Old Before Their Time
Four Vegas Veterans Tell Their Tales of Woe in the Oh-Eight

Part 4- Saturday Night
Part 1 || Part 2 || Part 3 || Part 5

Back down on the mezzanine, we wandered into the Venetian shops in hope of getting some freebies for Shakes and Jeff. I bought some Italian glass beads as gifts for the wife and baby. When Shakes and Jeff returned from their visit to the tourist shop, both sported new tchatckes and Shakes had a new chocolate moustache from the ice cream bar he was greedily wolfing.

"I gotta eat this fast," he explained, "before the second one melts."

Phil examines a bottle of "Lasorda" wine provided by famed masked wrestler Pits McCoy. Presumably it was purchased at a dollar store. And presumable someone has since stabbed Tommy Lasorda with a shiv in a men's room.

Since it was time for dinner, we headed into the hot afternoon for Lotus of Siam. Shakes opted out. And I understood that. Without Feldy at our table, the evening wasn't what it might have been. Bill the chef didn't visit us. We didn't get a photo taken. Our celebrity was easily upstaged by the entrance of the mayor of Las Vegas.

The only unique perk besides the consistently fantastic, seriously world-class food, was the addition of Fine Print's libation offering. He had brought a bottle of Tommy Lasorda wine. The ex-Dodger manager wasn't actually the vintner. He didn't produce anything but a crazily devoted fan base and a slew of down-played sex scandals. But he had slapped his name on some Italian grape. To be fair, he has two levels of bottle: the $15 and the $150. The bottle we had was the former, with a texture like chewing tobacco and the aftertaste of sliding into home.

Jerry picked at his meal, as he had at breakfast.

"What's the matter, String Cheese?"

"I don't like Thai food."
Oh String Cheese. Didn't he understand that the only thing unpleasant about this world-class meal was the Lasorda wine? But it wasn't that. Jerry was distracted from tasting the subtle tones in the curry by a burning desire to visit a burgeoning sci-fi store just around the corner. Ever the fan boy, Jerry wanted to see what was going on in there, but he wasn't sure he could slip away.

Imagine his thrill when Phil volunteered to accompany him down the steaming blocks of sidewalk to check out the store. I didn't go, but later heard the report that the proprietor was very glad to see them both and talked brightly about his new business and his hopes of attracting a dedicated international clientele among aficionados of Star Trek, Star Wars, comic books, sci fi, fantasy, role playing, and other sundry geekery.


I've heard that Lotus of Siam is delicious... and expensive. No "expensive" for me. I have to maximize my dollar-to-calorie ratio. So while the rest of the gang munched and kibbitzed at Lotus, I visited the finest palace of awesome food and fun for cheap: Circus Circus! Oh, the acts! Oh, the dazzling pink! Oh, the amazing quantity of food! Thanks to the destruction of flavor that occurs in everything they touch, I was able to mow freely through plate after plate, unhindered by curiousness about what flavors the chunks of fat in the meat might represent. The meats were plentiful, and I never saw bare metal underneath the food. If I took the last few pieces from a bin, the watery, oily meatjuice kept the bare metal at bay. Bare metal is a sign of limitation to me, and when it's time to eat, any sign of limitation or moderation can rapidly give me The Shakes.

After the sixteen dollars I parted with at the otherwise fine tacqueria the night before, I was determined to get my money's worth tonight and then some. By taking only tiny sips of Coke, I was able to pack in what felt like a near record amount of meat, fat, and the occasional dollop of gravy sans mashed potatoes. Eating there on my own, without companions, made for an even more rollicking good time, for I didn't have to waste energy on the occasional mutter of conversation.

When my stomach finally communicated its absolute-full barrier with a violent twitch, I looked in sadness at all the food and otherwise that I would not be able to consume. This buffet, you see, has a damning, asinine rule: you can not stay here from breakfast to lunch to dinner and into the next day on one price of admission.

It was time to get dolled up for the evening. Unlike years passed, I decided that it was time to look swank, without the silly. I opted for by shiny black pants, black T-shirt and black shoes. With my shaved head and inordinately pale skin, I looked in my mind like a badass. From Siberia.

Then Jerry emerged from the bathroom in a leopard-print shawl with feathers around the sleeves, shiny red pants, a gold chain, and the pimpiest shoes in town: tall platform jobs in red with clear heels filled with water and--get this--dice. Yes, two dice rolled in each clear heel with every step, so that Jerry was shooting craps just by walking.

Maybe I should have worn some silly with my Siberian bad-ass slick. Even my smoove pants garnered not a single gander at the cocktail soirée. That's because Fancy Pants' fancy pants were shinier, blacker, and worse fitting than even mine.

