Early one day this week, 54 people climbed aboard a chartered bus in a Secor Road parking lot and headed north.
Visions of Canadian currency were dancing in their heads as the llively group, mostly retired seniors, hit the highway about 8 a.m.
My friend Dave and I were among the cheerful bunch on this monthly bus trip to one of the gambling spots in Detroit or Windsor, Canada. The destination this time was Caesars Windsor. Three casinos in Detroit will get their turns in months to come.
Before climbing aboard, each person was greeted by smiling George, who arranges these trips, takes reservations, deals with border officials and generally acts as a jovial host.
The driver, a portly, good-natured fellow named Mark, assisted the seniors who needed some support or a boost up the stairs into the bus.
Waiting in the first seat of the bus was George s wife, Mary, who collected $17 from each passenger and checked that each name was on the reservation list she held.
The bus appeared fairly new, with comfortable seats and good air conditioning. Everybody quickly settled into a seat near someone they knew or into one saved for them by a buddy who got there earlier.
Initially, the trip was to begin at 8:30 a.m., but George had called his passengers a day or two in advance and asked them to gather earlier so he could depart by 8. That extra half hour, everyone reasoned, meant more times at the slot machine, table games or incredible buffet.
Before departing, Mary used the bus public address system to remind everyone that they needed to have with them a driver s license or photo identification, plus a birth certificate or voter registration card if they had any plans to get back into the United States later that day. Our government is very picky about that. A passport would suffice on all counts.
As we sped north on the interstate highway, the chatter intensified between seatmates, across the aisle and even among riders several rows apart. The bus ran silently enough for normal conversations to be heard easily.
We weren t yet out of the Toledo city limits before packages of crackers and other goodies were brought forth by some passengers to be shared with others, even riders they had just met. After all, seniors certainly require some sort of sustenance in a trip that would take all of about 75 minutes.
Shortly after 9 a.m. we passed through the tunnel into Canada, George dealt with the border officials on the other side, and soon we pulled up in front of the Caesars Windsor casino.
A friendly representative from the casino, calling everyone sweetie or honey, boarded the bus to give us each a voucher for the buffet or to cash in for gambling money. The voucher, probably not coincidentally, was worth what we paid for the bus trip.
It was a point not lost on more than a few astute seniors, who found it necessary to point out that the bus trip was essentially free.
As we prepared to keep Canada green with our money, Mary announced that we should all regroup at the bus dock at 3 p.m. so we could head home no later than 3:15 p.m.
Figuring an hour for lunch and counting our morning winnings, about five hours remained for some serious gambling. That should be enough for one day, most of us felt.
With a bit of grumbling about the terrible inconvenience, the seniors headed for the cashier cages in the casino to change their American dollars into Canadian funds. My $101 got me back $105 in Canadian money.
I won t go into great detail here, but about 40 minutes later, I was down about $60 at a poker slot machine. That $101 was my gambling budget for the day.
Thinking that my chances were better at a poker machine, where the player is actually involved to some degree, I was reminded quickly why I am not a big gambling fan.
Then, I thought I should try my luck at a table game I had never played but one that my pal Leo swears is a good one. I had 40 bucks left to blow, and so what if I blew it all in the first hour. I could always watch my friends or some of the other seniors.
I also figured I could get even with the casino at the buffet. Boy, I d show them some serious eating and cut into their food budget for the month.
It s a game called three-card poker. The minimum bet is $10, but a player usually places $10 on each of the first two squares.
I expected that it was played the same as every other table game I ever tried.
It usually goes like this: I put down my chips. The dealer makes some motions with the cards. The dealer takes my chips.
So, at the three-card poker table, I put down my first $20 in chips. The dealer dealt me three cards, then three to himself. There were no other players at the table.
I asked what I should do with my cards. If I had a pair, he said, I could put my cards on the third square with another $10 on top of them.
He s getting greedy for all my money in one hand, I thought. But I had a pair, so I put down the cards along with another $10 in chips.
I don t know what happened next, but suddenly I had a nice little stack of $5 chips.
So I tried it again. The result was the same.
A few hands later, he flipped me several $25 chips.
Next, he slid over several $100 chips.
It seemed I was getting a pair each time, or a three-card straight, or a three-card flush. Those are good things to get, I learned.
The dealer mumbled, You re the luckiest beginner I have ever seen.
I thought then that if I was getting $100 chips occasionally with $20 bets, then a $75 bet would make me rich.
I was ahead about $500. A couple minutes later I was ahead $350.
I rose, thanked the dealer for his patience, and joined my friend who was keeping the casino coffers full at a nearby slot machine.
We took time for lunch, where I didn t have to overeat to get even with anyone. It was a buffet fit for a king, and I was wearing my crown as a winner.
After a leisurely lunch, I wasn t keen on giving all my largesse back to the casino at the tables, so I went off in search of a fun slot machine.
I didn t know 2-cent machines were available, but I found one. Lots of noise, bells, flashing lights, etc. It was a good way to pass some time without spending wildly.
Then I learned that you had to play the maximum to win much. That meant 100 times the initial 2 cents, which cost $2 a spin.
Suddenly, I won $160 on that 2-cent machine. My luck apparently hadn t run out.
I spent the rest of the afternoon contentedly betting small amounts at that cheapo machine, winning some, losing some, and finishing in the black.
The 3 p.m. appointment with the bus came too quickly, it seemed, and soon we were all aboard again.
Comparisons were being made of losses, winnings, and how many desserts were consumed at the buffet.
Another friendly casino representative boarded the bus to pass out a chocolate coin to each passenger. It was the only coin a few of the gamblers would be taking home.
About 3:15 the bus departed. We were cheerfully waved through by officials on the Canadian side who probably expect a return trip some day by gamblers who want to visit their money.
At the American side, everyone pulled out their documentation when a border official came aboard. He walked swiftly up and down the aisle, checking the papers. He was satisfied and then waved us on our way.
On the trip home, George passed around a sign-up sheet for the September gambling jaunt. Most of the passengers put down their names.
Not surprisingly, with great expectations a thing of the past, the return ride was a little less boisterous than the morning s journey. Spirits, however, were still high despite the fact that there were more losers than winners.
These seniors are not careless with their money and usually budget for gambling no more than they can comfortably afford to lose. When they lose, they smile and chalk it off as a delightful ride, great meal, camaraderie and fun entertainment at a good price.
A little more than an hour later, we were back at our cars at the Secor Road lot.
A few of us were planning where to spend our winnings on something we don t need.