Double Or Nothing On The Mississippi Delta
Samantha Jonscher went to a casino in the middle of nowhere with her grandparents.
My American South exists between the backseat of my grandparents’ 1992 Lexus and the horizon I can see through its back window. It is a lot of cotton fields, nature strips, gas stations and sun-faded barns. When I visit them in Tennessee, they worry that I’ll get bored (and not return), so we drive to things that might be called attractions in a travel guide so dishonest that it ends up revealing the American truth. I’ve been to Elvis Presley’s house three times and eaten at a number of train-cars-cum-buffets.
On my last visit, in Tennessee’s wet, July heat, we crossed state lines on Highway 61 and drove to Tunica, a casino precinct on the Mississippi Delta.
The Delta is flat and green, but as you approach Tunica strange dark shapes rise out of the crops. These are the casinos: highways connect them; gas stations and the occasional forlorn motel punctuate the drive between them.
My Grandparents’ strange shape of choice is Gold Strike Casino–a slab of discarded bullion that disrupts the tree line from ten kilometres out. On approach, its glittering name and thirty-one storeys of gold windows come into focus. It was the tallest building in Mississippi when it was opened in 2002.
This excursion was billed as the highlight of my visit: my grandparents, Pat and Gary, love gambling and at age 22, I was finally old enough to follow suit. There was also eager talk of an all you can eat seafood buffet. For a week, Gary’s stray comments had been dominated by talk of crab legs and advice to me as a first time gambler: “you will only get back as much as you put in”.
On the way, I ask about their attachment to Tunica. The story starts in the mid nineties when my grandfather was working in Chicago, as a salesman for a book printing company. His company had a factory nearby and some people from the plant invited him to join them one Friday after work. “We were driving through cotton fields, driving, driving, driving, then all of a sudden–and it was almost dark now–there they were, giant. I couldn’t believe it, out of nowhere coming out of the cotton fields like I don’t know what. I came back and told Pat, you wouldn’t believe this, all those lights—it’s just like Vegas, it was sominelse nice”. He stayed for three hours and struck a $6000 jackpot. My grandfather has always been a lucky man.
Pat and Gary’s relationship with Tunica started not long after the casino precinct came into existence. Those old enough to work in the strange shapes would remember a very different Tunica; until the early 1990s, the county was America’s showroom for black, rural poverty—Jesse Jackson called it “America’s Ethiopia”. It was also famous for an exposed sewer–Google Image search “Sugar Ditch Alley” and you will see rows of two room wooden shacks, with no electricity or plumbing, teetering on the edge of a grotesque water feature. A hefty portion of Tunica’s 76% black population lived there.
In 1991, however, after several years of bad press, Sugar Ditch was cleaned up by the federal government, purified and lined with concrete–these shacks were razed and their residents moved into new apartments, with plumbing. On these foundations Tunica’s delta was reborn as a Casino hotspot (and Sugar Ditch Alley a mid-market sub-division). Today there are nine casinos in the precinct.
My grandparents visit often and have struck up a loyalty with Gold Strike. They like their rewards program: the more you gamble the more you get. Today Gary alone has about $1000 in comp points; some of these would later buy our all-we-could-eat seafood buffet dinner.
Pulling into the parking complex, we pass cars from all over the country and people not so different from my grandparents pulling wheelie overnight bags. We park in a VIP section––apparently my grandfather qualifies.
An elevator ride later and we are in the lobby. Gary steps out, lights a cigarette (a novelty privilege) and the smoke follows him as he quickens his pace towards the machines I can see across the lobby. The lobby feels nicer than I want it to: high, vaulted ceilings, pressed tin detail, warm lights and chandeliers; a hush that gives glamour to the trill of suitcase wheels across granite floors; porters in matching suits, red carpets, red bollards. It was made of real money. The lobby’s granite gives way to the stain-concealing carpet of The Floor: flashing lights, stools, free drinks and people with bad posture and wide eyes. My grandfather, cigarette in his mouth, rubs his hands together, excited, and extends an index finger across the horizon of machines to point out a bank of his favourite slots.
Now, to gamble in an American casino you must be over the age of 21 and carrying accepted ID. This includes military ID, American state driver’s licences, pensioner’s cards, American passports and foreign passports. I was 22 and had none of these in my immediate possession. The man between me and The Floor said “NEW SOUTH WALES AUSTRALIA” into his sleeve mic a number of times, however, this repetition did not add validity to my case and I was resolutely not allowed in.