I had a jet black afro wig in my bag, and I could have put it on, but it was brand new and shedding. I didn't want poly-spun hair all over me all night long, so I left the wig in its bag.

On the way out of our hotel to the cocktail party, we stopped in the lobby of Las Vegas Club to check out their new floor show, set on a makeshift stage in the shape of a deadly skateboarding halfpipe. But there were no skateboards or bikes in evidence, only a puffed up cockaninny demanding ovations from the meager crowd for standing on top of the various boxes and cylinders he took pains to stack upon the stage. His posturing comprised the bulk of the act as the feats themselves were a far cry from extraordinary. Finding ourselves unable to gawk, we left. Now people could gawk at Jerry without distraction. And gawk they did.
Arriving at Main Street Station, the party was already in full swing. I took out the afro wig and plopped it on Mike Ho's head. The wig soon passed from Jacquelyn to Bill to Bill to Bill, pate to pate like some kind of disease. It finally wound up on the head of a bystander who seemed to like it so much that I told him he could keep it. He was thrilled. His girlfriend was nonplussed. The wig had cost me a dollar at a yard sale and had brought me at least two dollars worth of fun, and this stranger a lot more than that.

Most of the party, I talked with Bill and Jacqueline, whose literary livelihoods give us a lot to talk about. I like them, too. They were trying to help me think of drinks for each letter of the alphabet. I wanted to try to drink up the set.

Big Emperors talk shop over libations in the Main Street Station bar during the 2008 Big Empire Cocktail Soiree. Later, Phil would really dress up.

I sipped an Amaretto Sour. Bill suggested a Black Velvet next: hard cider and Guiness layered in a tall glass. Sounded good to me, but he had drifted away between the end of drink one and the start of drink two. Forgetting the name, I ordered a Blue Hawaii, which was horrendous. After that, I'd had my fill of alcohol for a while, so my C drink was Coke (Light Ice). Thus endeth the game--for me. Phil was sipping a Papaya Sling.

"Did you start at A?" I asked, aghast.

"Yeshh." Phil fell asleep briefly, then woke with a sharp laugh. "But they're virgin."

When the cocktail party wound down, it was time to hit Joker's Wild for some more craps action. The table was cold, though. The only hot thing in the casino that night was--you guessed it--Jerry. In his pimp suit, he looked over his shoulder at the three women laughing at him from a blackjack table. He went over and sat with them, and soon he had them laughing with him... buying him drinks...confessing their deepest desires... and offering up their room keys.

"Look out, ladies," I yelled in my mind. "You don't know who you're messing with."

Since I was off on my own away from the group, I had to high tail it downtown to meet the crew for a last round of craps. I hopped on the Deuce and made my way up The Strip. These double-decker buses offer amazing views, amazing smells, and gyrating upper deck motions (and I don't mean showgirls). As the bus filled to capacity, I started to feel a mistake. A mistake deep in the gut, manifested as a small, innocent "burp" gone horribly wrong. The burp became a river, and since I had been pushed to the back of the full upper deck, I had no escape. The murmurs became louder as a river of vomit trundled down my frontside and onto the floor. I couldn't stop the flow for what seemed like an eternity, by which time the bus had finally stopped. I ran to the front and jumped out of the exit before waiting for any reprisals.

What was important is that I felt better. And I wasn't too far from downtown now, having long passed Stupak's folly on the ride north. Thankfully I had time to dash to the hotel room for some fresh clothes, because experience has told me that the group is hesitant to let me in the car when I'm still dripping with the night's consumption.

I was glad to catch up with the gang. Since I had finally sated the full button, I could concentrate on excellent craps throwing and winning. I noticed some of my neighbors wincing, but prided myself in the ability to cover the caked river of vomit that had tumbled down my shirt so that they wouldn't know where such a stench could come from. Bagels didn't even notice. He was concentrating too hard on not being an alcoholic. Matt lit up some of his stinky cigs, maybe to keep the wafting vomit smell at bay. And with concentration, I earned a solid twenty-five dollars in just two hours of gambling. This was a tremendous rake and I felt positively glowing as I rode the Boulder Highway bus back downtown (since the group had exiled me from riding in any of their cars).

Leaving Las Vegas is like taking a huge, satisfying dump after a huge, satisfying meal. It's purging all the bad stuff you did and all the shame you feel. Between packing, getting to the airport, going through security and ticket lines, waiting to board and take off, and flying home, it probably takes about the same amount of time, too.

