It’s a full bus today. Some 30 people, most of them over 70, have embarked on a trip across the border. Bill Greenwood, co-owner of Green Mountain Tours LLC with his wife, Paula, makes sure everyone has a passport or two forms of ID before they leave their stops in Winooski, Milton, St. Albans and Swanton.
Green Mountain Tours offers two-week trips to Ireland and Scotland for as little as $3600, and hosts on-site historical lectures by Howard Coffin. But today is somewhat less culturally enlightening. This crew is headed to Casino Montréal.
The largest gaming site in Québec, the casino is housed in the futuristic, flag-topped former Pavillon de la France from the 1967 World’s Fair, known to most as Expo 67. The five-floor building is the workplace of more than 3500 people. When the Vermonters arrive on a Saturday at 9:30 a.m. to find a near-empty casino, about 1200 Montréalers are already at work there, says manager Donald Bilodeau.
Casino Montréal opened in 1993, and Green Mountain Tours has been bussing Vermonters there ever since. “It’s mostly regulars,” says Greenwood, who fears that with new border regulations, “it’s gonna quiet right down. Most seniors can’t afford a passport or enhanced license.”
That wouldn’t suit Marilyn, a Colchester resident who prefers not to reveal her last name; she’s been hopping on the bus since the casino’s inception. Marilyn used to travel several times a year to gamble in Atlantic City, but now she does most of her gaming through Green Mountain Tours. “We go to Saratoga and Akwesasne sometimes, too,” she says. “I like this because it’s a shorter trip and more convenient.”
Brown-haired Marilyn warms up in a zippy, candy-pink jacket, while naturally gray Jeri — her seatmate and twin sister — complements her in powder blue. The youngest of 11 kids, the twins are also among the babies of today’s group at 68.
Marilyn says she makes the trip to Casino Montréal “pretty much every month,” while Jeri only goes three or four times a year.
“I don’t go as much because I’m not lucky that way,” Jeri explains.
“She likes to talk,” says Marilyn.
“Shut up!” interjects Jeri, before covering her mouth in embarrassment.
A few rows up sits the live wire of the group, Barbara Ward, 83. After getting on the bus in St. Albans, she excitedly discloses, “I can’t spend too much money, because on Monday I’m going to Foxwoods [in Connecticut] for three days. I’m going with them to Mohegan Sun, too.” Ward’s husband, though a gambling man, isn’t on the bus, having contented himself with a weekly lotto ticket. “He won last week,” says Ward, meaning his usual numbers did. “But he forgot to play.”
Greenwood, a man of little more than 5 feet, interrupts to pass out mini chocolate-chip-and-peanut-butter cookies from a Christmas tin and offer small bottles of Poland Spring, also complimentary. The appearance of food prompts Ward to fill us in on the food situation at Casino Montréal. “They have wonderful Reuben sandwiches,” she says. “But they’re huge. I can’t finish it, and I don’t want to carry it with me all day. When my husband’s here I get one.”
Whispers about smoked-meat sandwiches pass through the bus like a game of telephone that will last for several more minutes. Ward already has other things on her mind, “[When] I’m playing good, I don’t eat anything,” she explains. “If you don’t eat, you can bring chocolate bars!”
The border crossing is painless. A few minutes up the road, around Henryville, Ward spots an unofficial attraction. “There’s a big yard sale! Stop the bus!” she calls to the driver, nearly jumping out of her seat.
As we cross onto the Quai Marc-Drouin, a hush descends. Palpable tension fills the air, as if the whole crew were about to star in a play. Greenwood points out the sights, such as HABITAT 67, the simultaneously surreal and cubist apartment complex that once housed employees of the fair. The American Pavilion stands like Spaceship Earth’s skeleton, a biosphere that looms unexpectedly even in these strange surroundings.
Greenwood’s knowledge of the site of the Exposition is encyclopedic. During the actual Expo 67, he worked at the Vermont Pavilion, educating visitors on the state’s history and agriculture. Today he’s still in Vermont, despite disparaging it as “the worst state in the country.”
Lushly flowered, the grounds of the casino seem to stretch forever, but eventually we come to the special garage for tour buses. Before getting off to refill her casino card, Ward discloses that she’s headed for a slot machine called Double Diamonds. “I don’t have much luck with the penny machines,” she adds.
