Gambling Raid, Single-Wide

By Curtis Price

Posted May 22, 2021


On the evening of January 31st, 2016, I heard a loud thumping on the door. It was the kind of ominous knock that makes your heart skip a beat. I was flooded with a sense of dread that something bad  was getting ready to be set off. And sure enough, something bad was about to unfold.

I opened the door. There, standing outside were two mean-looking, redneck Alabama sheriffs with a tense look on their faces and hands on holsters. They brushed me aside and did a quick sweep through the apartment. Then, they told me I had to come with them. I asked, “Am I being arrested and if so, what for?” They didn’t answer. Instead they escorted me to the waiting cruiser. But I noticed they didn’t handcuff me.

Driving down University Drive, one of the main drags in Huntsville, the night was starting to fall and all I remembered were the street lights blurring together like stars that had fallen from the sky, illuminating a path. Bur a path to where? The sheriffs still refused to tell me where we were going. They engaged in the hard-bitten banter of lawless law enforcers and I was the invisible, powerless,  prisoner under their control.  I thought to myself this is what it must have felt like in 1937 Soviet Union, with the GPU rounding people up without warning.

To me surprise, however, they drove past the county jail – an ugly, squat building known on the street as “The Blue  Roof Inn” because of its distinctive blue roof tiling. Instead, they pulled into the Huntsville Hospital ER. The sheriffs bundled me out of the car and escorted me inside a locked area, a mini-Panopticon with a staff desk in the middle surveying everything that went on. Right away, I heard an older woman who looked like Phyllis Diller with a shock of blond hair hanging over her face like a rooster, yelling “Get your motherfucking hands off me!” and swinging wildly. Then it dawned on me. I was in the Psych Ward.

No, dear reader, I hadn’t suddenly decided to fly over the cuckoo’s nest. As I soon found out, an involuntary petition for civil commitment had been filed against me for being “suicidal and homicidal.’ A former BFF who I had cut off contact because he went on a crack run had filed the petition in a fit of vindictiveness, because being drug-addled and being able to manipulate the system aren’t two mutually exclusive propositions. I would remain involuntarily committed until I saw a judge for hearing two days later. The staff placed in a holding room painted sickly, institutional green with the only furniture a cast iron bed. That would be my impromptu “home” until a bed opened up on the inpatient psych unit.

A nurse came in to interview me. I let her have it, in controlled outrage. How can people be picked up against their will just on hearsay, I said? Isn’t this what Third World dictatorships do, where anonymous complaints lead to incarceration?  Where were my rights? She remained calm, explained what was happening and what I could expect. I sat down on the hard metal bed while the older woman continued screaming next door. But at least they left my door open which was a sign they didn’t see me as a security treat.

I was due to work that night at 11pm so I went out to the desk and asked if I could use the phone to call my job. A yellowed sign said “No personal calls allowed.” But in one of the many instances that happened to me over the next two days, she broke the rules and let me call work. It showed me how even in the most bureaucratized and regimented situations, ordinary people will ignore the system and reveal some humanity if they think these rules unfair. They don’t do it because they consciously want to buck the system. They do it unselfconsciously from a personal sense of what’s right.

It wasn’t until 1 am that I was admitted upstairs to the locked ward, to a plain room with just a bed, one wooden chair, and a small desk.

I slept soundly. I don’t remember if I dreamed.

At 7 am, staff woke everyone up and sent us to the day room for breakfast. The day room was a large lounge with a communal eating table, a big screen TV, a jumble of worn but comfortable mismatched chairs- and the only reading material a few old, torn-up “People” and “Entertainment Today” magazines. I looked around at my fellow inmates. One woman, a small white woman in her late 30s with waist length, dirty blond hair, lay stretched out over a chair like a wilted flower, hair dangling, staring vacantly into space, dealing with who knows what inner demons. The whole time she was on the unit she never talked to anyone and held her head down while eating, avoiding all eye contact.

I recognized Phyllis Diller from the night before. We talked. She said she was here because she changed her will, cutting a daughter out, and the daughter filed commitment papers as retaliation. I asked the nurse later how often that happened. She said quite a lot. One party in a messy divorce would file a petition to prevent the other from getting custody. Wills were yet another common reason, like with Phyllis Diller. Swearing out an involuntary petition gets used to settle lots of scores.

I thought, “Isn’t this so typical of how America works?” People living disheveled on grates and baying at the moon can’t get help while perfectly sane people are rounded up against their will, wasting scarce resources that others in real distress are denied.

