Expected reading time: 10 minutes
“Lord, I’m sick of this!” I ranted while driving. “I just want to see anybody win for a change!”
It was early on a Saturday morning and I was driving to work. I worked as a slot cashier in a local Indian casino: someone who carries large sums of money in a pouch for slot payouts. My main income was tips, and when nobody wins, you don’t make much in tips.
Over the last few weeks, the guests were not winning. And the rent was coming due.
A casino is everything you’ve seen in the movies and on television. The first year of your employment is all the glitz you would expect: huge jackpots, fast money, big tips, high-profile celebrities, beautiful women and decadent lifestyles. When they win big, you win big. When they get excited, you get excited. You can’t help it, as you get lost in the moment.
It all wears off after that first year. You discover the most demanding aspect of the job is not physical (standing on your feet all day is tough, but it’s not like busting up concrete), nor is it intellectual (dealing cards or handing out cash only threatens to put you to sleep), but emotional. The unabashed greed. The obsession with money. The tales of heartache and misery as yet another patron hits rock bottom. The destruction of friendships among co-workers arguing over who gets to serve the “whale” (a wealthy guest). The divorce rate among casino employees, along with the strain on your own marriage as your eyes begin to wander towards that cute cocktail-waitress. Those who die from a sedentary lifestyle of gambling while gobbling scores of rich, grease-laden food, smoking as if they were on fire and drinking like they were trying to put it out.
The list goes on. The average tenure of a casino employee is a scant two years. I was coming up on my fourth year.
After parking in my usual space, I trudged towards the employee entrance with a heavy sigh. With each passing day, my steps became a little bit slower and my head would droop a little bit lower. My opening routine had become robotic. Open the door to the employee entrance, swipe my badge, say “hi” to everyone as I saunter down the tunnel, go up the escalator to the vault, grab my money, open the door to the casino floor (BLING-BLING-BLING!), and start my carnival barking…
…while I start to hand out money.
I know what you may be thinking: how does a Christian end up in a place of vice and sin? Answer: when that Christian is a member of the working poor and is still growing in their understanding. I was providing for my family like my Christian elders told me, even though the opportunities were fading, even back then. When you are a member of the working poor, you take what you can get, even though I was beginning to contemplate seeing a therapist.
So it was that I observed my first jackpot of the day. Jackpots are a big deal to a casino employee. It’s what you live for; big jackpots equal big tips, making up for all the losers not tipping you on any given day. Your hope is that the patron will reward you for all of your excellent service throughout their losses. Experienced gamblers know this.
But if you get a rookie…well, let’s just say that I’ve been stiffed on wins of over a quarter-million dollars, and leave it at that. It’s deflating, to say the least.
She was a middle-aged and slightly plump African-American lady, with a weathered face hinting at a life of struggle and hardship. Long black hair hung in strings under her quaint fedora, a portrait darker than many African-Americans I had met. With a well-practiced carefree attitude, I strolled over to the sights and sounds of flashing lights and music. As I strolled over, I saw her clap her hands over her mouth in shock. My heart sank. She was a rookie.
“There you go!” I exclaimed, my voice portraying an excitement I had lost some two years earlier. “Congratulations!”
She turned to me, eyes still wide with astonishment as she grabbed my forearm to brace herself. “Whoa, easy now!” I exclaimed, allowing my knees to buckle slightly, as if the weight of her hand caught me by surprise. I looked her dead in the eyes while feigning a serious look. “Breathe. Breathe! Don’t let the money kill you honey!” The casino, after all, is a stage, and the employees are paid actors.
The casino’s lady-of-the-hour furiously fanned herself with her hand as if she was going to faint. She then launched into a speech I heard many times before.
“Oh, you don’t know how much I needed this!” she exclaimed, with an accent indicating she was from the South. “I didn’t have very much when I came in…”
(“Uh-huh,” I thought)
“…And my daughter needed a car…”
(Blah, blah, blah.)
“…And she didn’t have enough money for school…”
(Probably because you gambled her college tuition.)
“…And I didn’t know what to do, so I came here and…and…”
“You won!” I finished for her, trying my best to keep the excitement in my face.
Yes, I was callous. You would be too if you saw the same show hundreds of times, all before the winnings were given back to the house. It’s not that I didn’t love others. I showed it every day in the way I would serve anybody and everybody, regardless of the size of their wallet. I showed it the support I gave to my coworkers, providing an attentive ear and counsel to others who were often single mothers trying to raise their children.
What I didn’t do (even though I desperately wished I could sometimes) was to grab someone by the front of their shirt and scream “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE!?! YOU DON’T BELONG HERE! GO HOME!!”
