The Incredibly Unincredible Indian Casino

Dear Carla Fran,

While you think of heists and malls I am thinking of casinos. Not the Las Vegas fun-park variety with their plastified fun and can-canning fountains but the kind that exist on the outskirts of cities. The sort where Big Brother’s watching, the drinks taste like water and even the smoking seems a little bit sad and unfree. And I am wondering why—in these places where the ticket-dispensing machines are eerily quiet and the carpets are loud loud loud, and which remind me of a Chuck E. Cheese parody of nightlife where you win tokens and feed quarters to a machine that makes friendly robots come to life and sing—they are nevertheless places where Rather Dramatic Things Happen. To wit:

  • Case 1: Scott Stewart Singelwald is serving 97 months for his stint as the Stuffed Shirt Bandit (because of his habit, when robbing banks in a dark hat and “a loud Hawaiian shirt,” of stuffing cash into said shirt, which must have been a) tucked in and b) unusually capacious to hold, even in increments, the $11,375 he stole). He celebrated his seventh robbery at Thunder Valley Casino and was arrested after an employee recognized him. The employee received a $500 reward. Singelwald was caught at a Roseville hotel, to which police tracked him via casino surveillance.

“It’s unclear,” writes Anthony Scorci in The Sacramento Bee (a verbal taxidermist capable of stuffing heist, stick up, bank robber and loot into a 305-word article) “whether Singelwald gambled with his ill-gotten gains.”

Note the hunger with which Scorci wonders whether the particular bills Singelwald gambled with came from one of the seven banks he’d robbed or (a possibility too mundane to mention) his own funds.

The writer in Scorci wants so badly for the ill-gotten gains to have been gambled with. I put that passively because there are two stars in this story: Singelwald and the thrilling fact of cold hard cash. It’s just too good a story—actual bills. Stuffed into an actual shirt. The story thrills because it belongs to another time, a time when individual bills still basked in the borrowed coin-based glow of doubloons and buried treasure. Even that last question, exactly what money did he use? ignores the realities of electronic banking and hearkens back to a time when real cash made its way into mattresses and jars and got handled at tables and in the world, and when the link between the coin in your purse and the weight of your luck was sensory and grimy and immediate.

(This is why the Stuffed-Shirt Bandit appealed, I think, and why Scorci blew his load of bank-related cliches: it wasn’t going to come again. Parts of the story were just a little too good.)

This is what Casinos In General do, right? They sell the too-good story.  They suggest that something mass-produced, built on the statistical certainty that the Customer Will Lose, will reveal a latticework of energies, glowing stations of not luck but Your Luck which doesn’t depend on a slot machine’s tightness that night or on how many times the Spin button’s been hit but on how you, the Chosen One, navigate the rows. Casinos are spaces that let you assign mystical properties to that quarter (when quarters were still allowed), to this roll of the dice. Your success or failure at a casino is a test of ESP, of your relation to your own good fortune. It measures the extent to which you and Fate are BFFs.

BUT: for a place hawking the dream that You Are Blessed while promising an Exciting Den of Iniquity Where Things Happen, where you might run into the Stuffed Shirt Bandit, Thunder Valley Casino, my case study for the sort of place I mean, is singularly joyless.

Some facts:

  • It opened in 2003. It’s close to Lincoln, plopped down in the middle of a vast and maze-like parking lot.

  • As of this writing it has no hotel. One is in the works, but the original plans for twenty-three stories and 640 rooms have dwindled to a more prudent, if less impressive, 15 stories and 400 rooms. They will open next summer.

  • Thunder Valley’s owner, the United Auburn Indian Community, is the fourth-largest employer in Placer County.

  • The Community consists of Miwok and Maidu Indians, both of whom are the original inhabitants of California.

  • It is run, however, by Station Casinos Inc. of Las Vegas, which filed Chapter 11 on July 28, 2009. Doug Elmets, a spokesman for Thunder Valley and the Community, insisted the Lincoln-area casino won’t be affected by the bankruptcy.

  • The slots have by all accounts gotten tighter.

  • They have fired 100 employees.

  • “[Station Casinos’] financial situation has no bearing at all on the success of Thunder Valley,” Doug Elmets said.

  • An assurance that makes the former assurance that they will open the hotel this summer seem just, well, bleak.

The inside does not want your attention. Unlike the Venetian or the Luxor, this kind of casino seems designed to stop you from figuring out where you are or even thinking about it. There’s a central bar with mechanical waterfalls shielding the interior (which, by the way, looks exactly the same from every side) from view. Barring the stage—an architectural paradox that manages to fade into the background even when in use—the place is so symmetrical that the only way to tell anybody where you are is to mention the nearest restaurant.

This might be alright if the place were vibrant, noisy with the sound of ruffling cards and rattling chips and the hearty esprit de corps that builds around a craps table. But the bleakest feature of Thunder Valley is that nearly everything in it is electronic. The roulette. The poker.

Take the slots, which have never made sense but which make even less now that there are no grimy quarters to run your hands through or levers to yank, no clicks of reels or clangs of victory or loot to carry in little plastic buckets and lock and load into the next machine. All that’s left is a bossy SPIN button and a business-like receipt.

