by Matt

You can read it here or download the longer, not necessarily better, PDF version to enjoy while you're sitting on the john, or to annoy your spouse with.

Part 1 of 6 - We Meet The Enemy
Part 2 || Part 3 || Part 4 || Part 5 || Part 6

Evening - Wednesday, January 26, 2011

As we get older, my friends and I lose our best excuse for doing stupid things: youth. We are nearly the age when we should know better, but we don't. To remain relatively youthful, we can hang around with older and older people. But eventually, we'll be short-sheeting the beds in a nursing home, and that's just sad.

Las Vegas is the last place that still lets us be idiots. It is a grand illusion constructed to let people they're still young. We come back each year for a few days to pretend we don't know better and that our antics still amuse strangers. We stay up late, drink too much and ignore the march of time.

I've offered Phil five bucks if he pees under a craps table and ten if he pees on one. It's a challenge he rejects at the start of every trip, but ends up at least considering by the end. Last year, Dan and I brought backpacks full of odd objects: baby shoes; wax fruit; bifocals and women's pants. We hid them in our friends' luggage. We put some in our own bags to confuse them and waited for the accusations to fly.

I hate the idea that someday I'll be too old for hijinx, because it means I'm too old, period. Then I'll just complain about the weather and be killing time until I live in a retirement home. When I feel like I'm on the inevitable slide into the grave, I at least have Las Vegas to reinvigorate me. That's why I was there with my friends, in January 2011. The pretense for the visit was to update our web site, but we were really looking forward to horsing around and making each other laugh.

There were seven of us. I came from Denver. Mike, Phil and Steve drove from Southern California. Jerry flew in from Austin. Robert joined us from parts unknown, while Jeff met us a day into the trip from Phoenix. Our friendships formed decades ago, based on a shared love of jokes, and that's why we're still friends.

I didn't feel like I was on vacation until I landed on the C concourse of McCarran Airport on Wednesday evening. From there it was off to pick up luggage and get the rental car. In its effort to be efficient, Las Vegas has placed its rental cars in another state. It feels that way, at least. In reality, the facility is a few miles down the freeway, off at Warm Springs Road and down a hidden street in an industrial neighborhood. Once there, I stood in line. Any guest planning a weekend in Las Vegas should figure a fifth of his time will be needed for getting and returning a car.

The glamorous lights of Las Vegas lull us into our fantasy.
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I splurged and booked an "intermediate" instead of my usual "compact" or "economy". A rental agent led me past rows of Cadillacs, SUVs, convertibles, minivans, Ford Fusions and Mazda3s. We stopped at a Hyundai, the smallest car the company makes.

"There must be a mistake," I said. "I rented an intermediate."

"This is an intermediate."

"Then what's a compact?"

He pointed to a ten-speed bike. A businessman with a briefcase passed us on rollerskates. "And he got our last economy."

I folded my six-foot, five-inch frame into the car and joined traffic heading north toward downtown. I mashed the Hyundai's accelerator, and--several minutes later--wound the Hyundai up to almost highway speed. I exited Charleston and continued on surface streets where the limits were more to the little car's liking.

My friends and I stayed at the El Cortez. We've stayed here almost as often as anywhere else in town. Despite the claims of people who've never stayed here, the El Cortez is not unsafe. It's never been unsafe. It used to be run-down, though. Ten years ago, it was a step up from the Gold Spike, which was a step up from the Western. It wasn't as nice as the other downtown budget hotels like the Plaza and Las Vegas Club, and nowhere near as swank as the Golden Nugget or even Main Street Station.

Thanks to active and passionate ownership, the El Cortez now looks great. The property still has old infrastructure, but management has beautified it while keeping it classic. The rooms are simple, attractive and entirely functional. A block further from Fremont, the Ogden House, a former $18-a-night flophouse, has become the El Co's Cabana Suites. They're for hipsters, all gussied up in bright green with fancy granite bathrooms, checkerboard tile, fluffy beds and modern touches like glassed-in showers, iPod docks and flatscreen TVs. We're not cool enough for them.

Most of us stayed in the El Cortez's "Pavilion", a euphemism for "Garage-top". The pavilion rooms sits atop the parking structure and have motel-style exterior entrances. They're furnished the same as the pricier tower rooms. They're also incredibly easy to get to from the car. Hell, someone could just lean over the railing to see if he left the sunglasses on the front seat.

While my friends doubled up in the Pavilion, I got my own room. My solo status was because a) nobody likes me, b) nobody likes the way I smell, and/or c) nobody likes the way I punch them in my sleep. I also punch people while I'm awake. That just depends on how much I've had to drink. My room was one of downtown's best-kept secrets: a vintage king suite.

