Part 4 - Wild On Henderson
How do you argue with impeccable logic? You don't; you punch it in the face and knock out its teeth. Dan is my friend, though, and one with access to our litigation-happy lawyer friend Stevie, so decking him was out of the question. I tucked my seething anger into the back pocket of my mind. "As soon as he loses we yank him out of here by the nuts."
"And how," said Dan. He took his Rusty Nail from the cocktail waitress and wiped the rim clean with his T-shirt.
After only another hour or so of milling, we left the Gold Spike for dinner at Garduno's in the Fiesta Rancho. Even Stinky was hungry by this time. It was a Mexican meal so intensely mediocre that I will say no more except that Stinky hit the third leg of a baseball parlay while we ate. From there, we drove to cheaper gaming pastures: Sam Boyd's Joker's Wild.
Joker's Wild is out in the Valley's scrubby eastern suburbs. In the dark, though, it feels like it's on Yucca Mountain, or Witch Mountain, a million miles from Las Vegas' glitter. No matter how many times you've been there, you can't help wondering if you took a wrong turn somewhere along the way. The casino is surrounded by wide vacant lots and gas stations. The casino is a dump: small, smelly and somewhat depressing. There is no theme; no wild joker. A more truthful name would be Drunken Unhappy Locals, and nobody finds them as much fun as us Drunken, Unhappy Tourists. The Joker's Wild has no hotel, but they do have a lousy buffet and coffee shop. We came for one of the cheapest craps game in the western hemisphere: fifty cents with 10x odds. The eight of us bellied up to the lone table's rack and tossed our ten-dollar bills down like big shots.
The action was rocky. One hot shooter followed by a round of seven outs, and then another streak to redeem us. The only guy winning consistently was--you guessed it--Stinky. He put his come bets out at the right time, moved to the dark side just as the shooters turned cold, and propositioned the hard eight with impeccable timing. While the rest of us hovered around even, Stinky's wagers were as lucrative as a Halliburton contract.
When your friends clamor for mediocre food like ours do, keep Garduños in mind.
At half past midnight the pit boss told us they were closing at one. Apparently, the drunk and degenerate players at the Joker's Wild aren't like my friends and me; they have jobs. Only five minutes later, the boss called out, "Last shooter." We protested because he had promised us another half hour. It was no use, though. We were up against The Man. Same old story; The Man wanted to get rid of us. Actually, it's usually not The Man we have trouble with, but The Woman who throws us out after she discovers that we ate an entire pan of brownies that she asked us not to touch because they were for a co-worker's party, and we hid the pan behind the toilet and later threw up all over her comforter. And that's about when The Woman declares it the worst first date ever. This time it was The Man making our lives miserable.
Our protests grew fainter as Phil quickly sevened out and the crew started counting chips. It didn't help that the table never got hot enough to be exciting, or cold enough to justify beating the hell out of Stinky.
Stinky stewed all the way back to the Gold Spike; it wasn't one o'clock, he wasn't drunk and he still had money. He was mostly mad at those of us ready for bed. The truth was not that I was tired, but that I wanted to sleep off my drunk, dream of being even drunker and be ready for the next day's Solar System Series of Poker. I reminded him that we also had a breakfast meeting with a big time entertainment manager who had some harebrained scheme to turn us into television stars, and this time NOT in Japan and NOT for urinating on ourselves.
"I'm too rich to sleep."
"What about the $43 you owe me?" I asked.
"I was going to win that next."
I conferred with Dan, who reminded me that as long as Stinky won, he had no gambling problem.
That night the sleeping conditions got cramped. We shared our suites with friends, and they camped out on the sofa, the floor, Phil slept draped over the lamp. Some fellow with a glass eye nobody knew slept in the corner. We would have kicked him out, except that he told funny jokes. Despite all the bodies strewn about, Stinky's bed stayed empty. He spent about half a minute in the room before declaring, "Sleep is for losers," and headed back out for the big money action on Fremont Street.
I agreed with Stinky; It was too early to sleep, so I changed into some evening wear: a Zebra-stripe jacket over a black tank-top, several solid-gold medallions, and those fringy leather pants that heavy-metal rock stars wear. Hell, yeah! My main purpose for being in town was running off with the title of Nappiest Dresser for the second year running (officially) or the fifteenth year running (unofficially). Since I knew others might have packed some nappy clothes for Saturday nightís contest, I thought Iíd put the fear of fashion in them by donning my rock duds on Friday night.
"Nice!" said Jerry.
"What's nice?" I asked, as blasÈ as could be. "You mean my ensemble? Why, this here is one of my more subdued confections."
Dan looks dashing all weekend, not just Saturday night.
