(First of two parts)

LOS ANGELES, California -- Every Friday afternoon, a bunch of people congregates at the copious parking lot of a big supermarket chain at the corner of Main and Carson Streets in the city of Carson. It’s only a stone’s throw away from the St. Philomena Catholic Church.

But don’t mistake them for church-goers or late-evening shoppers. Instead, they’re a blend of “jackpot dreamers” comprising mostly of ordinary workers and pensioners, who simply couldn’t think of anything else to do but to battle it out with boredom.

On such a given day, they made it a habit to wait for a private air-conditioned bus that will take them to casino resorts either somewhere in Las Vegas Strip or Pechanga -- a place where one of the casino resorts operates in California -- to try their luck on gaming.

Each time, this sprawling parking lot is transformed into a melting pot where casino players would often loiter, a usual scene that’s nothing new anymore to many customers who are coming in and out of the supermarket. As they waited, they’re enjoying the luxury of exchanging pleasantries and whatever jokes they could afford to belt out in their own native languages --Filipino, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and, of course, English.

From a distance, one could hear their laughter, and their faces brighten up as the driver of the white shuttle bus approaches and pulls over. As the door opens, each one climbs aboard and readily settles on a cushioned seat, which provides enough comfort to endure the long drive.

As competition heats up in the gaming business, some casino operators have turned to this marketing strategy a long time ago. It is a means to lure bored people and gambling addicts to while away their time with a free commute to and from the different casino destinations in Las Vegas and nearby San Diego.

According to Bing Paralejas, 49, who once worked as a passenger coordinator in one of the casino resorts, air-conditioned buses that transport casino-goers are assigned different routes to pick up prospective players. “It isn’t that easy as you have to establish connection first. And, of course, promos are needed, too.”

“Each bus driver takes these players to a casino where he has a contract based on the number of people that he brings to the casino resort,” she said.

“Of course, the bus owner gets the big chunk of the payments, after paying his driver his day’s drudgery,” she added.

It’s short of saying that the bus driver is paid for taking players from the pick-up point to the casino, and vice versa.

“Depending on the agreement between the bus operator and the casino management, which hands out discounted tickets and game cards to attract players, the bus operator needs to bring players to the casino either every other day or on a daily basis,” Paralejas explained.

“Actually, it’s a good business. If I have the capital to buy an air-conditioned bus which could cost more than a million, I’ll do the same,” she said.

And who wouldn't grab the offer? As a casino patron, each one needs to pay a small fee to ride the bus but is given a small voucher, which he can initially use on the slot machines upon arrival. And the same bus will take the passengers back early the next day on the same spot where they were picked up.

No wonder many senior citizens and employees are spending their days-off by going back and forth to Las Vegas without letup.

“This is more convenient and economical compared to driving your own car, which can save a lot of mileage and gas,” said one of the players who declined to be named, an avid gambler who works at one of the private hospitals in Torrance, California.

Whether he likes it or not, he and his girlfriend are terribly hooked on this vice.

Sources told this writer that the live-in couple would always set aside some extra money which they could use as bets whenever they’re in Las Vegas. It was learned that they seldom or don’t win at all. As the borrowing grew, their debts pile up.

What is it that he’s after? “I just want to win the jackpot. Then, perhaps, I can go back home for good,” a hospital employee, who requested anonymity, told this writer once.

However, dreaming of winning the jackpot is like “wishing for the moon.” For many years now, the gambler’s wish hasn’t come true yet. Who knows? It could be tomorrow or could be never.

While other pensioners are always dreaming of hitting the jackpot in Las Vegas, Jessie B., 90, and a former Philippine Scout, would stick around. Besides, he has no interest in going to casinos.

On most days, he could be seen leisurely shuttling between stores in search of the lucky scratch card that could give him the jackpot. If this happens, he said he would likely go home for good, especially now that he is alone.

For now, he’s contented with his little pension. Las Piñas, where his home is, could wait, he said.

His unmarried daughter is doing her best to take care of him as he battles it out in the sunset of his life.

Others who are caught in the maelstrom of gambling seemed dead set on pushing through with their habits. Even if they know it destroys lives, these gamblers could not care less. All they could think of is to pay off their debts and the promise of retirement.

Being hooked on gambling is a huge problem, not only among Filipinos, but also among immigrants who have the same ambition to instantly hit the jackpot. But reality shows the other way around. As the saying goes, “The more you dig out your pockets, the more you lose.” Unfortunately, some people only count the winnings but never the amount they lost in gambling.

This habit doesn’t spare the pockets of the aging Filipino war veterans who depend solely on their meager monthly pension. There are instances, when they would drop those loose coins in slot machines, expecting that they’d win. (By Randy G. Altarejos)

(About the author: Randy G. Altarejos was a former editor of Philippine News Agency. He is now based in Los Angeles, California.)