Checking Out Fish Tables in Greensboro
My friend says don’t use his real name, but nixes my suggestion of calling him Ivan “Guy running the competition is named that. Whenever there’s money made, there’s an Ivan in the game.” He suggests Vlad. “Because I’m always Putin it out there.” Like right now, bringing a writer to the Fish House where he’s Pit Boss.
A Fish House isn’t a restaurant, but Vlad is grilling tonight on the sidewalk of this strip mall where every other store front is dark; chicken, burgers, dogs and brats, all free for high-rollers. “We’re the only Fish Tables place in Greensboro to have hot food rather than cold pizza. The guys who have money tied up in this place know you have to spend it to make it. They also know the value of name brands. That’s why we serve Pepsi instead of Sam’s Cola.”
You might have seen the phrase “Fish Tables” on strip mall signs in the Triad. Earlier, we visited the Market Street one so Vlad’s friend and co-worker Cheyenne could play the tables there.
Cheyenne, unlike Vlad, freely admits being addicted. “If you’ve never played this game, don’t start, ‘cause you’ll always be chasing the high.” Vlad claims that Cheyenne made four hundred bucks at the Market Street place last night, but say she may lose just as much today. “Nah,” she says, “I’m not dropping more than forty.”
Tonight, I drop two bucks and make ten following Cheyenne’s advice about the computer-animated sea creatures undulating across the tabletop. “Don’t aim, just spray.” I don’t know what all the buttons do; the instructions are in Chinese. Nor do I know which of the dodging and weaving fish, whales, crocodiles and dragons I can “kill” with my beginner’s level weapon, a double-barreled cannon that fires nets that have no effect on the biggest or fastest targets. But I aim at smaller slower ones with the joystick and keep pressing the “shoot” button and my two-dollar credit dips to $1.25, rises to $2.50, dips to $2.05, rises to $2.80, and so on, up and down, and in ten minutes, is at $10.85. The sign on the wall says there’s a ten-dollar minimum cash-out. The siren song of the digital killing-spree sea is strong, and I continue firing at the next school of fish, hoping I can jack my score to twenty bucks. Instead, I drop to ten even.
Taking this as my cue, I wave at the nearest hostess. “Cash out, sweetie?” I nod. She presses a button on the console, prints a ticket hands it to another hostess with more bosom and tattoos. Bosom gal gives me a ten-dollar bill. When I ask for a Pepsi, I’m unsure if I’m supposed to pay for it, but offer the ten spot. She asks how much I want back. I tell her keep five and go out to talk to Vlad.
While grilling, he eyes the bushes. “Time I got jacked, I’m pretty sure they came out of there. I went to check the lot and had a bad feeling, but didn’t see anybody. I think they’d jumped the back fence and were hiding in those bushes.
Minute I went inside, they bum-rushed the door, three of them in ski masks with Glocks. Most of the money was in the machines, but I gave them what we had in the back. I heard that crew hit a couple of other places, and somebody in Kernersvile shot one of them. Don’t know if it’s true.”
When we first arrived, there were nine gamers at the tables, pretty evenly mixed between men and woman, whites and African-Americans. Except for a dour Ron Jeremy lookalike and a graying good old boy pimp who claims his daddy was Johnny Carson’s pilot, they appeared anywhere from their early twenties to their mid-thirties. “Lower-class people with money,” says Vlad. “Not saying you can’t get high-class people into a Fish House, but it has to be owned by one of them, or by somebody who’s played golf with them for years.”
Later, the demographic tips entirely Asian and largely male; nine young men, a young woman, a middle-aged woman and a granny. I figure them for Thai or Laotian, maybe Vietnamese. But one guy, tall and handsome, wearing a baseball cap with a shiny silver DOPE on it, resembles the Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau circa 1996, and when he gets excited, yells “wei-wei-wei!,” all-purpose Cantonese for everything from “shit!” to “duuuuude!”
After he’s cashed out, he comes for a chicken leg. “You made a thousand dollars tonight, I bet,” says Vlad. “A little less,” says the young man. I can’t tell if his grin is sly or shy as he shows his wad of bills. “How about you tip your waiter?” The young man laughs and gets into his car without peeling off any twenties. Vlad clearly didn’t expect him to. I don’t ask him what he makes in a night, doing this. I don’t ask him how much of it he spends at his tables or those elsewhere. I imagine it’s less than Cheyenne does. She didn’t come back with us from the place on Market Street. Vlad says she’s probably still playing there, or at another one, and won’t be back until her shift as Pit Boss tomorrow.
The Asians leave around ten like there’s a curfew. The next wave of gamers are African-American, three men and seven women. I talk to a big guy about last night’s forty-person brawl at the club where he bounces, eat some chicken and a brat and go home. I’ve been gone all night and my cats haven’t had their supper. They greet me like Victorian children who’ve been starving while their errant father gambles.