So it went all night, until more than one person suspected that I might be gay. Frankly, the only reason most straight guys dress like straight guys is that they are afraid to be taken as being queer. Since I donít particularly care, I have reached that liberated state that, in my opinion, is the birthright of all men: I can dress in color!
I had to get out and about. A small posse of us decided to get some craps at the ElCo. Sure, weíd be back the following night, but I only get so many chances. As we made to leave the Spike for even seedier environs, we spotted Stinky in the blackjack pit.
"You guys going somewhere else?" asked Stinky.
I replied, "Down to the El Co; want to come?"
"Sure. I hate gambling alone. Actually, I don't hate it when I'm losing because the losses are easier to hide, but I'm winning right now." He began to gather his chips from the blackjack felt to cash out and come with us, but then, heíd suddenly thrown out several stacks back into as many empty betting circles as he could. As the dealer dealt another round, Stinky scratched behind his ears and squirmed in his seat.
"It's okay, Stinky," said Jerry. "We'll see you tomorrow at the poker tournament."
"No!" Several heads turned. "I want to come play craps with you guys!"
"Okay, then let's go," I said, losing patience.
And then the whole routine happened again, with the gathering of chips, and the sudden bets, and the scratching behind the ears.
"Let's go," said Ghizal. So we all headed for the door. Stinky leaped up from the table, then, leaving stacks of five-dollar chips still on the table, while cramming the rest of his considerable winnings into a pouch made from his t-shirt. As the rest of us swaggered and/or trudged down Ogden Street, Stinky finally caught up, screaming, "Wait!"
The ElCo was quiet enough for most of us to squeeze onto a single table. The action, though, was cold. Weíd just get to yelling after a roller hit his first point when he would seven out. Rat biscuits were sucked off the table as if by a giant Eureka vacuum cleaner, not even the HEPA filter kind, either, because the air inside ElCo was as bad as ever.
Even Stinky was losing, and the itch behind his ear must have been driving him crazy because blood was gathering under his fingernails. Every time Stinky lost, heíd increase his bet, and lose again. Usually such reckless gambling is reserved for Burt Cohen, but tonight, we were all watching Stinky change black chips to brown chips, and then into no chips. I was itching to intervene in a big, gory way, but Matt was dozing innocently in his own vomit somewhere and I didnít feel like trying to initiate the strangers at the table in the ways of the intervention. Because although it may just look like a lot of beating and crying, thereís really more to it than that. You have to be able to hit just the right balance of beating and crying.
Tha Big Empire Playahs started pooping out much sooner than we would have had we been winning. One by one, we cashed out our remaining change and gathered for the trek back to bed. All except Stinky, who seemed to have hit an upswing again. The stack-o-chips in front of him was small, but all high denominations.
"I'll be back in just a few minutes," he assured us, scratching.
I was dead tired when everybody wandered off from the El Co craps table. My legs felt like midget wrestlers has been using them as posts for their little tiny ring -- banging each other's heads over and over into my knees -- and my eyes were burning like crazy. These sensations were merely physical, however. I was riding high on a big fat stack of chips, and had no intention of sleeping while bathed in the glow of light reflected off of lady luck's teeth.
The only trouble was, I hate playing craps alone, and a quick glance let me know that the suit who had me kicked out the night before was still patrolling the blackjack pit. I was too scared to go back to the Gold Spike, fearing that being that close to a bed might be too much of a temptation to settle in for the night, so I did what any other person desperate to keep gambling when they don't fit in anywhere else does. I headed down Fremont Street to the Western.
It was with some trepidation that I began the short but scary walk to the redheaded stepchild of Jackie Gaughan's Empire. Sure, we'd been to the Western many times before, but we usually travel there in a big group. While that has its problems -- 10-12 people, some dressed in shimmering gold sportcoats and others yelping uncontrollably for everyone to look at the chip stuck to their foreheads, can be pretty conspicuous -- at least when I'm with others, there's some chance that one of them will be attacked first, and I'll have time to turn and run like a sissy back from where we had come. And besides, I didn't normally go to the Western with pockets full of milk chocolate $25 chips and their slightly more bitter but more sophisticated dark black $100 brethren weighing down my pockets.
My lucky streak continued, and I didn't run into any troublemakers. That is, until I actually got to the casino itself. Its whole clientele is made up of troublemakers. But there you have security watching over you, so it feels at least a little safer.
I was tired of playing blackjack, hate roulette, and saw a scary-looking guy at the one bank of decent video poker machines, so I was at a loss for an activity. I certainly didn't want to waste money on some crummy slot machines, and after the long walk, turning around and going to bed just wasn't an option. I turned my head this way and that, hoping for some sign, and to my surprise, I got one. It was hung over a hopper, in a section of the casino I normally ignore. It read, "Bingo."
