Friday, June 29, 2012

Five

I remember a startling photograph from the mid-80's - an Atlantic City triple-decker encircled on three sides and from above by the girders of a skyscraper under construction.

The girders belonged to Penthouse publisher and sleeze magnate Bob Guccione who, following the legalization of gambling in Atlantic City, was attempting to erect a towering smut-themed mega casino of his own, only to be foiled by one Vera Coking, a local woman who refused to sell her home, a boarding house which just happened to sit, infuriatingly, in the path of Guccione's unbridled avarice.

Eventually Guccione went bankrupt, the girders came down (but not before a few smoldering cinder blocks fell through the roof), and the sun was allowed to shine on Vera's house once more. But then Coking had to contend with another casino tycoon, The Donald, who wanted to turn her house into a parking lot for his casino.

Over the decades Coking has been offered millions for her house, and was even forced into a lengthy court battle with the city over eminent domain. But she never budged. In fact, she was still living in that house a couple of years ago, and might still be there for all I know.

When I saw that photograph and read Vera's story the first time, I remember thinking that this woman must have been either a little crazy, or a real cool cat. And probably a lot of both. But what I could never have imagined, in a million years, was that someday I'd be standing – sort of - in Vera's shoes.

Five years ago I started this blog thinking, oh I dunno, that I'd be at it maybe a month or two – however long it took for the world to right itself on it's axis and for the notion of the world's biggest casino down the street in Middleboro to vanish mercifully into the vapid void of very bad ideas.

But it didn't. And over the years, the longer I stayed and the more I watched, the worse the nightmare became.

And the world around me was becoming a nightmare too. There were massive bailouts and unemployment and foreclosures and political polarization on a dizzying scale. People took to the streets in protest. (I was one of them.) The law of the land declared that corporations were people - and my inbox began to fill with desperate pleas for contributions to help defend against that monster unleashed.

On any given day Americans could access hundreds of TV channels - yet all of them were obsessed with Lindsey Lohan, and the Kardashian sisters and the Jersey Shore – our daily dose of Aldous Huxley's soma, except that we weren't living in a Brave New World, we were living in a weird scary upside down Donald Trump world where noxious reality show stars are cultural icons, Howard Stern serves as an arbiter of American talent, journalists hack cell phones, banks are the robbers, and casino gambling has become economic policy.

Yesterday a morning show host, a woman who, for 20 years had traveled into combat zones, jumped out of planes, raised money and awareness about heart disease, and could score interviews with people as diverse as Syrian president Bashar Assad, George Clooney and the Dali Lama was fired from her TV “family” - all because she lacked the marketable conviviality of a Rachel Ray.

I mean, when did the world get so freaking shallow?

When I was young I could turn the dial on any radio and find a station playing classical music. I didn't always want to listen to that kind of music – mostly I didn't - but I knew it was there. As I got older I tuned in to those stations more and more, I went to a concerts, visited Tanglewood and purchased scores of classical CDs. And I was the better for it. Even though I had been a little girl growing up poor in a small town I was aware that classical music was valued, that it was an art form and could be beautiful and moving. The TV show 60 Minutes once answered critics who complained that the show did too many interviews with opera signers by replying that they were going to continue doing them anyway.

And that's how it worked. You knew the bad things were there, they always will be, but you knew the finer things were there too.

But now the bad things are no longer a plane ticket away. They come in the mail, run endless commercials on prime time and are enthusiastically supported by a Governor who claims to be a champion of social justice.

Last year my middle schooler told me that a teacher had brought in a deck of cards to help demonstrate some math concepts. The cards, however, were branded with the logo of a popular casino, leading the majority of middle school boys (whose mothers weren't anti-casino activists) into a spirited discussion of how they couldn't wait to go to a casino themselves. When I asked the principal if he'd replace the cards with something more neutral - even offering to buy the new cards myself from a local store - he didn't seem to understand the problem.

And that, my friends, is the problem.

