Blogsam and Jetsam

Flotsam is the part of the wreckage of a ship or its cargo found floating on the water. Jetsam is cargo or parts of a ship that are deliberately thrown overboard, as to lighten the ship in an emergency, and that subsequently either sinks or is washed ashore. This is my personal blog version of the above. Loot freely.

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Location: The Hinterlands, Upstate NY

I'm annoyed that the world is going crazier faster than it used to be. But it's interesting to watch.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Sam's First Gambling (very long)

I signed up to go to a Blood Banking meeting last year. It was being held at the Turningstone Casino and Resort in Verona, NY. A casino would be an entirely new experience which was most of the appeal. The rest was location: even at no more than six miles over the speed limit, it was exacty an hour from my door to theirs, so I found myself driving around the Turningstone Casino and Resort grounds before seven in the morning. Mixed first impression---the grounds were beautiful but the signage was terrible. (Yes, I was surprised to find myself thinking the word "signage.")

I circled the entire complex because there was an "Event Center Drop Off" and a "Bingo DropOff" and a "Bingo Buses Only" but no _Parking_. There was also no valet parking. No uniforms, no signs...not even a groundskeeper to ask. There was, however, a parking garage close to the "Event Center" so I entered without gate or sign or tickets or anything. Unusual but not entirely unheard-of: all parking is free in the (relatively near) city of Oneonta. The parking garage was worrisomely empty but I certainly didn’t mind snagging a spot on the ground floor right by the elevators.

I _did_ mind there being no signs inside the elevator/stair enclosure. Took the stairs till I found doors that looked fancier than the ones I'd come through. Found myself in a long hallway with a gift shop clearly just opening for the day since the two attendants were standing there discussing affairs at hand for a good minute while I stood there with my best curiously confused look. Once I got their attention I explained my meeting while showing them my brochure. I wasn't encouraged when neither of the women knew where I should be going. One called the main information number and after three separate transfers they got me directions to the hotel front desk. I noticed not just one but two ATM machines along the way.

Once at the hotel desk, things got nominally better---at least the obsequious young suit had heard of my conference and could direct me adequately. I had my bag held at the front desk before wandering off in search of the Event Center. The first part of the directions were, “walk between the waterfalls” and true to the suit’s word, there was a pair of two-story rocky surfaces down which water was cascading. The hotel atrium was really beautiful—they’d brought the outside inside in the form of lots of plantings surrounding the waterfalls. Pretty. Soothing. Nice vibe.

Passing between the waterfalls and around the fountain put me in a long corridor within sight of “The Gaming Floor." There wasn’t any “floor” to be found though—just row upon row upon row of video machines. Miles of them. Okay, not miles but in the doorway alone I saw five different back-to-back double rows of twenty machines each with similar rows literally as far as I could see. The place was deserted. I wasn’t brave enough to set foot on the purple carpet so I kept walking right across a beautiful mosaic of one-inch tiles in browns and greens.

Found my conference rooms just past the ones for the New York State Construction Materials Association and found my wonderful tech, E. She was in charge of the vendor booths and was trying to make all her sales reps happy with varying degrees of success. I wanted to leave immediately. I have big problems with salespeople, the hard sell, haggling and anything else related to the fine art of persuading people to part with their money. So much so that I wouldn’t use drug-rep pens in medical school and never accepted freebie anything when I was “that kind” of doctor. Think that one of the fringe benefits of being a pathologist is never having to deal with pharmaceutical reps again, too. But E is one of my best techs and this room was her baby so I promised to force myself to tour during the morning break.

