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One afternoon, 10 bucks, and 2,200 video gaming machines. How much gambling excitement can our rat pack of two find in Cherokee, N.C.?

By Coury Turczyn

AUGUST 24, 1998:  As you finally crest the top of the Smoky Mountains and begin your long, brake pad-burning descent toward Cherokee, N.C., you can't help but feel a sense of anticipation. After all, you're driving 20 m.p.h. behind a 30-year-old RV from Ontario with one wobbly tire, which means the 15 curving miles ahead will pass in about an hour. You try to distract your impatience with the resplendent mountain vistas passing outside your windshield, uncountable numbers of majestic pine trees swathed in wispy blankets of fog...the very natural wonders that tourists travel thousands of miles to witness. But all you can think of is, "GET THE HELL OUT OF MY WAY SO I CAN GAMBLE!"

In fact, that's probably the prevailing thought on the minds of most travelers on Highway 441 these days. Ever since the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation forged a contract with Harrah's Entertainment Inc. a few years ago, Cherokee has gone from being simply an Indian-themed tourist trap to being an Indian-themed tourist trap with a big, honkin' casino. Gambling there has become a siren call to retirees and blue-collar vacationers from across the Southeast, and Harrah's Cherokee Casino is their destination, a small crumb of Las Vegas dropped into the deep woods of North Carolina.

Some may feel that this is a moral tragedy, an imposition of the white man's decadence amid the cultural values of the American Indian community. And to be sure, Cherokee itself can be a depressingly kitschy parade of endless tourist shops named after tomahawks, medicine men, feathers, etc. (Who'd pick this place for a honeymoon spot? "C'mon, sweetheart—let's go see the subjugation of Indian culture for a quick buck!") But if tourists are willing to pay Indians for this stuff, and if the Indians are happy to take that money, then perhaps cultural values haven't been much of an issue here. And, if you look sideways at such attractions as the Unto These Hills outdoor drama at Mountainside Theater or the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, then maybe a few values do get retained and passed along.

But we weren't here to judge. We were here to waste large sums of money on a shallow, meaningless experience. And, by gum, we did just that.

My partner in non-crime was one Zak Weisfeld, The Writer You Love To Hate. Attired in a shimmery blue polyester shirt and a straw cowboy hat, he was the very image of youth gone horribly wrong. I myself had chosen a tasteful Hawaiian shirt (rayon). This, we thought, would immediately identify us as the kind of hip, swinging clientele a big casino hopes for. We've all heard the stories of comped dinners, no-cost suites, and special VIP rooms with no-limit tables. Casino managers know they've got to cater to the big dogs, the high rollers, if they want our business. And we were going to further that illusion as best we could.

As we fired up our Conoco-purchased cigars ($4.95 each!) outside the main entrance, we could tell already that our appearance was causing a stir among our fellow gamblers. As T-shirted families trod by in matching Nikes, their children pointing at us and giggling as we coughed smoke from the cheap stogies, we could only imagine what they were thinking as they eyed our super-cool threads—Dino, Frankie, Sammy... they would have been proud. Let the Rat Pack revival begin right now, right here in Cherokee, baby (only we had to ditch the cigars because, well, they were revolting).

Striding into the large, marble-floored foyer, we stopped and surveyed our new hunting grounds. Everywhere, as far as the eye could see, where the twinkling lights of slot machines being fed coins. Thousands of people milled among endless carpeted aisles of bleating, whistling, blooping video games, talking and laughing. And amid this din of monetary indulgence would often come the crystal-clear tink-tink-tink-tink! of pay-offs hitting thin metal pans. Circling this orgy of nickel-and-dime excess were overhead murals that vaguely recalled the great outdoors with modernist visions of birds flying over mountaintops. In the middle of the massive room, hovering over a circle of one-armed-bandits, was a small plaster mountain with a functioning waterfall. Truly, we were in a middle-class Babylon.

A number of guards stood at attention, facing the doors, hands behind their backs. They eyed us impassively, betraying no emotion, but we could tell they were alert to our presence as soon as we walked in. When you're a shark, there's no use trying to look like a minnow. We realized then that our every move would be watched, as the pit bosses waited for any kind of slip-up to nail us. Who knew what kind of ultra-sophisticated surveillance system was tracking us right now? But that was fine—let the dance begin. Bring on the booze! Bring out the silicon-injected servant girls in fishnet stockings! It's Vegas time!

Zak went up to the nearby information booth.

"Where can a guy get some martinis around here?"

The young woman behind the counter blinked once.

"I'm sorry, sir—no alcohol is allowed on the premises," she replied.

We paused for a moment, trying to absorb the shock. How in the hell could a casino make money with a crazy policy like that?