In return for their $30 up-front fee and suggested $3 or $4 tips for Greenwood and the bus driver, Green Mountain Tours’ clients get $10 to gamble and a coupon for $10 off at any of the casino’s four restaurants. That arrangement doesn’t appear to leave much of a profit margin, but “as a group, we get a lot of special coupons and such,” reveals Greenwood.
Unlike many casinos with their seemingly unending expanses of glowing, clanking machines, Casino Montréal is composed of five floors full of nooks and crannies. It’s easy to get lost. Most of the Vermont gang stays on the first couple of floors.
On Floor A, water flows beneath the glass walkway surrounding a large, Victorian-looking wrought-iron fountain. It’s picturesque, if you can ignore the coins and trash stuck along the edges.
Among the smattering of early birds is a sizeable contingent of fans of Bingo Party, made by Sega — the gaming company behind Sonic the Hedgehog and Greendog, the Beached Surfer Dude. Ten players punch their virtual numbers as they watch a real ball determine their luck. At least a half-dozen more elbow their way in for a chance to join the fun.
Though a digital slot game called La Poule aux Oeufs d’Or (“the chicken that lays golden eggs”) is among the more expensive at a dollar a pop, it attracts lines on every floor where it appears. Maybe the animated barnscapes are soothingly familiar. Inexplicably, a line of slot/roulette-wheel machines called Rocky the Contender, featuring the digital likenesses of Carl Weathers and Burgess Meredith, remain unplayed.
Since shows at Le Cabaret du Casino de Montréal don’t start till 8:30 in the evening and the bus leaves at 4, there’s not much for the nongambler to do besides eat. On a Saturday morning, the 24-hour L’Entre Mise Deli — home to Ward’s smoked meat — and fifth-floor Buffet La Bonne Carte are the sole options.
The latter is offering brunch, with a mix of Canadian breakfast staples — bacon and beans with fluffy sourdough French toast — and lunch dishes such as tourtière. Watermelons carved to resemble crabs, and a plastic statue of a leaping salmon, adorn the top of the cold bar. This does not diminish the quality of the charcuterie beneath. For dessert, there’s a chocolate fountain and strawberries. Tiny apple-mousse cups with maple fruits at the bottom seem to go fast. With the $10 off, the ample offerings add up to only $9.99 before tax and tip.
Now that it’s early afternoon, the gaming floor is better populated. Disappointed groans burst from slot jockeys as if from the grave. An eerily pale, sunglasses-sporting woman sticks out in the line of Japanese tourists at what appears to be the casino’s most popular attraction — the Banque Nationale money changers. Today Americans are getting 23 Canadian bucks for their $20.
Time flies ever faster as the day trip draws to a close. Men bet on imaginary horses at the Royal Ascot table — outfitted with its own bar, Le Jardin d’Hiver. Keno players line up in chairs like prisoners in detention, no spots open. By now, there are 110 people staffing the poker and craps tables. Five-cent games such as Lucky Larry’s Lobstermania are among the only ones available. Don’t even try to get to Thai Treasures or the vaguely racist Deep Pockets, with its art depicting goofy, big-lipped Aborigines.
By 3:30, most of the bus trippers from Vermont have already diligently lined up to depart, knowing Greenwood likes to keep things early. Marilyn has a little less money in her pocket. Jeri, who claimed to be the unluckier of the two, says she came out ahead this time.
“We had a good day of entertainment,” says Marilyn.
“We liked the 5-cent machines,” adds Jeri.
One man, making his way back to his seat with the support of hand crutches, says he doesn’t mind that he is leaving with nothing. “It’s relaxing for me. I’m in the public eye all the time,” he opines. “I work at the salvage yard.”
When the bus is moving, Greenwood once again passes out refreshments. He also hands riders a booklet of future tours and talks up an upcoming AC/DC show — perhaps to the wrong crowd. The booklet is filled with dates well into 2010. “Most of these people won’t be here then,” whispers one passenger.
Ward travels in uncharacteristic silence. “I’m broke. I shoulda stayed home,” she says with a shake of her head. “I had plenty of work to do.” She is among several riders, including Greenwood, who complain that the casino has downsized to only 400 penny machines. “I’m disgusted when I don’t win,” Ward continues. “They got rid of a lot of machines I like.”
On Monday, Jeri will return to work on the sales floor of her local Shaw’s. Her sister will answer phones at a chiropractor’s office. Ward, for her part, will be on her way to Connecticut to try her luck once again. Bonne chance!