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Davis, California

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Column: The Sleazebag Ethic and the Spirit of Gambling

“This is the gutter of America,” I say as an SUV full of my four housemates and me drives into what Reno thinks it can call its “art town.”

Above us is a tacky concrete archway with a neon sign that flashes “The Biggest Little City in the World,” though in broad daylight you can see the bolts and harnesses straining to keep the thing from falling apart.

“It’s the white tray thing you put under your George Foreman after you grilled a Costco meat patty. This is Reno.”

As I say this, I’m unaware that the coming weekend will be full of gambling on absinthe, gray-haired cover bands and a slutty dog that likes to scratch herself in provocative poses. But I don’t need to know any of this to convince me of the city’s inherent trashiness.

Each of the buildings are unmotivated at best, a trait that gives them a collective affinity for the neon, as if it were sufficient to disguise its own apathy. It’s like a brown, wilting Christmas tree with three ornaments and a shiny purple garland around its waist.

And here I am, wearing a neon yellow hoodie trying to act like I didn’t just eat Chef Boyardee and Hot Cheetos for breakfast before we left Davis.

When we get to Circus Circus that night, what I suspect is hidden beneath the city gets confirmed. As we enter, we see cougars walk on their hind legs, pictures of exotic women with veils over their mouths and a sky-and-clouds painting over the ceiling to freeze daytime in a perpetual state of 11 p.m.

Nighthawks decompose at the slot machines while sucking their cigars like nipples, disillusioned like the neon store signs that compete against their own smoke for visibility. Nothing changes and nothing moves, except for the alternating fluorescent light bulbs.

“This place is fucking depressing,” Paul says, and I’m not sure if it’s because he sees Circus Circus as a microcosm for America, or if it’s because he just lost $20 at Monopoly. “It’s the epitome of human irrationality. Everyone here knows the odds are against them, but they keep putting money in.”

In a different context, he might as well have been describing the housing crisis. All the investment bankers knew the bubble was going to pop, but they kept going because some of them would strike it big and walk away. Meanwhile, all of Wall Street would crumble behind them. It’s the whole idea of buying into the pretense of getting something for nothing, which is precisely the reason why I don’t like gambling.

I prefer to earn what I get. Then again, so does everyone else.

“When I turned 18, I won $35 when I put in $10 at an Indian casino called Viejas. It was a 350 percent increase,” my friend Meg tells me with pride after I tell her about the $40 I earned in Reno off the Pacquiao-Cotto fight.

She smiles while abnormally shimmying her shoulders as if she worked for her cash. As if making $35 was more than just picking the right shining oyster during the bonus round.

Again, we see the shining patina of virtue coating the act of cheating the system, for which reverence is the only acceptable response. Not unlike how Goldman Sachs chairman Lloyd Blankfein can say he is “doing God’s work” while simultaneously paying billions in bonuses amidst a recession. Not unlike how the two former Bear Sterns hedge fund managers were demonized for failing to manipulate the recession in their favor. Not unlike how President Obama can’t bring up China’s currency manipulation because their juggling of the books is funding our health care reform.

I call this the Sleazebag Ethic – a morality deeply ingrained in American culture creating an affinity for illusions. Because at the end of the day, you will not hesitate eating at a sushi buffet twice in one weekend even though you know you don’t have the money. You’re going to pay for it by taking what’s yours, even if it doesn’t belong to you.

By the end of the weekend, we each return to Davis with bragging rights and extra cash (except for Paul and his negative $20). He is also the only one who proclaims he doesn’t believe in objective morality. I assume this is not a coincidence.

GEOFF MAK wants to know who, other than his Facebook friends, reads this. E-mail him at gemak@ucdavis.edu to let him know that he is not alone.

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