Saturday, July 04, 2009

How I Spent My Canada Day (in the United States)

All photographs by Allan MacInnis; thanks to Theodore Stinks for selling me his camera

The fourth of July finds me a bit of a wreck: broke again - my last $60 goin' to a Motorhead ticket - and feelin' fat and decidedly unhealthy, with a sink full of mouldering dishes and fruitflies that I am delaying getting around to dealin' with. Maybe it's just that I need a cup of green tea, a decent breakfast (concomitant on cleaning the kitchen, alas) and a bath, but at the moment it feels like if my soul were my stomach, it would puke...

Part of it is that I'm packin' in too much stuff, I think. When not at work, I'm back to writing for The Skinny, and spending my evenings on concerts (Glaciers Wednesday, Fond Of Tigers with Mats on Thursday, Victor Krummenacher and Cracker on Friday; today, at 5, it's The Unsupervised - a Jeff Younger project - at the jazzfest, and tomorrow Dave Chokroun of that band and photographer/ artist Femke Van Delft have their "Dolly Project" opening at 1067 - plus I've gotta finish transcribing that Nardwuar thing, briefly visible here, for this 'zine I said I'd give it to). Meantime, midweek, for the Canada day holiday, I took the West Coast Express out to Maple Ridge to visit my parents, packing in an evening of Scrabble and cribbage before another Wednesday casino trip... a somewhat more difficult one than usual, since the bus that normally comes to the seniors' building my father is caretaker of couldn't confirm enough attendees and departed from Langley.

This meant leaving at 8:00 AM in a car driven by one of my parents' friends, a woman in the building who, while sharp in other ways, has a way of filling me with uncertainty about her driving (ever see the "Grey Dawn" episode of South Park?). The first time I rode with her, to meet a different bus, she nearly turned into an oncoming car, saying "Ooo, where'd he come from" when my mother shouted and the other car honked. I had this horrible thought that these words would be the last I would hear. On Wednesday, too, she pointed out at an intersection that when an arrow for turning cars is lit up on a street signal, while the main light is red, you can't drive straight through; she said this with a kind of "did you realize" wonder that suggested she had, maybe, attempted to do exactly this once, to discover it problematic. We actually only had one mishap with her on this day - her bumping a curb as she made a turn - but I was crotchety about getting into the car with her at all, just like I'm crotchety about the idea of going across the border into the 'States with my father, who has no insurance coverage there (and is, as I've said, on chemotherapy, which sometimes has unpredictable side-effects). The fact that my folks could as easily get on the West Coast Express and visit me in Vancouver, for trips to the easily-accessed Edgewater casino, with no risk of medical disaster (or possibility of dying in a car crash en route to the bus pick-up point) makes me resistant to their way of doing things, while sheer stubbornness, I guess, makes them resistant to mine; though both complain frequently about the casino we do go to - the service, the food, the payouts - it's what they're habituated to, and that alone makes it very difficult to convince them to try other things. Occasionally my frustrations here flare up into fights, but since they show no sign of conceding to me, I tend to end up sighing and doing things their way.

(My father likes to walk quickly, and when we're out and about, he often zooms ahead of my mother and I; even though he's sick, I still had to spend part of Wednesday catching up with him as we boarded the ferry).

All the same, it was a pleasant day. Since our driver wasn't sure how to get on the newly created Golden Ears bridge, we took the Albion Ferry, which I have not been on for years; that this free service is scheduled to stop running in July - to be replaced with the not-free bridge, which will be the first in the area to charge a toll - is provoking the wrath of some community members, and "Save Albion Ferry!" placards were posted here and there on the route. Driving up the ramp on the other side into Langley, I remembered exploring the forested areas at the banks of the Fraser River as a child while our car - because we did have a car, years ago - was parked, waiting to go back across. I remember, as a child, seeing and briefly chasing my first wild rabbit through the long grass, while my father looked on. It was usually trips to Cloverdale racetrack, back then, that saw us crossing the river. (My father has always loved horse races; my mother was more a bingo person until recently, when slot machines became her fancy). It's been a long time since we went into Langley together.

