Part 6 - Sippin' Cocktails and Suckin' Down Shrimp
When you've lost in a poker tournament, you need something to lift your spirits. I have three words for you this time, and two of them are the same: Dance, Dance, Revolution! The Feldman clan: Dave, Phil, and Michael; Mieko and Phil; and I all trooped up to Las Vegas Club where they have one of the many Revolutions in Las Vegas. This was super mega-mix number nine and had some of my favorite songs that I'd never heard before.
For the squares out there, Dance Dance Revolution is not just a revolution in dance, but in video gaming and in our entire way of life on earth. To play, you put some money in and pick a song. Then, you don't push buttons with your fingers or clutch some joystick. No--you stand right on top of the buttons. They're built into a platform that you dance on. On the screen, your video-game avatar dances while directional arrows scroll upward across the screen. When they reach the top of the screen, you step as directed: forward, back, left, or right.
And then--what do you know?--you're dancing! DDR will always encourage you, even if you're timing is off and you're losing points. It tells you that "Everyone is watching you!" and "I can see the future in your dance!" The discotheque tunes really make you want to move, too! Just one dollar in tokens, and you, too, will know that there's a revolution going on.
The six of us took our cuts on the dance floor. Phil and Mieko worked up a sweat first. I challenged the winner (Mieko) and we were soon shedding pounds in spite of the hotel air conditioning. While waiting, Michael Feldman tried some of the other video games around. But nothing compared to the revolution.
After about seven hours of dancing, we were too tired to move, so we sat in the arcade and waited for someone to show up with slushies. When slush failed to materialize, we dragged ourselves back to the Spike and sundry other destinations, to spiff up for dinner. And I went to rig up my sartorial coup-de-grace, starting with a tame little leopard-zebra combo as dinner wear that would shock and awe those who were planning to wear leopard and zebra print at the actual event.
We went to Lotus of Siam for dinner like we do every year. It was, as usual, delicious, even if slightly soured by the bitter pill of defeat. The only differences this year were: we didn't make pigs of ourselves and ended up only feeling like we'd burst instead of actually doing so; and a picture of us has been added to Lotus's wall of fame, right next to Billy Joel and below Pope John Paul, II. I'm sure the photo will be removed as soon as the owners, Bill and Sai Pin Chutima, discover we put it up there.
There's no time for talking when you have a table full of food at Lotus of Siam.
As usual, the crispy rice and sour sausage was my favorite. The beef jerky was sweet, the pork stew was so good I was hungrier after eating it, and the catfish was so crispy and flaky that our friend Robert scavenged its eye sockets hoping to find a few morsels. By the time the bananas fried in filo dough, sticky rice and coconut ice cream arrived, most of us had already leaned back in our chairs and undid the buttons on our trousers. Phil must have eaten really well because he also tore open his jockeys. Mark seemed agitated, taken away from his precious casino for a good meal. "It's great," he said of the food, "but I'd rather have a raw hot dog and a loose Double Diamond machine."
The Big Empire Cocktail Soiree started in an hour. We finished off the fabulous desserts, squared up the bill and hightailed it back to the Gold Spike. When we got back, the casino was quiet. Dirty, stinky, and dilapidated, yes, but also quiet. Maybe the quiet before the storm. Or maybe nobody would bother showing up. That's what happened with my wedding.
Up in the suites, Dan, Phil, and I made preparations for the Sartorial Splendor portion of the evening. The competition recognizes the man and woman who go to the greatest lengths in the name of fashion. It's always hotly contested, and the trip to Vegas is preceded by weeks of scouring the vintage shops and thrift stores for belts and shirts made from animals that make people say "I didn't know you could skin that." This year, there was even more incentive to win because Feldy was giving the winners prizes. Since there was no money in it, the contest didn't interest Stinky.
Dan switched out of his relatively subdued faux white tiger coat and cheetah pants, and into a shiny shirt, made of some space-age, fireproof (we tested it) synthetic. After the outfits he'd sported all weekend, it seemed rather tame. I thought that just maybe, I might have a chance to win the competition with my fleece pants with brown leather fringe, suede shirt and Stetson. Although, I didn't look so much sartorial as I looked like I was going to the rodeo to hogtie homosexuals.