"Well, then, just direct us to the nearest craps table," I commanded, hoping this would salve our wounds.

"I'm sorry, sir—we don't have any craps tables, though we do have video craps."

Zak's lower lip began to tremble: "V-v-video craps?"

"Yes sir. All of our games are video. We don't have any dealers."

Dazed by the inhumanity of it all, we stumbled away, sick with fear. How could this be? How could such a thing have happened? Did the head office in Las Vegas know what was happening here? What could we do? Tapping reserves of inner strength we barely knew existed, we decided to forge ahead—and get some change for the slot machines. Arriving at the nearest change window, I opened my wallet and placed two new, crisp $20 bills onto the counter.

"How would you like that, sir?" the attendant asked.

"Oh, I'd like that in..." (I carefully watched for her reaction, smiling to myself) "...dollar tokens, if you don't mind."

I could tell she was impressed by the way she hesitated for a nanosecond before counting out the coins. Yes, she knew I was no ordinary slot machine gambler—nickels and quarters meant nothing to me. Nothing.

"Tell me, sweets—who do I talk to around here to get some comps?"

"Comps?" she asked, furrowing her brow. "What do you mean?"

"You know, freebies—food, rooms, hookers."

"Uh, well, you could try the beverage stand over there. And don't call me sweets ever again."

Change cups in hand, we made our way to the beverages and were soon treated to an array of soft drinks, free for the choosing. Oh yeah, they knew what was good for them—and making us happy was job #1. We each chose a can of Thunderbolt Cola, which promised to energize us with the power of caffeine and ginko bilboa—this was as close to cheap booze as we were going to get, and it tasted nearly as bad. Now it was time to empty some slot machines.

We slid our way into the nearest aisle, trying to find some open games. Most of them were occupied by senior citizens, each strangely tethered to their machine by a cord stretching from their collars, tautly pulling them close. What kind of odd device was this? Did the management not permit retirees to leave their machines until all their savings were spent? As we discovered, these cords were actually attached to special debit cards, which users tied to their button holes—but the cords pulled out their shirts, making it appear as if the machines were sucking the lifeforce from each individual straight from his or her heart.

Shaking off this troubling image, we proceeded to gamble at the Lock-n-Roll slots, which allow you to spin twice, picking which reels to hold. After losing $10 each doing that, we went over to the video poker machines. After losing $10 each doing that, we went over to the video craps. After losing $10 each doing that, we went over to the compellingly named "BJ Mania," a blackjack system that operated just like a real blackjack table, only with individual screens for each player plus a screen for the dealer. With its robot voice emotionlessly intoning "Make your bets now," it reminded me of that Lost in Space episode with the intergalactic gambling machine that caused Dr. Smith and his brother so much trouble. After losing $10 each doing that, we realized that nearly 15 minutes had already passed by since we had started—and now we were out of tokens. We thereby decided that perhaps we should bet in smaller amounts, if only to savor the act of losing money at a more moderate pace.

After losing $7 each at the quarter slots, we then made our way to the small oasis of the nickel slots, once scoffed upon but now our only hope for redemption with our last $3. Unfortunately, nobody was leaving a machine any time soon—we spent more time waiting for someone to quit than we did actually playing blackjack.

"This is like rent control," observed Zak. "We're going to have to wait until somebody dies before we get in."

Thus, we decided to quit while we were behind and enjoy some fine Vegas-style entertainment at "Greg Thompson's Dancin' in the Streets." Having been to a few genuine Las Vegas song-and-dance shows myself, I knew what to expect: statuesque showgirls wearing ridiculous headdresses, lots of rhinestones, and no tops. Unfortunately, as we were informed at the box office, there were no bare bosoms featured in the show. "It's a musical celebration that sings and dances its way from the stage right down to your soul," recited the ticket clerk. It's right about then that I suffered my nervous breakdown.

"Dear God, what's WRONG with you people?" I screamed. "Can't you see what's going on here? This isn't sleazy adult entertainment—this only has the appearance of sleazy adult entertainment! How in the heck am I supposed to feel temporarily decadent if I can't indulge my baser instincts in an environment where it's socially acceptable?! What's the point of wasting my money then?"

Zak pulled me away before security was called, whispering that everything was going to be okay. And it was, for he steered us into the only bit of bona fide decadence in the entire casino, the one place where we could feel good about being bad: The Range Steakhouse. Once seated within its comforting, faux-campsite scenery, we each ordered a huge slab of bleeding meat and pondered the lessons we had learned that day.

"Only a culture that sees so much worth in making money could dedicate so much to squandering it," Zak said soberly, staring hard into the artificial skyline as he thoughtfully scratched his goatee.

"Yeah, and there was no booze to make you forget it, either," I replied, and then we enjoyed our steaks.

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