May 26th, 2010

Las Vegas Quarters

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I got a Las Vegas quarter in change the other day. This is a term I use for certain coins (generally quarters but occasionally nickels) which, after spending decades ricocheting from one slot machine to another, have a distinctive beat-to-hell appearance that can't be mistaken for anything else. Las Vegas quarters don't wear smooth and shiny like quarters that people use to buy burgers at McDonald's. They're full of dents and nicks and are more matte than polished. They also look like they were dug up in some Roman ruins in Gaul after a century or three of service.

Vegas fired its quarters back in the late 90s, when computerized slotless slot machines began replacing electromechanical slot machines with a vengeance. They're now gradually filtering out into general circulation. This is the second I've seen this year, after never getting one outside the city itself before that.

I never entered a Las Vegas casino before my first trip to Comdex in 1985, and I remember that the metallic racket of quarters being spit into stainless-steel pans at the Continental Hotel and Casino was continuous and never stopped for even a second. The psychological effect was intentional and obvious: People weren't just winning now and then. People were winning constantly. And the quarters paid the price.

By the time Carol and I took a short trip to Las Vegas a few years ago, the coin machines were gone. The racket of interacting metal objects had been replaced by a continuous cacophany of crude digital jingles, a sort of MIDI hell that I found a lot harder to take than the now-vanished quarter clatter.

I have a little dish of odd coins that I've gotten in change over the years (mostly foreign ones and American coins with weird damage) and my 1977 Vegas quarter will join them. Such quarters are tokens (literally) of a piece of technology that slipped away when nobody was looking, and a hundred years from now, I wonder if someone will pick up such a quarter and think, "My God, what happened to that poor thing!"