Down in the lounge, the Big Empire faithful were amassing. Dozens of folks of different sizes, ages, and shapes wandered in, swizzled watery drinks with a splash of rotgut for color, and eyeballed each other suspiciously. Oke Millet was still in the shirt he wore for the poker tournament. His friend Sherry was now dressed as a pink devil. Our friend Bill Thompson suited up in a tuxedo.
The bartendress poured so many diluted screwdrivers she nearly made a dent in a bottle of Old Mariner. One overly loud partier in a fez made the mistake of thinking he was the party. Fez boy's self congratulations and unfunny jokes boomed out over the casino at a volume that declared "Oh, you're gonna want to hear this." He accosted anyone within walking distance to watch the video he taped earlier in the day of a fat woman sitting in a pool lounger.
Although the evening was supposed to be about socializing, Stinky netted four bucks on a wager that he could chug-a-lug an change cup full of pennies. Later, he said swallowing the pennies wasn't hard, and neither was the feeling of cold metal in his stomach; gagging on the lingering taste of Gold Spike patrons' fingers was.
Just before the penny poker tournament was set to begin, Matt was waylaid by a drunken Big Empire fan demanding to know why Casino Boy wasn't at the party. Matt's explanation wasn't getting him anywhere, so he handed me the buckets of rolled up pennies he'd purchased for use in the contest, borrowed a pen from someone, and set about drawing diagrams on a cocktail napkin.
It was a heady feeling holding so many copper rounds, each one a ticket to another slot machine-induced thrill. My mind raced furiously, trying to come up with some justification for why it would be fair for me to dump the wad into a penny keno machine and see if I couldn't go for my retirement fund with one push of the button. Michael Ho, a bona fide stickler for details, kept his eagle eyes on me, though, so I grudgingly handed out the coins to soiree attendees.
Cowboy Matt keeps the Gold Spike's livestock in check.
Just as in years past, the rules of the game were simple. Players start with a roll of fifty pennies each. They must do whatever it takes for twenty minutes to increase their bankroll, and whoever ends up with the most pennies wins a brand new Gold Spike T-shirt. They can pool funds, hold onto their whole roll, slip pennies from other soiree attendees' buckets, whatever the heck they want, as long as they don't mention our names if they get in trouble with security.
With each new soiree, the Copper Mine seems to shrink just a tiny little bit. Nickel slots encroach further and further into the dim back corner of the casino. The penny machines that remain fall into ever more pitiful states of disrepair. Video poker screens lose focus and occasionally flicker or become so out of balance that players can't see all five cards they're dealt. Touch-screen keno grids have dead spots, limiting the numbers that can be easily selected. I swear I saw a piece of chewed up bubblegum stuck over the word "Bar" on the reel of one ancient slot machine. The Copper Mine's limited machine inventory, combined with ever-greater Soiree crowds, means that the competition for space gets fiercer every year.
Our boisterous group descended on the machines, shoving and squawking like monkeys fighting over hunks of meat tossed into their cages by zookeepers. The security guards perked up their ears, and looked at the scene with befuddlement, wondering what force in the universe caused this odd convergence of noisy people to appear in their normally peaceful casino.
When the dust settled and the arguments about hoarding coins and unsynchronized timekeeping had subsided, our old friend Philip Flanders Fleischmann walked away the winner.
As the Soiree stumbled out of the Gold Spike en masse and headed to the Golden Gate, where our Shrimp Cocktail Eating Contest is held, Stinky sidled up beside me and asked if he needed to come. "Yeah, you're one of the hosts," I reminded him.
I distracted Stinky with a coin trick on the way down Fremont Street so that he didn't notice the ring of slots and low rumble of gambling spilling out of the open doorways of the gaping casinos along the way.
The large and mostly well-behaved crowd gathers for a group shot before heading to the Golden Gate for shrimp.
The Golden Gate is the oldest hotel in Las Vegas, built in 1906. The casino is what passes for old-school charm in Vegas; lots of smoke, black-and-white photos of fat Sicilians, a low ceiling, dark paneled walls and lots of dark reds. They have a disproportionately large number of table games for such a small casino; low-minimum blackjack, craps, and roulette stretched down the long hall. Further back, the deli serves up cheap eats, most famously the 99-cent shrimp cocktail, while a pianist tickles the ivories.
The Golden Gate makes a big to do about not raising the price of the shrimp cocktail, no matter how expensive popcorn shrimp get. What they don't advertise, however, is the declining quality. This year was no exception, with the grayest, saltiest, and mealiest crustaceans yet.
