When you see the pawnshop and the gun store, you know the casino is close. It’s the first time in the nearly three-hour ride that people on the bus seem restless. There’s some coughing and shifting. A man in shorts and tall socks crinkles a newspaper. The elderly women stir in their seats, images of slot-machine jackpots dancing in their heads.
This started with an editor’s question: “What kind of people get up that early on a weekday to take a casino bus?” You don’t hate gambling, or the idea of a workday away from the computer, so here you are, about to find out.
The journey began at 7:45 am, in a parking lot in South Dallas, between a Walmart and a Wendy’s. When you drive up just after dawn, the air still damp from the cool night before, a bus with the casino logo is waiting at the edge of the parking lot. You’re a minute or two early, and you see people getting off the bus, returning from the casino. Their faces are greasy, their hair disheveled, their eyes red from a night without sleep. These are the people you should have been hanging out with. These people probably have some crazy stories. Instead, the driver points to another vehicle bearing the same logo a few yards away.
“That’s your bus,” she says.
When the trip starts, you’re one of four passengers. The other three are older Mexican women, all pleasant, all at least three decades your senior. You each pay the driver your $10, the price of the round-trip. Maria, the most talkative of the women, tells a story about a recent trip she took. Your Spanish isn’t great, and her English isn’t much better, so you don’t understand much. Just that she was going to Monterrey for a funeral and stopped in San Antonio to stay with a cousin for three days. The dead man was either 86 or 89; she can’t remember. She thought the cousin’s house was pretty.
The driver, a black woman in her late 40s or early 50s, jokes that she had to remember how to drive this particular rig. Apparently it rides slightly lower than the other casino buses. She’s wearing black fingerless gloves that only leave the steering wheel when she turns up the volume on a Bell Biv DeVoe song. She’ll turn it up again later for Robin Thicke.
At the second stop, which is also near a Wendy’s, five more people board, including two women who look to be in their late 20s. They both have pink highlights in their hair. By then, the driver is talking about the government shutdown and paying bills in general. She says her mother moved in after a stroke, which isn’t a problem. The problem, the driver explains to nobody in particular, was the other family staying with her for a few months: a sister, who didn’t want a job, and her kids. “They were just laying up while I was at work,” she says. “They just wanted to sleep all day. And they wanted to eat, but they didn’t like doing dishes.” She shakes her head, re-enacting her side of those conversations: “Y’all gotta get outta here! I can’t help you anymore! I’ve got a mortgage to pay!”
By the third stop, it occurs to you that, judging strictly by dress, it’s hard to differentiate the potential casino goers from the homeless people wandering around the parking lots. After the fourth stop, there are about 20 people on board. Most are regular gamblers: retirees with a routine and hard-working people who go on their days off. Mixed in are a few younger people, such as the ladies with pink hair, just looking for an adventure.
It’s been more than an hour, and the bus still hasn’t left Dallas. The driver gets on the microphone and welcomes everyone. She announces that you will all get to the casino quickly and safely. “Tips are welcome,” she says. “If you have questions, I will talk to you. Some other drivers won’t talk, but just let me know if there’s anything you’re concerned about.”
Someone near the back, an older man, asks if the driver is single.
“You got money?” the driver asks back, and most of the bus laughs.
Soon, people are snacking. Someone has a bag of chips. Someone else opens a can of tuna. A small plastic bag goes from seat to seat, collecting cash as a tip for the driver. One man throws in his crushed Pepsi can before realizing his mistake. Some of the older women think it’s cute.
By the time the bus is on the highway, heading north, Maria is asleep in her seat, snoring slightly. The man in the seat next to her flips through that day’s newspaper, staying the longest in the sports section. Most of the bus is quiet going through Lewisville, then Denton, then the bright green pastures of Krum. Everyone snaps to attention as the bus crosses the border into Oklahoma. After passing that pawnshop, books close and necks crane. You can almost feel the gravitational pull of the WinStar World Casino, even before it comes into view.
The bus stops in front of sliding glass doors, and one by one, the group disembarks. There’s no way to appreciate the size of the building from the parking lot. This, you’re told, is the “Vienna” entrance. You walk around to discover there are also massive swaths of the casino representing Rome, Beijing, Paris, New York, and several other international cities. Each city has a themed restaurant: a burgers-and-hot-dogs deli in the New York section, for example, and a French bakery in the Paris section. There is also a restaurant owned by Toby Keith, a native son of Oklahoma. It’s called Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Grill. Between the slot machines and the pits of blackjack tables there are decorative fountains, forgettable art, and posters for upcoming concerts. You remind yourself to see if there are still Merle Haggard tickets available.
Inside the dark casino, you don’t see much of the people you rode the bus with. You bring money with which to gamble, but that doesn’t go well. A run of bad luck at a blackjack table turns to even worse luck in the poker room. In an hour or so, your allotted cash is gone, but your bus doesn’t head back to Dallas for another four hours. So you make the mistake of hitting up the ATM. The casino bus is earning its keep.
Then the worst thing possible happens: you start winning. You hit a few blackjacks and have a couple of successful double-downs at just the right time. Even as it’s happening—as you slowly win back some of the money you lost earlier—you realize that this is negative reinforcement. Luckily, it’s almost time for the bus back to Dallas. (They run all day, but you’re told to return on the same bus you rode up.)
Before you cash out your chips and board the bus, though, you make your way to one of the bars and order a few shots of bourbon. You don’t swallow them immediately. Instead you pour them into a coffee cup and put a lid on it, so you can sneak it on the bus. It’s a long ride home.