RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: Gambling's no substitute for what comes home in a bag

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson

BILOXI – All of us are gamblers, whether we admit it or not. If we put money in the stock market, or drive a car on roads overrun with texting fools, or even get out of bed and go outside, we are gambling, if not with our money with our lives.
And yet there’s something altogether different and desperate about the casinos and the fast rate at which ordinary people will push money into machines in the hope of making more. A suspension of disbelief, I’d call it. I never can figure out the appeal, exactly. I love the Mississippi coast, always have, one of the best-kept secrets in the South.
Even post-Katrina, it’s an unofficial architectural museum, a laid-back anecdote to the high-rise clutter of Florida beaches, where you have to check into a hotel or condo to see the water.
But the casinos that thrive where the working shrimp boats used to dock are a mystery to me. I’m clueless, as the kids would say.
There is no glamour, once you pass the fancy shops and live flowers in the lobby of a hotel that wears the casino name. Patrons wear blue jeans and tennis shorts and maybe even their idea of what one should wear to a casino, but the amalgamation is decidedly unglamorous, like old Mardi Gras beads strewn in a kitchen junk drawer. There is no view of the ocean, lest you be distracted from gambling. There is no raucous laughter or convivial air; gambling is a solitary sport.
Coast casinos are not one-size-fits-all. There are smoke-free casinos for the sensitive, military and senior discounts at some of the restaurants, a Jimmy Buffett casino for Parrotheads. The casinos work at it, whatever “it” is. You might say you come here for the cheap buffet, or the shops, or a show, but I’m betting you’ll gamble just a little. Just enough to pay for the evening at the restaurant, the shops or the show. If that doesn’t work out, you say you paid for the fun. As that “man of virtues” William Bennett once told us, not everyone is betting the milk money. I check my watch and feed the quarter slot $20. It takes three minutes for the hungry machine to finish it off. It would take a minimum-wage worker nearly three hours to earn it.
I sound like a scold whenever I talk about gambling. But having grown up with Depression-era parents and grandparents, I’m more incredulous than disapproving.
My grandmother would wash and reuse tin foil until it was soft and wrinkled. Now, two generations later, grandmothers are rolling in behind their walkers to push their Social Security checks into the clattering slot machines.
I’ve wasted more money in my life than I care to recall. I’ve bought more useless bric-a-brac than a Dollar Tree store, more clothing in a year than my grandmother owned in her entire life. And boats – those holes in the water into which you throw money – have seduced me since I could float in a miniature boat in a circle at the state fair. But when I’ve spent money – carelessly, unwisely, impulsively – there’s most always been something in a bag or on a trailer to haul home.
Syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.