By Curtis Price
Posted May 22, 2021
I live in Decatur now, a blue-collar city of 40,000 that even its own residents describe as having “a pretty bad reputation in North Alabama for being a town with a sketchy profile and reputation.” A couple weeks ago, a SWAT team raided a single-wide being used as an illegal gambling hall not too far from me. As a neighbor who witnessed the raid told the local press, “More than five police cars with SWAT pulled up and the police had the assault-type guns It was like they were trying to catch a murderer. The people in there weren’t messing with anybody. If they want to spend their money there that’s their business. I don’t see a problem with it,” adding that he never frequented the hall because “I’m broke. I’m trying to buy some groceries and cigarettes.”
The cops seized 26 gambling machines, three firearms, marijuana, drug paraphernalia and more than $20,000 in cash.. Seventeen people were arrested. A police spokesman said,
“For the people who patronize these illegal operations, these machines are not regulated like the ones in businesses that have legal gambling operations such as those in Mississippi and Nevada, Their regulatory organizations set the minimum percentage of winnings that each machine must pay out over the life of the machine. “The machines that are in use in these illegal operations have the ability for those percentages to be changed. Therefore, the patron doesn’t have a guarantee that the machine will ever pay out at all.”(Decatur Daily, May 9, 2021)
In a small yet perverse way, these comments show what is more and more the therapeutic ethos behind heavy-handed state intervention into private life today. In this case, the hall was raided not because it was a den of vice or deprived state coffers of money – with a few exceptions, gambling is illegal in Alabama – but from concern that customers weren’t getting . . . fair payouts. The state becomes a social worker with a club, acting from “care” and “protection” such as in misguided attempts to shut down corner liquor stores as a “public health” emergency.
But in this case, these weren’t high-rollers in BMWs trying to get their gambling jones off, just poor and working-class people trying to escape the grey monotony of life with the illusory thrill of playing games of chance where, like everything else in life under the thumb of Capital, they will lose more than they win. Now, seventeen people who can’t afford it have to pony up bail, hire lawyers, and miss work, all in the name of protecting them from themselves.
The neighbor was right. “The people in there weren’t messing with anybody. If they want to spend their money there that’s their business. I don’t see a problem with it,”
I must mention at this point that I’ve been to two illegal gambling halls twice in Alabama, so despite not being a gambler myself, I have first-hand experience with what goes on inside. The first time was after I came back from playing scratch-offs with an inveterate gambler across the Tennessee line at one of the legal “scratch-off shacks” designed to lure Alabama customers and separate them from their money. (He played and I soaked up the atmosphere, eventually writing an article for the old “Hard Crackers” before it was turned into “Soft Brooklyn Crumbs” after Noel Ignatiev died, an uninspired and boring retread of the old “Left Turn” magazine that has nothing to do with Ignatiev’s original vision. ) My acquaintance insisted on stopping by a juke house for one last run. We drove up to a modest two story rancher in a mostly black working-class neighborhood in north Huntsville.
After checking in, we were led to the basement. The club basement was covered wall-to-wall with machines, including one video game, full of flashing lights and bells going off, that took up an entire wall. He still lost, which is what happens when the house stacks all the odds. But I listened to the trash-talking manager, a tough-as-nails, crew-cropped, young black lesbian fresh out of Wetumpka, the Alabama women’s prison. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer while inside and had a mastectomy. In the operating room, she begged the surgeon, “take the other one off, I don’t want it” But of course, the surgeon refused. She would have to fork over big bucks to the transgender treatment industrial-complex for that to happen.
The second time I got to see how illegal gambling houses worked up close because I knew the manager. He had set up several machines in a spare bedroom through a connection with the local black and white mafia (because low-level crime, it must be said, is probably the one most inter-racial and egalitarian pursuit in working-class America. The only color that ever counts in it is green) The machine-owners had somehow hauled in the machines without attracting neighbors’ attention, which the location of the house, set off and facing away from others, undoubtedly aided. The mafia assured him the cops were paid –off so he had nothing to fear. Thoughtfully, they even supplied boxes of bulk snacks to sell. Who says capitalism doesn’t work?
Well, things soon went South, pardon the pun. My intrepid entrepreneurial friend started drinking heavily, getting into arguments with customers. When the customers lost, they insisted he was somehow cheating them. He started” messin’ up” the money, which was substantial, sometimes a grand on a weekend night. I offered to come by and hold his bank so he wouldn’t fuck it up, but my one attempt at consciously shoring up a capitalist enterprise was spurned. Deep in debt to the fried-chicken mafia, they swooped in and carted off the poker machines. Alas, my friend was not destined to become the Alabama Donald Trump.
But in watching how this gambling house worked, I saw flaws that could undermine what looked like a sweet set-up. One, as mentioned, the clients accused him of cheating them, an accusation they would never make to a casino in Las Vegas, where layers of impersonal bureaucracy – and a small army of security guards – separate owners from irate consumers. But in this setting, disgruntled customers could call the police and file anonymous complaints. And who really knows if the mafia was paying them off? Or if some gung-ho cop decided to ignore the informal contract and make a bust anyway? (My natural suspiciousness ruins me for a life in crime, where taking risks is the name of the game.)
The second factor of concern was the number of cars that would be parked all over the front yard. That would be a sure tip-off to nosey neighbors that something was going on inside. (One gambling hall in Decatur solved that problem by setting up a phony church as a front, where excessive numbers of cars wouldn’t attract attention, a Holy Temple of the Perpetual Royal Flush perhaps.)
But unfortunately, there was no way to control the traffic flow; people showed up when they wanted to, not when you wanted them to come in discretely staggered. So that’s why it doesn’t surprise me that complaints about excess traffic were probably, in the end, the downfall of this illegal gambling hall in Decatur.