After signing in and getting an official nametag (one of the signs of middle age is that you go from refusing to wear your badge to finding a certain security in so doing) I discovered the women’s room. Yes, “discovered.” There were things I’d never seen and things I’d never seen in that setting. In latter category: a sharps container right by the sink. For those of you not in healthcare, a “sharps container” is a well-labeled secure plastic box designed to be a safe way to dispose of needles, suture needles, scalpel blades and anything else that might potentially cause injury if you left it in the regular trash. They’re usually red or orange (sometimes beige) and you’ve probably seen them in your doctor’s office on the counter or hanging on the wall. This was the first time I’d ever seen one in a public restroom. I didn’t have much time to ponder whether they were catering to heroin addicts or diabetics though, because there was a complicated toilet with A Thing On It. The correct term is “Brill Sanitation Device” and I used “seat sleeve” later in email, but it was really a commode condom. The seat was narrow, perfectly U-shaped and encased entirely in a tube of plastic that was dispensed from one end of a box where the tank should be and collected in the other end of the box where the tank should be---all triggered by a motion sensor. Super high-tech, super sanitary and definitely the most interesting thing I’d seen thus far.

I wandered around, far too intimidated to actually step on that purple carpet even though "across the Gaming Floor" was the fastest way to check out the restaurants and shops. I took the long way around and found two more ATMs, bringing the total for the morning to four. I also found an impressive textile wall hanging made from layers of homemade paper and fabric and fringed remnants of other textiles matted and framed under glass: very abstract, very beautiful and very big---six feet by three feet. I could’ve stared at it for ages but I turned out to be on the landing leading to the casino security booths.

I decided halfway into the first lecture that the women’s room had been more interesting. The subject was supposed to be platelets but turned out to be too much immunology and biochemistry to follow. The second talk wasn’t much better and featured a slide in which “ingest” was spelled with a “j” so I was wondering what I’d gotten myself into by morning break.
Smoke, for one thing. By ten the entire hallway smelled of cigarettes and it was easy to see why: the Gaming Floor was starting to do business. A cheesy trumpet theme repeated itself every so often like bad movie-background music. There were lots of people in front of all those electronic slot machines and video poker machines. I still couldn’t see anything that looked like a "gaming table" but I saw people taking the slot machine experience damned seriously. They had their drinks and their ashtrays and their chairs set just SO...and a strange zoned-out look as they pushed the buttons.

True to my word, I forced myself into the vendors’ room and even made myself go talk to some salespeople. My kids will be the first to tell you that I did a LOUSY job of acquiring swag—I got the Red Cross T-shirt and a light-up pen but that was it. I couldn’t bring myself to get one of the “platelet pals---we’re planning a whole line of collectibles” or any of the blood-drop-shaped foam “stress relievers” or the casino-chip chocolates or the strange round plastic thing with a hidden blade that we first thought was for doing bleeding times but then decided was a tool to strip cellophane off CD boxes. I suck. I did, however, patiently listen to both the Ortho (our vendor) and Olympus (the competitor) reps tell me about their automatic blood type analyzers, both of which weren’t working thanks to bad serial cables.

I roamed the grounds and discovered four more ATM machines, bringing the total to eight. I also discovered that cigarettes seemed to be one of THE key staples at Turningstone Casino. The three "gift shops" were cigarette stores which only happened to also sell other merchandise. One store had what looked like an impressive selection of cigars, too, but knowing nothing about them I could’ve been awed by the tobacconist equivalent of McDonald’s.

Just when I thought I’d made a terrible mistake coming at all, I ran into three of my blood bank techs. Nothing like a little moral support when you need it and T had been every bit as impressed by the women’ room as I. Things got better when we discovered a doctor from one of our regional sites whom we all disliked—she did us the courtesy of coming over and gushing enthusiastically about the talk I’d just trashed as too technical and irrelevant not ninety seconds prior. Things stayed better during the rest of the morning session since the talks got less chemical and more practical.

