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 5 of 6 - Starting Over, Badly
Part 1 || Part 2 || Part 3 || Part 4 || Part 6

Morning - Friday, January 28, 2011

I woke just after noon. The low January sun, brilliant and cold, streamed through the windows of my suite. Below on 6th Street, some gentlemen in a doo rag argued with a strung-out woman about sharing. Their fight carried to me as through they were in the next room.

Phil, to our amazement, had come out of his funk. He was and smiling. He told us of the people he met at gaming conventions, of the people he's met in dive bars near the LA Airport, and of a scheme he had if he ever encountered a dump truck with a half load of mulch and the keys in the ignition.

After discovering the meaning of life, Phil was very happy, even when threatened by the Hoodlum.
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Mike said, "You seem to be feeling better."

Phil smiled. "Much better. Last night I found it. I finally figured out what was missing from my life. I now understand how to fill the emptiness in my soul."

"Was it beef jerky?" asked Jerry.

"No," Phil said, "but it's hard to explain. I'll have to show it to you."

I still had fifty dollars in food credit from my room deal, and my friends and I all had five bucks in credit from our funbooks. We squandered the sum total on late breakfast at the Cafe. At the El Cortez's coffee shop nothing is fantastic, although the fries are good, and nothing is awful, so long as you stick to the basics. I like their eggs, pancakes and sandwiches. Since it was after noon, I had a club sandwich. Others had chicken, eggs, pancakes and burgers.

Today would be easier than Thursday. In fact, I only had the massive MGM Grand on my schedule. Steve had Hooters, so I talked him into tag teaming. That way, I would help him do Hooter's, which takes a few minutes, and he'd cover half of the MGM Grand, which takes hours.

After lunch, Phil told us to follow him. He spoke rapidly and waved his arms as he led us through the casino. He explained how everyone has a purpose in life, a role in shaping the world and making it better for the next generation, and something about compassion and quantum mechanics that went over my head.

He led us down an alley of slots, past the piano bar, by the Subway counter and finally stopped by the casino exit, with its orange tinted glass doors.

He beamed with joy. "There it is."

"What, the doors?" Jeff asked.

"Don't be an idiot."

"Something beyond the doors?" guessed Jerry.

"No!" Phil was impatient. "Next to the doors. The Cougar-Licious slots."

He pointed to a bank of five machines flashing with neon pinks and lavenders. On the screens were rows and columns of middle-aged women tarted up in high-heels, pushup bras and tight dresses. One of them winked. Phil walked over to one and caressed its buttons.

"You put your money in, spin the wheels and try to line up three of the Cougar-Licious Ladies. If you should be so blessed, you enter a bonus round and give expensive gifts to them, like designer handbags and diamond necklaces, maybe a bedazzled cell phone. Depending on how much they like the gifts, you win more credits. And the ladies say naughty things to you."

"That's it?" asked Steve. His tone of disappointment spoke for the rest of us. "Those stupid slot machines are what's been missing from your life?"

Phil put his hands over where he imagined the games' ears were and replied with irritation, "I just explained to you: they're not stupid. The ladies are Cougar-Licious. You give them gifts and they say naughty things. Plus you can win money."

"And that's the meaning of life?" asked Mike.

"Not for everyone, no," Phil conceded. "Just for most people. This is our purpose here."

Deep-fried something. Twinkie, we think.
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I scratched my head and tried to understand. "Putting money in these machines."

"Obviously this is more than your little brain can comprehend. I would try to explain, but I have more important things to do."

Phil put a five-dollar bill into a Cougar-Licious, sat down and said, "Hello, ladies. I'm back." His eyes glazed over as he watched the spinning reels and winking vixens. He was happy and he wasn't going anywhere.


Having completed our work, Steve and I returned to downtown to redeem more coupons and meet our friends. We stopped at Mermaids, a dismal slots-only store-front next door to the dismal Glitter Gulch strip club. Before it was Mermaids, it was Sassy Sally's, a sleazy clip joint with aggressive change girls and tacky gimmicks like free watches, "professional" slot players' gloves and free photos to lure people into playing the tightest slots in the Valley. Sassy Sally's got busted years ago for its aggressive tactics and reopened as the nominally-tropical Mermaids.

