I’m addicted to gambling which is stupid because what I’m doing isn’t even gambling. I’m “sweepstaking.” I live in casino-outlawed Texas where “gambling” is called a “sweepstakes” and it involves clicking a mouse on a computer screen that looks like a slot machine. We sweepstakers perpetually hope that three puppies will appear. Or three suns. Or three oil rigs. Three coins, too. Maybe you’ll get the penguin bowling bonus round! It depends on which PC “sweepstakes” game you’re playing. (It’s not gambling if you call it something other than gambling, because I’m not “betting” money here I’m revealing—click by click—if I won anything from the “sweepstakes” I entered when I “donated” $20 to the VFW to get $20s’ worth of “entries”—technicalities, anyone?) Three weeks ago, I had 94¢ to my name because of the fucking puppies. Today, B cried when I lent him $200 of the $500 I had won earlier in the day. He cried because he had gambled away the $200 he needed for some job-related thing. So then he didn’t have the money to buy what he needed so he could make money. His $200 did not go to Cinderella or Slot Man or Reel Pirates or Jewel Miner. He lost his $200 to the Texas Rose (three violins gets you seven free spins).
I don’t know B’s real name. That’s how he introduced himself to me. He’s in my phone as “B Homers,” like how Mike is Mike Homers, Mark is Mark Homers, Desiree is Desiree Homers, and Garry is Garrrrrrry Homers (because if you’re going to spell Garry with two rs, why stop there? Go for seven!).
The 7s are what everyone is going for tonight at Homer’s.
Homer’s: Neighborhood bar I can see from my balcony that’s at the end slot of a tiny strip center. Its outside is all black windows and the red Homer’s logo painted on it real big with the words “BEER,” “KARAOKE,” and “POOL TABLE” underneath it. (No one advertises the PC sweepstakesing going on because it’s too tip-toeing the line of legal.) Inside, it has that dark-bar feel to it with its black and white tiled floor, tall and crackling vinyl swiveling bar chairs, the requisite neon beer signs hanging above the bar, plus random mementos that only the regulars understand why they’re there. Homer’s has the software that supports the VFW and “The Reel Deal” prize, and if the big screen on the wall spins a reel and lands on the 7s tonight, $5,200 will be split up amongst everyone who’s logged in and gambling playing.
Here’s how it works: all “donations” go to the VFW. That is, a percentage of all the money we lose goes to the bar and a bit of it goes to the VFW because this is a charity sweepstakes. (We are all apparently very supportive of the VFW.) When you donate a dollar, you get 100 sweepstakes entries. Then on the computer, you choose which interface (slot machine-looking visuals) you want to look at to click and reveal your prizes. The higher your donation, the larger your prize could be. So, for instance, if you “donate” $10 to the VFW sweepstakes, and you go to the Son of a Lucky Puppy game, and choose 30 to be your entry level (30¢), and then if you clicked and got 3 bells in a row, your prize would be 100 more entries ($1). If you had “donated” $3 and entered on the 300 level (going all-in and maxing out your donational bet), your prize would be 600 entries ($6).
So it’s all about:
And obviously has nothing to do with:
One time, a curious bar customer stumbled over to where the machines are lined up on the south-facing wall and asked, “So you win, like, real money?”
“Yup!” I replied. “You also lose real money.”
It’s the puppies that did me in. Maybe the penguins. And the polar bears. I’m a game-hopper: one who believes that switching games if the one you’re on isn’t paying any is the way to win. The other camp of sweepstakers stay on the same game thinking it has to hit eventually. As if each loss is one click closer to a jackpot and that the game owes it to you. For sure what made me broke were going after the waiters and naked ladies of Loteria. Group effort in not appearing. But it’s the puppies that started it and then then it was the crowns that kept me coming back.
Ultimately, I lost my money to The Finer Things.