Lunch was served buffet-style in the same vendors room – I noticed the Construction Materials Association had opted for individual boxed lunches instead. It was a decent spread. Started off with fruit and tossed salads, followed by a macaroni salad and a “Neptune Salad” that had recognizeable scallops and shrimp as well as crab (but which I avoided having learned the hard way about seafood salads on inland banquet lines. )I had “Fire and Ice” which turned out to be a loosely Italian cold salad of tomatoes, red peppers, artichoke hearts and fennel all in a spicy-hot oil-and-vinegar. The breadsticks were of good quality and WARM. The entrees included a baked ziti (Ziti is THE vegetarian entrée in these parts,) London Broil in a mushroom-based sauce and chicken “Capri” which was a light brownish herbed gravy. The vegetables were the usual hotel medley of zucchini, yellow squash broccoli and red peppers and were definitely on the crunchy side of al dente. There were plenty of dessert choices but after having tried everything except the seafood and pasta salads, I had no room at all.

In more ways than one, since I had yet to check in...which I did after lunch. Discovered that I was on the seventeenth of twenty-one floors and decided that was reasonable while thinking of F, who was the one who told me “the higher you rate, the higher your floor” ages ago in Tampa.

My room was the best thing that had happened so far that day. It was SMALL but it was so cozy-nice that I fell in love immediately. Two queen-sized beds with a built-in bedtable and wall-mounted reading lamps between them. HUGE framed mirror on the wall separating the bathroom. Other wall held dresser with room service menu and a strange built-in piece containing TV, mini-bar fridge and desk all in one. The couch was a wraparound thing with one arm and a back and very comfy. Wood was all cherry, carpeting was a ridged gray indoor-outdoor looking thing and the rest of the room was in greens and tans. An absolutely perfect hobbit-hole in every way...and the carafe for the coffeemaker was stainless steel which just charmed me no end. For once there was GOOD stuff on the walls too---closeup sepia photo of tiny pinecones, closeup sepia photo of a sycamore leaf still on the tree and a couple of leaf-design textiles in frames on a shelf over the desk. TWO high-speed internet ports, one on the bedside table and one on the desk. After discovering fried ravioli on the room-service menu, I decided I could live in that room permanently, no problem at all.

The bathroom was equally small but equally well-designed. No bathtub at all, just a shower with no curtain or door but a pane of incredibly thick glass separating it from the toilet while leaving a (wheelchair-wide, I belatedly realized) space to step in and out. The shower head was another new-to-me cool thing: it was actually two shower heads, each independently adjustable, on a U-shaped metal pulldown bar that was adjustable in its own right. I couldn’t wait to try it out. The entire bathroom, including the shower stall, was done in tile and stainless steel and looked both beautiful and indestructible. The little shelf with freebie toiletries was actually a wire rack—that too just tickled me no end for its simple practicality. After finding the ice machine just around the corner (bonus!) I felt MUCH better after I made a pot of tea and had the first caffeine of the day since getting up at five.

When I went down for the afternoon session, the casino was rolling at full tilt—thick smoke, tons of people, more noise, WAY more security suits of both genders and I thought I could see people standing around what looked like tables in the depths of the room somewhere. Still didn’t venture onto the gaming floor but I was definitely warming up to the idea on my way to the last two lectures of the day, which were nice and concrete and not off in the biochemical ether somewhere.

So finally it was time to go gamble. The three techs and I met up with one another, all of us Casino Virgins, and contemplated how to proceed. The girls had done a bit of scouting and hadn’t found any Elvis slot machines (a suggestion of a friend of mine; he said there are good Elvis clips just for breaking even) but had found a bank of Addams Family slots. I had passed by a kiosk of brochures of “Gaming Guides” and picked one up thinking it would be the instructions for ALL the gambling and was much surprised when it turned out to be the instruction for only TWO of the gazillion machines and STILL didn’t make any sense. We needed help so we went to one of the many cashier booths and asked a sweet redhead with braces how things worked.

How things worked was that you used a plastic card like an ATM card. You could either get an “Express Card” good for a single day or you could get a “Diamond Card” which was made for you alone and could be refilled and reused indefinitely. My techs opted for the Express Cards but I decided I needed a souvenir and got the Diamond Card, which didn’t take any longer to generate but had my full name on it. If we wanted to play any of the other games (she said this in a tone like it didn’t happen all that often) we bought chips at the table at the time of play.
Well, fine.

We discovered that some of the machines were 25 cents but that most were only 5 cents per game which we, being cheapskates, liked. Gameplay was easy—you pressed a button and images on the screen rotated just like the wheels of a slot machine then lined up in three separate rows across the screen. Took us a while to figure out that “1 line” “3 line” “5 line” and “7 line” meant how many rows of each game you played and I still don’t fully understand how you can play “7 line” when the screen only displays three, but apparently you can. It took us far less time to figure out that “1 bet” “3 bet” and “5 bet” meant how many of the initial increment you were betting on each line--a “3 line” “3 bet” choice meant I lost 45 cents on my very first gamble ever.

This was far less than thrilling but we were willing to give it the old college try so we wandered around to different machines, trying our luck here and there. I lost money at an Aztec-themed machine, a Unicorn-themed machine, a Frog-Prince machine and eventually at the Addams Family machine which we were disappointed to discover did not have any fun animations or graphics. Hell, NONE of the “some 2,000 multi-game machines” had any interesting graphics or music or animation---just those images. I managed to break even fairly often, won a dime here and there and even seventy-five cents once, but eventually I was down to the last thirty cents on my card. T had a bit of luck though--after about five minutes of play, she "won twenty frickin’ dollars!” That put her about eighteen dollars up for the evening since she was smart enough to pull out her card right then and there and keep it in her pocket the rest of the night.

Throughout our gaming experience we kept getting offered free drinks by girls in sleeveless tuxedo tops, shorts and high heels. These were virgin drinks but they looked like the real thing: all the cokes had maraschino cherries, the lemon-lime soda had been spruced up with grenadine syrup and swizzle sticks were in abundance. I rather liked the verisimilitude and kept my eye out for hip flasks, of which I saw two or three. Turningstone doesn’t care how much you bring with you or how open you are about it; they just won’t sell you any themselves. I thought about seeing if I could still do the maraschino cherry stem trick but decided it would be unseemly and probably make T blush so I passed. I should mention for the sake of research that I noticed Turningstone was definitely a Coca-Cola franchise with not a Pepsi product in sight.

We thought maybe there would be more excitement if we tried “real” games and I particularly wanted to try craps so we found the gaming tables in the middle of the room. Better still, we found that one of the craps tables was reserved for “instruction” from 6-7 and that we’d wandered in on the end of a session. I, having read Hoyle’s, could follow what the instructor was saying but still didn’t feel confident about the operation. Didn’t matter though because we were all four quite surprised to learn that the minimum bets for all the gaming tables including roulette were either 5 or 10 dollars. None of us, including me, had come prepared to spend that much on a single bet. We roamed up and down the tables watching for a while and I learned that craps was an almost exclusively male game. Each table also had a security suit sitting dead-center with both arms ON the table throughout the game--interesting. Blackjack was mostly male too. The poker tables were in a completely different room with a more cheery overall atmosphere but not woman one in sight, so we didn’t investigate closely. The roulette wheels looked easy and kind of fun, but not at five dollars a pop, so we decided to cash out and go to dinner.

Dinner COULD have included an authentic Brazilian steakhouse. The Turningstone is proud to maintain “Rodizio:the Churrascaria” as a “Traditional Brazilian Grill Experience” which gives whole new meaning to the concept “all you can eat.” My mother-in-law G has praised churrascaria for years as have all the other Brazilians I’ve known who have said that waiters circulate through the room with various huge hunks of roasted meats which are then carved onto your plate until you CAN'T eat any more. Beef, chicken, pork, lamb, organ meats and sausages of all kinds...if you can grill it, they serve it. They don’t even require you to be literate or vocal: each diner is given a stone that is green on one side and red on the other. As long as your stone is turned green-side-up they’ll keep serving you and won’t stop till your stone is red. This restaurant was one of the few things that had piqued my curiosity and I planned to eat there someday. Not Thursday all-you-can-eat Brazilian grill is just not Girl Food and my techs were definitely girls. The one meal choice on which they ALL agreed was that we _not_ try “that meat place."

