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Yvonne Abraham

Two-way addiction

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / July 1, 2009
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Sitting in a State House gambling hearing on Monday, I found myself thinking about Four Seasons Man.

He was always my first customer when I worked the Thursday morning shift tending bar in the neighborhood where I grew up, one of Sydney’s poorest.

Like hundreds of other bars in the city, we dispensed cheap beer and coins for the “pokies,’’ the slot machines that were our main enterprise. They lined the walls of our dim, smoky dive, flashing and bleating for 15 hours a day, starting at 10:30 a.m.

That’s when Four Seasons Man arrived. He was in his 60s, tall and round and sullen. He had gray, buzzed hair, and his sweaters always had holes in them.

Twenty years later, I can’t remember his name. What I do remember is that he always ordered Four Seasons, the cheapest whiskey we had, four shots to start. With shaking hands, he slammed down the first two, right there at the bar.

I looked away.

Then he put down 20 bucks for the pokies. He took his cup of coins and his remaining shots over to his machine, drained them all, then came back to the bar for more. On he went into the afternoon.

By then, he was surrounded by mostly elderly men and women from the neighborhood, all seated on stools, sliding coins into the slots.

We were always busy on Thursdays: It was pension check day.

If Four Seasons Man could afford his habits, he wouldn’t have come into our bar. There were pokies all over the neighborhood and across the sprawling city, in bars a whole lot nicer than our sad, cheap cave of a place.

And so he popped into my head Monday morning in the chilly, blue-walled Gardner Auditorium, as a Senate panel held the first of what will surely be many hearings this year into gambling.

It’s looking inevitable that slots will come to Massachusetts. A lot of our leaders have been touting them as our fiscal salvation. The Senate president signaled her support for gambling our way out of the hole at an April breakfast, with one pull of an imaginary lever and a cheery “Ka-ching!’’

Our state finances are in such rotten shape that slots will be a much easier sell than they were just a year ago.

And an army of expensive lobbyists, many of whom watched Monday’s hearing, has been deployed to make sure lawmakers follow through.

There was lots of talk about revenues and jobs and timelines in that auditorium, but not a lot of testimony about people like my old customer.

Senator Susan Tucker, a vehement gambling opponent, gamely kept trying to introduce them, but things quickly got back on track. A neurologist gave incomprehensible testimony about gambling addiction, but that was at the very end, after much of the crowd had left.

Like scratch tickets, slots are gaming’s crack. Just like the instant games that bring in 70 percent of the state lottery’s take, they’re the province of poorer players. The part of Sydney where I grew up has the lowest average household incomes in the city and the highest average rates of spending on slot machines.

I get the argument that the state needs money. I understand firsthand the value of the jobs that would be created. I know that people should be able to spend their money as they please.

But let’s not kid ourselves that we’re creating a new Monte Carlo here. The state, which is supposed to protect its citizens, is going to encourage some of them to harm themselves.

And when those people put down money they can’t afford, we’ll take the cash and look away.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.