Side note: I don’t understand how calling an illegal action by a different name suddenly makes it legal. Like, it’s not robbery, but geographically re-organizing the placement of diamond necklaces. Sure. Why not? Though I guess that’s also kinda like how the work that prisoners are voluntold to do for their caged room and board isn’t slavery. I mean, there aren’t whips in prison (maybe) like how there aren’t slot machines involved in PC gaming sweepstaking (kinda).
This essay is feeling stupid already because look at the topic we’re dealing with here. Bankruptcy because of Blacktop Victory and Precious Diamons and Artic Alley and Big Texas and Whirl of Winnings and that one white trash trailer park game that I don’t play because the graphics of Jim Bob or whatever his name is with his buck teeth and drool just looks gross.
Sad story: writing this essay is making me want to go PC sweepstaking (emphasize on the TAKING) right now, even though I’m in my pajamas and I specifically got into my pjs so I wouldn’t go back to Homer’s and lose more money chasing those 7s. Though it wouldn’t be the first time this wardrobe trick didn’t do the trick. It’s not all that difficult to change pants. And I sleep in hoodies. Done. Hell, I could probably walk over there in my slippers and nobody would care. The privileges of being a regular at the bar—and I don’t even drink.
At Homer’s it’s $2 Diet Cokes for me. Jo gives me free refills. Her full name is Jo Ann and she’s either a bitch or really cool. I still don’t know. Bartender Katy is cool, though I don’t know if that’s how you spell her name. Either way, she never charges me. Garrrrrrry is actually the bouncer. He’s on probation for a pretty terrible thing that got him banned from Facebook and that’s not my story to tell. He’s cool, though. Almost seven feet tall, too. White dude. Red Hair. We chatted once about how he can’t take baths because all tubs are too tiny for him.
Unlike the aforementioned Homer’s employees, I don’t know many of the patrons’ real or full names.
“Which one is Cheryl?” asks Chug when I tell him who won the progressive on Yellow Rose the other night. Chug’s real name is I don’t know.
“The one with the raspy voice who always screams ‘Yay!’” I say.
“Oh. The Mexican one with glasses?”
“She has glasses, but I don’t think she’s Mexican.”
I consult Facebook to show Chug her picture.
“Yeah, her!” Chug says.
“Dude, yeah. Her. She screams ‘yay’ whether she wins twenty cents or twenty dollars. She’s not Mexican.”
“Um. Check out her last name.”
Facebook says: Cheryl Quintana.
(Side note: as I wrote this essay, I finally asked Cheryl if she was Mexican because I knew she’d be reading this and I didn’t want to look like a dumbass. Turns out she’s Native American. Mind. More. Blown. Though, either way, me = dumbass.)
We all make assumptions. I’m sure I’m just “that white chick with the dreads.” Though I did hear one guy call me Jamaican Lady, even though I’m very much so not black, or lady-like. I cuss like a champ when free spins on The Finer Things are being tight asses and giving me jack shit.
There are a number of people whose names and stories I do know, though.
Rachel Sober Homers, for instance, is at Homer’s because she’s avoiding going home. She’s sober like me but her boyfriend relapsed and got kicked out of his sober living facility. So now he’s staying with his sober girlfriend and just getting crazy drunk. Literally.
Amanda is at Homer’s (she’s not Amanda Homers in my phone because we’ve actually known each other long before we were old enough to enter the sweepstakes but we lost touch for fifteen years until one day we ran into each other at Homer’s), because she’s also avoiding going home. It’s after her divorce, but before she knows what to do with herself or where to live post-divorce. For now, she’s living in her old ex-girlfriend’s room and that ex strikes up conversations Amanda doesn’t want to have. So Amanda is here.
B’s not at Homer’s tonight because he’s probably avoiding me since he still owes me that $200 that he probably gambled away last week instead of using it for whatever work thing he had to do. I’m sure he’s at the bars I don’t go to and that are closer to his house, like Last Call. Aside from avoiding me, B’s also probably at Last Call because he’s also avoiding going home and avoiding life in general, because his PTSD sucks and gambling helps to numb him out. I found out a few weeks ago from Desiree that B’s sister recently died because suicide gets the best of some people, so there’s that to avoid, too. B also has insomnia.
