Guest Commentary: Slot-machine debate is a hot-button issue

Guest Commentary: Slot-machine debate is a hot-button issue


Champaign's recent slot-machine debate landed on 1-9-6-9. Senior year in high school, the night my father — not an angry man — came home angry. Growing up, I heard how nice Charlie, my father, was. So when he returned angry after attending a Champaign City Council meeting, I listened.

My father, in the middle 1950s, worked for Mandel Barnett managing Piccadilly Liquors. Acknowledging Barnett had sons destined to own Piccadilly, he and his brother-in-law opened two taverns on North First Street. First Street Tavern opened on the south end, near University Avenue, and later East Side opened on the north end, near the Washington Street underpass.

The customers came from the neighborhood, and off-duty workmen from the nearby Illinois Central Railroad and Champaign Police Department. My father believed in being part of the neighborhood.

As a boy at First Street Tavern, I learned to sweep concrete by scattering sawdust. Before black became an adjective for skin, my hair got cut by the "colored" barber next door. Family clothes went to Tinsley's Cleaning. We regularly ate at Po' Boys. And Big Joe Tyler's barbecue pit was across from First Street Tavern. Joe became one of my father's long-term employees, decades later catering my sister's wedding. Regular customers called me "Little Charlie."

A decade later, First Street closed first, then East Side.

My father opened a "package" store on Bloomington Road, later joining Chicago's Foremost Liquors franchise. Some of his African-American employees came with him. Unlike today, alcohol could only be taken home from a licensed "package" store. Big Joe made Italian beef sandwiches for lunch, and people lined up out the bar door.

The city controlled liquor licenses. Obtaining one required a purchase. The free market priced a license in 1969 at $50,000.

Building their superstore on the southwest corner of Neil and Green, Osco Drugs negotiated with my father for his unused license. But national brand Osco didn't like local rules. They also went to the council, demanding the city give them one for free.

That was the night my father came home angry.

I assume the council was unaware Osco was ready to purchase his license. I also assume the council didn't understand the unintended consequences. By giving it away, they gutted their ability to control liquor sales. Liquor eventually became available everywhere, including gas stations.

Something else occurred at that council meeting. My father's competitor, Norman Barnett, son of Mandel, owner of Piccadilly, spoke of the larger picture and said regulating alcohol was not a bad thing, but their responsibility. After all, one learns things working at a liquor store.

My father came home that night feeling blindsided, angry about having a worthless liquor license, betrayed by the city who succumbed to the national bully playing both sides of the street. He also admired Barnett for telling the council they didn't understand the consequences, opening the citizenry to forces for which they were unprepared.

Human behavior, we all understand, is complex. Drinking and gambling, however, like breathing, have been around forever. It should be obvious by now, attempts to legislate inherent human behavior is, at best, a misleading cause.

As an adult, I worked many years in my father's stores even while working as a professional counselor, sometimes in mental health or substance abuse, sometimes with problem gamblers.

The modern slot parlor is the latest replay of this predictable drama. Why should people who want to push buttons have to go elsewhere to do so? Because a percentage will predictably fall into trouble, make professional help available to treat this when — not if — it happens. Reducing oversight doesn't mean surrendering common sense. In 1969, the city council paved the way for bad outcomes. Within years, drivers gassing up could peel away with six beers in their lap.

Please, don't repeat that. Don't allow slot buttons where I buy groceries. Also, don't make me travel to other people's neighborhoods to push buttons.

Sometimes, successful counseling means all involved parties leaving upset with nobody getting everything they want. Living in community is like that.

Imposing extra fees on a business involving customer risk seems reasonable. If a business takes advantage of customers, penalize it. Simultaneously, let customers who enjoy risk do so. If they harm somebody, treat or punish them. That's our imperfect system.

I believe it's best to speak about unintended consequences. Any decision-maker not highlighting unintended consequences should not be supported because he or she lives in a bubble of make believe, either alone or with their potpourri of fellow travelers.

We may imagine harm being eliminated, but believing that can be delusional. A percentage of gamblers, or addicts, or people, will hurt themselves. We just can't predict who.

So be part of the solution. Speak of unintended consequences. Avoid delusion and be careful with your anger.

Robert Silverman has a behavioral health counseling practice in Champaign.