Anyone who doubts the existence of zombies need only venture out into the winter hinterlands of central and northern Wisconsin. In tin-sided buildings the color of dried mustard, they cluster in communion with the seven deadly sins. Under the guise of progress they profess to enrich the Native Americans of our state through the tawdry tourist attraction that is Indian Gaming.
The drive in is a metaphor for the failed promise of our state’s casinos. A wide four-lane highway delivers us to a well-maintained county trunk, but the farther we get from the exit, the rougher the ride. The smooth concrete road bed only lasts long enough to ensure we are committed to the destination. In less than ten miles the shoulders are gone and the concrete is replaced by aging asphalt.
Gone too, are the bright colorful billboards that promised wealth and happiness. Now the only reason I notice the pitted metal sign designating our next turn is because the ice and snow on the roadway make it hazardous to drive the posted speed limit. Leafless woodlots suffocate the roadway with only the occasional low ranch-style home to prevent a feeling of complete isolation.
And yet when we arrive, the casino parking lot is full. I cruise the lanes looking for a spot to park and feel as though I am the only one who didn’t know the short cut to this place.
That sense of being an outsider stays with me for the rest of the afternoon. Awake among the living dead, I walk the bruised and battered carpet. It’s hard to say what is hazier; the air quality inside these corrugated walls or the connection between singing slot machines and the revitalization of a tribal community.
I’m here to see a national comedian and anticipate and get ninety minutes of good humor Better than good; my sides ache and I am still chuckling when the lights come up. I fall in with the exiting herd and my smile lasts as long as it takes to re-enter the building proper. And I’m not the only one riding on this mood swing. Voices drop, eyes dull and within minutes the living become the living dead.
My companion wants to game for a little while and we agree to rendezvous in half an hour, but I can’t force myself to stay in the building. I retreat to the parking lot and try to remember one of any of the twenty funny stories I just heard. Too late, they have been tamped down by the sadness of this place. I retreat again, this time to my car. The key in the ignition brings the engine to life and its confident rumble loosens the knot between my shoulder blades. In a few minutes my companion climbs in and we’re off.