Wheels of Fortune

Craig Lassig

IT'S 11:40 ON a Friday morning and the bus is right on time. There are only a handful of us waiting at the rusty Metro Transit shelter on 36th and Lake on this balmy day; we scatter among the 47 seats, settling in for the one-hour trip to Mystic Lake Casino. The bus heaves to a stop at Cedar Avenue, Bloomington Avenue, and a few other Lake Street corners before heading south on I-35W past sprawling car dealerships where most of the passengers can't afford to shop.

Trumpeted in advertising throughout the casino ("Odds Are, You'll Like Our Free Rides"), this charter is one of seven making twice-a-day trips throughout Minneapolis, St. Paul, and a few first-ring suburbs. It's part of Mystic's guest service, explains spokeswoman Patti Nystuen. Many of the customers are elderly, she says, "and they don't always want to drive. We can take them right there."

By the time the 40-foot, yellow-and-blue behemoth stops outside a gas station in Richfield, 10 hopefuls are on board, all traveling alone except for the white-haired elderly couple directly behind the driver. Some stare out the windows, others let the hum and sway of the ride lull them into a nap. Nobody will let me use their name: "I'm sure the neighbors already think I'm a crazy old lady," confides an older woman at the back of the bus. A few seats away, Denise--39 years old, flannel shirt, torn jeans--is solving mind-benders inside a puzzle magazine. It helps her pass time on the ride down; after she loses, the puzzles keep her occupied until the bus returns her to reality. She's been going to Mystic Lake regularly since it opened in 1990.

"Sometimes I have good days," she says. "But more often I don't. I come from a family of gamblers. When I was growing up, we played cribbage, gin, and poker for money. I used to play a lot of bingo [at Mystic], but the jackpots are less now and the cards cost more. So I play a lot of blackjack instead. The money lasts longer."

Denise says she has the day off from her job as an aide to children with disabilities. A $100 bill is tucked into her rust-colored vest, but she left her checkbook and credit cards at home. "They make it too easy to get more money. I don't come on paydays. It's just like a drug high." She glances out the window at the neon signs we're passing as the bus approaches Mystic Lake. "You can see the check-cashing places and the pawn shops that are out here now."

For a while Denise toyed with slot machines but has since switched to blackjack. "Slots are crazy," she says matter-of-factly. "You get hypnotized." She remembers rushing to stuff coins into the machines at a Las Vegas casino, when flashing lights promised triple payouts. She lost $1,000 that day.

Then there was the time--Denise was still a teenager--when her mother pulled the family station wagon into Reno on the way to Disneyland. While Denise and a carload of siblings and cousins waited, mom ran inside to try her luck. The vacation fund disappeared and the folks back home had to wire more money. Denise hopes to write a book some day: "I've got a lot of good stories."

As the casino draws nearer, she cautions a beginner. "You ride the buses and all you hear is so-and-so saying he wins all the time. It's not true. And it's not all recreation money that's being spent [at the casino]. It's rent money and NSP money, too. I've screwed up my finances. It's an expensive hobby." She pauses. "I'm talking myself out of going as I'm telling you this."

Inside the casino, the flashing lights break through the cigarette haze, spelling out the games: Diamond Mine, Black Rhino, Leap Frog, Double Red White Blue, Filthy Rich. The latter features a haute pig in a top hat and bow tie. Watch the gamblers closely, Denise tells me as we part. "Only a small percentage of them are enjoying themselves." She doesn't return for the ride home.

Just last week, after six years of providing trips to and from the city, Mystic Lake Casino celebrated its one-millionth rider. Among the prizes were one month of free bingo, $100 in coins for the slot machines, and something bound to make anyone feel like a winner: a ride to the casino in a limousine.

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