These paper-slip-printing rows of machinery show how good-naturedly we’ve adapted to trends in banking and customer service. These slots, with their glowing screens and their totally computerized “reels” offer an idea of Fate that’s less Lady Luck than ATM crossed with an estimated hold-time.

Because there is (and we know this) a depressing Ur-List. Any given machine—and this is preprogrammed, a done deal before we hit the first Spin—could announce, at boring and joy-sucking intervals, “Twenty-six dollars until your next jackpot.” And thank us for our patience, and ask us to please stay on the line.

  • Case 2: Claudiu Hotea re-encoded a Starbucks gift card and using it as an ATM to make cash withdrawals. He’s serving 3 1/2 years.

Now, I’m not totally against electronic gaming. When I’m on hold for the next agent who will be with me shortly, when I hear that my call will be monitored for quality control purposes*, I unruffle my feathers by playing FreeCell, in my view the finest of PC preinstalled card games. It’s the best game because of its object, which is to reduce a totally random arrangement of all 52 cards to the rank and file of suit and number. It satisfies because winning is possible. If you lose, it’s your fault. Plus, it keeps rigorous statistics about how many times you’ve won and lost, and what your longest winning streak has been. No matter how many times you mess up on FreeCell #1941, the game measures skill just like Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing or a math test. It taunts you when you fail. FreeCell is mathematically winnable, and that is geekily seductive.

Now that I’ve said that it feels wrong. It’s not actually the math that makes it fun; it’s the cards. Maybe it’s this: cards, like the rollicking physics of a roulette ball or dice, are the ultimate casino lure and adult toy because they offer that fatal combo of texture, math and luck.

  • Case 3: Christie Wilson was twenty-seven when she disappeared in 2005. Mario Flavio Garcia is serving 59 to life because hair follicles and blood matching her DNA were found in his car. There’s footage of Wilson and Garcia gambling together at Thunder Valley Casino on the October night when she died. There they are at the blackjack table. There they are walking to the parking lot at 1:13 a.m. And that’s the last of her anyone ever saw. In headlines she’s called his Casino Companion.

Thunder Valley is, as I’ve mentioned, an Indian casino. Before I started this post thinking about casinos I’d been thinking about vice, and had wondered, after visiting Thunder Valley, why vices and Indians keep ending up next-door neighbors in the American Dreamscape. (Remember the “Native Spirit” game I posted earlier?)

Vice has a robust history that in no way reflects the Protestant archaism of the word today. There was a time when vice was so powerful a shorthand for society’s ills that it was personified. It had a speaking part. Many a morality play would be lost without Vice, the villain. In 1602 William Watson wrote of the sinner: “He stands at their deuotion, and is but like an Ape, a Parrot, or a Vice in a play, to prate what is prompted or suggested vnto him.”)

At various times vice has meant moral degradation. It has meant corruption. It has meant evil, immoral or wicked habits. That’s the OED, where vice is also defined as

  • a spiral staircase
  • a face
  • counsel or advice
  • a design or figure
  • stead or place
  • the person standing in the other’s stead or place.

In Spanish vicio means “habit” as in cigarettes or porn; to be enviciado is to be addicted. King Lear says the gods are just, “and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us.”

It seems to me, though, that vice, as it applies to Indian casinos, is as much about the problem of substitutability as it is about Sin. And this holds Indian casinos apart from Vegas casinos which spend gladly and hugely to individuate themselves and offer a specific gimmick. Vice—as in vice-President, as in vice-roy, is more than a prefix at Thunder Valley and its corporate cousins. These casinos are basically identical. They have rows of identical machines and symmetrical floor plans that are totally indistinguishable. But you’re encouraged to regard each machine, each table, each seat in Texas Hold ‘Em, as mythically unsubstitutable. At every level of interchangeable sameness—Red Hawk Casino, Thunder Valley Casino, Cache Creek Casino and Resort—you’re invited to see difference and to exert your power of choice.

Like the phrase “Indian Casino,” which suggests that the kind of Indian is unimportant (as indeed it is—until it went under, Station Casino managed all the casinos I’ve visited regardless of tribe), and that what really matters is the “Indianness” generally, the promise is a strip-mallish experience that barely tries to conceal its cynicism. “Native Spirit” half-heartedly promises you your own lucky spirit animal but that’s the only concession Thunder Valley makes. There are no tepees. There are no tomahawks.

It’s fascinating. These casinos are waterproof against almost every kind of Native American stereotype. They won’t be dictated to. They will mercilessly occupy the totally substituable category of CASINO and let you supply your own mythology. And there’s something about that that lets a kidnapped and murdered woman become a “Casino Companion.”

Were I to choose my favorite California Indian casino I’d choose Cache Creek, which looms like an enormous magnet over the surrounding farmland and feels slightly less chainlike, although the entrance is guarded by what Wikipedia informs me are “Indian tiki-heads.” Owned by the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians, Cache Creek Casino Resort “is a symbol of the commitment by the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians to be good stewards of the land, an engine for economic growth, and a destination for visitors seeking a balance of excitement and relaxation in the beautiful Capay Valley.”  Plus! Say its name, and you conjure up a creek of Cash.

Fondly,

M

*(also the name of a NASCAR speedway and a Gary Paulsen novel)

**In typing that little apothegm my reciting-muscles got hijacked by the blood that will be shed for you and for all, so that sins may be forgiven.

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