Friday, June 1, 2012

The Horseshoe Diaries

In June, 1994, I stood at the corner of West 3rd & Ontario St. and everything was in front of me. Not just the hot dog vendor and the Cuyahoga County Administration Building where I was interning, but also the future of my city and the entirety of my adult life. A few miles south, our exhilarating new ballpark stood unblemished, home of the first place Indians. A few miles north, The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was finally under construction. It would become the holiest place on earth for me, but, at that point, I had no visions of the teary, cathartic Saturday afternoons I would spend under that glass tent or the emotional World Series that was just fifteen months away. I knew only of the immediacy those summer days offered: lunch beneath the Moses Cleveland statue, surging optimism, unhinged possibilities, etc. And somewhere on the radio, "Black Hole Sun" was playing. Chris Cornell begged, "my youth, I pray to keep." I heard that lyric a thousand times, but, regretfully, I never prayed with him.

Eighteen jaded years later, I've doubled-down on my age from that significant summer, but I'm standing at that very same corner. There's the hot dog vendor surviving the recession, and the County Admin Building with fresh, new, metal detectors. As always, inspiration in Cleveland is tied to the erection of concrete and the Medical Mart is our newest promise- allegedly, a year away. A few miles north, the teenaged Factory of Sadness is vacant, with no memory of its abysmal autumns. And...a few miles south, in old Higbee glory, she's officially here. I've waited most of my life for her, for a seductive, sinful castle of chance in my neighborhood, for the twisting line around Tower City on opening morning, for the perpetual hum of engaged slot machines. I won't put a dime in anything controlled by rigged software, but the sound is as soothing to my ears as Don Henley in early September. Yeah, on this day in May, I walked into the Horseshoe Casino as mild mannered CST columnist SamVox, half Tony Soprano, half Charlie Babbitt, and holding on tightly to the last few precious moments before middle age. I walked out as ClevelandMan, so stoked on urban boosterism that I was ready to open a business on Prospect selling MSB albums on vinyl and Crunch Championship highlights on VHS.

The Cleveland Casino Countdown was a local power play that even the most jilted media outlets celebrated, forgetting the politics of our past that often divided us when a gambling initiative would sneak it's way on to a ballot. Still, as we waited outside for about 40 minutes to enter the Horseshoe, I took stock of the demographic surrounding us––poor city dwellers eager to flush away their hard-earned, raggedy-dressed senior citizens ready to wager their social security/disability checks. In that line, it might as well have been Downtown Thistledown and I suddenly recalled George Will's notable quote opposing casinos and lotteries: "Gambling is debased speculation, a lust for sudden wealth that is not connected with the process of making society more productive of goods and services. Government support of gambling gives a legitimizing imprimatur to the pursuit of wealth without work.” Once inside, though, I was immediately won over by the 'Shoe's three-story glamour. Moreover, I was moved by the bond between bettors and the novice dealers, who needed our patience during their first day on the job. Patrons were as understanding as the workers were courteous, and a collective, triumphant vibe, one that George Will could never comprehend, filled the room. It was a transcendent moment everyone shared, turning a gambling den into a prayer for the future.

We were straight-up Clevelanders on that first day. East and west, unified: the C-Heights hipsters, the OC urbanites, the old money from Bay Village and new money from Rocky River, the Steeler fans from Ashtabula and the Kinsman drug dealers with their high-roller bling and Yankee skull caps, the pseudo-chic Barley House crowd with their fake Prada bags and faker tans, the Italians claiming blackjack as their birthright and the Irish shooting up the immaculate 2nd-floor sports bar, the stubborn Kucinich liberals with hearts of gold and streaks of larceny and the repressed Kasich conservatives with their comb-overs and twisted morals, the slum lords with dreams of turning The Tilted Kilt into a Strip Club and the game-changing developers networking their next score, the Hudson housewives with the surgically-attached smart phones and Facebook can't refresh fast enough for 'em, Parma dude with shirt tucked into his jean shorts and cell-phone holster on his Wal-Mart belt, the Wickliffe Ed Hardies with their barbed wire tattoos and Affliction shirts, the funk and soul from Warrensville Heights and the spirit of Slavic Village, the Lakewood tree-huggers, Avon Lake country clubbers, and Lyndhurst B-Dubbers, South Broadway to South Euclid, Northfield to North Ridgeville. And for cynical thirtysomethings like me and Mrs. ExVox, who missed out on the civic prosperity of the 70s, this was Cleveland's second renaissance in our lifetime. Even if it was a mirage for a day, I knew the Casino would be open tomorrow and forever.


On WKNR's The Really Big Show, ESPN Heat Index reporter Brian Windhorst revealed that our old friend in Miami asked him about the Casino this week, which I thought was fitting. After all, Bron built the damn thing. They say the mark of genius is going from A to C without needing B, but it doesn't take a savant to figure out that the Horseshoe was constructed on the good fortune of a lucky ping pong ball nine years ago. Dan Gilbert often markets himself as an entrepreneurial renegade with a soft spot for tough, midwestern towns, and his quick success with the Cavs earned him a license to print money as majority owner of Rock Gaming, but it was truly a lucky bounce at the draft lottery in 2003 that started this narrative. With all the talk of resiliency, reform and hard work in Cleveland, it's easy to forget that Lady Luck runs this town, and any other city where she waves her wand. So it's only fair that the Horseshoe is selling the same dream. See, a Casino is a life-microcosm. You take a calculated risk, and hope for the best. This kind of choice-investment happens all over C-town, from Jimmy Dimora rolling the dice in court to the Browns' front office drafting a soon-to-be 29-year-old franchise QB. Hell, priced at $465 million, even the Medical Mart is a major gamble. I'd say we're due. You're due. I'm due. This whole messed-up, maddening and miraculous metropolis is verging on jackpot status. You might argue "being due" is a gambler's fallacy, but then you must've missed Slash shredding the Public Auditorium, Captain America getting tossed out of an E. 9th street building, and the swag Horseshoe light show that put the CLE back on the goddamn map. Um, winning.


This town, is my town
She's got her ups and downs
But love or hate it, it don't matter
'Cause this is my town

I am Michael Stanley in the box.
Parting is...inevitable.