Because the truth is that many of those who gamble can’t afford to gamble, let alone whether they should. People like Annie Southern Bell in front of me. If I tried to speak sense into everyone who needed it (including Annie in front of me), not only would I be resented, but the casino would be empty, and I would be out of a job. The casino is a stage, and I was paid to be an actor on that stage. Speaking sense would be out of character.
So, I continued my rehearsed role.
“Now, hold on a second ma’am,” as I carefully pried her grip off of my forearm, “yes, steady now…that’s good. I need to go get the manager so that we can get the paperwork started and…”
“THANK YOU JESUS!”
“…I can p-pay you the money we, uh, owe you,” I stammered. I was a little taken aback. Almost nobody evoked the name of the Lord in a place like this.
“Thank you Jesus; my sweet Jesus!” she gushed again, as she folded her hands and took the position of someone praying. While she continued to praise the Lord silently, I motioned to the necessary entourage for completing the performance, still stunned by what she had just said. After the paperwork and legalities were settled, I paid her out. I got a five-dollar tip in return; not great, considering the winnings, but better than nothing at all.
Well, that’s that, I thought, as I continued my rounds. Even if the Lord had just blessed her (and I was doubtful, in spite of her praise), she wasn’t listening anymore, stuffing the same winnings back into the machine. The odds of the same machine hitting a jackpot again so soon were one-in-ridiculous. I started thinking about lunch…maybe I would get a quesadilla…
“THANK YOU JESUS!”
You gotta be kidding me, I thought, as I turned around. Sure enough, Ms. Bell had struck gold again. As the music competed with her praise of the Lord, I started to feel uneasy. I had witnessed the Lord working, even in this darkened pit of human suffering, but this was a little bit freakish. The Lord may work through people, but not through machines, right?
After paying her a second time, I watched as she again went back to the same machine. This would definitely be the last time; no way lightning was going to strike three times on the same machine. I went to lunch.
What greeted me when I returned was beyond belief. Not only had Ms. Bell hit another jackpot on the same machine but, while waiting for assistance from my replacement, she moved over one seat, popped in a twenty, and hit a jackpot on that machine as well. Two machines were now playing music, while Ms. Bell danced in front of them, hands reaching to heaven and praising the Lord like she was at a revival. Something was amiss.
“This sucks,” my replacement said with a moan. “Nobody’s hitting except for that lady, and she only gives five bucks when she wins!”
I nodded absentmindedly as I watched Ms. Bell. Sure enough, the looks on the faces of the patrons surrounding her confirmed the tale. If you were a guest on that Saturday morning, you could have just as easily thrown your money onto the side of the highway along the way to the casino and obtained the same result.
But if you were Ms. Bell, you were experiencing a miracle.
Thirty minutes later, lightning struck again, this time three seats from where she started, on a machine which had been sucking down money like a fat kid eating cake. I got curious.
“So, you’re going to use this money to help your daughter?” I asked, as I approached her to pay out yet another jackpot.
She turned and, with eyes glistening, told me a small story. She had spent her whole life working menial jobs, mostly in housekeeping. Her whole world was her one and only daughter, a child whose father had left when she was but a baby. Her daughter was a straight-A student, winning numerous awards for her scholastic achievements. Mom toiled endless days and nights so that, someday, her daughter could go to college.
That same year, her daughter was accepted to a prestigious university. A week before she was supposed to leave for school, the car her mother bought for her broke down beyond repair. At best, this meant walking back and forth to a public bus stop in the dangerous neighborhood surrounding the university. At worst, it meant delaying her enrollment.
Fearing the worst for her little girl, and with only a hundred bucks to her name, she came to the casino. “I know that I shouldn’t be here,” she started to sob. “But I didn’t know what else to do! I don’t have any savings left because I gave it all for her. I begged the Lord for a miracle and I came here.”
Now, I could think of a few things she might have done instead. I could have easily dismissed her story as missing a key ingredient, such as an alcohol or drug problem to explain the lack of money. I could have questioned her lack of wisdom. There were any number of judgments I could have made. Yet, the look in her eyes told me otherwise.
It was then that I remembered that, foolish as her choice may have been, foolishness is forgiven in the Lord’s kingdom. Who of us can say that we haven’t been foolish at some point in our lives? It was her faith that was saving her, even though it may have been foolishly applied.
I also remembered the short conversation I had in my car before I arrived at work that day. “You did say ‘anyone,’ didn’t you?”
Ms. Bell hit a total of twelve jackpots that afternoon, all while praising Jesus, even if her praise was uncomfortable to the other patrons. All told, she left the casino with twenty thousand dollars of house money, enough for a new car. With each jackpot, I got my usual five-dollar tip. It wasn’t rent money, but the event did renew my faith a little.
I never saw her again.
The very next day, that little random number generator went to work for me as well, through a “whale” I knew. By the end of the workweek, I had enough money to pay the rent.
Where do we find God? It’s always in connection with the unexpected visits.