Part 3 - The Gang Assembles
I heard Stinky return to the room, cursing a blue streak, and rifling through the pockets of my shorts. I had prepared for this likelihood by putting my wallet under my pillow. It's an eel-skin wallet and I could feel its slight magnetic pull on the fillings in my teeth all night. Assuming he had gone to bed, I fell back into a deep slumber.
I woke for good at nine a.m.--the Vegas equivalent of 4 a.m.--and went out to the balcony. The boiling sun had already reduced bums and hookers to puddles on the sidewalk. I pulled back the curtains and saw that Stinky's bed had not been slept in. I was a little worried: what if something happened to him and I wouldn't get to intervention him into a bloody pulp? I wandered down to the Spike lobby and a loud snoring sound led me into the back of the Copper Mine where I found Stinky asleep, his face stuck with grime and drool to the flashing screen of a penny slot.
I rousted him with a jab to the ribs and sent him upstairs for a change of clothes. He mumbled an objection, but we had work to do. We planned to update our reviews of the North Strip properties: Stratosphere, Sahara, Circus Circus, Westward Ho, Stardust, Riviera and the New Frontier. But first, a free breakfast was waiting for us at the El Cortez.
During the complimentary breakfast (available to anyone who sends a mailing address and when they'll be in Vegas to firstname.lastname@example.org), Stinky was in a foul mood. He muttered about marked cards, cheating dealers and ripoff ATM fees. "I bet you can't guess how much I lost last night." I didn't want to bet. "Just guess," he urged. "I'll bet you 43 dollars you won't guess right."
"Was it 43 dollars?"
"God dammit!" He threw down his fork. "I'm not paying you." Stinky looked at his jittery fingers, still dirty from the rolls of coins and filthy tokens that had passed through them. His voice dropped to a whisper. "Sometimes I just feel so sad when I lose. I hate the gambling all night and having nothing to show for it. I feel so empty, so worthless."
This was it, he'd hit rock bottom. There's the remorse and regret, all those things I sort of remember them talking about at that one Alcoholic's Anonymous meeting I attended. Stinky said, "I hate chasing losses with money I don't have."
"Do you think it's time to quit?"
He paused, and I swear I heard him choke back a sob. "I think it's about fucking time I win."
Downtown casinos change little except for ownership and bankruptcy status. The North Strip joints change even less. The carpets are the same as when we first came to Las Vegas, only dirtier. The slots have more bells and whistles, the buffets still suck and the stench of smoke is staler. The mood is drabber and the clientele older.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Strip's armpit, the New Frontier. The hotel is ramshackled, dirty and desolate, but the air conditioning works well. Staff papered the deli with industrial posters for a new food called "The Pipe." The Pipe is hamburger, salmon or chicken reconstituted into a "convenient pipe configuration," said the ads, mainly so you can reheat it on a hot dog roller. Mmmm, now that's good salmon. Other than The Pipe and the dropping of most live entertainment, the Frontier remains the same old dump.
As we left, two employees hand-paid a jackpot to an old man. The change girl counted the hundreds into his palm and the slot manager's lips moved as he counted along. While the money was being placed in one hand, the man used the other to play max coins on two machines. And once the last of the jackpot hit his palm he pocketed it, smiled at us, said, "Ninety-five-hundred dollars," and added a third machine to his harem.
Stinky was awed and talked the entire way back to the car about what he'd do with that much money. "Gamble. I'd gamble and then I'd gamble some more, and when I was done gambling? I'd get one of those salmon pipes."
When you're being followed around by a guy with a camera, and have expensive microphones clipped to your belts, the eyes of every two-bit performer stuck with jobs as costumed shills to entice gamblers inside of casinos light up like Christmas as they see you approach. They all figure that being in the background on TV, even if it's for a news segment about how the owner of the casino where they work has been arrested for his stash of child pornography, is their big break.
Ghizal, Phil, Robert and Stevie show off their classy El Cortez zipper bags. Phil hadn't yet filled his with pornographic flyers.
Such was the case the last time we visited the Westward Ho, when we were in town filming for a show on the Travel Channel about Vegas on the cheap. There are two shills at the Ho, one an Elvis impersonator and the other a Carmen Miranda look-alike, you know, to get you in the mood for the Ho's Wild West theme. As long as the camera was on, those two couldn't get close enough, making suggestions to the cameraman about the best light to shoot them in, and hanging on to us like we were their long lost lovers.