I’m at Homer’s because I’m like B. Avoiding life by numbing out when I can’t sleep. I can’t sleep because my brain has convinced my body that life’s easier when you’re zoned-out. Instead of getting drunk, I avoid sleep so I’m in a sort of constant daze throughout my days. The faux-stoned desire stems from my depression which stems from my loneliness which stems from my friend-lacking. Best friend lives states away. Boyfriend lives states away. Sister lives 10 minutes away, but a few weeks ago we were gambling at a bar near her house and someone asked what her plans were for Thanksgiving and she said, “Nothing. I don’t have any family here.” And I said, “Hi. I’m your sister. I’m sitting right next to you.” She glanced over and went back to clicking at The Finer Things. So, sister is obv not a frequent companion. Ergo, loneliness. Ergo, Homer’s as the place I go because it’s healthy to be around people even though doing so makes my bank account malnourished. I avoid my apartment to avoid my loneliness and so Homer’s is where I’m at because I can’t sleep. Loneliness-induced insomnia is making me poor.
Every day, 2pm, I look over my balcony to see who’s working, hoping to see Katy’s car parked next to Homer’s instead of Jo Ann’s because I still don’t know if Jo Ann is a bitch or not but Katy is always way cool. Once they open, that’s where I’m at even though I’m a freelance editor and therefore work from home, I don’t like home and so Homer’s has become my satellite office of sorts. I sit with my computer in front of me, resisting the urge to slip one of my few remaining $20s into a machine. I try to do the rewards system. Edit a bit, then a round of congratulatory gambling. Though these work breaks can be super counter-intuitive—taking a break from what I do to get paid to lose everything I was just paid. But what keeps me playing are the winning times—like that one 5-minute work break that turned my $5 into $254. Thank you Slot Man!
Yesterday, I spent another $20 I didn’t have to spend. Rent’s due in a week. Seven days to get $700. Gambling seems like the only way to do that, even though I know that’s untrue because just two days ago when I initially gambled away my rent money, I hustled $600 of work in ONE DAY. Tonight, $400 of it was invested in the establishment we all go to avoid life.
To avoid ourselves.
To avoid all the work I have to do now because I needed rent money, and now I have all this work to do and still no rent money.
Slot Man fail.
Most of the time, it really has nothing to do with winning money, just the rush of betting max and the possibilities of what might come because of that. And that’s when my heartrate rises. Anticipation of something awesome happening.
“I don’t even care about the money,” I say to Rachel Sober Homers as we sit and click away at something called delusional hope. “I just want free spins because they make me feel special.”
“Yeah. It’s like the chase for the free spins is what’s fun about it. We’re so addicted.”
I’ve been in this conceptual space before. Drunk and raising my glass to toast proudly, “I’m such an alcoholic!” A celebration of addiction to make ourselves not feel so terrible and depressed and fucked up in general because we’re fucking up our lives. We make jokes to lighten up the gloom and doom effect of gambling, like when we run out of money and grab our phones and check our less-than-$0 checking accounts and tell them to “stop being so negative” so we can gamble more. Haha! Self-made poverty is just hilarious.
I push up the sleeves of my hoodie, even though it’s 45º outside. The rush of a maybe-it-will-do-something-awesome makes me sweat.
I got a puppy because of the loneliness and also to keep me from gambling so much.
Thought process: A puppy needs a lot of attention so I’ll gamble less since I’ll have to focus my time on taking care of her. I’ll go on walks with her and get some good depression-lifting exercise. She’ll keep me active and busy and away from gambling.
Perfect solution to the gambling and loneliness problem.
Then I found out Homer’s allows dogs.
