By Loudon Often

Welcome to Cadillac Ranch Casino in Longview, Washington.

It’s not much like a ranch in here. Maybe more like a tool-shed on a Ranch; a tool-shed downwind from the outhouse.

The casino is, however, quite like the Cadillacs in this town; they both are similar in size (pool hall in the trunk), they both sport torn upholstery and Corona-soaked carpets, and they both contain no more and no less than one dozen drunk Mexicans.

But is it “Cadillac Ranch,” or is it “Island Casino?” I’m getting conflicting signage. The chips say Cadillac Ranch. My player’s card says Island Casino. The marquee out front has both names, but in different fonts. (Incidentally the Wild Grizzly Casino down the road also calls itself River Casino, depending on which signs you look at as you enter, and which menu the waitress hands you after wiping the hashbrown grease off on her knee.)

Ranch Island has a strict dress code aimed at gang attire. Most prominent is that, “all hats are to be worn straight.” I take stock as I enter:

  • Hats on clearly cocked to the left or right (45 degrees) = four.
  • Hats on sideways (90 degrees) to the left or right = three.
  • Hats on backwards (180 degrees) = two.
  • Hats on inside out, cocked to right, sliding backwards so far off the skull that it would fall off but for the fact that it is securely anchored to the back of the skull with a “rat tail.” = one
  • Hats on straight = zero

There is a prostitute in the casino; a tiny middle-aged Asian woman named Coon. She is the one threatening me. She is also lovingly referred to as “Dragon Lady.”

When the waitress takes my drink order, she snorts at me and laughs. “WATER? YEAH, I can bring you WATER.”

My first dealer is Nichole. Her bangs have been bleached to an unhealthy swath of orange split ends and since curled under as one might curl under a desk in a nuclear attack. When I lose a hand of blackjack she loudly blames whoever is walking by at the moment, and then cocks her head back and snorts like a pig. Nichole looks to be at least 30 years old, so to be playful and get points for giving compliments I say, “So Nichole, they let you deal here even though you aren’t 21?”

“Yes. But I turned 21 last month.”

The favorite pastime among dealers at Cadillac Ranch is, after getting off work, walking 15 feet to the Spanish 21 table and plunking down the day’s paycheck for a chance at winning back yesterday’s paycheck.

Coon, the Dragon Lady, has the fashion sense of an Alhambra truck that backed into a pawn shop. A thousand gold spangles cover her gold blouse, shimmering. Spangling. Nine necklaces. Gold and pearl rings on each finger. Crimped gold skirt. Gold bracelets and anklets. Goth black platform heels freshly swiped from a teenager sleeping off X in a ruined wheat field.

The cursing is out of hand here. Management looks the other way. The curse of choice is “F***! That’s f***ing bullshit, yo!” but calling the dealer a cocks***er is coming on like the new fall fashion.

I don’t feel like a whole person here. Maybe a quarter of a person. Which is accurately reflected when I get my players card back, and my picture on the back is blank except for one squared corner of my forehead.

Coon walks up to my table. Her hair can only be described as Pre-Pubescent Elvira. She is carrying a roast beef sandwich sealed in cling-wrapped. She sets the sandwich on a chair and backs into the seat until she begins to squish that beef against the back of the seat. She is nesting her sandwich.

Our dealer is a fresh-faced kid who has been dealing for just three days. When the last dealer rotated out and it was his turn to deal my table, I heard the pit boss wish him luck. He has hung tough for a while, but the sweat is beading on his brow, and as I dig the spurs into him to deal faster and faster, spreading from one hand of ten dollars to six hands of $200 each, he is clearly cracking. A few hands ago he stared at his two face cards, trying to add them up, and then decided to pay my 18. It was not the first payout error he made in my favor. It was the fifth.

With Coon at the table, the pressure is only ratcheted up for him. He stops hitting with a hard sixteen in front of him, glares at his cards and pays both of our thirteens. I wonder if Coon has noticed this. I’ve got big money on the table. The next hand comes out. The dealer draws to a three-card 19. Coon has a 19. I have two hands of 18. The dealer struggles to add them up, and then says (correctly), “dealer has nineteen. Push, and dealer beats 18.

But as he reaches for my bet, Coon points and yells out “NO! Winna Winna!” and throws her little chopstick arms in the air triumphantly. He looks at his cards and sheepishly grins, “Oh yeah. I guess I can’t add tonight. Dealer has 18.” And he pays the whole table.

As the next hands are coming out, Coon cups one hand to her mouth and slurs something my way. I don’t understand, but I smile and nod. Not satisfied she gets up off her hot, wet baby sandwich and comes over to me. She falters forward on her platform heels, swinging all her necklaces at me and talks into my ear loudly enough for the dealer to hear. “He pay-a a push. I make him pay-a you push. You pay me twenty-fi dolla!” I think she stirs graham cracker crumbs into her pancake make-up and applies it with a push broom.

Shut up tiny Asian prostitute! I think, just continuing to smile and nod. Shut up! He paid my LOSING hands. He’s been doing it for several shoes now. Don’t ruin it for me. Shut up and go back to your sandwich seat.

I play my hands. But she won’t shut up. “I get you pay, you pay me twenty-fi dolla!” The dealer is pretending not to hear it. She is blowing our cover. I point to her unplayed hand, urging her to play it. She huffs and puffs. Her spangles are tensing up, starting to rattle like some reptilian warning signal that she is readying herself to strike.

The Mexicans at the Spanish 21 table unleash a flurry of obscenities at their dealer.

“No. I don’t think so,” I say to Coon slowly and clearly.

“Then I tell on you!” she yells. I shake my head. What, is she going to demand money every time the dealer mispays me?

I shrug to the dealer like I don’t know what she is talking about. The dealer doesn’t quite understand, but he is afraid of getting in trouble or any undue attention from his bosses. He manages to get her back to her chair to play her hand, trying to bury the past in cards and make her forget, but her fury is not quelled. She turns to me and points one long Lee Press-On nail at me.

“Fine! I tell on you. I gonna tell on you! I gonna do it!” She stands and makes the call. “Pit! Pit! Pit!”

“Oh sh**, here we go,” the dealer says. I just stare at my chips, wishing it all would just go away.


Loudon Often

If you enjoyed reading this listen to Loudon Often’s podcast interview. And read Part II of the Ranch Island saga.