IN THE MORNING, Millie Slechta said no for the third time. No, no, and no again. The people in charge at Aberdeen Middle School called her on the telephone, and they asked if she would please come in to teach English and science, but Millie said she had other important plans.
She is 76 years old, and she stood in line now with a cane to help her with the day's long walk, and her mind was made up. The line proceeded to a machine where a woman handled bets for the Maryland Lottery game, and another for the Keno game. No, no, and no, Millie Slechta said. The substitute teaching would not be allowed to get in the way of the gambling.
"They called me three times, including this morning," she declared. "They wanted me to come in and teach. But I told 'em, 'No, I want to go gamble.' "
At her age, she is entitled. In the state of Maryland, she is not only entitled but, not to be overlooked, highly encouraged. As described by state pitchmen, to make the bet is practically to express one's civic duty. We have horse racing and lotteries and keno and, coming soon somewhere across the landscape, maybe even slot machines. For better or worse, dressed up in the garb of state sanction or otherwise, challenging the long shot has long since become a staple of the culture.
So here we had Millie Slechta, accompanied by Phyllis and Carl Richardson, all of Aberdeen, lined up to gamble at last week's Maryland State Fair at Timonium, where a remarkable thing could be observed.
Along the fair's midway, a voice blared, "World's smallest woman, smaller than a 2-year-old child" - but nobody was lined up to see such a sight. Outside High Topps Fun House and the Tilt-A-Whirl, small lines formed and then went away. At the Water Gun Fun Booth, a woman with a voice droning like a lazy late-summer fly declared, "Winner takes a prize." But the entire immediate world seemed oblivious, for the water-gun prizes were merely stuffed animals.
But, in the lobby at the Maryland Exhibit Hall, the lines for lottery and keno games never went away.
"We've had lines out the doors," said Gail Pelovitz, public affairs officer for the Maryland Lottery. "Continuous, nonstop lines. The lines here are longer than they are anywhere else at the fair."
She handed over a brochure, declaring that lottery revenues last year helped support "education, public health, human resources, public safety and much more, all of which greatly benefits the citizens of Maryland." Civic duty, see?
And Millie Slechta, and the Richardsons?
"Nobody's winning," said Carl Richardson, smiling wanly. He is a carpenter who took the day off from work, and shrugged off his losses.
"Down about $15 altogether," said Phyllis Richardson. She's in sales. She said she and her husband bet "$75 to $100 every week" on the lottery. Millie Slechta said she bets "about $20 every week."
Nearby were Sharon Wilsynski and David Smith, who live in Rosedale. He does refrigeration work. He bets about $30 a week, and she bets about $10 a day. The figures are reported for a reason. Along the lines at Timonium last week, such habits were routine. "Civic duty" is facetiously overstating the case, but thousands reach into their wallets each day and take their shot and imagine it will change their lives.
But, while the lines were long and the betting significant, we had remarkable statements coming from Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith and community leaders in Timonium: If anybody's thinking about putting slot machines at the Timonium Fairgrounds (and racetrack), they had better have their heads examined.
For one thing, they say, it would change the nature of the state fair. Goodbye craft shows, hello slots. And never mind the "civic duty," and never mind that gambling - the state lottery encamped in the Exhibit Hall lobby - is already there at state fair time.
If such criticism sounds familiar, it should. Over the past year, much talk has centered on putting slot machines at Pimlico Race Course. Many who live in nearby neighborhoods have blasted the notion. They worry about added traffic, about something called an "undesirable element." The sentiments around the Pimlico area echo the concerns of Timonium: Don't screw up a nice environment.
But then, on Aug. 26, we had a new Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies poll saying, for the first time in recent history, a clear majority of Marylanders - 57 percent, and only 31 percent against - favors installing slot machines at racetracks.
In other words, we favor slots as long as they're not in our own neighborhoods. We favor slots as long as they don't bring in "undesirables." This raises a question: Who are these "undesirables?"
In fact, like it or not, they're the people in our mirror. They're the people who made the Maryland Lottery lines the longest at the state fair. And we're still learning to live with that roll-the-dice image of ourselves as we wrestle with the future of slot machines in Maryland.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun