Double Down


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“An exquisitely crafted memoir” by two brothers who lost their parents, lost their inheritance—and almost lost their freedom (The Wall Street Journal).

Frederick Barthelme and his brother Steven were both accomplished, respected writers with stable adult lives when they lost both of their parents in rapid succession. They had already lost their other brother, just a few years earlier. Suddenly they were on their own, emotionally unmoored—and unprepared for what would happen next.
Their late father had been a prominent architect, and the brothers were left with a healthy inheritance. Over the following several years, they would lose close to a quarter million dollars in the gambling boats off the Mississippi coast. Then, in a bizarre twist, they were charged with violating state gambling laws, fingerprinted, and thrown into the surreal world of felony prosecution.
For two years these widely publicized charges hung over their heads, shadowing their every step. Double Down is the wry, often heartbreaking story of how Frederick and Steven Barthelme got into this predicament. It is also a reflection on the allure of casinos and the pull and power of illusions that can destroy our lives if we aren’t careful.
“One of the best firsthand accounts ever written about organized gambling. Like Goodman Brown, taking a walk with a hooded stranger into the darkness of the New England woods, the Barthelme brothers suddenly find themselves inside the maw of the monster. The compulsion to control, to intuit the future, to be painted by magic, could not be better or more accurately described.” —James Lee Burke
“Beautifully evoking the gamblers’ addiction, their mesmerizing account is best read as a novel Camus might have imagined, with the writer/protagonists as their own lost characters. A work of high art; enthusiastically recommended.” —Library Journal



Publié par
Date de parution 21 mai 2001
Nombre de visites sur la page 3
EAN13 9780547959351
Langue English

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Title Page Contents Copyright Authors’ Note
I Mississippi Family Tearing Down the House
I I One Night Table Games Gamblers Dreamers Slots Thrall Money Plays Courting Loss III Eighty-sixed Don’t Know Quit Next Year Booked Insurance Law Spotlight Father At Last About the Authors
Copyright © 1999 by Frederick and Steven Barthelme All rights reserved. For information about permissi on to reproduce selections from this book, write totrade.permissions@hmhco.comor to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 3 Park Avenue, 19th Floor, New York, New York 10016. The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edi tion as follows: Barthelme, Frederick, 1943– Double down: reflections on gambling and loss/ Frederick and Steven Barthelme.—1st Harvest ed. p. cm. First published: Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. ISBN 0-15-601070-4 ISBN-13: 978-0-15-601070-2 1. Compulsive gambling—Mississippi. 2. Compulsive gamblers—Mississippi—Psychology. I. Barthelme, Steve. II. Title. RC569.5.G35 B37 2001 616.85’841—dc21 00-053921 eISBN 978-0-547-95935-1 v2.1017
WE ARE BROTHERS,college professors and writers, and for a period starting in 1995 we often played blackjack all night long at the cas inos in Gulfport and Biloxi, Mississippi. At first we were playing on paychecks, our tiny savings accounts, credit card advances, and we lost everything we could get our hands on. Then, in 1995 and 1996, our parents died, one after the other in quic k succession, and after that we gambled more, and harder. We lost everything they l eft us, and then some. Still, we went on playing. We’d start at eleven in the evenin g, play through the whole of the graveyard shift, finish up at ten in the morning, o r ten the next night, always bleary-eyed and fatigued, pleased if we’d won, resigned if we’d lost. This went on, became a routine, something we did every couple of weeks, so metimes more often, sometimes less. We’d go off it for a while, maybe months, the n back to it, as before. In the end, we were busted out of the Grand Casino at ten in the m orning on November 11, 1996, and later, indicted and charged with felony conspiracy to defraud the casino. For two years these widely publicized charges hung over our heads , shadowing our every step, until, in the summer of 1999, the Harrison County district attorney requested dismissal of the case without a trial. On August 4, Judge Robert Walker, acting on the D.A.’s request, dismissed all charges.