The El Cortez Vintage King Suite. Decadence by the barbershop.
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Vintage rooms--the cheapest the El Cortez offers--are small and old on the second and third floors of the hotel portion built in 1941. A staircase behind the blackjack pit leads to them and to a barbershop that still has Playboy magazines. They're in long, meandering halls. They have shower-only bathrooms and just enough space for one queen bed. Those closest to the stairs ring all night with the sound of slots below. They would be quieter if only the El Co's machines weren't so damn loose.

Mixed in with those rooms are a handful of vintage king suites. That's what I had. It had a king-size bed as wide as a 57 Cadillac, a writing desk, a half-court-sized sectional sofa with coffee table, sitting chair, wet bar, safe, bar stools, closet, full bathroom and a fridge.

All seven of us could have slept in there, if my friends didn't mind me slugging them. The suites are the same price as regular tower rooms, but not listed on discount sites or the El Co's own web site. Guests have to call. Thanks to a promotion, the hotel rebated the entire $45 a night plus tax in free slot play and dining credit.

Mike, Steve and Phil arrived earlier in the day and had been swilling free cocktails and slobbering over billboards of naked ladies. When we were younger, we could spend all day traveling to Vegas and hit the ground running, scouring the valley for the cheapest meals, lowest minimum blackjack and scariest strip clubs. Now, we need a little time to get our bearings and settle in before we're ready to hunt. Rather than venture out, we used our coupons to dine at the Flame.

The Flame is neither the fanciest nor the best steakhouse in town. It's good for the money, though, and definitely good enough for four guys who are just as happy licking the melted cheese off wrappers in the dumpster behind Wendy's. It's not bad, and sometimes you can get a half-drunk Frosty with just a little spit in it.

We aren't used to eating places with padded seats, or where you order from a little book, not a backlit sign on the wall. Luckily, the hostess found us wandering around, picking food off other people's plates. When I sat on the floor she politely told me, "No, dear, you get to sit up here, like a big boy."

And a big boy I felt! By pointing at the menu with my fist, I ordered the last pound of fresh stone crab the Flame had on hand, a bowl of chicken gumbo and a side of garlic mash. Since I had snatched up the last fresh stone crabs, Mike first pouted, then kicked me under the table and finally ordered king crab. He asked the waitress if it came with a crown and she said no. This further irritated him. Steve had salmon and Phil ordered the filet. There were plenty of sides: mac and cheese, cole slaw, salads and mushrooms. To drink, we had our free Mondavi Cabarnet, wiping the rim of the bottle before passing it along because we were in a nice restaurant. After coupons, our tabs were $20 each. Everyone said theirs was good, except Phil who said his steak was perfect but that something was missing.

"I can't put my finger on what it is, though," he said, and then he stared off into space for the next hour or so.

Our waitress brought far more fresh bread with butter pats than we could eat, so we pocketed the leftovers. I know people think that's tacky. I'd agree if we hadn't devised such an elegant system for exactly these situations. We're not pigs; we don't all shovel as much bread and butter as we can down our pants. Instead, three of us take the rolls while Phil takes the butter. That way, only his pants get ruined when it melts.

Phil displays a small sample of his bling. He was too depressed to wear it all.
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While we ate, or as the rich call it "dined", Robert and Jerry fought their way through the airports, baggage claim, a polar bear on the loose, rental car shuttle and public transit to join us. Robert booked a compact, so he was sweaty and tired from pedaling. Jerry used the city's new bus service, the Westcliff Airport Express (WAX). It runs from the airport to downtown in thirty minutes for two bucks. It has fewer transients, brawls, vomit and profanity than the two commuter routes from the airport so, while it's faster, it's less Vegasy.

Once they arrived, it was time to gamble. We headed way the hell out of town to the Joker's Wild on the grimy eastern edge of Henderson, past where the street lights end and tumbleweeds scatter across Boulder Highway, to an area with squat bars full of toothless drunks. The Joker is their casino: smoky and stale, with something extra in the air: sadness. It's secreted by the gamblers. They're regulars, on a first name basis with the dealers, settled into their favorite seats and grimly feeding nickels to their jackpot dreams. Years of being ground down by the odds makes them thin-skinned and humorless.

The locals crowded the craps table. Mom was there. She's usually there. Mom is a retiree in her seventies who wears a crisp plaid shirt and sharply creased pants. She looks like someone's grandma, the kind who spits on her thumb and rubs out smudges on grandkids' faces. Sometimes other people's grandkids. We call her Mom because of her passing resemblance to my mother. Also, because she has child-bearing hips.