Since they can't con people anymore, Mermaids uses the next best thing to draw customers: cheap, greasy food and hooch. A filthy snack bar in the back has corn dogs, Twinkies, Oreos and whatever else fits in a deep fryer. They'd probably cook your cat for a corkage fee. Since Las Vegas is for doing the things we don't do at home, like showering every day and getting out of bed before dinner, I bought a deep-fried Twinkie. I'd been warned not to, but if I listened to warnings I would have never mixed vicodin and bourbon. I paid 99 cents and watched a deeply unhappy man in a white toque jab one with a wooden dowel and dunk it in batter. He dropped it into boiling oil, pulled it out and sprinkled it with powdered sugar. I choked down nearly a third before it came oozing out my pores. Jeff, Jerry and Phil tag teamed the rest and still didn't finish before the grease cooled and coagulated.

After a deep-fried Twinkie, there was no place to go but up. We did by dinner at Jaleo in the Cosmopolitan. Jaleo is a Spanish tapas restaurant. The dishes are small and meant to be shared, so the larger the group the more grub to pass around. Since there were seven of us, we ate: salmon crudo, bruschetta, Iberico ham, carne asada, chicken and ham croquets, cod empanadas, dungeness crab in piquillo peppers, steamed mussels, sangria and a load more stuff I can't remember. Most of the dishes were about $8 to $10 for a taste for three or four people, but the carne asada was $14. A couple of us shared sangria and a couple others asked for Cokes. They were served eight ounce aluminum bottles, for which Jaleo charged five bucks.

Most of us talked about the food. Phil spent the meal waxing poetic about Cougar-Licious. "Vicki, she's a minx and she's worth two times credit. Sabrina's a sweetheart, but she's small potatoes. A good listener, though. Roxanne's the real troublemaker, but how can you resist a redhead?"

The "whimsical" presentation of croquettes at Jaleo.
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The meal came to $320, which seemed fair, even if all of those small bites didn't add up to a big meal. The food was overall quite good. Our waiter was in a hurry, or at least disinterested in anything more than moving fast. I know this because I offered to do a puppet show for him and he didn't stay. The restaurant tacked on a 22% tip. That pissed me off. I don't like when restaurants assume large groups are incapable of tipping and add 18%, but 22% is ridiculous. We weren't told on the menu or anywhere else there'd be that steep a tip. I was in no mood to dispute the charge, though. Whipping out a calculator and arguing over restaurant bills is something old people did, and I was not going to be old tonight.

A young couple and his parents sat at the table next to us. Jaleo has some strange, supposedly whimsical, dÈcor. The young woman was given a long off-road motorcycle seat mounted to four legs. She didn't have the sense of humor required to straddle it. She turned it lengthwise and then sat. She didn't realize that she now looked like she had a big stick up her ass. She, her boyfriend and their parents didn't grasp the idea of sharing, either. The all ordered separate tapas and ate them alone.

Nobody threw up in the parking garage after dinner.

We bounced from high culture to low and went to the Western. I was surprised when Phil said he'd join us.

"What about your Cougar Ladies?" I asked.

"What about them?"

"Well, I thought they were teaching you the meaning of life?"

"They did." Phil shrugged. "And now I know. But learning it is sort of like taking a good shit after a big meal. You only have to do it once if you do it right. Speaking of which."

Phil left for the bathrooms in the back of the Western. I don't know why it's called that. There's not a damn thing about it that suggests big sky and dude ranches. There are no cows, no cowboy hats, and no mechanical bull. It has an outlaw reputation because of the hookers, junkies and bums, not train robbers and cattle rustlers.

The Western is east of the Fremont Street tourist district, farther than the section adjacent to the casinos that the City is reviving with new nightclubs and restaurants. It has no hotel; that part of the property was shuttered in 2008 at the request of the Clark County Health Department, one month after my last stay in it. There is an glass-strewn parking lot next door and a former used car lot housing a taco truck across the street. The side of the casino once had a ten-foot tall penny painted on it to tell visitors that slots in that denomination were inside, but that's as gone as machines that take metal. Now, the marquee promotes two-dollar blackjack, dollar craps and the occasional drink special.

