt sick, and then she thought, well, I might as well put in this last $20—that’s when she hit. It was $6,500, her jackpot, and she won it after playing all day. She said she bought a van with the money.

Sandra said she tried to pay her bills before she came in and played. I asked her if she thought the machines were addictive. “Oh, they can be like crack cocaine, yes,” she said, “but you can get off them too. You can take a break.” Her comparison recalled an assertion made by addiction researcher, Howard Shaffer—that slot machines are as addictive as crack, but, like crack, not everyone who uses the machines will become addicted. Only two to three percent of the population will. It made me wonder, what are the risk factors for getting stuck on a machine?

Why did keno captivate Sandra, but not me?

Beyond individual neurology, how would a person’s chances be affected by having a sweepstakes in her neighborhood, by having an aunt or a mother or a grandmother who played, by having a home that she would rather avoid in the evenings? All my demographics came to mind, and I wondered which ones saved me. My middle class parents? My whiteness? My education? Growing up in a neighborhood where the sweepstakes was unheard of? Or perhaps it was my home life. A room in a rented apartment with two friends. No caretaking duties. A part-time job at the university making more than minimum wage. Writing, and the purpose it brings. Was it the privileges I could perceive or the privileges I couldn’t perceive?

Another researcher whose work stuck with me was psychologist Lance Dodes, who writes that feelings of helplessness are central to addiction. “The drive in addictive behavior is rage at helplessness,” Dodes writes. The addictive behavior, then, is a displaced action that serves to reverse a sense of powerlessness—one that is rooted in something deeply important to the individual. What could be a more perfect vehicle than a gambling machine for displacing feelings of powerlessness over one’s own money?

…addictive behavior, then, is a displaced action that serves to reverse a sense of powerlessness—one that is rooted in something deeply important to the individual.

In the post-housing crash years in North Carolina, there was plenty of cause for hopelessness: A third of children lived beneath the federal poverty level. The unemployment rate nearly surpassed 11 percent, and an increasing proportion of jobs paid minimum wage or less. Was it a coincidence that this was the moment when gambling machines fanned out across the state? At best, it was complicated. At worst, it was clear: A time had come when emotional problems at the economy’s bottom could be harnessed for profit at the very top.

.  .  .

Sandra finished up the $20 she was working with and handed another bill to Eric as he walked by. The man beside us was in high spirits. He talked about how two people can eat for $50 at the Olive Garden and have some to take home, too. A man from across the room hollered a greeting to him, and he shouted hello and said, “I know you’re not giving all your money to the iron pimp.” They carried on a conversation in shouts, caught up on neighborhood news: A young man they knew was arrested. What for? Stealing something. Did they hurt him? Haven’t heard.

Sandra got her refill and continued coaxing her machine to give her $200. She talked about her Time Warner bill, how it was $80, how Time Warner was terrible. I agreed. She said she saw a woman once win the jackpot over here—$2,000—and then play it down again to nothing. And then the woman asked Sandra if she could borrow $20. Sandra looked at her and said, “No, ma’am.” I watched Sandra’s balance go up past $30. If she cashed out then, she’d make $10 profit on the last bill she’d put in. But math like that was of no interest.

I spent more than I wanted, $30. It was nearly past dinner time. The prudent man got picked up by his ride and left the building joyfully. Sandra said she was going to cook rutabagas for dinner and seemed excited about it, but made no moves to leave. We said goodbye, and as I walked away she called to me, “I’m right behind you,” without lifting her eyes from the screen.

Twelve

From Thanksgiving to the Dec. 1 deadline, a warm, friendly vibe prevailed at the sweepstakes. These were supposed to be the last days before closing, and they were the easiest days on which to think, this is fun. The place had the glow of a rare thing, and I took pleasure in the small talk, and my tiny keno wins. Or, I was becoming habituated.

Even Jay, the former boxer, was nice to me. “Ah, the writer,” he said when I walked in on a Sunday night. Then he suggested that instead of writing about the sweepstakes, I write a book about him. “I’m smart,” he said, “but I was always doing other things.” He talked about how he couldn’t pass the reading and writing section of the GED, and how he wanted to learn all the words in the dictionary. And how, with the sweepstakes closing, he was about to need another job. “But right now, to get a job, you have to know somebody.”

I played until I got up $13. Then I cashed out and took the money home.

Thirteen

When I stopped by on Nov. 29, Linda told me the plan was to let people play until 11:58 p.m. the next day, and then start to pack up the machines. She was sitting in her office attending to some paperwork that would help her get back a gun that an employee had stolen from her other location. A few counterfeit bills hung on the walls of her office, money that had been spent in the sweepstakes and discovered as fake only after it was too late. They were crinkled and smeared from the time in September when the roof leaked and the walls dripped with heavy rain.

Linda had her office door cracked. She looked out at Vivian, whose expression was grim as she managed the desk. One more day until she lost her job. “I told them to put some money away and make arrangements for when this happened,” Linda said. “But nobody listened.”