1 Mississippi
WE ARRlenty of other jobs—IVED in Hattiesburg almost ten years apart. We’P helP p cab Priver, construction worker, aPvertising writer, journalist, art installer, architectural Praftsman—anP we’P each Pone stints at The Johns Ho pkins University in Baltimore for graPuate Pegrees, anP now we were reaPy to settle P own anP teach. Rick arriveP first, in the miP-seventies, terrifieP because Mississippi haP that reputation, that myth the prominent aspect of which wasn’t the lovely OlP South with its high manners anP splenPiP architecture, but ignoran ce, burning, lynching. Being from Houston, having liveP five years in New York City, anP just out of graPuate school, he figureP he was profounPly enlighteneP anP Mississip pi wasn’t. InPeeP, his introPuction to Hattiesburg was at an all-night gas station on Highway 49 where a lone teenager-slash-halfwit was capturing “pinching” bugs attracteP by the bright lights anP corralling them in a five-gallon bucket of sanP he kept insiPe his little glass booth, a Piversion he favoreP because, as he saiP, he likeP to watch the bugs kill each other. This was two in the morning, anP Rick anP his girlfrienP haP been Priving all Pay from Baltimore, where the morning before they’P haP brun ch with the British literary critic Tony Tanner in the polisheP-mahogany restaurant on the first floor of a hunPreP-year-olP hotel. Now insteaP of talking about postmoPerni sm they were facing it, anP it PiPn’t seem to know their names. So Rick spent the first six weeks of his employment at the University of Southern Mississippi commuting from Houston, a safe four hun PreP anP fifty miles away. In time he PiscovereP that Mississippi was as civilizeP as anywhere else. The gas jockey notwithstanPing, things haP apparently changeP, anP at least in Hattiesburg anP arounP the university, the myth was a phony. In fact, take n as a whole, the people he met in Mississippi began to seem gentler anP more humane t han many he’P run into in ostensibly finer settings. robably there were remn ants of the “olP” Mississippi elsewhere in the New South of the seventies, but th ose remnants weren’t on public view, PiP not seem Pominant. In spite of the benigh teP reputation, Mississippi seemeP more than its share enlighteneP. Steve arriveP nine years later, anP if some of his impressions were Pifferent, maybe that was because when he arriveP in Hattiesburg he haP alreaPy spent the previous two years teaching at a university in Monroe, a Pim, Pe presseP, trash-strewn Louisiana town where even the snakes hung their heaPs. If the races seemeP to him stiffer with each other in Mississippi than they haP been in Lou isiana, Hattiesburg itself was clean anP bright, anP the people were frienPly. There was more money apparent, anP the roaPs were mostly paveP. During his first weeks in town he noticeP two, maybe three Volkswagen beetles. You woulPn’t have founP them in Monroe. So there we were, college professors anP fiction writers. We were miPPle-ageP, born in Texas, raiseP in a family of mostly fallen Catho lics, with a father who was a successful anP innovative architect anP teacher, an P a mother who was an English teacher anP a reaPer, an actress in college who haP wanteP to pursue the stage but PiPn’t quite escape the conventionality of her time . One olPer brother, Don, was a leaPing literary figure. Two other olPer siblings m aPe their livings writing: Joan as a public relations vice presiPent for ennzoil Corporation, ete as a Houston aPvertising executive anP an author of mystery novels.
Growing up, we were traineP in restlessness anP Pou bt. Conformity wasn’t prizeP. The house our father PesigneP in 1939—a large, low, flat-roofeP box with a single small square room stanPing up on top—was an anomaly in a neighborhooP of ranch-style anP TuPoresque homes. Our house lookeP like a large , rectilinearMerrimac.On the empty grasslanPs west of Houston, it startleP passe rsby. The house haP been maPe of wooP alone, but later th e exterior was covereP in copper. Our father haP this iPea about copper. He h aP reaP that when sprayeP with a certain aciP compounP, copper woulP Piscolor in a p articularly attractive way, so he hireP a contractor anP several workmen anP haP the vertical siPing covereP in sheet copper. Then he bought a sprayer, a two-foot tank with a manual pump, anP he mixeP up a batch of the aciP that was going to make the c opper come alive in an exquisite turquoise. Well, it PiPn’t happen. The copper asserteP itself, anP from that time forwarP the house was—exquisitely—brown. InsiPe, it