Three days of carousing, drinking, eating greasy food and sinking deep into a morass of morbidly bad habits is just about the right amount of life wasted. By the end, I am sated and can't think of anything else corrupt to do, so I want to go home. I'm anxious to see my wife and son most of all, because they are my self-restraint. Without them, I would probably spend most of my time semi-conscious, slumped between the sofa and the coffee table, a pony keg in front of me, a half-built power-steering pump dripping fluid on the carpet and softcore Cinemax porn on the television. I'd probably have a pet turtle, too.

By Sunday morning, I am tired and cranky and ready to check out of the Vintage Suite I shared with Phil at the El Cortez. My flight isn't until late afternoon, but that's only enough time to do something for motivated people. Saturday night broke and exhausted me so that on the final day, I'm looking for the path of least resistance between here and home.

Saturday night was the Soiree. After we made our appearances and said our hellos we drove out to the tiny, dingy Joker's Wild in Henderson. The twenty minutes from downtown feels like a million miles from the Strip on a freeway lit up like a white river through the huge black patches of unincorporated nothingness. It ends at a wide, empty road lined with closed storage places, tumbleweeds and sports bars whose blinking lights try to say, "It's not depressing in here. Please believe us. Please?"

Finally, the square, industrial little casino's lights come over the horizon. Whenever I walk into the Joker's Wild, I see the same cast of regulars, like extras for real life, milling about and spending their lives filling in the background. Most everyone there knows each other. Not that they are friendly, but at lest before slugging someone in the jaw a patron can call his target by his first name. This is a casino where fun isn't expected. The lounge band once interrupted their set to ask us to quiet down our craps game. A blackjack player called me an amateur because I drank to have fun, not to forget. The craps is either a buck or two bucks and has ten times odds, though, so we keep coming back.

A few of us squeezed into the already crowded craps table and started drinking a lot of beer, scotch, fizzy things, cocktails we saw gumshoes in movies drink, coffee and stubby bottles of lukewarm spring water. Burt brought a sleek tin of cigars that I assume were expensive because they don't package Rum Crooks that nicely. He pulled back the gold foil and offered me one. I accepted and smoked it fitfully, trying to get the pungent smoke to go the direction of my least favorite tablemates and away from myself. I made it halfway through the stogie before I felt like I just got off the Spider at Lakeside Amusement Park. I needed to stop, close my eyes and pray I didn't vomit. Or, if I did, that it would on Burt in his cheap, shiny tuxedo jacket. Seemed to me that it already smelled of puke.

Other players left the game, and after a half hour our group had nearly taken the entire table. Our crew was comprised of friends from the Soiree like Cameron, Bill Turk, Bill Thompson, Bill Walsh, Jacqueline, Walt and Fancypants Taylor. Cameron bet maniacally, with a laser-like focus on the hard ways. Burt was a dilettante, playing large bets on pass, don't pass, come, don't come, props and hops. The bulk of the crew including Mad Geek, Stevie Fine Print, Bagels, String Cheese, Fang, Shakes and myself bet the pass and come, with tips to the dealers on the hard ways, or for ourselves if we were feeling frisky.

One of the regulars who stuck around was Mom. Not mine, and not anyone else at the table's either. She's clearly someone's mother, though. Mom is in her mid-70s, short and square with a red gingham shirt buttoned to the top and a red kerchief tucked into the collar. She is always at the Joker's Wild craps table when we come to town. In retirement, my own mom likes to travel and sew. This woman likes to shoot craps and try to cheat the casino out of a buck here and there by pulling back a bet or arguing with the new dealers. She's a tough bird.

Mom wanted to know why Burt was wearing a tux and I was in a green sharkskin suit. Burt lied to her that he just got married.

"Well, where's your wife?"

"I don't know; I don't care. I needed to get away from her."

Mom clicked her tongue disapprovingly. It was apparently better to bring your new wife to The Joker's Wild than to ditch her at some chapel in a sketchy neighborhood halfway between the Strip and downtown. Her disapproval only encouraged us to push the fib further. Soon it was my ex-wife that Burt married, and I was currently dating his ex-wife. It became my third ex-wife, which I insisted was the best of the bunch. And she was calling on my cell phone to talk to Burt, but I was instructed to tell her I had no idea where Burt was, maybe a brothel. Oh, and I had gotten out of prison recently, where I rotted on a bum rap. Sure, I committed the crime, but there was no way the police could have known it.

Finally, Mom voiced her disgust for our cavalier disregard for the sanctimony of marriage. She had been married for forty years to the same man, and he was a saint. She had spent her entire career filing papers for some executive at JC Penney, and she was damn good at it. Mom never said she loved her husband, her job or her children, but she did what was necessary, and by God, it was Burt's duty to be with his wife and to listen to her nagging, even if she were an insufferable fictitious harpy.

