Not all change is good

Fall in Vermont is gorgeous. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that, but every time I look out my window I get the urge to say it. And it isn’t only the feeling of walking through a forest aflame that makes it so gorgeous, it’s also the change. For months everything has been green, muggy, hot and sunny. Then mid-September hits and it’s like summer never happened. School starts again, there are holidays to look forward to, and though the trees are dying it feels like the beginning of something. A new start.

Change is inevitable, whether it’s natural like fall or forced by man like the razing of old buildings to lay down shopping centers. It can be either bad or good, depending on how you look at things, but for the most part I enjoy it. At the very least there’s something new to experience. I’d felt that way for a long time, but something happened last weekend that made me re-examine my idea of change.

My mom and I drove down to Massachusetts to spend some time with my grandmother and her boyfriend, Dwight. Since the women were going shopping, Dwight decided to take me over the border to Rhode Island to a casino called Lincoln Park. It had been solely a dog racing track a few years back and the casino was being built around it. I’d never been to a casino or a dog race and didn’t consider myself a betting man, by any standard, but since it was new I knew I’d enjoy myself.

Dog racing is something that Dwight had been into for years and for the full 30 minutes it took to get there I got a crash course in the art of betting on dog racing. And it is an art. So many factors go into placing a bet on a dog. For example: if the dog in starting box three – towards the inside – likes to run on the outside, and the dogs in boxes four and five like to run on the inside, you can count those three dogs out because they’ll probably run into each other trying to get to where they excel.

By the time we got there Dwight had me more excited about seeing the dogs than the actual casino. The building was huge; shabby looking because of the construction but still impressive. I could see the stories-high wall of glass that looked out onto the dog track from where we were walking, but it soon went out of view behind the high orange walls of the main building.

Once inside I learned that this casino was exclusive. There were no card tables and the only way to gamble here was slot machines. Not the coin-operated, coin spewing, pull-on-the-lever machines of old, but high-tech slots. These machines were all computerized, with video screens showing the bars. Paper money was put into the machines to play and receipts were given when something was won. There were rooms -huge rooms – filled with lines and lines of machines, dozens of kinds. Some had medieval themes, others fishing or animals.

We sat down and started playing, moving when we felt a machine was treating us badly. After winning $80 I finally began to lose money so we headed for the track. The noise and lights of the game rooms were a bit overwhelming and it seemed like everywhere I sat there was a 70-year old woman, bent over, hands trembling with age, chain smoking directly into my face. One can only handle so much of that.

The door to the track seemed hidden on purpose, snuggled between the end of a bar and a Dunkin’ Donuts stand. There was no sign and only a small window in the door to show you where you’re going.

There are no windows in any of the rooms of the casino, making the light streaming in from the track seem alien. The room is massive, with the entire front wall taken up by the viewing window and the rest of the room set up like a stadium, seats all the way up and down. Each seat is set up like a desk, with a place in front of you to set your program and drinks, and a flat-screen monitor to see the track up close.

As we sat waiting for the next race to begin, I watched the people sitting around me. Not nearly as many as had been playing the slots and the age range was narrow. College students to grandmothers played the slots. Everyone in this room looked older than 50, many in jackets, hats and sunglasses. They all looked like betting men. The room itself looked old, even though half of it was under “renovation”.

As I watched the old-timers walk by with their betting slips, I realized that once the rest of the casino was finished, it was only a matter of time before this room is converted into more slots.

And then the dogs started to run. Muscled, sleek, beautiful animals. Eight of them at a time, dirt exploding under their paws like mini landmines, their legs coming together with each stride in almost mechanical precision. While they ran, I almost forgot they were animals. They looked too perfect. Only when they finished and grouped around their handlers, tails wagging with excitement no matter what place they came in, did they look like regular dogs again.

After four races we left, walking back into the neon and noise of the slot machines, the slot machines that 30 minutes before had seemed fine. Now they seemed like a replacement for the dog races which were slowly passing their prime.

Not that electronic slot machines are inherently bad. Mindless entertainment has its place. I’ve never been one to turn down a game of Halo. It’s when mindless entertainment takes the place of something as involved and beautiful as dog racing that it becomes irritating. It takes intelligence, skill, experience and a gift to consistently bet well in dog racing. Anyone with fingers can push a button.

As we walked outside to the car I glanced up at the trees, blazing bright oranges, reds and yellows, dying for the snows and growing back green and full in the spring. Change can be a beautiful thing and those colors reminded me of that. But the dinging of the bell to signal the next race as we walked off reminded me of something else: that change can be ugly, knowing that if I visit again I might not have an opportunity to see those dogs. All I’ll have are the slots.

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