I’m here at the “Full of Crepe,” finally having found some decent breakfast, more than a mile from my hotel at the Sands Casino in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. This isn’t the first amusing appellation on my trip out here. The “Actia”- not to be confused with the painful social disease- transport group, owners of big local bus carrier Trans Bridge, took me here, smoothly, and without any judgmental looks. However, after getting settled into the bus, tired from standing and already drowsy from the sun filling the blank wide panes… of the windows…… I was ready… ready to…
“MAY I PLEASE HAVE YOUR ATTENTION?!!!!!
The speaker was so loud not only its box but the metal connecting it to the window frame reverberated. My ears buzzed. I was frightened out of my low energy state. I scrabbled to try to sit up, to get the threat into frame.
“WELCOME TO TRANS-BRIDGE BUSLINES…
Yes, my brain ceded the field to the intruder inside it while I tried to get to higher ground and asses the threat. YES YOU HAVE MY FUCKING ATTENTION. HELP!
“…AN ACTIA ENTERPRISE. WE WANT TO WISH YOU A WONDERFUL…
The voice was hybrid, a voice from the future age of man machines. It was hopelessly casual, expressing the way business wants to get right up in one’s business. “Hey there, guys and gals, let me just get right up and comfortable in your cooch, there we go, I’ve got some great prices you are going to love to hear about…” Yet it was also robotic and painfully inflected, a male voice but immasculine and groveling as it was loud. Its real moment of humanity came at the end, when the voice actor lost his nerve and automated tone, trailing off, unable to help registering a subconscious complaint against the final, objectless injunction to:
“…TAKE YOUR TRASH AND DISPOSE OF… properly.”
Hey, we’ve all had bad days buddy. It’s a paycheck.
GOING HOME TO HAVE A DRINK AND CALL MOM AND DAD FOR FIFTH LOAN. HAVE A GREAT DAY AND THANK YOU FOR GETTING ACTIA!!!
That passes. When I emerge from the nether land of sleepless, dreaming travel, the first thing I see is what appears to be a giant piece of a suspension bridge, raised on pillars. “Sands” it tells us, in that slightly Arabic cursive all gamblers recognize. Beyond, a true sight: great and rusted smokestacks, elevated as if on an aircraft carrier, dwarf the sign, the mysterious metal structure it is affixed to, and the entire casino and hotel complex.
When I stumble into my room, I throw open the shades. I now see the steel contraption again, this time from the reverse. I have no idea what it is, except that it must be a reference to an industry now gone but whose influence upon this tiny town will clearly never leave. It faces a hillside of triple deckers, the homes and dwellings of a fallen working class. This vision of change and loss unsettles me much more than the absurd PA on the bus. The hard tidy streets, clean and empty now, must have taken thrift and strength to live and raise children in. There are lines of churches of different congregations, indicating the hopeful waves of an immigrant work force- and the need to stick to together. Most notably, all the houses are bunched, still huddled it seemed, around the fire of an industry whose embers have long since turned to ash. Yet now there is only the Sands gambling resort and hotel, which is surely all light yet no heat. The suspended metal contraption has the seriousness of a monolith, a grave marker washed up by a typhoon of irresistible history.
Ah yes, the total death of a way of life. Who’s in the mood for cards?
Maybe later. The queen bed (with sheets! Sheets!) is my first time off of a sofa in ten days and it is better than ten showers. When I awake from a deep nap, having shaken off a week of noise, alcohol and cigarettes, I am renewed. My own personal industry of card playing, one that is not at all extinct, fuels my life and the time off has left me restless and incomeless. Should you try out playing for a living, no matter what you tell yourself, you’ll likely take a while in getting used to, not the idea, but the fact that there is no paycheck coming. There are no bailouts for your final series of mistake; not unlike The Steel, as the residents apparently called it. So my internal alarm clock has told me that it’s time to take a vacation from my vacation. Mr. P needs work!
The Sands Casino is modeled and themed on the city’s famous industry. The floor space is wide as a hangar. Its ceiling is all steel or at least has the appearance of steel. The comfortable color of a particularly clean shade of rust dominates; this is an incredibly attractive and almost manly casino environment compared to most of the places we poker players have to hang out in. (Think of the Wynn, one of the best rooms in Vegas and my personal favorite: the casino is colored in Bridesmaid’s pink and scented like one.) The center of the room, as with many casino floors, is a bar. It is encircled by curved metal, slanted and hung like a slinky. It is impressive, reassuring, unfussy design, and together with the grand spaciousness, it’s easy to feel comfortable here.
