Day 1: A small, bird-like woman in a white satin jacket and matching mane perches on the curb in front of a Wells Fargo in south Minneapolis on a Sunday morning. At 11:41 a.m., a huge purple bus coasts to a stop right in front of her. The woman closes her book and takes the first spot at the front of the bus.
Mystic Lake Casino has 13 of these shuttles, sweeping up gamblers each day from around the Twin Cities.
On this day, they're almost all retirement age and alone.
Our gaudily colored bus winds through Uptown, rolling past patio brunchers. They stop, mid-bite, and gawk. Some burst out laughing.
Twenty minutes later the tree-lined scenery gives way to big-box furniture stores and hotels. Beyond this stretch, the town of Prior Lake seems like a few enormous cul-de-sacs blocked on either side by farms. If Timmy hits the ball over the fence, he'll have to fight a cow to get it back.
I have $80 in my wallet and six days before my next paycheck.
At a blackjack table, the dealer, a gentlemanly older man, stops just before he deals the cards and looks at me. "Do you know how to play?" he asks.
"Oh," I say. "Yeah."
This is both true and wrong.
My bizarre, pattern-free blackjack style perplexes dealers and players. The guy to my left, a big-boned business major grad of Winona State, is visibly disgusted. "Ugh," he mutters, "you gotta' hit on that one, bro." On one busted hand, the older Chinese woman to my right just looks at me searchingly.
"Why?" she says. I shrug.
On sheer luck, I survive the day without going broke. I've lost $10 and not a small amount of my dignity. I decide to come back the next day.
Day 2: My bus seat is two rows up from a woman in her 40s and her older companion. Mother and daughter. Daughter's dishing about her bum boyfriend who wants credit for having taken the trash out. "If I stopped doing the dishes," she says, "he wouldn't even look at the sink for a month."
She and a friend with an equally lazy man are making plans to run away together, she tells Mom.
This pairing, of adult children and their elderly parents, is ubiquitous at the casino. Addictive gambling ruins families. But the harmless, low-stakes kind is also bringing a lot of them together.
I sit in on a blackjack game with a $1 minimum. The casino once wanted to cut off such cheap play — not enough profit in it, they thought — so now we pay $0.25 a hand, a little tax for cheap fun.
The dealer is a tall, slight man with trimmed hair and an easy demeanor. He could be helping us at a hardware store. In the first hour, he busts a lot, and keeps giving us chips. He's happy about this. Mystic Lake already makes more money than we can imagine, he says.
A sardonic old woman marking the corner seat is dropping exactly $1 a hand and just keeping afloat, sometimes asking our dealer what to do. I'm charmed. I also make $50.
I take a break and do a few laps around the casino. When I'd told Minneapolis friends (picture: those gawking, laughing brunch-eaters) I was taking the bus to Mystic Lake, they said it just sounds sad, all those lonely people throwing their money away.
In truth, I've seen much more sadness and anger in Minneapolis bars, and far worse treatment of our fellow humans in its strip clubs. Only here, at the casino, do strangers wish each other good luck.
These retirees could be at home watching TV or waiting by the phone for the kids' calls. Instead they come here. I see a curly-haired lady go jogging up to the cashier counter waving her slot machine receipt in the air. "Hi, Christopher!" she exclaims to her handsome young cashier. "It's so nice to see you! I just had to get out of the house today."
This scene is still on my mind when I wash back up at the blackjack table. The same sweet woman is still there, some two hours later.
Our affable dealer cedes the table to a black-eyed man with fast hands and little patience for amateur hour. He flicks cards robotically and collects our losses just as quickly. No one talks. We just bet, lose, frown, bet again.
We're hemorrhaging money. I'm down to $40. The old woman is buying back in.
At one point she cashes in $25 worth of her stock-in-trade white chips ($1) and reserved, regarded red ($5) for a cherished green ($25) piece. She holds it up to me.
"I'm taking this one home," she says. "It's not getting spent."
I laugh. Then the last word sticks like knifepoint. "Spent."
She's not playing. She's paying. She's buying a little companionship for $1.25 a hand. Unmarried, no kids, older siblings, these tables are her social scene. I wish I were better company. I wish her cards were better.
Then they are. We start hitting 21s, 20s, 19s, 18s, staying. Our dealer's busting every other hand. It's happening just as fast as our losses did. I forget $5 and bet $10, $15, $20 a hand. I get it all back fast and blow past what I came with. It takes 30 minutes, feels like 10.
I've got a bus to catch.
Good luck, I tell my companion. God do I mean it.
After cashing out I take one last pass and see our serpentine dealer has gone, his space filled by a friendly woman a generation younger than the old woman. This new dealer could've been her daughter. I watch a couple minutes.
They're talking more than they're playing.
More from Mike Mullen:
When is a sale not a sale?
The drinking straw is the most wasteful product in America
Revenge porn should be illegal in Minnesota, and everywhere