(My mother doesn't like her picture taken, so I got up right-close and made her laugh. I love this shot, and I love the way my mother laughs; we can nearly make her pee over Scrabble sometimes).

The shopping mall parking lot where we waited for the bus was certainly off my beaten path. I had a coffee in the IGA Marketplace while my father and our driver figured out whether they could leave the car in the parking lot without fear of being ticketed or towed. It seemed like everyone in the mall lot that morning, either waiting for the bus or to get into the IGA, was a senior citizen, and more than a few were riding those motorized carts which help people who have trouble walking to get around. (I fear that my mother will end up on one of those, since her legs aren't so good; her bypass surgery, some years ago, saw the doctors removing veins or arteries from her legs and attaching them to her heart, so now her legs have poor circulation and tend to swell up. Needless to say, this doesn't do much to encourage her to exercise, so her legs and back both aren't doing so well, and her weight is increasing; it seems like western medicine often only knows how to solve one problem by creating another). One sign by the mall puzzled me, and I had to photograph it to show my parents, since I'd never seen the like before:

Then the bus arrived, while I was attempting to crap in the IGA washroom (my second interrupted crap that morning). My mother and father both have MP3 players that I've loaded up with oldies for them - mostly Elvis and Johnny Cash for my Dad, and Roger Whittaker for my Mom. I brought my own, as well. The ride took over an hour - bizarrely, longer than the usual route over the Mission Bridge that the Maple Ridge bus takes. We all listened to tunes - my own player mostly doing old-timey and blues, which I can sometimes get my folks into, as well (good "compromise music" as background for Scrabble games; Mississippi John Hurt tends to work for them, while Blind Willie Johnson and Charley Patton don't). My father has said time and again that the MP3 player was the best gift I've ever given him; he tends to get excitable and dance about in his seat - his knees bobbing, at least - when songs he likes come on, and he takes it with him to his chemotherapy every week.

We finally arrived at Nooksack River Casino, on a reservation in Washington State. Because it's on Indian land, smoking is permitted and ubiquitous in the casino; there's a small non-smoking area in back, with mediocre machines, but for any of the games I like to play, there's a better-than-average chance that I'll be inhaling the fumes of the person next to me. (No one even asks, "Do you mind if I smoke?" since the answer would almost always be, "Actually, yes I do!" I suspect the smokers get a rush at being in an environment where they can nurture their vice unimpeded). The casino is situated in the midst of a large parking lot by a road; there's also a gas station and a convenience store. Surrounding it is forest and reservation homes, which are hardly inviting; things have been laid out to encourage visitors to stay in the casino. Tricky, that: it means that if you're losing money, and the bus doesn't leave for six hours, you're in a bit of a bind. I've brought books and attempted to sit out gambling by reading, but the environment isn't condusive. Besides, I actually enjoy trying to win money on slot machines - I find them scarily compelling.

(My mother and I at separate American Original machines - her favourite game, since it has relatively frequent Bonus Rounds).