As we passed through the casino to make sure nothing had changed this time (it hadn't), with no audio/visual equipment in tow, we spied Elvis and called out to him.
"Hey Elvis! Remember us?"
In his best hunka-hunka voice, he said, "Uh, no I don't," and turned away. So much for our growing celebrity.
We kept heading up the Strip, stopping in at the Sahara to confirm disturbing rumors we'd heard about the new management's drastic reduction in $1 blackjack, and removal altogether of $1 craps minimums. I made Matt promise to take all his clothes off and handcuff himself to a chair if they didn't have any $1 blackjack, but luckily for the Sahara (and me, since I didn't have any handcuffs and quite frankly, I'm tired of bailing Matt out of jail for public nudity), they had a few dollar tables scattered around. No $1 craps, though, so Matt took off his shirt in silent, pasty protest, and we left.
The Stratosphere Tower has loomed over the Las Vegas skyline since 1996, but neither Matt nor I had ever been up to the top. The nearly $8 admission fee for a ride up the elevator had always kept us away. But we had heard that with a reservation to the Top of the World restaurant, they let you ride up for free. Dinner at that gourmet eatery costs more than it would to have Bob Stupak's face tattooed on our arms, but lunch is downright reasonable, especially when you factor in the free ride up the tower.
The elevators are deep inside the casino, and require you to pass through a lame shopping mall and a completely deserted arcade that used to house a Circus Circus-like midway, with carnival games and kiddie rides. We rode up, and were sorely tempted to bail out of our reservation and just soak in the views for a few minutes, but we were worried that they'd catch us, beat us up and toss us off the top of the tower into the bad neighborhood below, where we'd probably be beaten up again.
So we were shown to our seats and scanned the menu for the cheapest items. I went with a steak sandwich and Matt ordered a greasy Monte Carlo, meaning the total bill including tip and drinks would only be about $28. More than we'd normally pay for six lunches, but we ponied up in the name of research. The floor of the restaurant rotates slowly as you eat, allowing you to see the whole Vegas valley if you dawdle long enough. We quickly realized why the dinner prices are so much higher. At night, Las Vegas twinkles like a beautiful multi-colored galaxy, but during the day, it reveals its true self; a smoggy dustbowl, with bland housing developments pushing all the way to the drab desert mountains. Sure, any time you're 800 feet up and can see for miles, it's impressive, but in the light of day, our eyes tended to fall all too often on the massive air conditioning units on top of squat industrial buildings.
After we finished eating, we walked up the stairs to the observation deck, which was almost as deserted as the arcade at the foot of the towers. We watched the world's slowest roller coaster, the High Roller, and heard people screaming for their very lives on the Big Shot. We thought about hucking some pennies over the side of the tower, gazed into the distance a little more, and finally headed back down, pleased that we'd never bothered to shell out the money just to get to the top of the tower.
With full bellies and a sense of deep satisfaction thanks to the hard work we'd done, we headed back downtown. Matt said it was because we needed to "meet our friends," but I knew that we both wanted to get back to the tables. Or at least I did.
Man, I busted out of work like an inmate with a wrecking ball. My heart was racing: racing toward Las Vegas. The trek to the airport, with the traffic and the strain of secure processing, couldn't dampen my excitement. Las Vegas, my beacon, was pulling me like a pilgrim toward Mecca. And not just Mecca, but the Mecca Mega-Hotel and Casino with the Loosest Slots in the World. I knew as I boarded the plane that the pace wasn't going to slow one iota until the long, sleepy ride home on Monday.
I was only going to be in town for thirty-six hours, having to fly out bright and early Sunday morning to make it to a wedding in L.A. that afternoon. So I was going to have to do my gambling, drinking, and carousing with vigor and efficiency. I was set to win the sartorial splendor contest (barring any cute girls showing up and stealing the title with their natural splendor). I was set to eat a zillion shrimp cocktails, to win fifty grand on the penny slots, and to stomp every Dance Dance Revolution game into oblivion.
