During the time we were housemates, Joe's favorite pastimes were throwing darts, fishing, and horse racing. The order might change from time to time, but it was always in those three that he was enthusiastic and even collected trophies.
At a time when fishing was on the top of his list, Joe invited me to join him on a fishing trip. I didn't care much for an activity that involved mostly waiting then waiting some more, but to cheer him up I agreed to come. We went to a quiet cove on the New Jersey shore, where the slate water was gently lapping the brownish sand in the afternoon sunlight. A hundred feet inland was a long fence built from wooden slats and metal wire, beyond which tall grass grew abundantly.
Joe took out his gear and handed me a rod. We cast our lines and waited. A few minutes later, to our excitement Joe got a bite and reeled in. To our disappointment it was only a sand shark, which looked like a shark the size of a catfish. Joe made a face and threw it back into the water.
The sun was sinking low, our shadows on the sand were stretching longer, and the pleasant cool breeze was now crossing to the chilly side. Still no bite. I had already given up, but Joe was persistent.
"I'm bored," I said after repeatedly walking up and down the deserted beach.
"Hey fish!" Joe yelled at the water. "Come and bite, 'cause my buddy's bored!"
There was a tug at his rod. Joe smiled broadly and reeled in another sand shark. We burst out laughing, then decided to quit. It was probably my presence that had put a jinx on our endeavor today, for Joe always brought home a good catch when he went fishing.
It was already dark when we arrived in Atlantic City. Since I was new there, we went to the boardwalk for sightseeing. Then for the first time in my life I entered a casino.
Later on, thinking back I realized that the place was a time trap, not by some extraordinary manipulation of the time fabric, but by shrewd business acumen. It was a world in itself, a strange one where time came to a standstill to anyone who was captured by its wicked seduction. At the time I just walked in innocently, my senses striving to take in all the novel sights and sounds. Joe dragged me from game to game, playing a bit just to show me how, at least such was his intention. For the first time I learned about roulette, blackjack, craps and whatnot. Gradually, Joe's self-appointed job of tutoring me mutated into serious gambling, and I watched him with increasing unease. Several times did I nudge him to leave, and the same answer I got was to give him a few more minutes.
My interest in the games had waned, so I started strolling about. Around the game tables, players and spectators all wore a look of concentration, more intense on some than others. Maybe among them there was even a math genius trying to beat the house, but most looked normal enough. It was at the slot machines that I saw what scared me stiff.
Rows of people, mostly overweight women, sat facing those one-armed bandits, mindlessly repeating just the two motions of inserting coins and pulling the lever. They looked almost like robots, except that robots did not have that fiendish obsession of greed frozen on their faces, which I watched in shock. That this place could make humans sink even lower than machines was too dark and scary for me to bear, so I made my way back to Joe's table to insist that we should leave. He was a bit annoyed at first, then looked at his watch and his face registered consternation; for unknowingly we had been in the casino for nearly seven hours.
Joe profusely apologized to me for having lost track of time, but I knew it hadn't been his fault. The consolation was that he had won two hundred dollars. We got back to our home in Philadelphia at three o'clock in the morning; and I knew that no temptation could ever lure me back to a casino again, not after seeing those benumbed, obsessed, pathetic faces at the slot machines.