Skylar, the Texas Cattle dog, has become a Homer’s fixture. Cheryl and Desiree and the other people whose faces I know but names do not fall in love with my puppy. Homer’s becomes her personal playground where she gets to run around and play tug with the bar towels Katy gives her. All the daytime people and happy-hour regulars play with Skylar more than I do. We go to Homer’s so much that:
- Skylar starts squealing and prancing around our apartment when I say, “Homer’s? Wanna go to Homer’s?!”
- I knit her a black bandana with a red H on it so she can have a Homer’s cape. (Katy’s idea.)
- Which Rachel Sober Homers said I should sew a pocket on it and hang a sign around her neck that says, “Mommy has a gambling problem, please donate for dog food.” Not the worst idea.
- I’ll drop Skylar off at Homer’s and whoever happens to be there will take care of her when I need to run a quick errand or just need a puppy-mama break so I can get some work done.
Skylar also sits in my lap while I gamble, ears perking up every time the bark noise happens in Lucky Puppy’s bonus round. Though looking at my bank account, Skylar has not been my lucky puppy.
Rachel Sober Homers and I have become gambling comrades. We lose (and sometimes win) money as a team. When one’s up, she gives some winnings to the other. $20 bills are in a constant flow between our hands. Mostly loans, sometimes gifts. We play together because it gives us permission to do this. We cheer each other on, narrate what’s happening in our games, give gambling updates:
“Out of that entire $100, I didn’t get puppies once.”
“Fuck that noise. It’s playing halfsies with me.”
“What’d you start at?”
“$20. Only gave me $10 back. Oh! Wait! BAM! Free spins!”
“On how much?”
“Score! Ah! I got puppies too!”
“Free spins fest!”
Fist bumps all around.
This has become my source of quality social time.
I might not know their names, but this place is my community. Even if my only conversation with the old black lady everyone calls “Mama” is about how the machines are paying that day, she still makes me feel less alone.
It’s the casual conversation that keeps Homer’s feeling like a community. People sharing so many daily hours together in one place, the emotions running high because we’re all convinced this next spin will be a “gargantuan” one, as Cheryl has named the spins where you randomly win a fuckton of money. And so we witness each other’s wins and losses, smiles and dropped shoulders and we become the fabric of our life’s routines, helping us to feel a little less alone. Regardless of how much money we lose, that’s a win in this world.
Checking account balance update: -$44.65. This came as a surprise although it is not all that surprising. I totally thought I had juggled everything perfectly so my bank account wouldn’t dip down below the $2 mark. But I forgot about PayPal. The $40 transfer to PayPal from my bank turned into a $73 transfer due to a nifty overdraft fee. With two more checks I recently wrote that are about to hit my account, those $50 and $60 checks will turn into $83 and $93 ones.
I get going. Cry to boyfriend and sister, though don’t ask for money because of my ego. I left them offer. Sister can give me some cash next week. I tell long-distance boyfriend I’d rather him spend the money on plane tickets to see me than help my bank account, which is true, though I hope he does both. I hound B for my money. He manages to get me $100 and later on that morning my boyfriend surprises me by PayPal-ing me another $100. Saviors because I can’t hustle any work clients because I’ve already done that.
And now it’s a few days later and I hustled more money ($966 total) and yet the hustlin’ has done a-nothin’ but pushed me back through Homer’s doors with delusional hope and now I have $20.
You’re welcome, VFW.
I consider Rachel Sober Homer’s proposed pocket addition to Skylar’s cape.
I watched Deaf Dave drop about $200 yesterday. (I don’t know if his real name is Dave, but that’s what everyone calls him. He’s a cool dude—older guy who makes a lot of hand gestures to convey how terrible or fantastic the machines are treating him that day.) It took Deaf Dave eight hours and some change to lose that $200. A few times his luck actually changed. Then the free spins stopped and his luck shifted back to its location in the dead center of a huge shit pile.
I’ve started to take a new approach to my gambling strategy, hoping to avoid Deaf Dave’s financial location that I too know so well. I ask my dead father for help. I make an empty promise that I will leave if I could just get a little help, please, asking my dead father to save my ass on this last spin—help to bail me out of this gambling whirlwind because despite the game’s name, I am not experiencing a Whirl of Winnings.
