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Like octopus, gambling spreads tentacles

It was in the summer of 1972 that I first worked for Elvis. In the King of Rock 'n Roll's booth just beyond the Marlboro haze suspended like a cumulus cloud above the casino floor in the International Hotel in Las Vegas, I sold teddy bears and hawked hound dogs. Elvis, the original star merchandiser, was blessed with hits about small animals that translated into themes and cash sales. The hours were long, but the boredom of my franchising was tempered by the abundance of data on human nature. I observed gambling life.

For hours, casino dwellers invest money with manicured dealers who wear diamond pinky rings earned from patrons' high hopes and inability to do math. There is something transfiguring about Las Vegas. People who shop at Brooks Brothers succumb to an evil clothing witch who dwells in slot machines and curses those who touch her one-armed castle with a strong desire to reveal body parts better left hidden. Casino dwellers blend together into one composite drawing.The men look like Dennis Farina and the women could be Ethel Mer-man's twin.

Casino dwellers don't look happy. Even the people who hit three sevens and a great many silver dollars sit motionless as the heavy coins clank into the scratched silver wells of the cherry and lemon bandits. Perhaps it is the lack of daylight that makes them gloomy. Perhaps they finally comprehend net gain, and it's not the jackpot. The women who give change and work in coffee shops look like aunts from Chicago or Queens. Stiff hair, fast pace, and no friendly introductions. For all the claims that gambling is entertainment, a casino has all the lightheartedness of a PETA rally.

I returned to Las Vegas for a meeting last month and Dennis and Ethel are still there. Elvis outfits with the silver and gold upholstery tacks are still haute couture. In the window of the hotel clothing store was a denim jacket with Princess Diana painted on the front. Her crown was made of silver studs. There are the same slots, roulette and 21 tables, and casino dwellers with the same dismal looks. This is the land that time, the EEOC and PC forgot. Las Vegas is immune from the refinements of enlightenment. Barely clothed cocktail waitresses abound. Hooters is a scourge to society, but shills never left the baccarat tables.

There are subtle changes. In the Elvis days, parents wouldn't take their children to a place where men and women have dinner during a topless review. But casinos now have a Graco stroller base of operations near hotel elevators. I watched as a mother rocked her still cone-headed infant with one arm as she fed a slot machine with the other. Another couple traded toddler diaper duty with the demands of a non-lucrative video poker game.

The Las Vegas strip brims with more hotels, more casinos, more crowds, more drinking, and more money. There is a fever Elvis and I never saw. That fever is transporting the midway from its Nevada confines to neighborhoods, reservations, and steamboats everywhere.

A recent study by SMR Research Corporation reveals that in the 298 counties in the United States in which gambling is legal, the bankruptcy rates are 18 percent higher when one gambling business is present, and 23 percent higher when five or more gambling businesses are present. The counties with the highest bankruptcy rates in the country are those closest to Tunica, Miss., home of the riverboat casinos.

Clergy in these areas report increases in marital strife and the divorce rate. They counsel those who succumb to the pattern. Gambling begins. The addiction takes over. The pawn shops spring up. The loot is there, but no one negotiated for the resulting problems. Gambling has a tax payable only in human capital.

From Mississippi to South Dakota, the midway is at our doorstep. Once confined to Moe Green and the Desert Inn, the lure of easy money is spreading.