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NIAGARA FALLS - At the Fallsview Casino, the toilet stall is the only place I feel comfortable. Not so much for the relative tranquility as for the fact that I am finally sure I am not being watched.
At last I can take out my phone and my notebook. Electronic devices are highly discouraged on the casino floor, and I don't want to find out what they think about paper and pens.
Among my jottings: "represents the worst of society: a place that hates people, means to take your money." Well, yes. A casino is its own little dystopian security state. For a place that wants to seem inviting and comfortable, it provokes a great deal of anxiety. Rules, cameras, facial recognition software. Like an airport whose only destination is itself.
As I sit on the toilet, directly in front of me at eye level is a coat hook. It is smack in the middle of the door, far lower than what one typically encounters. This is true of all the washrooms at Fallsview. And there could be any number of wonderful reasons why it might be convenient to have a coat hook in this place, but in my high-strung state of mind it occurs to me that it would be impossible for a person to hang himself from it.
Niagara Falls, Ontario, is a city bifurcated along absurdly stark lines.
The train station is 2.5 kilometres north of the falls themselves, at the top end of a place you might suspect people actually live. A couple of blocks away is Queen Street. It is no more or less remarkable than the main drag of any small southern Ontario city. There is even the requisite Coffee Culture.
Were it not for the numerous signs advising that the stretch is overseen by the Downtown Niagara Falls Business Improvement Area, I would not realize this was, in fact, the downtown.
My childhood memories of Niagara Falls are of funhouses and motion-simulator rides. When I was six or seven, nothing dazzled me more than a city that doubled as a theme park: a place where, instead of clothing stores lining a street, you'd find haunted houses and arcades. But on Queen there was a city hall, and it wasn't in the shape of Frankenstein's monster.
The slot machines crowding the floor are designed to be reminiscent of video games. While a handful of old-fashioned devices have levers and wheels, the majority use high-resolution LCD screens and buttons you press to spin and place bets. Many are themed after licensed properties: Sex And The City, Grease, The Wizard Of Oz, American Idol. Tabasco Sauce.
Two banks of slots depict The Dark Knight. A giant screen plays clips from the movie. A subwoofer growls to emphasize each spin.
Such gimmickry is necessary since slot machines don't have much else to offer: they don't even spit out coins any more, instead producing tinny electronic clinking sounds while printing out slips of paper that display your current balance. Playing one is all the fun of going to an ATM.
The most enjoyable game I encounter is the Wild West-themed shooting gallery at the Great Canadian Midway on Clifton Hill. It costs $1 to play and involves aiming a light gun at targets that react with jerky mechanical movements.
Clifton Hill is the family-friendly amusement area located across the river from the American falls, a handful of city blocks studded with wax museums and moderate thrill rides.
Strolling here from the actual downtown involves a jarring psycho?geographic leap; banks and independent shops give way to an explosion of U.S. franchises not frequently found in Ontario: Denny's, T.G.I. Friday's, Applebee's, Perkins.
On Victoria Avenue, a sign marks the crossover: "Entering Clifton Hill (Tourist Area)." The portion in parentheses presumably serves the dual function of assisting wayward visitors and warning actual Niagara Falls residents to turn away.
At this juncture sits Casino Niagara. Originally opened in 1996 to serve as a temporary facility while the more ambitious Fallsview was being developed, it has remained in business, and was even renovated in 2005.
On Family Day Monday, it is densely populated with older people who dutifully sit feeding money into the 1,500 slots. As the machines' noises combine to form sonorous harmonies, waves of major chords wash over the gaming floor. To some, this is perhaps heaven.
One thing about being in a casino is that you can never know for sure who is seeking a diversion and who is seeking something else. When a person drops many hundreds or thousands of dollars at a table game, you don't know whether they have plentiful disposable funds for gambling or are betting away their house. But from snippets of overheard conversations, you get a sense of which players the dealers know and recognize and are truly sad to see lose.
The Market Buffet serves Dr. Pepper Pork Chops. They taste like neither Dr. Pepper nor pork.