I click “play” and pray for algorithms to love me, pray for the dead’s help. My anxiety is rising. I’m financially screwed if I don’t hit big. Nothing hits. I’m screwed. Big time. Come on, dead dad! Uggg. Stomach clenches even harder than my heart and breath combined. Sadly, a part of this physical reaction isn’t just from the financial mine shaft I have successfully dug myself into, but from the fact that I can’t gamble anymore. Gambling withdrawals because I have no money to withdraw from the ATM.
The brain is a really stupid thing. Or at least my brain is. How it convinces me that this really bad decision I’m making will result in an extraordinary amount of good—rent-making good—is just insanity.
Two wrongs don’t make a right.
Gambling more money to get back the even more money you gambled away isn’t right.
But there’s the “what if?” The, “You can’t win if you don’t play.”
Though, realization: you can’t lose if you don’t play.
Rachel Sober Homer’s owes me $120 that I Venmo’ed to her and now she has completely ghosted me even though she knew I needed the money to get my psychiatric medication (which makes me double-whammy insane: a legit mentally ill gambler). She gambled it away, prioritized Big Tex over my mental health. I got my meds eventually, but Rachel Sober Homer’s doesn’t know that and she still won’t reply to my texts even after I sent this one: “So are we not friends anymore?”
Bright side: I hit progressive on Loteria and won $2,000! (Fuck off with your measly $120 Rachel Sober Homers! Keep it! That’s just chump change to me now!)
Flip side: Once you hit $2,000 your brain thinks, “Look how easy that was. I just clicked a mouse and won $2,000,” and then by the following Saturday your bank account is -$390 (yes, negative) because you were convinced that this next spin will hit big.
(Of course I told that story in second person point of view because no one, especially not me, wants to admit that they were that person. The person who was up by hundreds (thousands!) who’s now taking the walk of shame back to the ATM machine.)
Although the amount of money that I have to my name is in the triple-digit negative range, I was smart about one thing: rent got paid before I lost it all and then some.
I didn’t go to Homer’s for three months because I was living in Florida for a writing residency. I became addicted to scratch-off tickets and missed Homer’s every day. Cheryl played my free daily dollar for me when I was gone and she even got it up to $142 one night and then cashed out. So jealous.
When I got back from Florida, I raced over to Homer’s the next day. But now I live south of Austin now because rent’s cheaper down here, so it’s about a 45-minute drive to get there. Jo Ann was at tending bar. She gave me a hug and welcomed me back. Asked how Skylar was doing. Surprisingly, none of that felt awkward. Maybe she isn’t a bitch because I actually kind of missed her. Maybe, even, a part of me looked forward to seeing her face and all the other faces I knew would be there and that were. Also, Rachel Sober Homers finally paid me back and so we’re cool again, our gambling buddy-ship back on track.
Now that I’m back, though, I see that it’s not the gambling I was totally missing. I’ve been sucked into Homer’s again because of both my well-known and also nameless peeps there, regardless of the gas-guzzling side effect of having to drive there and back every day. I reason to myself that there are many people who have to take an hour commute to their day jobs, so if I take my computer with me and work at some point, then going to Homer’s is a totally valid thing to do.
Though now the “commute” feels differently. It’s not that I’m driving from home to “work” or to go gamble, but that I’m driving from where I keep my things to my strongest sense of home.
Chelsey Clammer is the author of Circadian (winner of the Red Hen Press Nonfiction Manuscript Award) and BodyHome. She is a Pushcart Prize-nominated essayist who has been published in Brevity, Salon, The Rumpus, Hobart, The Normal School, Essay Daily, The Water~Stone Review and Black Warrior Review, among many others. She teaches creative writing online with WOW! Women On Writing. Clammer holds in MFA in Creative Writing from Rainier Writing Workshop. You can read more of her writing at: www.chelseyclammer.com.