All the arguments for and against legalized gambling now making the rounds in the city are so many heavy, dark curtains over the windows of the city's soul. In whatever little room we do the excitingly nasty things that bring us pleasure, gambling holds a sacred place. A nationwide, billion-dollar industry, both legal and illegal, attests to gambling's stature as being high on the list of our thrills.
But if you peek behind the curtains covering the gambling issue -- the religious argument that it is immoral; the complaint that it is a tax on the poor; the dollar signs that say that the District is losing money to Maryland, where gambling is legal -- the true gambling question that will be decided Tuesday is: do we really think that gambling should be approved by the government and used to fund government programs?
That is a hard question. An easier question to consider is: should gambling be allowed in Washington? The answer to that question is definitely yes. The only problem is that no one asked that easy question. People in Washington are already allowed to gamble.
The District police will tell you that gambling is already allowed. They follow a basic rule: if the gambling is not in violation of the three Cs -- conspicuous, commercial or causing someone to complain -- then it is allowed. The morality of gambling is not considered. Neither is the law that prohibits gambling. If morality or the law were considered, Police Chief Burtell Jefferson would be leading a raid on Mayor Barry's house to stop the weekly poker games. Most people, like the police, avoid the moral question of whether gambling is good or bad, should or should not be approved by the whole community; for them, gambling is a matter of finding a poker game or being offered good odds on the Bullets game.
My mother is a good example of someone who avoids all moral judgments on gambling. She prays to God nightly, takes communion on Sunday and is quick to point out to a supermarket cashier that he did not charge her enough for a carton of milk. But on Saturday afternoons there appears in her Brooklyn apartment a fat man with bad teeth. He chews a large wad of gum, smokes non-filter cigarettes and carries a stack of pink slips with numbers printed on them. She calls him the numbers man.
My mother and father will sit with the fat man and flip through the pink slips, picking out numbers that they hope will "play" or win. Sometimes they pick a number that appears to them in a dream: "I dreamed I was on a boat"; that might mean play number 44.
All week long my mother watches for signs of what numbers to play and talks it over with friends, in the manner of football fans here debating the Redskins. So, for the $10 she may spend on the illegal lottery, she get a week's worth of diversion and entertainment that climaxes on Sunday when the winning number is announced. Ironically, the announcement of the winning number comes about an hour after church services.
But entertainment is not the only reason my mother gambles. She also strengthens a cultural tie by gambling. The illegal lottery she plays is much like the weekly lottery in Panama, a lottery she played as a girl while growing up there. Like Irish-Americans, who still play Ireland's sweeptakes, she still plays the Panamanian lottery. It is a link to the old country for her. And it is a shot at the big money.
People like my mother don't think of gambling as their one illegal activity. I once told her she could get arrested if the police found her sitting at the table with the fat man and the pink number slips. "Don't talk foolishness, boy," she said and ended the conversation. So much for arguments about the rightness of gambling.
The question District residents will vote on Tuesday is not whether the city should shut down the corner store or the fat men who sell illegal numbers. The question is whether we should make the thrill official. Should District residents say to their children, and people who may have never considered gambling, that gambling is good? Should we give the opportunity to gamble to people who may not be able either to afford it or to resist the lure of ads such as those in Maryland say, "You Can't Win If You Don't Play."
The answer to that question is no. Gambling, within limits, can be fun. And if you want to play a number or bet a race in the District you can do it. Finding a bookie in Washington is as easy as finding a bar. If you want to go to the races or play a legal numbers game, you can go to Maryland. But there is no need to risk the odds of having the social problems and governemnt corruption that could come with a badly drawn proposal to legalize dog tracks, lotteries and jai alai in a small, booming city with a city government that is not even 10 years old.
The best argument for legalizing gambling is that people gamble anyway -- so why shouldn't the city's charities and treasury benefit from it? The only problem with that argument is that it is such an old con that lots of people know about it. Mafia kingpins have used it for years. The kingpin will pay the rent for some woman who blows her social security check playing his numbers game and will create a neighborhood legend of the great benefactor, the kind, good numbers man.Suddenly everyone in the neighborhood wants to protect him. All the while the kingpin's business goes on, and there are more people missing rent payments because of bad bets than there are people having their rent paid by the kingpin.
Charities in the city and the city government would get, at most $35 million from legalized gambling. That is not enough money to solve their financial problems or even substantially help. But there is a a more important principle here. Charities and city governments should be able to solve their own financial problems without waiting for some sucker to lose a bet.
Gambling's best chance of winning on Tuesday stands with the hope that most people will go into the polls thinking -- "Oh hell, why not, I gamble. It's fun, it might make some more money for the city, so let's bring gambling to town." But the key thing to remember is that gambling is already in town. There is no need to make it legal and given the initiative on the ballot, plenty of reason not to.