Since we weren’t going to do the carnivore thing, we were left with four other choices. The Emerald was a twenty-four hour place right next to the gaming floor with Denny’s décor and strange big number boards on three of the four walls. The Trattoria was our initial choice; its outside menu featured the usual Italian fare including veal a million ways (okay, eight) and a sweet-potato ravioli dish that sang my name the moment I saw it. It must’ve sung lots of other names too since there was a half-hour wait. The techs still had to drive an hour home and it was past seven so we decided to try elsewhere. “Elsewhere” at first was the Forest Grill Steakhouse but it was also for big-time carnivores so we settled on the Peach Blossom.

The first thing I noticed about the Peach Blossom was that their hostesses wore floor-length cheongsams and the second thing I noticed was that we’d missed Ming Tsai’s demo show by a good two months. The menu contained all the Chinese and Thai standards but I had to opt for the name-dish of the house and got Peach-Blossom Chicken: “crispy deep fried chicken with assorted vegetables in our signature red curry sauce with peaches.” Poor choice. The peaches turned out to be canned clings arranged in a last-minute row and the chicken turned out to be dark meat but that was my own fault for not ordering a dish that clearly specified “sliced breast meat” as my techs had wisely done. The fried rice was excellent because it was rice with only a good sweet-salty soy and a few flecks of egg and not an excuse to unload the leftovers bin.

Dinner was quiet, partly because we were all tired and partly because it was still three employees eating with their boss. No, I’m not used to being “the boss” yet but it's getting easier. The fortune cookies came in cute little red paper bags with gold lettering I recognized as “money bags” from our preschool’s Chinese New Year celebration. They were tricolor dough which looked really cool but tasted really lousy. My fortune was “pay more heed to mother’s exhortations.” Yes we played the fortune cookie game but without much heart—-that too was probably because of the “boss” component.

After dinner and goodbyes I went back to the Gaming Floor hoping to be brave enough to try one of the craps tables since I had a couple of fives in my pocket with no other plans for them. Wandering through the casino I got the hairy eyeball from ALL the suits and that puzzled me for the longest time. I’m not the sort of person that security ever notices yet they were all looking me over really thoroughly then dismissing me without breaking stride. After about the fifth staredown, it finally clicked: I had something in my hands. I was still carrying the white folder of handouts from the blood bank lectures and that made me stand out in a casino since the average gambler is carrying a drink and maybe a cigarette, period. I ditched the folder and sure enough, no more staring.

I watched one of the craps tables for a good ten minutes while a skinny old lady in a yellow polyester sweater under blue hair rolled the dice. The action was so fast that even knowing the rules I couldn’t keep up with it and I definitely couldn’t figure out why there was a second pair of dice on the table. While I was watching, a big athletic guy bought a Ben Franklin’s worth of chips and also started betting but I couldn’t keep up with him either. I finally decided that the only way I was going to ever figure out gambling was to wait and do it with someone who knew how and liked it. On the way out I lost a few more nickels off my Diamond Card at the one bank of electronic slots that actually had cherries and lemons and bars like a “traditional” slot.

I just don’t get gambling at all. Maybe it’s me.

On the way back to my room I noticed a big rock-sculpture fountain outside the front doors. In addition to water it also had steam coming up through the rocks. This captivated me because I’d never thought of using steam as a design element. There was a tinge of rock-concert, but I liked it. Liked it very much, in fact. I still liked my room just fine too...even more since I had iced tea already waiting for me. The minibar consisted of a dorm-room fridge in the armoire under the TV and the young bald man behind the front desk had used his best Hospitality Voice to explain that if I opened it and consumed anything I would be charged but that if I “take all the stuff out to use it for your own stuff--since it’s a refrigerator?--you’ll get charged too.” Having read Augusten Burroughs I knew he meant business so I had resolved not even to look into the fridge. Bluebeard’s Wife was never going to be happy with that plan though, so of course I opened the door and took a peek (while holding my breath, just in case the maid put a hair on top of the drinks or something. ) It wasn’t exciting. Coffee-cup-sized cans of mixed nuts and teeny-weeny glass bottles of soda were all I saw.