I'd always known that Bingo existed in Las Vegas, but with so many other more interesting games around, I'd never played. This was a desperate time, though. I had nowhere else to turn, so I uncrumpled some bills and told the Bingo lady to give me as many of whatever I needed to play. She handed over a stack of cards with numbers printed on them and a little blue marker. I thought she'd tell me what all of it was for, but just said, "Good luck," and turned away.
I took my cards and marker and turned to find a seat. At that hour, the Bingo room was pretty sparsely populated. There was a drunk guy slumped in a seat in back, snoring, and a few little old ladies clumped together, each hunched over her card, with ink-stained fingers.
Bingo is part of our national consciousness, so I had some vague idea what I needed to do, but if I wanted to win, and I did, I'd need to get some specifics. So I took a seat near the women, and turned on that famous Stinky charm.
"So, ladies, do you Bingo often?"
A sweet-looking lady, probably someone's grandmother turned to me and said, "Young man, you don't 'Bingo' when you play Bingo. Do you crap when you play craps?"
"I don't, but I think Phil did once."
The women tittered more than I thought was appropriate for their age, but turned back to their cards. Apparently, I'd have to be more direct to get any answers from these potty-mouths.
"Well, ladies, I'm a little new to this game. What exactly am I supposed to do?"
The sweet looking lady looked up from her card and told me that I needed to match the numbers on my card with the numbers being called. When I got a match, I was to mark my card with the dauber. I paused, thinking she was having fun at my expense again, but couldn't recall the word "dauber" in any childish, dirty context, so I figured she must mean my blue marker.
Just then, the Bingo lady up front called out, "G-Forty-Eight!"
Hey! I had a 48 on my card! I slopped a big glob of ink on the number and yelled, "Bingo! I got it! I win!"
The ladies looked up and glared at me. They must have been jealous that I had won right out of the gate.
The chatty one rolled her eyes and said, "You have to get five across before you can win. The goal is to get five in a row on your card, either down, across or diagonally."
Who knew the game was so complicated?
They continued to call numbers, and I joined in the hunkering down and inking, marking my card. I couldn't spell Bingo to save my life, though. We played through a few rounds, and the ladies warmed up to me a little bit. Esther, the mouthy one, told me about her grandkids, and helped me keep track of my numbers.
We started a new game, and I hit a couple of spots quick. I took a "B," and an "N" in the same row. I was on my way. I looked over at Esther's card, and she was hot on a win herself. I saw her eyeing my card as the numbers were called. I filled in my "I" after a few moments, and right after, she pulled another favorable "G." We were neck and neck at three numbers apiece, she working down in one column, me going sideways.
Suddenly, Esther stopped chatting, and the other women must have felt something in the air, because they turned to watch the goings-on. The call was O-64. Mine! I was one number away, and Esther looked steamed. Moments later, though, she filled in another "G"-spot, and nobody even made a dirty joke.
I realized that Bingo wasn't like the other games I normally play. In craps, just about everyone wins at the same time, and in Blackjack, my outcome rarely influences anybody else. Although it's not as direct as poker, you're playing more against the people sitting near you than the house. I felt a little bad about rooting against this little old lady, at least until she turned to me and snarled, "Listen, you little piss-ant. This game is mine, and don't you forget that. We don't look favorably on beginner's luck around these parts." Bingo or not, I was still in the Western.
After that, I just wanted a win, bad. The next number was called, and it meant nothing to either my wrinkled old nemesis or me. Then another, and another, and another. I began to sweat. Each ball pulled out of the cage could spell my misery or my triumph.
The announcer spun the bin, the little balls rattled around and around until he stopped. He pulled open the creaky little door to the cage, pulled out the ball, and called out, "G-52!"
I was dumbstruck. That was it. I'd won! I leapt up, toppling my chair, and screamed at the top of my lungs, "Bingo, motherfuckers!"
Esther looked at me with rage. She pulled her dauber across her neck in a cutting motion. The other ladies grumbled, and I'm pretty sure one of them hissed at me. I ran to the front of the room, handed up my card, which was verified, and I took my winnings. I knew there was no sitting back down after that, so I tossed my remaining cards in the air, yelled out, "In your face, Esther! Looks like you won't be getting that hotpad this week after all!" and bolted from the casino.
I ran all the way down Fremont Street, past the El Co, and turned up Ogden Street. To my surprise, the sun was up, and by the time I made it back to the Spike, I realized how thoroughly exhausted I was.
I stumbled back in the room and fell on the bed, in a state of REM before my body was even fully prone.
On to Part 5