In a cloud of mesmerizing stardust, legalized gambling crept a little closer to Pittsburgh this week with the opening of The Meadows Racetrack & Casino at the site of what had been a harness racing track so sleepy even the horses yawned.
As for the city of Pittsburgh itself, plans for the proposed casino on the North Shore remain delayed while its neighbors — the Steelers, the Pirates, the Carnegie Science Center — continue to complain.
And why not? Complaining is what we do best in these parts and it is no surprise that complaining has become a team event with a little science thrown in. Why, when Pittsburghers die and go to heaven, they complain because they have to play the harp and can’t get their team jerseys over their wings.
Frustrated local gamblers were left to conduct office pools on when the city casino might be built and when the promised property tax relief is finally delivered (state officials say it will be soon but I suspect when it comes it will be strapped to the backs of the pigs flying over).
Now local gamblers can travel south down Interstate 79 to nearby Washington County to go to The Meadows, where the new casino — in temporary quarters for the moment — is open for business 24 hours a day, 365 days a year including Christmas (hark the herald slot machines ring).
At the opening on Monday, 500 people lined up to be the first inside and many more came later. This has been the experience elsewhere in Pennsylvania where casinos have opened — thousands of people joyfully thronging the joints for the privilege of being among the first to throw away their money.
I know, I know. They think they are going to be winners, just as I wake up every morning thinking I will suddenly resemble Brad Pitt or discover that I can flap my ears so that I can levitate my way out of boring conversations.
Why? What moves people to flock to these palaces of guaranteed long-term loserdom? Do they think money that is handled by so many unsanitary people should be taken away by well-polished machines in the interests of public health?
This isn’t a moral issue for me. I see all of life as a gamble. Some of us are born rich and some of us are born poor, depending on the cards we draw. Some of us are born with talent and good looks and some of us have to develop a nice personality, according to the roulette wheel of fate. (Darn, lost again!)
No, it’s the mass failure of imagination that rankles. I know that we have had to do something in this life to fill in the time until our funerals. But do we have to play slots?
In Pennsylvania, only slot machines are allowed. It was the way the deal was sold politically, so that the opponents of gambling could be marginalized. Oh, it’s only slot machines, how bad can the effects be?
Well, this was a classic come-hither. Once the old camel gets his nose in the gambling tent, he wants to play blackjack.
Already the state House Democratic leader Bill DeWeese is moving to introduce table games, because West Virginia has just approved them. As table games actually involve a modicum of skill and social interaction, it wouldn’t be a bad idea — that is, if it wasn’t such a blatant repudiation of the original understanding.
Until the inevitable happens, slots is the only game in town, or in Pittsburgh’s case, the only game fairly near to town. That being the case, money will flow from small pockets to big pockets and the collective IQ will fall — but there will be jobs and fun and everyone will be happy, even the losers because they can’t help it.
Not to be a spoilsport, but nothing has ever been devised to insult human intelligence as much as the slot machine. You don’t even have to pull the bandit’s arm; the new machines have a button so players can avoid the risk of exercise.
In Las Vegas, a place of exquisite bad taste where I fit in perfectly, the most I ever played was for half an hour before a terrible boredom seized me and I felt like I was in Albania and was so desperate for entertainment that I wanted to cheer President Bush.
See the human monkey press the button to get a reward. Press the button, press the button, oh some quarters came out! press the button, press the button. This is some kind of fun and, ladies and gentlemen, you are welcome to it. Wake me up when my property taxes come down.
(Reg Henry is columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com)