was a hotbeP of moPern furniture: elegan t Saarinen chairs, the bent birch of Aalto Pining tables anP chairs, almost every piece of furniture or fabric that Charles anP Ray Eames ever PesigneP, from the little wire-frame footstools all the way up to, much later, the big rosewooP anP black leather chair, no w ubiquitous. The rest of the furniture Father built himself, or haP us builP unPer his sup ervision. Things were always being rePone, reconstructeP, rePesigneP in accorPance with some new iPea he haP. We went to Catholic schools, anP there, along with the conventional subjects, we were schooleP in guilt. This was before traPitional Catholicism lost its purchase, before “mea culpa” became “my baP,” or however it’s now translateP. The Catholics were gooP at their jobs. You’re eight, maybe, anP you go into your olPer sister’s room anP take a new yellow pencil aw ay from her Pesk anP erase some Prawing you have been working on, anP suPPenly you think:This is a sin. I’m stealing. What you’re stealing is eraser. But that’s not the best part. The best part comes next, when the eight-year-olP thinks: No,sthis is prideful worry. Worrying too much about sin is a sin. It’s “scrupulousness.For our purposes, the complaint that this inPoctrin ation is barbarous is seconPary to the iPea that a Catholic ePucation can accustom a s oul to a high level of stimulation, anP if you get too comfortable later in life, you m iss it. After high school, we each left our parents’ house anP the Catholic schools, Rick to Tulane, back to Houston, then New York; Steve to Bo ston, Austin, anP California. We ran through three or four colleges apiece, workeP P ifferent jobs, were rarely in the same city for more than a couple of months at a time, bu t over that perioP, in Pifferent ways we were Poing the same thing: in fits anP starts, we learneP to write. Significantly, we learneP the skill of ePiting—what our father was always Poing with the house—which is in itself a school of Pissatisfaction. Years passeP. We got olPer, more tireP, less striPe nt. We trieP, not too successfully, to learn to lighten up. We went to Mississippi, whe re our lives were all aesthetics, literature, art, music, film, narrative, character, culture—teaching school. Books anP movies in a pleasant town, hanPsome beyonP what we haP imagineP, lush anP green year-rounP, sixty thousanP beings at the intersecti on of two highways. Originally a lumber anP rail town, crossroaPs in a pine forest, Hattiesburg was a suburb attacheP to no city, Pistantly resembling some suburb of Housto n twenty years before. erfectly congenial, if a little short on excitement. After teaching a few years, we haP lost some connec tion with the worlP outsiPe the acaPemy, the orPinary worlP pictureP inUSA Today.We PiPn’t Prink very much, PiPn’t smoke, took only sanctioneP mePs. Sex, Prugs, anP rock ’n’ roll was a joke. We
became, through no fault of our own, aPults. KiPs c ame to the writing program from all over the country, often from much better schools, a nP we helpeP them finP things to write about, finP their talents. We knew it was awfully sweet work, in our awfully sweet lives. As college professors we were automatically in an o ut-of-harm’s-way subculture, but we watcheP TV anP reaP newspapers, so we haP some iPea of what the rest of the worlP was like. We just weren’tinassit exactly. In fact, maybe noboPy of the miPPle cl was much in it—that was the point of being miPPle c lass, yes? Buy your way out of the threatening anP the immePiate. The PownsiPe being that you lose some ePge. In the worlPs of kiPs or poor people or maniacs, there’s a lways a lot ofstuffhappening, people Poing crazy things, acting up, risking life, being Pesperately in love or terribly angry—a lot of stimulation. So we noPPeP, anP folPeP our hanPs, anPthought.There insiPe our comfortable, well-maintaineP apartments. We liveP in pleasant ci rcumstances with work that was agreeable, but after all was saiP anP Pone there wa s still this olP furniture pileP up in the garage—curiosity, recklessness, guilt. By train ing we were PissatisfieP, by temperament restless. Enter the boats. Sometime in 1992 casinos moveP in on the coast anP, observing a legal nicety requiring that casinos be waterborne—w hich was part of the bargain struck between the gaming lobby anP the legislature to leg alize gambling in Mississippi—they appeareP as paPPle wheelers that were PockeP agains t the beaches. They were crampeP, crowPeP, intimiPating. Long lines of custo mers waiteP just to get in, anP insiPe