Afrigid early morning breeze pierced the lining of Doris Layne's overcoat, and her aching legs wobbled as her two daughters helped her across the parking lot of the Hyattsville Kmart.
The 96-year-old Bethesda woman stepped up to one of the two idling tour buses headed for Dover Downs in Delaware and climbed aboard, a heavy beige handbag swinging like a pendulum from her forearm and jingling with the shifting stacks of loose quarters inside. A daughter laughed.
"Oh, she's ready to play!" Ann Thompson said. "She's been looking forward to this all week."
If lawmakers approve Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s (R) plan to bring slots to four horse tracks, its success will hinge heavily on jingling handbags like Doris Layne's. She and her daughters and thousands more are expected to fuel a revival of the state's flagging racing industry and pour millions of dollars into Maryland's cash-starved treasury.
Gambling opponents say Layne is one of the last people they want carrying more of Maryland's budget burden. Like many who play slots, she is elderly, retired from a low-wage job and living on a fixed income. Like most of the 28 passengers on Baron Bus 704, which leaves Hyattsville every weekday morning at 9:30, the Layne family has no reservations about legal slots in Maryland.
"We can't wait for them to bring [slots] closer to home," Thompson said. "It's why I voted for Ehrlich. It's what we want."
Gambling has long been a favorite pastime of Layne, who walks unaided down the narrow aisle of a moving bus and has the mental agility to keep count of the quarters she's lugging.
In earlier years, Thompson said, her mother would leave the house at 4 p.m. some weekdays and ride to Atlantic City, where she would play the slots till dawn and then catch a bus home at sunrise.
Layne's advancing years have etched deep lines across her sunken cheeks and stolen the last of her teeth. Since she was slowed by a stroke last year, she has relied on the twice-monthly family trips to Dover for something she now finds in short supply: fun. During these bitter months of winter, the daylong outings represent the bulk of her time beyond the walls of daughter Mary Layne's Bethesda house.
"Mostly, we do this for her," said Thompson, who is 62, and lives in Hyattsville. "I think it's what keeps her going."
The route to Dover Downs exits the state highway near a field of grazing Holsteins then follows two-lane roads past acres of whithered corn stalks, ramshackle barns, trailer homes and, finally, the commercial strip that leads to Dover. Thompson knows the two-hour drive so well that she was able to alert her mother of their approach with a pat on the arm.
"Three more traffic lights," she said. Off to the left, rising up from behind a shopping plaza, was the $60 million high-rise hotel built with the money that has piled up from slots since the Delaware legislature legalized the machines in 1994.
Gamblers pumped $2.1 billion into Dover Downs slot machines last year, with profits totaling $182 million. The casino's share of those winnings was $87 million, while Delaware's take was $65 million. The rest covers the state lottery's computer costs and pads purses for races at the adjoining harness track.
Much of the cash comes from Marylanders. Though no precise count is available, a recent study by Harrah's found that in 2001, Maryland residents made 1.2 million trips to Delaware casinos.
Many of those gamblers came on the dozens of buses that empty in front of a drab, low-slung building sitting adjacent to the gleaming new Dover Downs hotel. Layne stepped off the bus, walked 20 feet and opened the tinted-glass doors. A cacophony of pulsing chords and a blaze of flashing lights lit up her face.
She smiled. Grabbing a stool in front of the nearest machine, she reached for a quarter, not even stopping to remove her knitted ski cap. Settling in front of a one-armed bandit called "Party Girl," she watched the rows of cherries and lemons whirl.
Much of the promotion surrounding slots portrays a day at the casino as a rollicking adventure. But the act of playing a slot machine is so solitary as to be almost meditative. Thompson described it as a form of stress relief. Before she retired, she said, she used slots to escape thoughts of her work as a hospice nurse, where she watched patients slowly wither and die, often painfully, from cancer.
"It took the edge off," she said.
Experts say the mesmerizing nature of the machines is what makes them insidious. "Slots machines are the most addictive form of gambling because it's such a rapid play, it's instantaneous, there are no distractions," said Valerie Lorenz, director of the Compulsive Gambling Center in Baltimore. "There's no time period like there is between horse races to think about how much you're losing. And there is no limit to the amount of money you can put in there."
In the casino's ladies room, a sign advises players to wager modestly and watch for signs of compulsive gambling. "When the fun stops being fun," it says, "it may be time to walk away."
Thompson has her own opinion about problem gamblers: "Those people need to learn to control themselves."
She said she closely tracks her wagers, but her games last only seconds. She drops three quarters into one machine and presses the button marked "spin." While the dials are circling, she drops three more quarters into a second machine. Winnings pile up as credits and then evaporate just as quickly.
About 90 minutes after they arrived, Thompson noticed her mother's supply of quarters was almost gone. "You've got no more money?" she asked with a laugh. Then, without another word, she reached across her mother's lap and dropped two fistfuls of change into her purse.
Layne and her daughters began talking about getting lunch just after 1 p.m. Their bus ride had come with a $7.50 voucher for the Dover Downs buffet, and they had yet to take a break. But leaving the slots was a struggle.
Each time one of the three was ready to go, another was on a winning streak. Finally, after an hour, the three stood up. But even as Doris Layne rose, she reached into her handbag for one more quarter and plunked it into the machine.
"Mom," Mary Layne said, tugging her mother's sleeve, "let's go."
While the women were lunching on an extravagant buffet, Katie Person was downstairs in the casino, dropping the last coin from her purse into a slot machine that promised a "Big Payday." There were two hours to go before the bus would leave for Maryland, but her well of cash had run dry.
Person, 59, a retired health care aide who collects disability, had come from the District with $125 and now sat with nothing to do.
"I wish I had brought more with me," she said, glumly watching others play. "But I know my limit. Once that's gone, that's it."
Neither Doris Layne nor her daughters would reveal their cash limits for a day spent gambling, though Thompson made a discreet trip to the cashier and slipped a wad of bills into her blouse pocket. The digital display on Layne's "Jack Pot Party" machine offers her this advice: "Step one, find a fun casino; Step two, find a Jack Pot Party machine; Step three, party hard baby!"
But Thompson notices her mother looks glum. The display on her machine shows no more credits. "Take some more from your purse," she advised. But then she sees, the handbag is empty.
"She's mad because she's losing," she told her sister. Then she turned back to her mother, shaking her head. "You had a lot in your purse, what happened?" Reaching from her own stash, she dumped another handful of coins into the pocketbook.
At 3:50 p.m., the women start for the bus. It will leave at 4 p.m., and the driver has reminded everyone aboard that he rarely departs with everyone who came. "Some people can't pull themselves away," he said.
The passengers sink quietly into their seats. "I lost $110," Thompson said, to no one in particular.
"I wish I lost $110," the man seated behind her responds.
The sun was setting as the bus lumbered back toward Hyattsville. The passengers were quiet. Thompson heard a sound coming from her mother's seat. It was the jingle of quarters from Layne's handbag. Apparently, her mother had come away with more money than the rest of them.
"Ha!" Thompson laughed. "Save it for next time, Mom. Save it for next time."