When I was a kid, gambling was the most no-brainer of all of life's potential pitfalls.  It didn't need it's own PSA's.  To kids, smoking could be cool, booze was social and drugs equaled rebellion, but gambling - that was just stupid.  Everyone grew up with cautionary tales about those who lost the inheritance or the house or the family fortune to the chase. The corruption and crime that ran with the industry were well known, even to children. We all understood that there was no faster way to ruin not only your life, but that of your whole family than to place a bet.  That's why you had to go out in to the middle of the desert to do it. Las Vegas was christened 'Sin City' for good reason, and even the word “casino” had an appropriately negative connotation.

Then suddenly there was Atlantic City.  It was still pretty far away. People only went there 'for the shows', but still ended up gambling. Casinos began to swallow up more lives. I never had any reason to think that, decades later, they would swallow my life, too. No one should. Five years ago I could never have imagined a casino would come to my front door. Neither did Foxboro or Brimfield or Taunton. Who'll be next?

Gambling has nothing to do with jobs or economic development or individual liberty.  It has everything to do with channeling limited discretionary income away from the local economy and into the pockets of billionaires and state budgets. Politicians who should know better still think slot machines are a legal way to print money. But c'mon. Casinos aren't charities. Everything comes with a cost.

Newflash: We're the cost.

Somehow, in the past few decades the casino industry managed to win the marketing trifecta - by making gambling seem cool, social and rebellious - all at the same time.

Today's rule of thumb - as long as you can get enough people to tune in, you can become a de facto cultural icon or arbiter of talent or champion of social justice - or whatever you keep saying you are and have the money to promote.  It's the sick reality of the Reality Show Era that reality is essentially irrelevant.

And now it doesn't matter where you live, because there's probably a casino near it.   It doesn't matter if you're responsible and only bring a limited amount of money with you because there'll be ATMs available to spit out more. When the casino runs some software and discovers that you have money invested in your car or house or savings account, they'll even offer you credit, along with a free drink for good measure. If you should win, they might comp you until you lose. If you try to quit for good, they'll send you a coupon for free slot play in the mail. If you're sad or lonely, they'll mail you a birthday card. Because they're your friend. The friend who'll be happy take your house or your money for meds or your kids college fund.

And the people we elect to make our lives better, or at least not screw our lives up more, are in bed with them.

We grow up believing that the bad guys wear black hats, that they command dark armies, travel in Death Stars, and can mobilize flying monkeys at the snap of a bony finger.

But in reality, the bad guys are billionaire octogenarians with bad toupees, spray-on tans and an uncanny ability to dazzle decision makers.

When I went to that first meeting in Middleboro, more than five years ago, there were people in that room who, honestly, acted like they thought “casino” was synonymous with 'Disney World”.

I mean, is that all it takes? A little marketing and a stained glass waterfall?  Really?

We also grow up thinking that the good guys wear white hats, that they wield magic wands and light sabers and big buckets of water.

But the good guys work in cubicles and drive mini-vans and swing hammers and volunteer at the library. They hold signs and wield high expectations. They don't sell out, or give up or 'fight' for mitigation.

For the good guys, there's no price tag for the place they call home.

Good guys might not always have the right stuff, but they do try to do the right thing.

These were the things going through my mind when my daughter broke the silence.

“It's too bad about the Great Dane.”

“What?”

“You know...” my daughter, the future veterinarian was saying, “how the Great Dane only lives for five years. Kind of sad.”

“Oh I don't know,” I replied, trying to offer the adult perspective. “you can fill a lot into five years.”

This blog, and my life, for the last five years have been a sort of microcosm of what's been happening in the rest of the world. The good, the bad, and the awful. I've often used The Wizard of Oz as an analogy for my experiences, but I can assure you, Dorothy Gale's wild, weird and wicked journey has nothing on mine.

Here's a story.  Back in 2009, with the Carcieri decision was announced, I bought a couple of bottles of champagne, and a friend and I popped a cork on one of them out at the Middleboro ex-casino site. I was so relieved - because I thought that that whole part of this fight was over. A month earlier Adam Bond had ended his infamous political career like the heroine in a Puccini opera - so that was another thing I figured was over and done. The flying monkeys were getting tired too, so that was good. Now, I knew, I could focus on the future. I told everyone I was going to 'retire' in June. I was going to write a book.

That June would have marked this blog's second birthday.

But instead I got an 11th hour call from Bob Massie asking me to help create another web site, another anti-casino organization that was going to try to prevent the passage of gambling legislation at the State level through education and political action. And I tried, I did, to say 'no'. But it was no good. And somehow, another three years went by. Bob wrote his own book. And I'm still waiting for this damn story to end.

Will it ever?  Or does it just come around full circle again. This year I've watched other communities around the State forced to go through what we went through. My own community was targeted momentarily for a casino by the Mashpee Tribe - making the choice to build in another location the by far the smartest thing Cedric Cromwell ever did. A certain Limo driver was back briefly enough to cause trouble, and even perpetual ringworm Adam Bond returned to the stage for a fourth act.

I started to hear names I hadn't heard in years. Someone who'd tried to discredit me and my fellow casino opponents 4 years earlier suddenly wanted to 'friend' me on Facebook. Middleboro, where my children where once verbally assaulted by adults during a 2007 demonstration, instituted a swearing ban. The Plainville Board of Selectmen are Middleboro's Dogstock era redeux. But mostly, folks seemed reinvigorated. Ready to fight. Once more into the breach.

But not me.

People don't visit web sites or read lengthy blog posts anymore, they don't want to hear about testimony or sign-waving or petition signings or traffic simulations - or any of the triumphs and travails of protests past.  Instead they want two short paragraphs on why the Mashpee can't get land in trust.  Preferably with a funny graphic.  They want links to articles written by some journalist they never heard of but which prove a point they've been trying to make. They want some hack lawyer to tell them what they want to hear. Pro bono.

Has it meant anything? All this work, all this time?  Maybe not.

Or maybe that question is still on the table.

And what table would be complete without a good bottle of wine? Fortunately I held on to that other bottle of champagne - and it's a good one - just waiting for some momentous occasion to use it.

My fifth birthday as a blogger seems appropriate, and so tonight I'll raise a glass and offer a toast.

To all the good guys and cool cats who've walked this yellow brick road before me, to those of you who've just joined, and most dearly, to those of you who've traveled it alongside me for so long, like Vera Coking and her little house - we may have been overshadowed by casinos, betrayed by our own government, and forced to dodge more than a few smoldering cinder blocks, but, also like her, we've stood firm in our convictions, remained stubborn, unyielding, and vigilant. We have striven, against all odds and in our own ways, to set the world back on it's axis. The better, finer world we should expect. And we can be proud of that, even if a lot of people think we're just crazy.

It's true, you really can fill a lot into five years.

So what's a few months... or five years... or as long as it takes.

Because, after all, there's no place like home.


3 comments:

Middleboro Remembers said...

Well said!

Last night, a friend described the scene at a local 'market' each Thursday and Friday as workers cash their paychecks to buy scratch tickets, so desperate for the financial security of the BIG WIN, they scratch the tickets without departing.

These are people close to retirement lacking funds to do so, convinced the BIG WIN is only a scratch ticket away.

Lottery product sales in Middleboro are + $16 million, even as well meaning town leaders opposed the CPA [Community Preservation Act] because homeowners couldn't afford the estimated cost of $35 per year for a brighter future.

When the Commonwealth and Steve Grossman, champion of 'Everyone Else is Doing IT' legalizes personal destruction from your home computer, the lines in the market will disappear.

Who ever thought we would see government betrayal and such widespread acceptance?

Gladys Kravitz said...

Not me, MR. I always thought the world was supposed to inch forward a little with every generation, not slide back.

Anonymous said...

Have to admire Vera Coking. Tenaciouly stood her ground and beat out the big guys. We cannot give up. There are more than just a few of us. Let us all emulate Vera!

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