Monday's 11 a.m. grand opening of the state's newest casino in Des Plaines has a Statue of Liberty feel to it.
A variety of us folks of various ages with different skin color and native languages are teeming in the hot sun for a few hours as we wait for the doors of the Rivers Casino to open. There are the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe air conditioning, and a bit of the wretched refuse. There are smokers, people on oxygen pushing people in wheelchairs, women using their walkers to jockey for space with the morbidly obese, a guy with a "Born to be Bad" T-shirt getting busted for cutting in line and more than one out-of-shape, sweaty newspaper columnist. We all seem a bit on edge.
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"It's only 8 minutes since the last time you asked," a man growls to Sue Parello, a 64-year-old Fox Lake widow who asks the time because she couldn't be more eager to get inside.
"I left the house at five after five," Parello says in explaining her arrival five hours before the new casino's opening. She has high hopes this place will be better than her old casino.
"That place is so bad. They just take your money," says Parello, who adds that she has the credentials to support her opinion. "I've been going 16 years to that place. I don't win anything. I think it is terrible, and I went there last night."
Hospice home health care worker Renee Kollupaylo didn't wait an entire night between casino visits. When she got off work Sunday, she drove straight to Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo, Mich., gambled then rushed back for the Rivers Casino opening.
"I spent all night at Four Winds," Kollupaylo says, replaying the moment early Monday when she glanced at her cellphone to get the time and realized, "Oh, my God. I've got to get back."
She beat the morning rush hour to be one of the first people in line, and she knows some people might not understand such devotion.
"This is mindless entertainment for me," she says, noting that gambling at a casino serves as an escape from her job helping dying and sick people. "This is where I come to relax."
Some find it cheaper entertainment than going to a ballgame or shooting a round of golf. Still, the opening of a new casino is to many gamblers what Lady Liberty's torch has been to immigrants. It offers the lure of something better.
"Four days after my liver transplant, I was at the casino," says casino regular Barbara Berrios, who drives 5 minutes from her home in Chicago to get to the new casino with her friend Mary Nicosia, 55.
"My first year (of gambling), I could have bought a home in Barrington with a six-car garage," Berrios says of her beginner's luck. Since then, the jovial woman who says "I'll lie and tell you I'm 58" before her friend outs her as 60, has lost far more than she's won.
"I've lost close to a million dollars, because I've gone for 30 years," Berrios says of her gambling career losses.
"I try to stay within my limits because we come so often," says Nicosia, also of Chicago, admitting that she and Berrios might come more than their usual three or four times a week now that the new casino is so close. "Sometimes I'm a good girl, and sometimes I come out crying, 'Why did I do that?' But she (Berrios) will go to her car and pull out nickels and dimes. I'm not that bad."
Berrios, who retired from a career of owning an ice cream truck, admits to having days when she's won thousands of dollars at a casino and lost it all back by the time she leaves. But she loves playing slot machines.
"I'd take a slot (machine) before a man again. They don't talk back," Barrios says. While this new casino means "I never have to go to Indiana again," Berrios will have to adjust to the smoking ban that forces smokers into a special area with no gambling. "This is going to be really hard for me," she says. "I smoke three packs a day."
The trip to be one of the first in the new casino is a true pilgrimage for Sandra Compson, 57, a real estate agent from Antioch.
"I need to do this for my husband," Compson says. "He couldn't wait until it would open."
Harry Compson died of pancreatic and liver cancer on July 7 at age 63.
"Everybody who knew him, knew Harry loved casinos," Compson says, recalling last month's Father's Day casino outing where her weak and sick husband gambled for one hour and slept for 10.
"On the day we buried him, we went to the casino," she says solemnly, adding that one of their sons, a pallbearer, won $93. "Everybody grieves their own way."
All of us early birds escape the heat and enter into the din of the casino by 11 a.m. The line winding out the door and around the corner moves up to take our spots. The talking among strangers and even friends all but ends as most people sit silently before clanking slot machines. The casino won't close until 7 a.m. and reopens at 9 a.m. But some have a simple method for determining when it is time to leave.
"If I win, great," Compson says. "If I don't, I go home."