Closed it back up again and took the longest shower I’d had in three months. I just LOVE hotel hot water; it’s endless and it’s always chlorinated. The shower was worth the wait, too: the arm went up and down, the heads independently swiveled and there were three different pressure settings for each head. I thought it was designed for short people till it “finally dawn to me” (G’s catchy malapropism) that it was designed for the elderly and/or handicapped. I realized then that the whole room was designed to be both handi-capable and impervious, both of which seem like good ideas for casinogoers.

While flipping through the television stations I found one that was nothing but that same light-up numbers board of which there were several in the Emerald Restaurant so I watched...and was ecstatic to learn that the game with which they were associated was called “Keno.” I had been puzzled by one of those very same numbers boards in a local steakhouse three years prior and hadn’t figured it out since. Well, fine, so the game was Keno, but I still didn’t know any more than I did except that it went from Game 615 to Game 618 while I lay there watching. Once I had a name I could ask Google when I got home though, so I switched to Comedy Central.

I didn’t have to wait till I got home. The only restaurant open at 7:30 on Friday morning was The Emerald and while I was waiting on my food I noticed that the center of the table had not just the salt, pepper and ketchup but crayons. I thought this was strange since the one thing I had NOT seen since arrival was anyone with a child, and I thought it was even stranger that all three crayons were black. Closer inspection revealed a whole pile of newsprint forms next to the crayons which, lo and behold, were printed with the same numbers in the same layout as the light-up boards on the walls. “Keno!” I thought to myself...but then stopped since I still didn’t know what Keno was.

The serious find on the table was the color glossy brochure entitled “How to Play Keno.” SCORE! I learned that Keno was twenty numbers between one and eighty drawn at random then lit up on the boards with the last number drawn left flashing so that you know the game is over. Your job as a gambler is to pick which twenty out of eighty numbers will be selected and there were sixteen pages worth of ways to do that with “Way Tickets” being one. I read about "four-way nine-spot tickets" and "28-way 8-spot tickets" and "120-way 10-spot tickets" which seemed to pick ALL the numbers. The history of the game was the most interesting part: Keno was originally created by Cheung Leung around 200 BC when the people of his city refused to finance his war fund and was so successful that not only was Cheung’s city saved but the game was used to generate revenue for the building of the Great Wall of China. Keno wasn't just gambling but ANCIENT gambling.

So finally I understood what THAT was all about and was sorely tempted to play. After all, there are twenty numbers being selected out of eighty and that’s one-fourth so the odds of your winning something are fairly high, right? Wrong. I looked at the payout column and learned that on a “mark 4 spots” ticket the two-dollar original bet pays out two dollars on two numbers, six dollars on three numbers and $230.00 if all four numbers are picked. So fine, you have to get all four of your numbers to win any decent money. Instead of looking at it as twenty numbers out of eighty, you have to now look at it as four numbers out of eighty though, which isn’t nearly as promising. Once upon a time I used to be able to do the math that calculates those odds and even got an A on the test--of course I can’t do the math NOW but I remembered enough to tell me in big block caps NOT WORTH IT.

I left the waitress a five-dollar tip instead.

The rest of the morning consisted of my realizing one of my blood bank icons wasn’t the paragon I’d made him out to be in my own head which was disappointing but illuminating. Heard his lecture plus a really great one from a surgeon-turned-blood-banker and then headed on home with firm plans to come back to “the Tower” someday soon.

To sum: Loved the hotel, hated the gambling, ambivalent about the food.


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