San Diego If you like time travel but don't own a working time machine, try an automobile ride to the Viejas Casino and Turf Club. Travel east on I-8, past El Cajon, climb the grade to Alpine, a little further, exit on Willows Road, turn north over the freeway, and carry on.
Soon, very soon, the worn two-lane road widens into a newly paved, blacktop, four-lane boulevard. To the left is Viejas Casino, on the right is 172,000 square feet of shopping mall. Surrounding all like a giant tar lake are parking lots. Behold, time traveler! You have come upon a living fragment of Las Vegas, circa 1975, the last good year before that town entered into its elephantine era.
From Home Depot baseball cap tip to New Balance tennis shoe toe the Viejas Casino replicates that gentler age. Regard the enormous canopy covering the Viejas Casino entrance; move your eye down to the flock of yellow-vested valets serving a double line of cars. Note that each vehicle is filled with impatient customers-to-be. Continue into the casino and watch the cartoon-colored numbers and festive fruits spinning round 'n' round. Listen to the continual noise as garish electronic machines burp, slurp, and ring-a-ding-ding. Take a deep breath of cigarette smoke. Attempt to count how many security guards can stand in one large hall. Walk past green-felted blackjack tables manned by dealers in white shirts and red aprons slipping cards from a shoe box. Study, most of all, the patrons. Casinos sell glamour but attract people usually seen in the Laundromat of a bad neighborhood.
These observations might be considered insulting to participants, but I lived in Las Vegas in 1975. Coming here tonight is coming home. There are only two things lacking: (1) Waylon Jennings playing in the lounge for no cover; (2) Heineken and a shot of tequila for $1.25 at the long bar.
Tonight is Tuesday; specifically, Tuesday, November 3. Within the hour we'll know if California voters have passed Proposition 5, the Indian gaming initiative. In anticipation of victory, the casino, Viejas tribe, and initiative volunteers are throwing a party in the DreamCatcher Showroom.
Inside, a hundred celebrants slowly mill about the hall. This is a political victory party so attendees assume the position, to wit: two men and a woman, each holding a drink, form a half circle. They chat but make little eye contact. Instead, six orbs search the room for no particular reason or person. I am reminded of a lion languishing in the shade after finishing a fresh kill. At the moment the lion is not hungry but continues to watch the herd because that's what lions do.
Hung above and on either end of the stage are large television monitors; between them, an enormous TV screen. Right now a blonde news anchor is busy hyping the returns. On the south side of the hall are tables holding a half dozen computers set to various Internet election sites. Everywhere are banners that read, "Yes on 5. Indian Self-Reliance." There's a band, full bar, and four tables of thumb food.
First impression: A lot of white men wearing suits in here. Easily a 10-to-1 ratio of whites to Indians, maybe 15 to 1. I've been told there are 281 members of the Viejas Band, and it looks as if 271 stayed home. I am impressed.
It's 8:00 p.m., the polls have closed. I ask a Caucasian female in her 40s how she got involved with the campaign.
The plump, cheerful woman replies, "Through my neighbor. I've lived next door to her for 12 years. She works for the tribe. I used to whine about how the tribe was being screwed. She told me, 'Put your time where your mouth is, come on out.' So I did." The woman smiles to herself. "It's like one giant family, everyone is treated the same." Her face glows. "It's just a marvelous, marvelous place."
I try that sentiment on for a moment. "You know, I drove around the reservation yesterday," I say. "They have a new tribal center, but it's not oversized. They have a new fire station, but it's small -- same for the health center. The houses are typical backcountry houses. Nobody seems to be living large."
The woman agrees. "No. They share the money. They share it with other tribes, and they give a lot to charities." Two blue eyes sweep the room. "I want these tribes to win so badly. I wrote letters to the editor." She is proud.
I decide not to go into how much the sharing with other Indians will be, or that the sharing stops if anyone other than Indians can figure a way into this mother lode of money. Instead, I watch the blonde news anchor on the giant television. She is announcing election decisions. Computers and exit polls have made elections much like heavyweight championship fights: both events generate enormous anticipation followed by six minutes of action.
Intrigue, a not-bad rock 'n' roll band, begins a Stevie Nicks tune but is cut off before the first chorus by a diminutive white male wearing a speckled blue suit. Russ T. Nailz is this evening's master of ceremonies. He carries a cordless microphone and appears to exist within an intense, chalky-colored stage light. "Here are the Prop 5 absentee ballots." The crowd whistles and applauds. "Forty-one percent of the people of San Diego are stupid, while 59 percent are incredibly smart." Cha-ching. "What else we got?" Nailz looks over to the vote board. "The no-horse-eating thing is winning. 'Hey, Martha, no horse meat tonight!'" Cha-ching. "And Proposition O in Coronado, the tunnel prop, is winning by 80 percent. What is that? IT'S ALL SAND IN CORONADO!" Cha-ching.
I turn away and case the hall again. Standing before a semicircle of five people is a tall man; I make him for 6´2´´. His silky black hair is tied in a ponytail and falls below his waist. The man wears an off-white suit and wire-rimmed glasses. In this hall -- and my guess is, in any hall -- this is the one person your eyes would find.