Jutting out of Casino Niagara are the ruins of the Kodak Tower, a long-shuttered observation facility. A superficial effort has been made to pretty it up, which included adorning each side with the word "CASINO" in vertical red letters. On the south face, however, the letter "A" has burned out, leaving the skyline with
A 20-minute walk away is the Fallsview Casino Resort. Opened in 2004, it is by far the most dazzling edifice in the city: a beautiful, sculptural thing exuding a perfect multicoloured glow. It occupies prime land directly opposite the Horseshoe Falls; at least a quarter of its site is dedicated to a five-storey parking facility for 3,000 cars.
Its atrium is dominated by the Hydro-Teslatron, a steampunk-inspired light-and-water installation that might have been stolen from a touring production of Wicked. The place tries very hard to be Vegas.
Down a corridor off to the side is the Responsible Gaming Resource Centre. It is sparse and white, like an unremarkable doctor's office. Other than a lone person staffing the desk, no one is inside. It is considerably less exciting than the Teslatron.
The gaming floor at Fallsview is much nicer than Casino Niagara's, in every conventional sense: more warmly lit, with fancier ceilings and lusher carpets. It even smells better. And it's one broad level that stretches on forever, with twice as many slots and thrice as many tables. It's even busier, and the average age of the throng is definitely younger.
I hate it here.
It is loud, claustrophobic and hypnotic. Every detail is calibrated to maximize the sum extracted from each person. Nothing is reciprocal. The money flows in one direction, and the CCTV cameras gaze in the other.
It is a golden-hued, beating heart pulsing money into the Ontario treasury. Everyone inside it is a Morlock, toiling away, handing over cash, keeping the system going.
The only game at which I am passable is blackjack. Even with a gambling budget furnished by NOW, I cannot bring myself to attempt any of the other table games. I wouldn't even know where to begin.
The lowest-stakes tables at Fallsview call for a minimum bet of $15 per hand. Securing an empty seat at one is a challenge.
The etiquette of the game is elaborate but also a mystery, at least at first. My inexperience is evident in my sweat, and I feel very much the interloper. Everyone else seems to have spent many hours at these tables putting unnerving sums of money on the line.
Almost immediately after I sit down, the floor supervisor asks if I have a Players Advantage Club card. I do, having signed up for one earlier. (PAC cards tally an individual's spending at both casinos in Niagara Falls. Officially, this is for the purpose of doling out rewards, but is probably more about tracking consumer habits. As such, it's not too different from the Shoppers Optimum program.) I hand him the card, and he darts to a computer terminal. Soon, apparently satisfied with whatever he saw, he hands it back and wishes me luck. Later, it would cross my mind this may very well be standard practice when anyone sits down at a table. But at that moment, petrified of everything around me, it is the least comfortable thing in the world and comes across as subtle intimidation.
I feel dirty and gross. Upon leaving the casino, I scribble in my notes: "awful, terrifying, degrading experience." And I have actually won money.
I would never let a corporation treat me this way: subjugating me, putting me in my place, watching me, tracking me, demanding I follow abundant rules - all for the purpose of giving them money. To step into my hotel across the street and suddenly remember that what I have just decamped from is actually an arm of the government is more than a little horrifying.
Unable to bring myself to return to Fallsview, I head back to Casino Niagara the next day. It is less busy than on the holiday but still steadily buzzing on a Tuesday afternoon. Everything moves at a senior's pace, and as a novice this suits me just fine. The entire enterprise is precisely as mediocre as one would hope a government-run casino would be.
The staff are friendlier. It is gentler. I win more money. And I will never, ever come back.
In the parking lot outside Casino Niagara, bolted to a concrete wall, is a green sign.
Casinos try very hard to obscure their negative impacts on people's lives. But every so often, there is a rupture in the façade through which the reality comes poking.
"Any person who leaves a child unattended on this property, including all parking facilities, while they are visiting Casino Niagara may be banned from this facility for a period of up to five years."
And, for of all the mild entertainment I experienced during my time in Niagara Falls, I cannot help but consider myself lucky, and wonder which people had to learn which lessons in all of the hardest possible ways.