Yesterday, for the second time in just over a week, I found myself motoring down the Mass. Pike in pursuit of new adventures in activism.
Amongst the verdant hills and languid lakes of Western Massachusetts, I joined about 75 or so other drivers gathering at the Palmer High School in preparation for a traffic simulation demonstration.
You see, despite constant assurances that all of Massachusetts's gambling dollars are fleeing to Connecticut casinos – Connecticut's own Mohegan Sun wants very badly to jump the border and build a commercial casino in Palmer, Mass. And in an effort to enforce a sense of inevitability among the residents, the corporation has even established a storefront office in downtown Palmer.
So, I feel bad for my friends in Western Mass. I know how it feels when casino investors, the media, legislators, and others are shoving inevitability down your throat. And I wanted to help them prove a point about traffic.
Especially since I'd had my own recent revelation about casino traffic.
Over two years ago, traffic had been one of my first concerns when I'd heard about a potential Middleboro casino. I live on a road in Bridgewater that would have lead directly to the casino site. And yet, I was informed that a “fly over” would protect me from additional traffic, and besides, most traffic would take the main roads.
Well, I wasn't buying it. Folks are always trying to find a faster, better, scenic or less policed way to get somewhere. And as winter turned to spring this year, I watched from the porch as the Winnebagos, campers, RV's and trailers returned to Summer Street – heading to the KOA in Middleboro – exactly the same site where the casino would have stood.
Now, those vehicles could have come down the major roadways, but they didn't. They came down my street to get to the KOA. They probably came down Thompson Street on the other side, too. Not the majority of them, certainly, but a lot. So many that it's pretty obvious that there's a KOA or some other campground at the end of the road.
So, what if the KOA had come down and a casino gone up? Well, those campers and RV's would have been replaced with casino traffic vehicles – and tour buses. Lots of them. Many more than would fit in the KOA campground. 24/7. 365.
And so I drove to Palmer, gathering with other members of the curious for what turned out to be a well organized demonstration.
Volunteers taped “Casino Traffic” signs onto the sides of our cars. But my friend Judy had gone a step further and driven all the way from Lakeville to Palmer with a bunch of those great “NO CASINO” bumper stickers all over her car windows.
I placed a large CasinoFreeMass sign in my front window and was interviewed while desperately trying to suck the trail mix from my teeth. Meanwhile, cars continued to pull up and form lines in the parking lot. More cars than I had expected, actually, though probably not as many as would be expected if a casino were to be built.
While waiting for the demonstration to begin, organizers and volunteer drivers milled around the parking lot chatting. The Palmerites sounded like we once had. Angry. Outraged. Worried.
We got rolling at 11:00 am. Cars had been assigned into two groups - A and B – and now the two groups headed off down the same route in opposite directions.
And waiting for us along the route were protesters. But unlike the ones you might have found in Middleboro two years ago, these people smiled, waved (some a bit aggressively) and let their signs do the talking. There were no thumbs down, no middle fingers, no teenagers screeching the f-bomb into my children's faces.
Still, after you've lived through that once... I rolled up the windows, turned on the air conditioner and cranked the radio.
One thing I noticed on the route was that the site of the proposed Palmer casino is pretty close to it's downtown. And, it was up on a hill. If built it would loom like a watchtower, a cathedral of greed, disguised as the patron Saint of Palmer, peering into all the lives within this small town. It would be inescapable.
The site was an easy walk from the center, and in fact there were many pedestrians strolling up and down the sidewalks. And so it was easy to imagine locals cashing their checks and blowing them up at the casino within hours - while filling up on free drinks of course, and managing not to return that money to the local economy.
But for the most part, the protesters signs suggested JOBS were the agenda. In fact, I got the impression that a lot of this crowd were union. (Ain't that always the way.)
Casino = Good Jobs, said one sign.
