My night in the secret casino
Back in my halcyon bad boy days, I spent a month of vacation time at the French Camp Motel, which is what we used to call the San Joaquin County Jail. I was doing a short bit — shorter than a skeeter’s dick, as one Okie wag put it — for making a U-turn at a red light on a foggy winter midnight with a cold Budweiser between my legs and enough alcohol in my system to tilt the breathalyzer to the “press charges” setting.
It was April 1980, and I wasn’t exactly on a winning streak. I’d just gotten fired from my job at Tower Records, my dad was dying from particularly virulent cancer and my mom was freaking out, and I was attempting to practice the art of not giving a shit and failing miserably. But jail turned out to be pretty funny when it wasn’t outright boring, and I ended up bonding with a black guy named Cleotis who worked in the jailhouse laundry with me. We used to sit outside on picnic tables at break and smoke rolled Buglers and laugh like jackals at all the stupid stuff that would come out of the mouths of the resident hillbilly dumbshits, and then this Sheriff’s deputy named Officer Stambaugh took a liking to us both, which meant a couple of days a week we got to ride in a pickup truck to the courthouse in downtown Stockton to move file cabinets around in our jail-issue blues, ogle random chicks’ asses and flirt with court reporters I’d gone to high school with, then get a good cafe lunch across the street on the county dime.
Not bad for jail time.
I got out, and a while later, maybe a year or two, I ran into Cleotis one night while drinking at The Shamrock, an Irish bar on Market Street in Stockton’s charming skid row district (actually, to be fair, the whole damn downtown was and remains pretty much a skid row, for purposes of urban classification).
“Hey, you’re a writer, right?” Cleotis remembered. Yeah, I answered. “You wanna go to a black after-hours club?”
I thought about it for half a second before nodding my head in assent: Hell yes I want to go. Are you fucking kidding?
So, after closing time, somebody drove — I can’t remember who, but it probably wasn’t me, because I was all scribbled on Guinnesses and shots of Jameson, and I’d lost my license for three years — down around Lafayette Street, which ran parallel to the southern edge of the Crosstown Freeway, and found a door in a wall, around the corner from where Arroyo’s Cafe used to be. “Black Farmworkers Assn” was stenciled next to the door, in white paint. Cleotis knocked. The door opened, a head popped out, and a hand motioned us inside.
The room was large, like an impromptu union hall, with high ceilings. On various walls, black light posters were pinned, lit with ultraviolet lamps; the one I remember depicted the various sexual positions as classified by the 12 signs of the zodiac. Aries, I noted. My name is Jackson, and I like a woman who purrs like a kitten when I give it to her doggy style. There was a DJ in the corner who was spinning rhythm and blues hits of the day: Ohio Players, Cameo, the Bar-Kays, Parliament-Funkadelic, some Barry White to bring the romance. Dancers were shaking it down on the floor, some fine-ass women with well-defined and bubblicious butts among them, and the rest of us stood around. The room was packed.
Cleotis wandered off into the crowd. “So how you like bein’ the only white cat in a room full of nigguhs?” a guy next to me, who I’d never met, asked. Huh? He repeated his question, while four or five of his friends cocked their heads to listen to my response. Fear shot through my veins.
“Trippy,” I answered. “Uh, it’s pretty trippy.”
“White cat says it’s ‘trippy,'” my new friend pronounced, passing me a joint. “Trippy,” he said, high-fiving the guy next to him and laughing. They all were laughing. “Hey, that’s trippy,” they said to each other, spitting out first syllable of the T-word. “Trippy!”
By this point I was extra scared shitless, and I sucked hard on the doob while they kept high-fiving each other and laughing. “Thass’ muthafuckin’ trippy!”
Momentarily, my pal Cleotis reappeared. “I got a friend who wants to see you now,” he said. The inherent paranoia emanating from the pot high combined with my heightened sense of danger to take me to a new level of awareness, but I was cognizant that remaining cool and going along with whatever was happening was a better option than bolting out the door, which would have involved pushing through several dozen people. Besides, I might get lucky, or at least I knew I was experiencing something way outside what I’d been through to that point.
So I followed Cleotis down a hallway.
Around a corner, a baby-faced guy was hunkered down before a crap table. A kid, not more than 12 or 13, probably younger, with a green visor over his eyes, his hand wielding a croupier’s stick. “Lay yo’ money down and les’ shoot some dice,” he whispered coolly over the funk beat thumping from the big room down the hall.
I think I mumbled something along the lines of “I’m way too fucked up from this weed, man, so I’d prefer to watch if you don’t mind, and besides, I have no fucking idea how to play that game, so I’d just be throwing my money away.”
He stopped, sized me up with a look that would have frozen boiling water, like, cat, are you fo’ real, man? Cleo sensed the mounting tension and stepped in. “White cat’s cool, man.”
I relaxed. And, man, I was high.
“Okay, lookee here,” the kid said, fixing me with the kind of intense stare that indicated that, yes, this indeed was a teachable moment. “You throws yo’ snake eyes, double ducks or boxcars,” he drawled sleepily, “you craps out. You throws yo’ seven or 11, you wins. Anythang else, you gots to make yo’ point. Now, heah, you throws yo’ seven or 11, you craps out; you throws until you eithuh craps out or makes yo’ point” — indicating, by context and with a subtle nod, that making this point involved throwing the same number you threw the first time.
I dialed it in, took a deep breath, relaxed some more.
“See, now other players eithuh be bettin’ with you on ‘pass’ or against you with ‘don’ pass,’ and you be doin’ the same when they shoots,” he continued.
Somebody picked up the dice, bills of currency sailed out of hands and down onto the green felt, and then the dice bounced down and danced on the table. I stood, transfixed, watching the dice for hours, laughing at the conversations, which often followed the template of taunts and insults set by the old game “the dozens,” puffed on joints that got passed my way, and generally had a real cool time. By the time we left the sun was coming up, and I think we hit Arroyo’s or Las Manitas or maybe Azteca Cafe for breakfast.
I don’t think I got laid that night; I remember one fine specimen of mocha-skinned Cleopatra Jones goodness asking me if I had a problem getting with black women, and I remarked that my girlfriend at the time was black. Which was true, but she was an teetotaler and an artist who was not so enamored with my liquored up and carousing ways, so that particular relationship was not long for this world.
Never did warm up to shooting the dice. Then again, I’m generally not a gambling man. —Jackson Griffith