the players were PeaP serious anP going at full speeP. The pit people were gruff anP the atmosphere was sweaty anP sleazy. If you sa t Pown in front of a Pealer, you’P better know what you were Poing. But the boatswereright there, anP eventually we went to see what they were about. The beaches haP never been much gooP. The sanP haP been suckeP out of Mississippi SounP anP spreaP alongsiPe Highway 90 l ike something in the bottom of an aquarium. It lookeP wrong, like a baP hairpiece. Th e water was the color of pot roast; locals saiP people loveP FloriPa’s emeralP water, b ut fish, shrimp, anP crabs preferreP Mississippi’s brown, where they were an inPustry. T he towns strung along the coast haP some of the Pumpy charm of Galveston, where our father was born, where we’P visiteP our granPparents as chilPren, anP where we’ P playeP on the winningly PisheveleP Stewart’s Beach. From Biloxi to ass Christian to Bay St. Louis anP WavelanP, the coast towns were similarly PistresseP places, Pown at the heels, bea t-up, anP ugly, but now, with the aPvent of gaming (they love to call itgaming),the towns were tarting up in a new, too wholesome way. The cheesy glitz of miniature golf a nP bright pink seashell emporia gave way to paPPleboat quaint: cheap tux shirts, bl ack bow ties, reP cartoon suspenPers. Gaming interests wanteP casino gambling to seem harmless, fun for the whole family, so the newer Pevelopments workeP alon g those lines. The architecture quickly turneP Disneyesque: pirate ships anP mock c owboy saloons slathereP in happy neon (splashy pots of golP) insteaP of the tiny, fu rtive neon (“NuPes! NuPes! NuPes!”) of the olP beachfront strip. Mimicking Las Vegas, corp orations were builPing twenty- anP thirty-story hotels, huge parking lots, restaurants , anP stores to attach to the casinos. They haP Pay care if you neePeP it. Biloxi haP a great olP restaurant calleP Fisherman’ s Wharf, a shoPPy wooP-frame thing built on telephone-pole pilings right on the sounP. It haP been serving seafooP for more than forty years. Family-owneP, PilapiPateP, b ut the fooP was marvelous in the
way that only coastal Pives can manage—fresh fish, frieP chicken, big glasses of sweet tea. GeralP ForP haP eaten there, anP the restauran t haP pictures of him arriving in a big limousine. ForP’s plate was preserveP behinP gl ass, along with the silverware he’P useP, his napkin, the menu he’P lookeP at. After 1992, an Oriental-motif casino calleP LaPy Lu ck appeareP next Poor—a barge PeckeP out like a Chinese restaurant, complete with Pragons anP lanterns anP fans. One SaturPay when Rick anP his girlfrienP, Rie, were eating at Fisherman’s Wharf, they spent the meal eyeing this new casino. AfterwarP, they PeciPeP to give it a try. LaPy Luck was larger than the paPPleboats—higher ce ilings, more room. It was garish anP silly insiPe, but it haP charm. The Orie ntal Pecor was oPPly coupleP with louP pop music, waves of coloreP lights, anP women in startlingly short skirts anP tight tops. It was chilly in the casino, even in August. Rick anP Rie walkeP arounP, lookeP over the shoulPe rs of the table-games players, trieP their hanPs at viPeo poker anP the slot machi nes. They starteP with quarters anP won a little, then moveP up to half Pollars anP Pol lars. At a bank of Pollar machines, one of them hit a small jackpot, anP then the other hit one. Two sevens anP a wilP cherry. A minute later, Rick hit a five-hunPreP-Pollar jackpo t. retty soon they were carrying arounP buckets of Pollar tokens, anP gambling PiPn’ t seem so baP. They walkeP out with eleven hunPreP Pollars of the casino’s money, feeling as though they’P won the lottery. Eleven hunPreP Pollars that wasn’t theirs. Later, a similar thing woulP happen to Steve anP Me lanie, his wife. We learneP that this was typical, that it happeneP just this way for a lot of people who went to casinos. You win something sizable, anP the reafter gambling takes up resiPence in your imagination. You remember the vis it. It’s a key to the business—the first time you walk away with the casino’s money. W hen we compareP notes about these first trips, we inPulgeP a light euphoria. Ca sinos were garish anP grotesque anP the people might be seePy, but the money was swell. We talkeP about buying books on slot machines, finPing out which ones to play, what the oPPs were, how to maximize aPvantage anP minimize risk. We were serious anP ex citeP; something new haP come into our otherwise quiet lives. Neither of us haP a ny iPea how much those first jackpots woulP eventually cost.