I used to play poker a lot. Almost every weekend I would find myself at the north end of 16th street, between Downtown Ford and Big Al's Furniture, sitting at an old, green felted table, playing poker with the oddest collection of human beings you would ever exchange money with. Back then, Capitol Casino only held poker tournaments on Sundays, and in order to assure a spot in the action, you had to get there early, so I did, usually around 7am. I'd put my name on the list, order the steak and eggs, and count the cash in my wallet. The most I ever had in there was a couple hundred, maybe, but by the end of the night those two bills just might be ten bills or more, and a lot of nights, they were.
Around the corner (literally) from the casino was Loaves and Fishes, a private charity that feeds the hungry and offers shelters for the homeless. Every morning, around 7am, you will still find masses of homeless people waiting in their central area, Friendship Park, for coffee and pastries. They lean against the half chain-link fence, bags slung over their shoulders, some standing apart but others laughing and slapping each other on the back. Each time I drove in to the casino, I would see them lining up and I would pray I didn't hit that light. If I did, I had no choice but to look. They were everywhere, especially on Sundays. I felt strange in my car, wanting to protect my cash, my gambling money, and I had thoughts of homeless folk assaulting my car, robbing me, breaking windows, stealing those hubcaps I bought for $30 at Wal-Mart. It was all mine, dammit, and why wouldn't the light just turn green already!?
At that time, I'd been working in Lodi, right on Kettleman Lane, and every day at 8am and 3pm, a homeless man and his dog would trudge down the sidewalk in front of our office's floor to ceiling windows. He looked like Forrest Gump in his running across America phase, red trucker hat and a knotty, long brown beard. The dog was a golden retriever, but dirt and grime coated so much of its body the gold had all but disappeared. Every week, I gave the man money. $5. $10. Once, after winning a couple grand at the casino the weekend before, I gave him $50. Then, one day as I was driving down Kettleman, past the car dealerships toward nothing but dirt, I saw the homeless man and his dog in an abandoned lot, getting into a Honda Accord that was so new that it didn't have its plates yet. He wiped the dirt of the dog, took off his hat and fake beard, tossed it into the trunk, and drove off.
A couple of other incidents with homeless people made up my mind. They had all done this to themselves. No one forced them to shoot heroin. No one told them not to finish school. Sure, maybe a few of them were mentally ill, had a rough childhood or marriage, had been born into poverty through no fault of their own, but whatever the reason was, it damn sure wasn't my fault.
Because of the location, homeless people often loitered outside the casino, and it’s no wonder why. At any time, there could be fifty grand in chips on those tables, and probably at least four times that at the cash cage. On nights I won big, I made sure to take the roundabout way to my car, making sure to avoid being accosted by some guy who wanted a dollar or two. Usually, the loiterers would get escorted off the premises by the security guards; that is, unless they were inside, playing poker with the donations they’d saved. I couldn’t blame them; a couple of good pots and you had rent, a new suit for an interview. Or maybe they just wanted another score. I didn’t care. They were just another fish in the pond, giving up their money.
There was one guy in particular, an older, hunchbacked man who showed up once every four months or so. I’d seen him standing on the corner outside Loaves and Fishes several times in that tattered, olive green Army jacket. I’d only played with him once before, briefly, and remembered that smell – that odor of the outside world settling upon you and not washing it off for months. He had more than a couple teeth missing and when he spoke, you could only understand him half the time.
One night, I ended up at the same table as him, a $3-$6 limit hold ‘em game where most people played every hand because the costs were so cheap. I was doing alright, up maybe fifty bucks, and he had maybe a rack in front of him, $80-$90. The next hand was dealt and I flipped the corners of my cards to see pocket cowboys, the second best starting hand in poker. It was a kill pot, so the bets were double, and I raised to $12. A few people stayed in, the homeless guy raised, I reraised, and he capped it. Before the flop, there were four people left and around $120 already in the pot.
The flop came 2, 2, 8, a relatively safe board for my hand. I bet, he raised, the other two people folded and I smooth called to get more chips from him on the turn. The turn card was a 4, another harmless card to my two kings. I let him bet, checkraised, and eventually got him all in. He flipped over his cards revealing pocket rockets, two beautiful aces. I had two outs, the other two kings, a 5% chance to win.
When the king of clubs hit the river, and I raked in the almost $250 pot, the homeless guy stood up, said “nice hand,” and left the casino. I hadn't realized it at the time, but that was the quintessential moment, the fact that I had won and he didn't. It's common to say that we need to remember how lucky we are, but seriously, I mean luck, odds. We don't choose what families or homes we are born into, whether those homes are filled with drugs, abuse, absentee parents, poverty. We don't choose to be born with a mental illness. We don't choose to have addictive personalities. We don't choose for economies to crash and lose our homes and jobs as a result. And yet, some of us are those two-outers. Some of us are lucky, and you're damn right we need to be grateful.
Don't get me wrong. I am still a big believer in personal responsibility, that when you become an adult you have choices, that you can't go forever blaming your life on bad luck. I'm just saying that now, when I'm walking Downtown and my friends tell me not to look because when you look they will talk to you, I make sure to look the homeless people in the eye, smile, exchange words even if I don't have a dollar to give.
I don't visit Capitol Casino very often any more, but with the new job I drive by Loaves and Fishes every day. Almost every time, I hit that red light. They are still there, waiting for their coffee. I see them coming in from all directions, from the bus stop, the light rail, random buildings. They are mostly new faces, I think, though sometimes I'll look for my poker buddy. Then the light turns green and I step on the gas, looking up just in time to see the Capitol Casino billboard going by.