The grand scheme, however, fades into the details of the casino floor, which, inevitably, is like every casino ever made. There is no hiding the brutal nature of the slot machine, one of the most hideous contraptions ever conceived by man. I find it hard to believe in what I am doing when I walk among these blue pill death machines, even if my game bears no more resemblance to theirs than the moon does to earth, because we do share the orbit.
The poker room is just south of the bar, in the open space of the casino, and next to fried food and drinks lounge, panderingly called Steelworks. (The line between acknowledgement and condescension is often fine.) The effort to refry mozzarella jalapeño balls and pop the caps off beer bottles is probably not particularly reminiscent of the bankrupt steel giant which provided the girders for the Golden Gate Bridge and built a naval ship a day in 1943. I will stay away from this pile of crap. Besides, it’s time to play.
Unfortunately, poker at the Sands for the first two days will be nothing more than its own effort to bankrupt me. Every donk just has to suckout on me at the Sands; every flip is clearly with a three sided coin. At one point an active and loose blowhard four bet ships 88 on me; I call it off with AK, and when he stacks me, he reaches over precipitously for my chips, not waiting for the dealer, as if he was just due them, like his pair was an invoice he needed to deliver. “Sir, you owe me your buy in, I have, let me check, a middle pair, so that will be $500- oh you had two cards, as well? Uh, that’s interesting. If you could just sign here…”
During one session, I’ve been so card dead that when I peek down and see AA preflop, I have to look at it three times. I practically look up guilty to see if anyone has caught me (what a fish). I couldn’t believe it! It felt like I had been dealt a set. My opponent who cracks them, however, had no such feeling about my holding. He babbles to the rest of the table while he collects his chips. I can only stare at the K6 he flatted out of the blinds, a hand almost worse than a bluff catcher against a tourist’s UTG range, but which he had decided to go to the river with facing my raise/bet/bet/bet line on 864J6. “I thought I was good the whole way! Yadayadaya squeak squeak squack…” Usually I remember everything, including what people say, but this time, as he burbled on, I was depressed and out of it. His mouth moved but I was not hearing. A whole summer of this, a whole summer of punishment, from the day I returned from Vegas and the Colossus trip. I studied this little man with giant, swinging tits and a pregnant belly while he babbled to the table. His voice pinched like a cartoon rat’s. He wore sunglasses. He actually had some sort of metallic half-sphere, the exact diameter of a chip, which he placed on his smallest stack, creating a personal totem choad. Why do I lose to these people? Why does he get the full head of hair and I have to look like a gulag survivor? When he stands up to relax after the stress of putting one on me, I see he is wearing a “Coke- the real thing t-shirt” and those half-shoes with the individual toes, except this particular pair have no last joint. He’s wearing, in essence, armored opened toed gloves on his feet. Do those have a name? Was he in fact a Hobbit? Why do I play this game?
After enough of this, I go straight to the drinking and eating, and console myself at, yes, Emeril’s. It’s a silly place, perhaps, one of those add-this-thing-that’s-on-the-menu-elsewhere-to-your-entree-to-make-it-even-better-corporate-chef ideas, but it is basic and satisfying. Washed down with Lambrusco, a low-alcohol effervescent red wine well suited to the poker player’s need for sharpness, my dinner seems terrific, and I cheer up. However, it’s time to get outside and get something out of this trip besides bad beats and chopped salad.
I hit the visitor center and one and am one of two people assigned to Alyssa the tour guide. Alyssa is a native, and her father and family worked for The Steel. She took us across most of the campus, but in fact, it is too immense for an hour and a half tour, covering 1800 of acres on the Lehigh river.
The town and its industries were started by a religious sect called the Moravians (no surprise from the name of the town and the ever recurring need to recreate paradise). The Moravians trace their lineage to Jan Hus, one of the reformationists of the 15th century (think Martin Luther), who wanted his Catholic Mass in his native Czech. Hus was, alas, burned at the stake. The Hussites became the Moravians, and the ones that ended up on the Lehigh in Pennsylvania naturally enough sought to build a self-sustaining community, somewhat apart from mainstream culture. The list of trades they quickly had in place is impressive; I was wrong to think this was a one-trick town. The Moravians Christened the city on Christmas Eve in a stable, appropriately enough, of 1741, which explains the name all the more.
