March 22, 1999

One of the joys of the weekend road trip is the spontaneous detour. This weekend, Ghengis and myself were on our way to Collingwood and en route we found ourselves waiting at a traffic light. The couple minutes at the red gave us just enough time to consider the sign in our view: Casino Rama 5 km. By the time the light turned green, the decision was made.

I had never been in a casino before. Well that's not entirely true as I once spent three guilders in the casino housed in the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam during a stopover. But it would be fair to say that I had never had a "casino experience" before. Even if you are adverse to the notion of gambling, the casino experience is worth having. It borders on the surreal. There is also no cover charge.

When you climb the long, steep steps of the temples of the Maya in central America, the delay and the effort lends itself to the experience that you feel when you finally reach the top. In modern times, this sense of anticipation is created by the navigation through massive parking lots.  When you first set eyes on Casino Rama it looks like an island protected by a very wide moat of cars.

Casino Rama is run by the Chippewas of Rama First Nation and subsequently the "theme" of the casino is that of native culture. The parking areas are named after animals. As Ghengis and I left the station wagon and made our way to Casino Rama we chanted our car-location-memory-mantra: BirdTurtleBear BirdTurtleBear BirdTurtleBear...

This theming is ultimately deceptive for while the building's outer walls and lobby are graced with vivid, large and haunting murals of native art, once you enter the doors of the main gaming floor you leave the world of the silent and the majestic and enter another that is noisy, lurid, and weird.

As I have not been to any other casinos, I cannot tell you what the size of the gaming floor of Casino Rama is relative to others. To me, it was large. Wider than it was deep with banks of card tables to the right and aisles and aisles of slot machines taking up the middle and the left. The ceiling was low and you could taste the cigarette smoke in the air.

We made our way first to the gaming tables and I stood behind various Blackjack tables in order to learn its rituals. I've read that women tend not to play card games because they are intimidated and instead prefer the non-judgmental and less stressful comforts of the slot machines. Women were in the minority at the tables of Rama, but they were not a rarity.

What I liked best about the card games were the stylized movements of the players and dealers. Because the slot machines created such a din of noise in the casino, all decisions at the tables were expressed by motions of the hands. If a player wanted another card, they didn't say 'Hit me!' as I expected, but instead they tapped an area on the table that was marked. These arrangements also benefit those whose gambling skills are better than their English; there were a lot of Chinese gaming at the tables. The dealers also have to exaggerate their movements to illustrate that there are no card-palming or other forms of cheating at the table. Their card dealing and chip distributing were constantly punctuated by showing the players that there was nothing in their hands between actions. To further illustrate this security, casino guards and staff with clipboards constantly hovered over the tables and then moved on like bees.

Since the games are all wagered with chips, I didn't immediately register how much money was being won and lost at the tables. This, of course, is one of the reasons why casinos use chips instead of cash at the tables and use 'credits' at the slots. It was only until I noticed the small plaques that noted the maximum and minimum wagers at each table that I realized the true value of what was being bet. A couple of tables had minimum five-dollar wages; most of the others required much higher sums. I suddenly became very intimidated. I moved toward the slot machines.

One of the first things that struck me when I first entered the casino was the peculiar noise. There seemed to be a constant sound which because its very volume could not be called a hum; it was more like a constant tone of noise; it was like a bell that continued to sound long after it had been struck. It was only when I approached the slot machines that I realized that the tone was the net result of all the bells from each of the individual slot machines. Ghengis noticed this as well and as we walked through the cacophony he called it a rave for the geriatric set.

There was a lot of old people at the slots. I am guessing that this typifies the afternoon crowd at any casino. Ghengis and I walked through the rows of machines and could not find an empty spot. There was not much space to navigate by the people sitting at their places. One middle aged man in front of us tripped on a elderly woman's walker that she had placed beside her seat and he shouted 'damn wheelchair!' as he tried to regain his posture and caught up with his wife. The woman at the machine was frail and small and looked even sadder than she did before. Ghengis and I almost decided to follow the man and suggest that it wouldn't be too long until he'd be put into a wheelchair himself and we were willing to speed up that process ourselves. But the moment was lost.

The slot machines were creepy and it didn't surprise me that they could bring out the worst in someone. Everyone was seated in front of the their own machine, intently focused, neither expressing joy or frustration, ignoring the noisy world around them. Some of the regulars did not use coins or bills to place their wagers but instead, made use of Casino Rama money cards. In order to ensure that they would not accidentally leave the machines without their cards, many of these people had clipped a chain into the card that hooked into a loose necklace. It looked like someone had chained their necks to the machines. Very creepy.

Ghengis and I finally found an empty seat. We fed a five-dollar bill into the slot machine which was immediately translated into a number of credits. We took turns playing the machine and unlike all the others around us, we took especial delight in forgoing the 'pull slot button' and instead, manually pulled the arm of the machine. I lost my allotment but Ghengis within minutes had 3 sevens in a row and won the equivalent of $25. Like the rank gambling amateurs we were, we were thrilled with the pay out and laughed like we had actuality hit the jackpot. Also, unlike many gamblers, Ghengis immediately cashed out his credits. We made a break for the door.

Outside, it was bright, quiet, and comforting. We walked through the parking lot chanting BirdTurtleBear BirdTurtleBear BirdTurtleBear and lo! The station wagon did appear. We climbed in, started up the car, and quietly made our way back on our road trip feeling all the more saner for leaving as quickly as we did.