Unlike my mom, though, the Joker's Wild's mom angle shoots to cheat the break-in dealers out of a few bucks and never tips. Over many trips, we've learned she spent 30 years as a secretary at the May Company, is still married to her one and only love (which is apparently a man, not a craps table), and she doesn't truck with today's kids and their hip hop and crazy beatnik slang. She's been led to believe our friend Burt has been married three times, in jail a couple, and spent his most recent wedding night shooting dice while his wife went to Chippendales.

A couple spots away from Mom hunched a player I hadn't seen before. Drinky was another retiree, with a fishing cap and a bulbous, open-pored drunkard's nose. Drinky chewed out a kid for sevening out.

"For fuck's sake," he groused, "Stupid shit changed hands. These kids don't know nothing." The he yelled after the kid, "You don't change hands in the middle of the roll!"

I don't know what Drinky would have said to the kid had the switch from right to left hand resulted in a winner. Nobody knew because, obviously, it's physically impossible to win that way.

Drinky wasn't going to like our crew. We're not orthodox shooters. When the stickman gives one of us the dice, it's like giving the fat, drunk girl in the miniskirt the microphone at a karaoke bar. There's gonna be a show.

We're not sure what all the hubbub's about. City Center looks pretty crappy to us.
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Mike and Phil have wilder arms than a flamenco dancer. Phil once chucked both dice not only off the table, but behind the boxman. They landed a good ten feet wide and twenty feet away in the blackjack pit. He's also chucked them hard enough to break knuckles. Robert, aka "Shakes", jitters violently before he shoots because he thinks it gives him luck. An epileptic once threatened to kick his ass for making fun of him. Stevie has a freewheeling knuckleball style that requires a lot of elbowroom and for the rest of us to chant in high-pitched voices "El Gripo!" I like to "hang 'em high", seeing how close to the ceiling I can get the dice before the stickman orders me to bring them down.

Because the Joker's Wild's table was packed, our crew squeezed into the game one at a time. Luckily, the dice were cold and most of the regulars were down to their last chips. I grabbed a slot next to Drinky. When my hands hit the rail, I felt a surge of energy. The vibrancy of being in Las Vegas, doing things that I shouldn't do, coursed through me. I was instantly twenty years younger, better looking and infinitely more clever.

My friends hovered behind the short stacks like buzzards over dying animals. Whenever the stickman shouted "Seven out", a regular said something unpleasant and left. Robert joined the game.

I noticed The Hoodlum at the other end of the table, between Jerry and Robert. I don't know how long he'd been playing, but I hadn't seen him before. He was young, but his skin resembled the beat leather of a fat lady's chaps. He wore both a skullcap and a hoodie, presumably to cover gang tattoos on his neck and scalp, or a very bad haircut. He scowled as I picked up the dice. His teeth were the color of pee after taking a lot of Vitamin E.

The Hoodlum had his dollar on the pass line. He gripped the rail and leaned forward slightly over the table, as though ready to leap across it, pull out a garotte and slit my throat if I sevened out. Nobody would even try to stop him, because I kind of deserve it and because he'd kill them too. My palms sweat and my heart raced. I fumbled the dice. My eyes involuntarily locked on The Hoodlum's. I looked for a sign of humanity, some common ground where we could coexist. Maybe he quilted, too! I found nothing; he was an animal. I chucked the dice, trying to get rid of them as quickly as possible. There was no high arc, just a thud. I chanted under my breath, "I don't want to die, I don't want to die."

"Craps twelve. Take the line, triple the field."

If The Hoodlum moved, I couldn't tell. Still, I felt the increasing heat of his disappointment. Our staredown ended when the cocktail waitress served him a strawberry daquiri with extra cherries. His gnarled paw snatched it from her dainty hand. He tipped her, not with money but with a scowl. In that moment, free of his deadly stare, I focused on the dice.

Drinky berated me, "Come on, you dipshit. Stop throwing like a little girl on a Jerry Lewis telethon."

Without The Hoodlum's unsettling glare on me I could concentrate. I pitched the dice higher, into the "lucky zone" above my head and below the ceiling.

"Six, easy six, no field," said the stickman.

Jerry laughed, "My grandmother can throw a six."

"That's tough talk," Mom said to him. "I don't see your grandmother here."

Jerry set down his drink and told her, "Actually, it's just a saying. My grandmother passed away two years ago."

Mom snatched a few loose chips that probably wasn't hers and added it to her stack. "She should have taken better care of herself."

On to Part 2

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