Fourteen

The next day, a change of fortune: A lawsuit came through. Filed by Hest Technologies together with ITT , the suit argued that a sweepstakes ban was unconstitutional because, somehow, it violated their First Amendment rights. The decision came from a Guilford County Superior Court judge, and it was enough to instill doubt in the minds of district attorneys on whether the sweepstakes ban was entirely lawful, or enforceable. The loophole would remain open.

Linda told me she got her information straight from the district attorney. She simply called him on the phone, and learned that he felt the same doubt about the sweepstakes ban. She said he wouldn’t send police out until the law was clear.

The next day, Nov. 30, the sweepstakes felt festive. Linda announced three $50 drawings—instead of the usual one —and the place was packed. One of the regulars sauntered in and announced that he hadn’t seen the place that crowded since it first opened. The cigarette smoke was unassailable.

Among players, some knew that this wasn’t actually the last night, and some didn’t. The staff didn’t make a point to announce it; if they had, it’s hard to say what the overall reaction would have been. Most people focused on their machines and got lost in their bubbles.

When I heard the news, it felt thrilling. I felt like I was witnessing something subversive happening, people circumventing the law, boldly stepping out and doing whatever the hell they wanted. But it also made state laws seem like a joke. Leading up to the ban, legislators had compared the machines to kudzu and cancer, and asserted the need to protect people from a predatory industry. They’d won, yet nothing changed. Now what? Did the legislative process matter at all?

Fifteen

Vivian let me in happily—victoriously—the next morning, Dec. 1. I went to see her at about 10 a.m. and she was animated and smiling. Across the desk, she reiterated her belief that it was right to not close the sweepstakes, that at least people were safe in here, “not out there doing drugs.” A cluster of women played in one corner. One of them came over for a refill, gave Vivian $80 and said, “Here you go, baby. Put all of it on there.” The women chatted and keno played its silly tune.

Most people played in increments of $20; to refill a machine two, three, or four times was normal (Photo credit: Jeff MacInnes)
Most people played in increments of $20; to refill a machine two, three, or four times was normal (Photo credit: Jeff MacInnes)

But two hours later, Linda was getting a bad feeling about things. She’d been driving around town, and talking on the phone with her distributor, and it seemed to them that her place on 17th Street was the only sweepstakes still open. Internet sweepstakes were running, but they were directly addressed by the new lawsuit, and it wasn’t altogether clear where that left Pot-O-Golds. Linda felt exposed, and if the D.A. decided to make a move and shut somebody down just to make an example, she felt that it would be her.

By late afternoon, Linda was dismantling her business. Vivian was quiet, hardly said anything, just shook her head. A few employees and a few regulars stood in clumps, unsure what to do. The place got quieter and quieter as Linda went around the room turning off machines and unplugging them from the wall.

One woman continued to play while a small group looked on. She was in her 60s and well-dressed with good posture. She poked at a keno game, which was suddenly the most interesting thing in the room. She handed Vivian some money for a refill, and said aloud to Vivian, or to Linda or to us, or to the state, “Let me just have my last little fun.”

Her onlookers sounded agreement. Someone said, “I know that’s right.”

Sixteen

On Dec. 3, the truck came. It was a semi-truck with a long-distance driver who waited around while Linda, along with Jay and a few regulars hired for the day, packed everything. The machines sat unplugged and silent. Now they were just heavy, burdensome things waiting to be slid onto a dolly and rolled to a loading dock. Linda and the men dealt with them one-by-one. I watched with Vivian. We shivered in the shade of the mini-mall parking lot.

Next were the chairs. Linda let a cigarette dangle from her lip while she lifted one onto the loading dock. When some of the men worried about her lifting too much, she reminded us all that she used to work construction.

She took a break and talked to me while the men finished lifting. She said she felt sure now that she was going to Texas, where video poker was still legal. The machines she’d run down there would be better than the Pot-O-Golds—tall, flossy-looking things with lights and music. Down there, they wouldn’t have to pretend the machines weren’t slots.

The retail space between the gas station and the parking lot was almost empty. A sign hung on the glass door. Written in marker, it said “Closed” with a frowning face scrawled beneath it. The neon was turned off. Inside, total quiet. Little remained except dust on the tile floors, and the cork board with the photos of all the sweepstakes’ customers, plus Vivian and Linda, everyone with their cynical smiles and summer clothing—all of it out of place.

There were goodbye hugs. Mostly short, stiff-limbed ones. Jay said he would miss me. Some of the regulars complained that too many of them had shown up trying to kiss Linda’s ass, and as a result they’d each made less money. Everybody went their separate ways and the semi-truck lined up to turn onto 17th Street and get out of town. The Pot-O-Golds were headed for a warehouse in Texas, where they’d wait to be of use at another time in another state.

.  .  .

Pot-O-Golds largely disappeared from Wilmington in those first few days after the ban. Internet sweepstakes stayed open, however. In Internet sweepstakes, players sat at tables and played games with a computer and a mouse in accordance with the recently discovered loophole; no one’s First Amendment rights would be violated.