I wish I'd brought a copy of the Forbes 2008 list of worst paying jobs, which included many found at a casino – including the one everyone always assumes is a money maker – 'gaming dealer' – to pass around to them.
Casinos Mean More Policeman said another sign.
“You'll need them,” wishing I'd also thought to bring copies of Grinols casino crime statistics.
The worst part of the simulation, for me, was driving through the center, where we had to stop frequently while frantically waving protesters flanked our cars, inches from our windows. That, and the site of the Mohegan Sun storefront. They had designed it to look like a restaurant. Or maybe a coffee house. Cafe Inevitability. Free refills on low expectations. Fresh pie in the sky served daily. Intimidation a specialty!
There were the obligatory children, prodded by parents to hold pro-casino signs while waving to the crowd as if there were something positive and even wholesome about an industry which offered free booze to separate men and women from their money, along with ATM's in the lobby should they run out, and which has, throughout history, brought financial ruin and misery to countless families.
"Honk if you love casinos!" The protesters were shouting.
There were plenty of honks. But there were plenty of thumbs up and Thank You!s from pedestrians and drivers for us as well.
A pair of bikini-clad girls holding signs advertising a car wash waved on part of the route without protesters. I waved back. Each time me and my Casino Free Mass sign drove by them, they waved harder. On my last trek past, they actually did the wave - just like at Fenway!
As an anti-casino activist, my hopes soared for the next generation - though as a mom I wish they would put more clothes on.
It turned out to be a beautiful day. Sunny skies, white puffy clouds. And Palmer is a pretty town. It reminds me of our small towns here on the South Shore. Strip malls with little restaurants and nail salons. Ancient buildings from another century. Small, neat little houses with yards and container gardens.
Kenny Chesney is crooning on the car radio.
And it's two bare feet on the dashboard
Young love and an old Ford
Cheap shades and a tattoo
And a Yoo-Hoo bottle on the floorboard
Young love and an old Ford
Cheap shades and a tattoo
And a Yoo-Hoo bottle on the floorboard
I'd love to take my shoes off right now, put my tired feet up on the dashboard. I'm beat from the ride here, and bored with this traffic simulation. I want to go home. My stomach growled to remind me it was past my lunch time.
And then it dawned on me – I was bored and cranky because I'd been sitting in a traffic jam for the last 10 minutes.
And there was no end in front of me – and looking behind me – a long line of cars.
We'd proved it. Casino traffic would clog the streets of Palmer. The simulation was a success. Commendations to it's organizers!
On my last, slow trek through town, a shirtless teenaged boy surrounded by friends leaned down, pounded his hairless chest, and hurled the f-bomb as best he could into my sealed mini-van.
"Menace the public if you love casinos!"
The battle for the next generation continues.
Judy and I met up after the simulation, took the signs off our cars and discussed the best way to get back home – but first, we decided – let's take one last drive through town.
The pro-casino forces and their signs were still there, but the simulation was over, the “Casino Traffic” had dispersed and disappeared, and Judy and I breezed quickly through the route and downtown Palmer in a way we hadn't been able to only minutes before.
This observation went unwitnessed by the media, of course. Always on deadline, they seldom seem to stick around to the end. I had my doubts that the story would even be mentioned on the news that night, the next day or in the Sunday paper – though I'm confident that the next casino investor or legislator who pipes up about the wonder of it all will be all over the news for days.
Glenn Marshall or Adam Bond would open their mouths and news trucks showed up. But seventy people drive through a town despite a throng of protestors waving signs - proving casino traffic would cause delays - and it's not considered newsworthy. Truth is boring, I suppose. Statistics and studies are dull.
But we'll know. We were there. And I'm really glad that a casino, with all it's inebriated traffic and smog belching tour buses won't be coming to Middleboro after all.
It was a long day and I slept particularly well that night.
This morning there is nothing about the traffic simulation in the Sunday paper. And nothing on the television news. But, hey - we can all rest assured - there was a big story about a really cute water skiing squirrel.