And, of course, I was all set to make sure that Mark held to a puritan regime of NOT gambling. And NOT drinking either, while we were at it. It was for his own good, and it was bound to be very fun for me, as well. Deplaning, my imagination was full of images of Stinky, bleeding and repentant, his knuckles raw and swollen from my repeated rappings every time he reached uncontrollably for the dice. I pictured him hog-tied and ball-gagged. Maybe I'd develop the skills of a dominatrix, a potentially lucrative sideline for a San Francisco resident. So distracted was I by these images, that I walked right past Phil, Jerry, and Robert, who had come to meet me at the airport.
They stood shoulder-to-shoulder, holding three little cards that read "D," "A," and "N" respectively. Funny as this might have looked, I didn't spot them until they accosted me from behind and thrust the cards into my face. But they had gotten out of order and I read, "AND."
"And?" I said.
Robert and Phil did a little do-si-do, and I got the joke. But, in dominatrix mode, I began to belittle them for not dressing up like valets in suits and leather hats and chaps, and ball-gags. I mean Phil and Robert in shorts and t-shirts hardly presented the chauffeur image. And Jerry, especially, looked scruffy with a beard and an overall appearance that suggested that the Vegas Virgin of yesteryear was long gone, and now living as a part time pimp, part time prostitute, who you could also buy drugs from or child pornography.
"Let's get to Larry's Villa!" he insisted even before we made it back to the rental car.
Instead, we headed indirectly for the Spike, because, really, where else could the four of us go?
One of our Las Vegas traditions is to spend Friday afternoons standing around the front desk of the Gold Spike waiting for friends to arrive. Once everyone has, we stand around for a few more hours still waiting. This Friday, seven of us waited for Dan, Robert, Phil and Jerry. I found a half-empty bottle of Magnum malt liquor and drank it fast enough to kill the germs of whomever had put his lips on it before me. I followed that with a handful of mini-airline liquor bottles that I carry in case of emergencies like this. Stinky bet a stranger twenty dollars that he could drink a whole bottle of ketchup in the snack bar and won.
With a red crust around his lips, he sat down at the two-dollar blackjack table and bought in. I let him play because, for one thing, I was still waiting for Dan; beating the crap out of Stinky was like Christmas morning, Hanukah and Flag Day all rolled into one for him. For another, I was lit on cheap tobacco and even cheaper vodka and my mouth felt lubricious, gossip aching to spill out. I wanted to talk about Stinky's personal problems. While he played cards, I exaggerated the depths of his gambling depravity to our mutual friends with wild hand gestures. When that didn't pique the gang's interest, I pulled out the sock puppets. Then they literally drooled over the prospect of taking a few cheap shots in the name of intervention. Stevie, our lawyer friend, proposed that we "sue his ass back to the stoneage, and then sue him again for his rocks."
While we waited, a miraculous thing happened; Stinky won. Not smart bets: splitting fives, and re-splitting the fives dealt to them, hitting on fourteen against a dealer's six, doubling down on an ace-king, standing pat on a hand of seven, and in one case, yelling "Hit me!" from the men's room, although he claimed we had misheard him fending off an attack by a Gold Spike regular. Either way, he won the hand. He bumped his two-dollar bets up to three, then to an astronomical five bucks a hand. Such high stakes were unheard of in our gang, and in the Gold Spike. A pit boss sweated each bet. Said Michael, "That's perfectly good money he should use for something worthwhile. You can buy damaged Beanie Babies off eBay, or used pornos from the Mexican street vendors. And then, you knowÖ"
I probably should have been happy for Stinky's changing fortune. But I wasn't that drunk yet, and besides, that's not the way our friendship works. It works like this: Stinky's misery is my good time. Our bond is strongest when I succeed, he fails, and I am sober enough to remind him of that. Impatient for Dan to arrive, I paced back and forth, from the Copper Mine to the lounge, along a faded path in the carpet.
Eager to make up my losses from the night before, I changed a dog-eared twenty for silver chips at the Spike's blackjack table and put out a couple to get started. The night before, I had played conservatively, mostly sticking to basic strategy blackjack, which mathematicians say is the best way to reduce the casino's advantage over the long run. I didn't have a long run, though. I needed cash, and I needed it quick, unless I wanted to spend the rest of the weekend watching my friends have fun gambling while I chewed up straw wrappers and tried to flick little wet pieces of paper into their hair.