While joints like the Wynn and Cosmopolitan are at the top of the gambling ladder, the Western hangs from the bottom. It has an elderly, short-tempered woman serving cheap hooch, battered floors, fluorescent lights and the stench of burnt tobacco ground into the cracks. The bathrooms are tiled like an elementary school and the bar plays Norteno music. Despite the differences between high and low, though, the Wynn and Western are a lot alike. Gamblers throw dice, play cards, push buttons and suspend logic in the hopes they'll beat the odds. The games, despite the difference in cigarette burns on the felts, are the same.

The Western experience is closer to the bone, though. On the Strip, a player may drop two grand on the roulette wheel and other players have no idea it's his rent money. Here, a guy walks up, shakes the contents of his wallet onto the table and everyone knows it's all he's got.

We were there for the craps. The Western's table is the first thing a visitor sees when entering. It's only open five days a week and only until 11 p.m. On weeknights, it's quiet. On weekends, and welfare check days it's rowdy, belligerent and the best table in town. It's far more likely that something unexpected, wild and worth telling friends about will happen here than at Caesars Palace. Plus, there was no Hoodlum. He was probably crouched behind some planter in the Joker's Wild parking lot, waiting for me. I didn't care. I was done with him and the constant reminder of his presence that I couldn't keep up with the kids anymore.

There were no open spots. That's not to say the table was packed with players. Mostly, it was guys spending their Friday leaning against the rail. They didn't bet, but they commented on the action, and on each other. When I tried to squeeze in, the deadbeats opened their palms to reveal a single blue dollar chip. They were simply waiting for the right time to play it.

Maybe a few of them got tired, or decided to save their dollars for another night, but a few spots eventually opened. My friends and I moved in one at a time. I stood directly opposite a barrel-chested older man who, despite his advanced age, was still worried what other people thought. He bragged to two bowl-haircutted dorks beside him about having owned car dealerships and being worth a fortune. That was, of course, bullshit. But this was the Western and nobody was going to deny a man his fantasy, unless it involved name-brand liquor. Then the Western bartenders would deny it.

The men eyed us suspiciously. Our nerdiness probably made us look like all the people keeping them down. My ballcap, which said "FBI" in bold letters didn't help much, either. Of course, had they looked closely, they would have seen that stood for "Female Body Inspector". And in fact, I wasn't certified for that. I bought the hat on a lark, but if a woman had asked me to perform an official inspection of her shape, I would have confessed I wasn't qualified.

Late night tacos by the Western.
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We kept quiet, which isn't easy for me. I tried to fall into the rhythm of the game, get a feel for the table, and figure out who not to piss off. When I entered the table, the table was cold. That partially explains why half of the dozen people were standing idly by with their single chip. However, after the flashy pretend car dealership owner sevened out, the dice were handed to the skinnier of the bowl-haircutted guys. He laughed loud and nervously at nothing in particular and had a pronounced slope to his forehead.

He held the dice long enough to hit a couple of points and excite the six players who were actually betting. Since it's a dollar table with crappy double odds, all that action only added up to five bucks for me. Winning was crucial, though, because winning made me forget bad things. With the endorphins rushing through my system, I was once again alive and not worried about work deadlines and project proposals.

I asked the cocktail waitress for a Heineken. Tonight I wasn't driving and alcohol had been a missing ingredient in my recipe to be young and stupid the last two nights. Specifically, I expected it to provide the stupid, in a big way.

The single-chippers saw enough money flow out that a couple jumped into the game. One put a dollar on pass, another in the field. Skinny bowl-cut hit more numbers. Steve and Phil squeezed their way into the table. Mike, Jeff, Jerry and Robert hovered around the edges.

Skinny bowl-cut didn't seven out until one of the single-chippers in the field parlayed his buck into two, then tripled it. He scooped up his six bucks, snapped his fingers and said gleefully to nobody in particular, "That's what I'm talking about." I didn't remember him talking about six dollars.

The single chipper beside me had been riding the pass line and now had four bucks in his palm. He threw one to the middle of the table and hollered, "Hot limbs! Hot limbs!" The fellow next to him shouted it too. I had no idea what "hot limbs" was, but it sounded like fun to scream so I did. The two men stared at me and I piped down.

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