Slot machines are, in fact, pernicious, dangerous things for anyone who tends to addictive or compulsive behaviour. The video displays on them, which have evolved a lot since the days of the classic three-reeled one-armed bandit, are often complex and creative and filled with clever and appealing animations and complex winning patterns that are designed to keep you curious and keep you playing. One machine I like, Neptune's Kingdom, has winking mermaids, spinning gold coins, glittering treasure chests, swimming dolphins, and an "expanding Neptune" that rises up when he appears as part of a winning pattern, giving you extra points and declaiming things like "the undersea powers of Neptune grant you wealth and fortune!" Bonus rounds on video slots - which usually occur if you get the right combination of three images on the reels - have exciting sound effects, sometimes hilarious cartoons (like the "Cow Races" of Milk Money), and highly interactive challenges (like the Jackpot Party bonus round, where you pick presents with different cash amounts behind them, while accompanied by Village People songs, until you encounter a "party pooper" behind one gift; or the "Abduction Bonus" of Little Green Men, where you pick someone off a bench to get beamed aboard a flying saucer). Bonus rounds, too, often can result in huge payouts, especially on machines, like Neptune's Kingdom or Double Dolphins, that allow bonus rounds within bonus rounds. You can get, on some machines, as many as 100 free spins with a bonus round, often at elevated payouts, so that for an initial bet of $5 or $6, the payout on a bonus round can top $1000 - unusual, but possible, since I've had it happen to me. The higher your bet, when the bonus comes around, the more you stand to win, of course; and I've read that slot machines are programmed to give an even higher rate of pay for high bets, because casinos want people to bet more money.
Therein lies the catch: the only way to WIN more money is to risk LOSING more money. Encouraged by a few big wins early in my casino experiences, when compulsive behaviour had yet to set in, I will often tend to raise my bet, thinking a bonus round has got to be coming soon; if it doesn't, the losses tend to mount up fast. I've gone though $1000 on a single trip to the casino, and I've given back winnings of even more than that; an odd, compelling stubbornness comes in, as you will the wheels to settle on the right combinations, insisting that the next spin could make it all better. If you're wrong, there's always next time. The more of your money you give away, the more desperate you can get to win it back. Too damn bad for you if you run out of money before the hoped-for big payout arrives...

Not only do *I* stand to lose a lot of money at the casino, my conviction that big bets are the way to go has meant that I've influenced my mother to raise her bets, too. (I hate seeing someone get to a bonus round when they're playing only a 25 cent bet; what could mean hundreds of dollars in winnings thus means maybe $10 or $20 - a waste of time!). I sometimes sit beside her, when I've run out of cash, cheerleading and encouraging her, when I feel like a bonus is coming up, to raise her bet; in fact, this tends to work better than when I'm the one playing (tho' she finds me a bit of a pain in the ass: "Would you leave me alone with all your 'raise your bets!'") . Occasionally on Wednesday, we'd all three of us end up defeated, taking time out from our losing by sitting at the keno table, where my father spends most of his time anyhow, drinking beer and watching the keno results pop up on screen; it's sort of a slow-motion lottery or bingo game, and since there are long pauses between draws, it's deadly dull, but he's made a couple of wins of more than $1500 at the game, to everyone's surprise, and he seems to enjoy it more than the slots. I've yet to make it big on keno, myself - and have been assured in gambling books that keno is an utter waste of time, my father's experiences notwithstanding. I bet $20 on one keno ticket on Wednesday, using numbers off a fortune cookie that instructed me to "indulge [my] ambitious nature," but it only paid off $8.

At the end of the day, I had lost the few hundred dollars my parents had given me to play with, and a couple hundred of my own. I'd had a couple of decent wins, but lost them back hoping for more. My mother, too, was down a few hundred dollars. I'd had a few beers with my Dad, and had been ready to go home for a couple of hours, lest I find a way to lose even more money. Eventually the bus came, and we loaded on, coming back to Maple Ridge via Langley - an uneventful, sleepy trip, the initial excitement of the day (at the chance of winning big) having been replaced by an awareness of yet another dull defeat. I snoozed as we crossed the border, headphones on, cruising back to the drop-off point in Langley. There are so many things we could have done that Wednesday, so many other ways to spend a day... but I must try not to think that way. This is what my parents enjoy, this is how they want to spend their time; I'll continue to join them when I can, while the money's there and my father's health holds out...

Back in Maple Ridge, we had time to watch a few minutes of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee on a video that I'd picked up for them - one of Stefan Grossman's cool Vestapol DVDs - then they had to go upstairs to call bingo for the seniors in the building. I got on a bus and came back to Vancouver to catch a gig at the Vinegar Factory, thinking about all the records I could have bought with the money I'd lost that day. Quite a few good ones...

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