I've never taken the time to master the intricacies of Lucky Ned's famous blackjack Incredi-System, but his mantra, "Go With Guts!" was really all I needed. I was determined to shake up that casino, and do whatever stupid stuff my gut, still working hard on that Strat steak sandwich, told me to. I started slow, doubling on 14, hitting on 19, turning my back to the table any time there were three or more clubs face up, the usual stuff. No matter what I seemed to do, that dealer could not beat me.
So I raised the stakes. I upped my bet to $3 and vowed to hit at least twice on each of the next five hands, no matter what I was dealt. Except for once, when I busted with my first hit card and got into a long argument with the dealer about why he wouldn't give me a second, I won every one. And then I won some more. I was drunk with excitement and only pretended to be the regular kind of drunk when I knocked some lady's cocktail over flailing around after winning both hands on split 10s.
Again I raised the stakes, laying five, eight, ten and even twenty bucks in that perfect little circle. Pit bosses typically only keep their eye on me when I get bored and start trying to sneak sips from other players' drinks, but this time they were watching because they thought there was some chance I was a force to be reckoned with. I could have stayed at that table for the rest of my life. I'd probably still be winning today, with backhoes clearing the piles of chips away for me when I needed to go to the can. Except for one little thing. My lousy friends, who claimed to be hungry, but were obviously jealous. I would have told them to go on without me, but I had a strong feeling in my gut -- a desire for guacamole -- and followed them out.
Every time I land in Las Vegas, I get really hungry. Maybe it's the bounty of cheap eats that psychosomatically gets my appetite up, or the fact that Vegas has replaced so many of the quantity-over-quality buffets with decent eatery franchises from around the world. Also, it could be that I like to postpone the strange joy of reuniting with my so-called friends in the so-called hotel named after a metal that is foreign to the place. Though meeting again the angst-ridden grimace of Matt and his barely contained rage is always good for a dark laugh, it's almost more delectable to nurse the mental image rather than spoil it with the reality of Matt, who so often succumbs to his rage. And Stinky: how I hankered to give him the intervention, AKA, the Double-Deuce! But, too, just the mental picture created such anticipation, that I didn't want to rush into the fray. And, also, Stinky is stinky.
So, I told Robert, Phil, and Jerry that I wanted to dine in style, and since I didn't say exactly what style, they took me to the bowling alley where we chowed on fries with cheez and MGD. That put me in a Spike mood all the way, and in a pummeling mood to boot.
The first good omen to greet us was a space in the Gold Spike lot, waiting as if reserved for us. The next was a bitter grin smeared across Matt's face, the kind that was both welcoming and foreboding. Though I could scarcely contain my urge to cure Stinky of his demon addiction, not to mention my own hearty craving to throw some cash on the felt, I executed the pleasantries with Mike, Steve, Matt, Ghizal, and the gang and ironed out the sleeping logistics. Needless to say, I'd need a bed to myself since I like to set up a barbed-wire perimeter around my bower to keep early-morning Matts away from me. You'd think he'd have outgrown his 7 a.m. Wrestlemania shenanigans by now, but it wasn't until he impaled himself on my razor-wire pillow last year that he finally started to relinquish the routine.
At last, I was set up to enjoy exactly thirty-four hours of Las Vegas. I sought out Stinky, who had been conspicuously absent in all the Friday-night meeting and greeting. He was where I would have expected him: hunkered over a two-dollar Blackjack table. What was more unexpected was the way he had managed to cordon off five out of the seven betting circles for himself, leaving two disgruntled elder tourists grimly manning circles one and seven. And what was downright astonishing was that he looked to be stacking red and sometimes green chips in the circles. I blinked, figuring I'd gone neon blind. But the chips still were red and green.
Matt sidled up to me, "You can see how bad it's gotten."
"Pretty impressive," I agreed.
"You hit him high. I'll hit him low. Count of three. One... Two..."
"Wait a minute, Matt. What would Jesus do?"
Matt was startled by this philosophical poser, and that bought me a minute of time to try to reason with him: "He's way up, Matt. He's winning."
"Right now he's free of his gambling problem."
Matt's mouth opened as if he were trying to catch a fly, and in his eyes, I could see his civil-engineering mind trying to grasp the subtleties of psychology.
"Look at this way: if you gamble and you lose a lot of money, that's bad, right? That's a problem--a gambling problem. But if you gamble and you win, that's good. It's not a problem. You're gambling, but you don't have a problem."
"So you're saying..."
"While Stinky is winning, he does not have a gambling problem."
On to Part 4