All this time, the dice were cold. I bled blue dollar chips on the pass and come lines, two at a time. A few shooters had decent rolls, but nothing as spectacular as the previous night when Fang shot for forty minutes and demanded absolute silence from the dealers, other players and surrounding tables. And he got it. Winning gives you that power. The Joker's Wild claims they close the table at one a.m., but they really shut down about 12:30. At least they do when we're there. By then, I'd lost all I wanted to, had no more lies for Mom and was ready to move on.

After coloring our few remaining chips, the group split up. Some said good night. A few of us headed for the Western's three-dollar blackjack tables and the lure of Adis, the Ethiopian dealer with the incredible ass. She's not much to look at from the front, but when she's dealing the other side of the pit, it's delightful, especially once you've had a few cans of Heineken.

Sadly, Adis moved to the day shift. Chris was also off this early Sunday morning. Last summer, we played at his table and his competence was way beyond that required at a break-in joint like the Western. I asked him why he hadn't moved up to a better casino like the California or Sam's Town.

"Because they drug test."

He's still at the Western and still prefers dope to a livable wage and healthcare.

Where else could the night end but at The Western? One would have to walk a lot farther from the downtown strip to find a sleazier, scarier, skankier place to sit and play, but the blackjack tables are low limit, and the dealers don't mind if you scream too loudly for three a.m. Cameron handily demonstrated that fact.

Playing while zonked with fatigue is not good for strategy, and I watched twenty bucks steadily dwindle to nothing. I also watched the tattooed mook on the end of the table wager faithfully on the Royal Match. The odds of hitting this bet--a suited king and queen--are approximately 1 in 300, but the wager pays only 50 to 1 if you do hit it. That's a house advantage that's far too depressing to calculate while zonked with fatigue.

And yet, the hard luck case at the end of the table hit it. With a windfall of fifty dollars to play with, he tipped the dealer five and the waitress another five. Then he stacked twenty back into the Royal Match circle for what would have been an impressive parlay. Would have been.

I was getting more and more tired, more and more depressed. Jerry and I hang-dogged it back to our room with a stop at the Gold Spike, our old stomping ground, now gutted for remodeling. Inside, it looked like something between and underground art scene and an urban crack house. It gave me bad dreams.

One of our dealers at The Western was a very tall Spanish girl whose looks sneak up on you. At first she seemed plain, almost homely. After an hour or so, though, her beauty was revealed. It was the little things: her milky skin, her long neck and the way she was genuinely sad when we lost. The other dealers were unmemorable. In fact, the cocktails were more remarkable. I tried a whiskey sour in honor of Cameron, and it was some sort of powdered lemonade mixed with acetone. I resorted to a couple of Heinekens. The Western may be the last casino in town still to serve cans instead of bottles. I don't know if the reason is economics or because its clients are more likely to bust bottles over heads. Which, I guess, is also economics, because it costs money to clean up bloodstains.

Stumped for what to order next, I remembered Sambuca. Burt had ordered me one the previous year, but I didn't drink it then because I was at capacity. Also, it looked slippery and thick, like transparent motor oil. I decided to try again and vowed to drink the entire liqueur this time.

It tasted like shit. Licorice-flavored shit, but still... It glistened in the shot glass and swirled slower than water. It was sticky and sweet. With every sip, my stomach wrenched. I made it through the entire shot though, because I said I would. To me, Las Vegas is all about doing incredibly stupid and hazardous things just because you said you would. That's what being a man is all about.

Once the Sambuca was gone, my stomach settled. I urged my friends to stay until sunlight seeped in through the gaping entrance of the Western, but most of the others were ready to call it quits by 3:30. They left Burt, Phil and me to get a late, late snack or an early, early breakfast at the Four Queens. Then Burt made some lame excuse about an a.m. flight and the need to sleep before it. He took a cab back to whatever luxury Strip hotel he holed up in, leaving Phil and I to join the others for strange- textured burgers at Magnolia's Veranda. When we left the Western and walked through the still warm night toward downtown I realized I was much more tired than I felt while drinking and playing cards.

I didn't want to go to bed, though, because I knew that when I woke up, I'd be ready to go home. Even while falling asleep in my French fries, I begged the others to stay awake a little longer. I argued that no great stories happened while you slept. Unless you sleepwalk. Which I don't. My friends shrugged, paid their tabs and shuffled off to their rooms at the (Las) Vegas Club.

Defeated and sleepy, I made the slow walk back to the El Cortez and up the two flights of stairs off the casino floor to my room. I may or may not have taken off my clothes and brushed my teeth before falling asleep. I don't remember. I tried to fall asleep leaning against the wall so that in case the urge to sleepwalk overtook me, I would already be vertical.

But six hours later, I woke up horizontal. I groaned and knew that it was time to go home.

On to Part Five


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