I waited in the lobby while Gary went to find a manager. He returned twenty minutes later, deflated. In the car later, he would tell me “I tell you what Sam, I am pissed” (my grandfather never swears). He had spoken to several layers of supervisors, in a quest to break state law and get his granddaughter in front of a slot, and ended up, unbelievably, receiving a very sympathetic apology (I blushed through this, Gary’s earnest misunderstanding was jarring). But then I also wasn’t surprised. He has a way about him, you see, a charm, a warmth—maybe it is his Southern diction. Either way, the supervisor seemed to have become personally invested in my grandfather’s tragedy.
As a family we often joke that Gary has a magic with the machines. But maybe he has a magic with life too. At age 19, following the birth of my mother, Gary dropped out of college and moved with Pat to Chicago to find work–“my parents were dirt poor and school was a hardship, even on a full scholarship”, Gary had said once. He quickly found a job, operating a forklift for $75 a week at a warehouse near where they lived, in Damon–now a very trendy Chicago neighbourhood; at the time, decidedly not. When he retired, 40 years later, he was vice president of sales. His story is earnest and serendipitous. “Once they realised that I could read, write and remember things pretty well, I got a job in the office. Then after a time I was in sales, and then higher in sales, then an accounts man, then… ”.
The magic didn’t help him this time, but I was offered free soft drink refills while I sat in the lobby–I had brought a book. I watched the traffic of the revolving doors, watched people stand in line at the counter to check in, watched porters load bags onto gold trolleys and disappear into elevators, saw tips exchange hands and killed errant mosquitoes that survived the casino’s harsh climate control.
The patrons were what I expected–old and dressed smart for the occasion (clean, pressed pants, polo shirts); fat and with their guts tucked into low slung pants; canes, wheel chairs and aids (for weight or ageing bodies), there was a Chinese bus tour group and a bachelor party from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Black men and women, in uniforms and directing foot traffic, served them. Pat would tell me later that The South is much less racist than The North.1
After an hour or so my grandparents returned. Pat had spent $120, but was holding $250. Gary was up $100. He was disappointed; he said it was better than being in the hole “but it isn’t a whole lot to write home about”. If he was down, he wanted to be down after putting a lot on the table. If he was up, he said, he would hope to be up a lot more than he was.
Gary’s spirits quickly rallied–dinnertime was approaching. I may not be able to gamble but the buffet would not disappoint.
The buffet was across the floor and I received a security escort. We passed winners, losers, drinkers, smokers and waitresses. The servers were in uniform: black tights, short black skirt, a black corset, heels–the garb of fantasy. But here the casino lost its illusion: no investment could help the women–north of thirty, out of shape, overweight–look comfortable. I watched one server exchange a beer for a $20 tip. I wondered if she had been wearing that outfit long enough to have inhabited the woman’s body it was designed for. Or, if she remembered the old Tunica.
Most of the people my grandparents went to school with–they had a high school reunion not that long ago–ended up staying near where they grew up. They mostly had jobs–job jobs–that pay bills. One actually worked at a Tunica casino. My grandparents were a different story. They had gone North, made it and come back to buy a brand new house in an upmarket subdivision, half an hour from where they grew up.
Exiting Gold Strike’s car park, we pass an overgrown and abandoned village of “luxury Chateaus”, an abandoned station wagon, and a burnt-out two storey complex.2
On the highway home and full of crab, Gary told me the story of his career. It ended in 1999–book publishing wasn’t what it used to be and he took a redundancy package. They replaced him with someone on a lower salary.
“But Sam, peanut butter is awfully good until you taste filet mignon. What I mean is, to start as poor as I did, and to end up where I did–it should be impossible, unthinkable. I fell into so many things.” 3
 Scrolling through the inmate roster at the Tunica Detention Center, all but one of the inmates are Black––the lone Caucasian is 76 years old and charged with “touching a child for lustful purposes”.
 When it first became a casino precinct, Tunica kept taxes low–the county ran on the ample casino revenue and assumed it would never dry up, so why save any? After the GFC, like all sectors dominated by middle class investment, the casinos were yielding a lot less, and raising taxes was not an option for politicians who wanted to be re-elected. The casinos still generate jobs, but the school system, public infrastructure and other things that would invest in Tunica’s long-term future, are all stagnant.
 My grandparents–along with everyone else–lost most of their savings in the GFC. Poppy wasn’t lucky enough to escape that one.