We tried to avoid the scruffy-looking guy on the sidewalk as we ushered the kids and my parents in for a Mother's Day dinner. But he plunked himself in front of me before we could get the whole family by, and made his pitch.
"Do you have any spare change?" he asked. Of course we did.
I handed him what I had in my coat pockets, and hurried inside the restaurant, waving off his thanks for the few bucks I'd found.
About 20 minutes later, I saw him again, in the restaurant. He was tucked inside a little alcove, playing a VLT.
I guess he'd made just enough to bankroll another losing streak. He was back outside, panhandling, before we settled our bill. The waiter said he was a regular.
Former NDP cabinet minister Larry Desjardins first dubbed VLTs the "crack cocaine" of gambling machines. They are cheap to play, require no skill or knowledge, highly addictive and designed to give you just enough wins to make you feel like a winner.
The stakes are low, so it doesn't feel like you're throwing your money away, but you are.
The house always wins.
In the province of Manitoba, we are the house. Lucky us, we have the highest number of VLTs per capita, at about 945 for every 100,000 people. And our VLT cash cows generated about $330 million last year.
I don't know who's playing them, but I can guarantee it's not Greg Selinger, Brian Pallister or Jon Gerrard. Nobody does grip-and-grin photo ops with one-armed bandits.
Problem gambling is a hidden undercurrent in our society -- the courtrooms regularly hear stories of embezzlement, bankruptcies and thefts due to gambling; everyone has a family or friend who has grappled with addiction. Suicide rates are higher among problem gamblers than any other group.
Politicians surely find it a little embarrassing, being so reliant on the revenues -- particularly VLT winnings. Yes, VLTs are addictive, yes gambling is an odd business for government to be in... but just look at how much money it makes us! And it's painless, because it's coming from losers!
Twenty years ago, few could foresee today's government addiction to gambling revenues. Manitoba was the first in Canada to open a "permanent government-owned casino" in 1990. Within three years, two more casinos were built, and VLTs scattered throughout the province. Gambling now accounts for a tidy and indispensable gusher of cash that supports everything from our hospitals to our sports programs. It also goes towards other stuff, but the warm and fuzzies are supposed to salve our guilt at preying on the poor and desperate.
This week, our cash-strapped government quietly upped the ante again.
It abandoned a 19-year moratorium on increasing the number of VLTs in Manitoba, declaring Monday it will now allow up to 500 more in existing sites.
Don't blame us, the NDP claimed, we are responding to consumer demand.
It also, of course, piously announced that it will fork over more money to the treatment of gambling addicts, many of whom have so generously bankrolled the province over the years.
Bottom line, though, is those machines will probably generate another $18 million a year. Ka-ching.
I presume that the moratorium imposed by the Tories in 1993 was an effort to adhere to some principle -- yes, we will allow gambling, but only up to a point. Just as they tried to make the Crystal Casino cater exclusively to a black-tie set, standards that quickly slipped to the much more lucrative working poor.
But this week's expansion was greeted with a surprising level of indifference by Manitobans. We are all addicted to gambling revenues, now.
When provincial governments first got into the VLT racket in the 1990s, they justified the move with a few reasons: People have always done it, they like to do it, and they will do it elsewhere if they can't do it here. Why not regulate the industry, they argued, and funnel some of the profits to the public good?
We could as well start selling drugs, or legalizing prostitution. The new source of revenue would surely get us out of a tough financial bind, and all it would require is some after-the-fact moral justification. (Two per cent of the profits to drug addiction centres; better and safer working conditions for our streetwalkers.) Everything's a win-win when the ends justify the means.
In the meantime, give generously to the neighbourhood beggar, stoically plugging the local VLT. He's our government's new bottom line.
Margo Goodhand is a former editor of the Winnipeg Free Press.