A white neon sign with a red "24/7" was the first indication that a sweepstakes was opening in my neighborhood. Soon, a green light bent into a shamrock was placed in the window of a once-dead retail space between a gas station and a dry cleaner. It was on: Our new local casino had plugged in gambling machines under the premise of selling phone cards. Sweepstakes were sprouting in strip malls all around Wilmington, with signs that offered business services and Internet time where the market had not previously demanded them. Most residents passed these new businesses without knowing what they were, but a few knew their true purpose. It was these people who came inside to play video games of chance.
I first entered the sweepstakes on a cold night in March 2010, when my housemate Geilda and I were walking home from downtown. We'd been at a party, interacting with people like us—mostly white folks, young and creative, poor in a way we assumed was temporary. We rang the bell to be let in (the sweepstakes kept its doors locked at all times), and once inside, our conversation stopped. It was 3 a.m., and a few silent women sat facing Pot-O-Gold machines. The childish noises of video keno dominated the room, creating a soundtrack of hope and disappointment. The desk worker who programmed my $5 onto a machine spoke softly, as if to avoid disturbing a room full of sleepers.
Geilda and I shared a machine and starting playing a game we didn't understand. But the choices were simple enough—cash out or bet—and we went through a few rounds of lights and noises before our total spun $3 higher than where we'd begun.
"Cash out," Geilda advised, and we did.
I came home feeling like I had escaped something that I didn't understand.
Months went by and I kept visiting the sweepstakes. One summer afternoon, I went during daylight hours, before most people were off work. People seemed more alert than usual; two players even looked up and acknowledged me when I joined them at their cluster of machines.
I had $10 programmed on my machine. This was an increase from my original $5 limit, which I justified by reasoning that I needed more time to experience the game. I selected my numbers and adjusted my bet. The woman beside me, short-haired with cargo shorts and a tan that suggested a career in landscaping, told me the machines didn't really pay out until you put in $80 or so.
I bet slowly so that the $10 would last longer. I got up by a few dollars and my machine made a thrilling, cartoon-fast counting sound. I cashed out. The man next to me voiced his support. "That's good—your money still means something to you. After a while, it won't."