Thursday, July 17, 2008

Trace Adkins and How I Lost Fifty Bucks

I took two days off from work. That sounds simple, but it's not when you're the only one responsible for creating a weekly half hour radio program. There was a lot of "get it done before you go" and "set it up for when you get back" going on. I'm finding this show takes a great deal of organizational skills - something I've never been accused of having in excess.

But I reached the end of the day Tuesday and decided that wherever I was in the process was going to have to do; I was going to a casino.

HSO's son, a grown man with a family of his own, is on the road crew on the Trace Adkins tour. Trace, if you don't know, is a big, burley, cowboy-hatted country singer with a deep bass voice and a rabid following of aspiring Hot Mamas inspired by his song of the same name. HSO's boy sets up the lights and spends a good part of the year living out of the tour bus. It's a strange life but one that seems to suit him.

"We'll be at the casino in New York," he told his father. "Come on up, stay a night, see the show and I'll get you in to meet Trace."

His father is a musician who cut his teeth on big hair bands and glam rock. He has a new album out that music critics seem to find difficult to categorize. I'd call it 'cinematic': it sounds like a movie soundtrack. One reviewer ended up calling HSO a 'mutant guitarist'. We kind of like that. "Swing, Battah Battah, Swing" isn't exactly HSO's style. But this is his boy offering, and it's a lovely gesture.

"Want to go?" he asked me.

I wouldn't miss it.

So we drove over three hours to a casino we'd only seen in commercials. The hotel tower stands alone amid miles of flat fields. It wasn't hard to find.

Inside, we found a bustling, modern, clean facility built around the concept of encouraging visitors to throw away their money. And they do.

The lobby is bright, shiny and welcoming. The rooms are more of the same. And the only thing to do there, unless you golf or want to spend the day getting a pedicure, is gamble. The casino is a massive, luxurious and dimly lit area in the center of the building and no matter where you go, someone nearby is betting on something.

The machines are bright and attractive. Many suck you in with familiarity - there's The Price is Right, Monopoly, and the classic match the fruit and win games. Others feel like video games - we saw an Alien game (presumably the Alien doesn't eat you if you lose), a pirate themed game (without Johnny Depp), a pharoah game (reminiscent of The Mummy), and everyone's favorites, Lotto and Keno. What is Keno, anyway? Everywhere we went, Keno numbers were flashing on flat screen televisions instead of the news.

We watched, mesmerized, as a woman kept pushing the button on her Keno game over and over, sometimes winning a dollar, more often losing. She didn't even look at what she was doing. She was talking to the woman beside her. Another woman was playing a match the fruit game. She patted the screen with her hands, willing it to stop where she wanted it to. It didn't look like that method helped much.

I handed over thirty dollars and got a plastic debit card which allowed me to play. Within ten minutes I was broke. I was dejected. I went to watch my companion play. HSO started out slowly, not sure how to play the video poker game he'd chosen. But soon he was hooked.

"I'm winning!" he announced. "I'm up twelve dollars!"

He paused.

"Maybe I should quit now."

But his machine had him in thrall and he pushed the button again, watching the cards flip over and reveal his hand.

HSO ended his gambling experience by walking away with a small win. Enough of a win that he gave me ten dollars to get me to stop grumbling about the money I'd lost.

"You," he informed me, "have a gambling problem."

"Yes," I agreed. "The problem is that I stink at it."

We had dinner with his son. The catering room was lined with a series of dishes that would do any fine restaurant proud. But the crew doesn't get to enjoy it. On show day, they run in and bolt down food while getting calls on their walkie talkies about last minute problems that need to be addressed.

"I have to run," we were told by our host. "There are some lights that aren't working and one of them caught fire."

We understood.

Our job was to line up in the lobby with others holding the coveted Trace Adkins Meet and Greet passes, from where we would eventually be escorted into the artist's presence for a quick hello and a photo opp.

I felt kind of bad about taking the spot from someone who might find it more of a treat, but HSO said he really wanted to let Trace know how much his son liked working for him. I agreed that was a good reason to take advantage of the opportunity.

Trace Adkins, if you don't know, is tall. I'm accustomed to tall people; my own son is six foot seven. But I don't meet many people close to his height. Trace, I'm told, is six foot six. Without his cowboy hat.

About fifty people lined up around the edge of the room and slowly made their way to Trace. A group of women started tittering before they even got next to him, and were so giddy by the time they got there they piled into him and nearly knocked him over.

"That poor, poor man," I whispered to HSO.

Trace posed briefly with each person in line, though many people were nice enough to observe the request that group shots be made whenever possible. The couple ahead of us invited Trace to a ball game if he was ever around. Trace seemed to consider it.

It was our turn. I, for once, didn't have to do or say a thing. I just walked up with HSO, he was introduced as the father of the lighting guy, and the two of them had a brief chat. The camera, unfortunately, chose that moment to blink out, and we ended up with two very blurry pictures of a short woman and two tall men, one of them wearing a cowboy hat.

After that we stayed for the concert. It was loud. Very loud. HSO, who has been quitting cigarettes for forty years, peeled off two filters for me to stick in my ears. They helped.

We watched the show, thanked HSO's son as he hustled around breaking down the set which would be trucked to Michigan along with the entire crew within the next two hours, and went back to the casino.

"What you need," HSO told me, "is a big drink with an umbrella in it in a quiet bar."

What I got was a lemonade in the casino karaoke bar. Because what we discovered is that this casino is dry. Bone dry. Which added a whole new element of oddity to the experience.

"Not one of these people is drunk!" we exclaimed in shock.

If they weren't drunk, how do we explain why they were staggering around the casino, yelling at each other happily, staring fixedly at video screens and losing money with abandon? I just don't know. But it sure was interesting to watch.

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