Alyssa took us through the buildings which revealed the rapid rise not just of the company, but of the U.S. The wood and stone structures quickly needed to be added onto, marking The Steel’s growth, like tree rings or layers of soil deposits. The company itself, out of the iron foundries and early incarnations, was incorporated in 1867. Very quickly the company needed more workers to meet industrial America’s need, and immigrants were called from all corners of the world. The influence of the Moravians seems to have diminished while fortunes and great, great things, were made. Without Bethlehem Steel’s wide flange girders and the rolling mill, there are no skyscrapers. The seventy-one ton axle of the Chicago World’s Fair Ferris Wheel was made with Bethlehem iron, the largest casting yet made. By the time World War II was on, the company employed a true city of tens of thousands, fulfilling the self-reliant vision of the Moravians, with its own internal police and fire departments. Its products were at the heart and soul of industrial America. The Steel spread other foundries all over the states.
How could such a behemoth extinct itself? The answer is not that complex. Much like GM and other seminal American companies, its terrible deals with its union and the promised entitlements it could not neither plan for adequately nor afford once the post war boom closed, created an untenable burden. The corpse always rots from the head and blaming the hands is foolish. It’s equally true that demand for the metal declined. Innovation slowed at Bethlehem, despite a massive investment in a research facility on the hill overlooking the plant (it’s now part of Lehigh U.) The seventies and eighties were a terrible time for the market, but it’s telling that the chief competitor, USX, still survives and escaped its own crises. The thrift and care of the original Moravians was not, ultimately, to be the Bethlehem legacy. After all, what is in a name?
Before I head back for rest and relaxation, I take one extra round on the plant and the remaining furnaces. They are titanic, and the entire apparatus is raised off the ground, as if the assembly of the steel took place aboard an aircraft carrier. The twists and turns of piping are too great and numerous to comprehend, as if I were an ant trapped in the engine compartment of a submarine. The ruin is complete. Everything is rusted, and signs of wildness abound. Grass grows everywhere, from any bit of dirt the seeds can attach to. In one of the hangers, a large tree is protruding from an upper floor, sticking its head out like a giraffe. Yet the place and time of the disaster is not so distant that the power of the furnaces seem truly vacant. Could such a place come alive again? Probably not, but the power of even its remains are deeply impressive.
Day three breakfast is at the Lodge on Fourth, and does not auger well. It’s a coalition of competing interests, with an abysmal breakfast straight out of a Montana diner, Cuban sandwiches for lunch, six kinds of drip coffee prepared (with both pitchers of cream and the little packaged shots. Most disconcerting is the Wall of Fame of the Mentally Ill, where a local artist has painted portraits of minor and major celebrities who have struggled with mental illness. This is no sardonic hipster collection however. All the sitters, including one particularly gassy looking Abraham Lincoln, have been given glowing, semi-heroic treatments in easy colors. Large glass placards more suggestive of an expensive gallery or even a museum sit below, several reading Diagnosed Thriving with Mental Illness. Underneath every veneer of normalcy, the truth awaits, and this small town is no different.
This final day of poker is the rubber match. It’s time to just win, baby. Do what I’m supposed to do. I start by running a very convincing bluff line to start off, raising a straightening card and then firing the river big. Apparently my bluff was deeply convincing, so well executed that my big talking, big bicepped opponent only called with the nuts. As Christian Soto likes to argue, LOL.
I’m staggered, here in the early going, and add on, not deep, as I am just too inured to running bad these days. I haven’t won a flip at 5/10 all summer, and that has been an expensive lesson in probability. However, something finally breaks my way.
With a losing image, I open AA, pick up five callers, and end up check raising, as planned, the draw heavy flop over a bet and a call. This action gets the player who would have won out of the hand, and I end up showing down the Aces up for the win versus a player who himself shoved over my check raise with a combo draw. I’ve taken this line for big profits in 2015, and have only been shown the flopped nuts once, demonstrating that there really aren’t as many monsters under the bed as you might think. That part to my long ball style has worked well this year. I’m up, and really only go forward from there.