Where phone card and Pot-O-Gold operators were usually small businesses, Internet sweepstakes were often corporate—multi-state, organized, with websites and lawyers who’d fought their way into states before and were now fighting to stay in North Carolina. Hest Technologies, on its Facebook page, told North Carolina customers not to worry and bragged that it had won a battle like this in Ohio. Sweepstakes using Hest and similar software didn’t even close the night of Nov. 30; they just installed an update and kept going.

Seventeen

Linda never went to Texas. She stayed around, waiting, and in mid-January went back to the empty sweepstakes to clean up. An update was available for the Pot-O-Golds. The most popular games, including keno, were now specifically illegal, so a new version of seven-liner was rolled out, one in which players had to press a button to spin a reel, and then press another button for the reel to stop in the right place. Lawyers believed this second part shifted the new game from a game of chance to a game of skill—a legal game.

The sweepstakes was illuminated for several nights while Linda readied the place to re-open. She painted and moved things around. She even decorated and stuck huge American currency decals on the walls: Fives, tens, twenties, fifties, Benjamins.

On one of these nights, she gave me a demonstration of the new games. I watched as she tapped the play button. The icons spun, and all landed in their spaces except for one. “Now here is the part where skill is involved,” she said. The final icon kept spinning until she stopped it. We couldn’t tell if she’d won. The interface was confusing, and dull-colored, decidedly less fun than keno. She said there were still some things to be worked out.

I asked Linda if she had considered making the switch to an Internet sweepstakes. She hadn’t, she said, because she didn’t like what she’d heard about the agreements with the software companies. More than that, she didn’t think games that required people to use computers would be right for this location. She felt sure that her people wanted Pot-O-Golds.

Linda tried with the new software for two weeks. It didn’t go well. Even with the updated interior and the old, reliable location, people just weren’t into learning the new games. And the people who did learn didn’t like them as much as the old games. It was hard to compete, Linda told me, with so many black market options around. She felt sure that her customer base had returned to the illegal places where they used to play Pot-O-Golds, places where they played before Linda entered the neighborhood.

At the end of the second week, 3 a.m. on a Saturday, a man entered with a gun and robbed the place. No shots were fired and nobody was hurt. The security guard on duty had Linda’s gun on his desk, but reaching for it didn’t seem like an option once the robber’s gun was pointed at his head. The robber left with $800 and Linda’s legal, semi-automatic handgun. Linda closed the shop and didn’t open again.

She was blasé about the robbery. She said she was only upset that her gun was gone and that she’d now have to go through the rigmarole of trying to get it back. But she told me her decision to close had less to do with the robbery, and much to do with the fact that the new software just didn’t take off.

Whatever alchemy made the sweepstakes so successful, it was gone. Hard to say who had the biggest hand in killing it. The state had forced the formula to change, but it was the people who rejected that change. It was a failure of software development—the new games did not produce the right feelings.

Linda still talked about Texas, but she continued to pay rent at the space on 17th and Market. She thought of opening a thrift store in the meantime, something to keep the space occupied while she waited for fortune to favor her again.

Eighteen

That spring, I noticed a light on again at the sweepstakes. My friend and I rang the bell, and a new worker let us in. The lobby was dimly-lit and walls had been erected in the center of the room. A woman sat at the desk. She was overly friendly and slightly suspicious. I asked about playing the machines and she presented me with a ledger, where I was to fill out my name and contact information. I asked her about Linda, and she became friendlier, and said Linda was her business partner, but that she now lived out-of-state.

I started to hand her $5, but she pointed me to the small walled-off room and said I could put my money directly on the machines now. She opened the door for me and I saw a dozen Pot-O-Golds, even older than Linda’s previous models, packed into a warm little space. The machines were giving off heat while about ten people played silently with cigarettes burning. No one was friendly.

A machine at a sweepstakes in Oxford, NC. (Photo credit: Jeff MacInnes)
A machine at a sweepstakes in Oxford, NC. (Photo credit: Jeff MacInnes)

I fed my $5 into an open Pot-O-Gold and played keno, which was now illegal. It was the same thing: the bouncing balls and the bubbling sounds. The machine only took, chipping away at my money while I sat not talking to anyone. There was nothing left in the place to make me feel anything but sad.

What seemed extraordinary about the game of whack-a-mole Linda played with the law has now become ordinary. In 2015, three years after the sweepstakes ban was upheld by the Supreme Court of North Carolina, sweepstakes locations still proliferate unevenly across the state. Each works a legal strategy supplied by a law firm or software company and some post the latest order of injunction near their doors as Linda once had at the storefront on 17th Street. There is a timelessness to the story, a sense that the sweepstakes just keeps going, a sense that a state’s and an individual’s choice of whether or not to collude with machine gambling isn’t much of a choice at all.

Credits

Our Last Little Fun, by Erin Sroka, is Issue No. 4 of The New New South, published January 2016. For more information, or to read previous issues, please visit www.newnewsouth.com.

Author

Erin Sroka

Erin Sroka was raised in Durham, NC. Her work has appeared in Oxford American and Our State. She is a recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship, an Anne Cox Chambers Fellowship in Journalism, and a 2014-2015 Durham Arts Council Ella Fountain Pratt Emerging Artist Grant.

Editors

Andrew Park, Matthew Phillips

Photographer

Jeff MacInnes