Phyllis Diller went around with a perpetual Bernie Mac “WTF?” expression on her face, cursing like a small battalion of sailors while  demonstrating a natural comedic flair with pitch-perfect timing .But quite honestly, I found her draining to be around because she was too high-strung and talkative. She told me she used to work in the chemical plants and when news came out about birth defects in children born to line workers, she stormed into the supervisor’s office with her work shears in hand and told the supervisor, “If my baby is born with no balls, I’m coming after yours.”

At meals, we were only served decaf, on the theory that caffeine over-stimulates the nerves of the mentally distressed.  I told the monitors, two young, hip, muscular black guys, I needed real coffee. One went off the unit every meal and brought me fully-strength coffee from another floor. Again, that spontaneous willingness to break the official rules.

People came and went continually while I was there because most patients had signed themselves in voluntarily and thus could freely leave on their own volition. Later that first day, a middle-aged black woman was admitted. She shuffled in, shoulders slumped, deeply depressed. But as the hours went on, she became more outgoing, as if being around the warmth of others’ company caused her to open up, the way a seed sprouts under the sun’s rays. She told me her story. She had married a man, who whisked her off to the deep country, where he isolated her from her family, and continually beat her.  Finally, she escaped to the local ER, threatening to kill herself and she ended up transferred here.

We hung out talking while watching TV, which was always tuned to Steve Harvey and Dr. Phil. Many times she would talk back at the TV, giving advice, and her advice contained more wisdom and insight than anything coming out of those two clowns’ mouths. I wondered what she would do when she was released. Would she end up, like so many battered women, back in the same situation she had escaped ? I got a hold of some napkins and borrowed a pen from a staff member, wanting to write down my impressions. I guess to outsiders I looked like the right madman, furiously scribbling away on napkins. But by this time, I was resigned to being held against my will and was determined to record all my thoughts.

Later that evening, a nurse brought me a mobile phone from the nurses’ station, telling me I had a call. It was the security guard from the job who had demanded – and won-  the right to speak to me. Again, that breaking of the rules, because patients were only allowed to use the communal phone in the day room. The security guard said that when the rest of the night shift heard what happened to me, they set up a prayer circle overnight. She and one of the other workers wanted to come to my hearing and testify on my behalf.  The nurse listened next to me, with a warm, concerned expression, obviously moved by this show of solidarity. But I told the guard she didn’t have to come because the hearing didn’t allow witnesses. (The security guard, by the way, was a hard-core Trump supporter and Christian fundamentalist, but pro-abortion, pro-gay and with many close black friends. We met for breakfast several times afterward and still keep in-touch occasionally years after I left the job.)

On the second day, I had my psychiatric evaluation. An elderly West Indian psychiatrist, very serious and official, speaking in a thick lilting accent, administered the test. I could tell from his eyes, because he wore the blank expression of professionalism, that he could obviously see there was nothing clinically wrong with me but he had to go through the motions anyway. He said nothing though to reveal his thoughts and left. I talked briefly with a new admission, a young white guy, rail-thin and heavily tattooed, with sores on his face – a tell-tale sign of heavy meth use. He told me he had just gotten out of jail and I thought him admitting himself was maybe a ploy for an upcoming court case. But he spent most of this time on the communal phone afterward and we didn’t talk any more. The rest of the second day went like a blur.

On the morning of my hearing, after consulting with my appointed lawyer, the psychiatrist came in. He asked if he could pray. Not wanting to be difficult and potentially causing him to change his evaluation, I agreed. He intoned a prayer, with his mournful, long face, for about 20 minutes. Of course, it should have been illegal to mix religion and public services. But I guess in the psychiatrist’s own way he was a rule breaker too. It was a fitting, concluding absurdity on top of already accumulated absurdities.

The hearing was over in 15 minutes. Of course, they found no reason for my long-term commitment and the case was dismissed and expunged.

I walked out into the crisp, winter morning, closed my eyes and felt the sun hit my cheek, the first time I had breathed fresh air in two and a half days.  Now, I was free. But others weren’t. My fellow comrades in bad luck, misfortune and powerlessness were people taxed to their limits, isolated, unable to cope, and with no social support. Most would be discharged in three days  back into the same circumstances that sent them there. The system works, just as it was intended to.

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.

One thought on “Gambling Raid, Single-Wide

  1. Satirical? A real social commentary on present day American life. Sad, but funny in a way.

    The story keeps giving. Each turn of the corner is yet another reminder of the stark realities that await the ‘little guy’ who tries to compete with Capital, and the role of the state, its co-conspirator, critical in assuring his untimely demise. It’s just the way of democratic capitalism. In fact, it was the only correct answer, if I wanted to become a citizen of the United States.

    Gasoline and Grits reads like Ignatiev’s Hard Crackers, as we once knew it, conveying a plain, simple message, relatable to a mighty working class, a sleeping giant, trying to make it against the odds.

    Liked by 1 person

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