I pick up a nice pot against an obvious reg who tries to steal from me. I bet/call the flop with queen high and let him fire every street, letting him rep the ace. The jig is up, however, on the river, when the ace pairs, and my call is made easier. He tries to value bet bluff it, which is interesting. I wonder if there was a sizing I would have folded to? Having made a pair, could I have made a sick value raise? Probably no point.
I then get in a turn float/river bluff versus Musclehead and show him to get things going. It’s a nice pick up of chips but he doesn’t tilt, just grumbles a bit, revealing himself to be a levelheaded guy. We’ve all been bluffed and getting excited is really for headcases, so good for him. I try a few more moves, but as my energy flags, so it seems the deck is just determined to get back at me. I lose a bunch trying a pretty well thought out check raise on a paired board as the preflop raiser, trying to make my hand look like AK on KK4, but my opponent has trips or better and is having none of it. I get out of the bluff, and within a few orbits, am calling it a session. I’ve taken three days of tough outcomes and turned them into that paycheck.
Winning, of course, makes everything grand, and I can stroll through the Sands one more time. It’s big. I have a terrible Manhattan, warm and sweet. I pass a section where apparently only Asians are allowed; I hope there is another separate but equal Baccarat room for the rest of us! Some sort of concert is about to go on in one corner of the hanger. More restaurants and lots of cheesecake if that is your thing.
In this convention center of tourism, a kind of living museum has been erected. It is not filled with the relics and knickknacks and history of America the proud, like the Visitor Center or the desolate Steel campus, but of their real progeny, pathetically hooked up to slots machines.
However, I am having a subtle change of heart about the Sands and Bethlehem. As much as I was originally distraught, my feelings of remorse or nostalgia were perhaps misplaced. It turns out that the metallic bridge that the Sands logo is mounted upon is not a contrivance at all, nor is it a bridge. It’s the upper part of a rolling apparatus that brought ore to the furnaces. It had not been cantilevered upward in showmanship and publicity, but was sitting where it went to rest, as the final vats of ore were delivered to the furnaces in 1995, and the mill slowly wound down all operations. The structure is where it proudly belongs.
I asked Alyssa about feelings in the town toward the casino, and she was surprisingly positive. One of the buildings in at Bethlehem Steel was used to retrain employees and help locals make the switch. In my romanticization of the loss, I had forgotten more element truths: most people are just trying to get by. They have, in fact, their priorities straighter than the people who look up to them. This does not make them great or not, but it takes away our need to pity them.
Things are not entirely what they seem, which is in fact always the case yet easy to forget. The foot gloved weasel’s t-shirt might in fact be a sly reference to a very different kind of coke: the coal fuel that is dumped into the steel furnaces. As ridiculous as he is- I see him again, milling about the poker room like an urban rat, poking at the tables- it’s his town, his house. Maybe the foot gloves are just slippers for a person who doesn’t need to go far from home, and I’m out of line.
The casino has been good to the community. The jobs are real, and the space is built to remind them of what they had before. I can’t excuse the dulled minds of the slot players, nor should their pathos be overlooked, but if these are the children of Bethlehem Steel, one must also look to the parents. No one’s life is an island, no one lives without influence. Had the plant broken earlier, who is to say the same workers one glamorizes would not be just as depressing. When I saw the photo of the final metal pour, what struck me was how not all the faces were somber. Several workers smiled or at least met the camera’s eye defiantly. Lives, in other words, go on, whether casting or rolling.
Here in the overgrown fields of old America, a poker player is a dark tourist, flitting about an economy designed to look after these children of The Steel. In the past, when the children of so many decades shrieked at the clamor of the twenty four factory, the adults admonished them, “be frightened of when the plant makes no more noise.” We in the poker economy today should take note of this parable, and be glad of what we have.
As I took my last steps in the Sands, the down escalator led me into an entirely quiet hallway. Every few paces, amazing relics: plans for the furnaces were encased in glass, hidden in plain sight on the anodyne walls. I strolled the empty floor and marveled at their complexity and seriousness. Everything here is silent, but above, the sounds of the casino buzzed: tinkle, whirl, hurray. Someday, someone may look at these blueprints for extraordinary things and be inspired, even in this place of degeneracy and forgetfulness, to create and build. All things, even here, where so many go to lose themselves and simply to lose, have a time and so perhaps some unknown purpose.
Time to go.