The Shrimp Cocktail Contest's goal is to see who can eat the most. Anticipation was high, the former record of thirteen, or 3.25 pounds, had stood for two years. This year, three competitors guaranteed to shatter it. The gathered crowd tittered about the prospect of seeing one or more eater pass out from gastrointestinal discomfort. Four-year veteran, Phil "Iron Gut" Feldman took on relative newcomers: his son Michael "Iron Gut, Jr." and Oke "The Canadian" Millet. The crowd settled into the dark back corner of the deli, drinking and smoking, while Dan and I stood in a long line to order 50 shrimp cocktails as a starter. Stinky had been waylaid by the roulette wheel. As we passed, he shouted "Red! Red! How much you want bet it comes up red!... Black! I meant black!" As our Soiree settled in, he ran back and forth to the wheel, wagering five bucks at a time.
Finally, our turn to order came and the veteran behind the Gate's counter stacked mounds of shrimp cocktails onto the flimsy serving trays. We carried them to the center table where the three eaters sat. Phil tugged at his gut, stretching it for maximum volume. The Canadian sat in a Zen trance hands perched like sparrows on the table's edge. Michael just sweated getting busted for only being nineteen.
As our eaters settled in and plowed through the first few of the sure to be dozens of cocktails, the sartorial Splendor judges conferred and awarded the treasured Scintas Cups to the most dressed man and woman.
I have two words for you: Burning Man. Though common wisdom says that the fashion world happens in New York, in London, in Paris, in Hong Kong, and sometimes in Amarillo, the truth is that the annual bohemian arts festival in the Nevada desert is where fashion HAPPENS. Though I have stopped going to the festival due to the harshness of the climate, I went for enough years to pick up the key elements of truly outrageous costuming.
If you're a woman, the main thing in the Big Empire Sartorial Splendor Competition is to undress for the heat. Such was the tactic taken by Sherry, a Nordic blonde with an athletic body packed into a pink devil costume. Once again, all my painstaking preparations were going to be undermined by the fact that our judges go nuts over hot chicks.
Sartorial champions Daniel and Sherry show off their prized plastic Scintas cups.
Still, this year there would be a separate category for men, and I felt that Burning Man had taught me well: Neon Wire. A glowing strand is powered by 9-volt batteries, cleverly hidden in a pocket. With careful sewing, I managed to get a pink line of glowing wire to spell out my name: Fang. A blue line of wire depicted a skull, and some other doodles. The wire was sewn into a black t-shirt and worn under a see-through overshirt. Perfecting the hang of my ensemble in the suite bathroom and making sure the batteries had juice, I went down to the casino unplugged.
I arrived looking pretty normal, maybe a little burgundy. But when the time was right, I hooked in the battery pack and lit up. The one drawback to the outfit was that though it would have shown like the stars at night in the desert, Las Vegas pumps out enough wattage to dim my sign considerably.
The judges recognized the ingenuity of the design, however, and gave me the men's division award, a delightful Scintas cup, which I cannot find to this day.
Because I have competed so hard these past few years and because I have always been shown up by good-looking women who don't have to work so hard to win sartorial splendor awards, I retired as champion with a tear-jerking speech to all the people there at the Golden Gate. They were weeping, but maybe it was the lingering odor of lukewarm shrimp.
Sitting around one small table and crowded by rows of eager spectators, all three gluttons began with zeal, taking large spoonfuls and even soaking up extra sauce with Saltines. It wasn't until around the third or fourth cocktail that Phil started pissing and moaning about the poor quality. This is a man who will pull a U-turn on the interstate to get to a Country Buffet, and he complained because the shrimp had a bluish, slick coating. After number five, Michael agreed. The crowd didn't want any part of it. They didn't come all the way to Las Vegas to watch crybabies.
Oke soon joined Phil and Michael, moaning about the grimy texture of the shrimp. Whether it was peer pressure, psychosomatic, or just typical Canadian bellyaching we'll never know. The only thing louder than Phil, Michael, and Oke's complaints was the increasing rancor from the crowd. Suck it up, you pussies, they seemed to be saying every time they threw crackers and debris at the competitors.
The revolt came after the seventh cocktail. Phil, Michael, and Oke shoved aside the empty glasses and put their heads together. They spoke in low tones as the crowd screamed angry, vicious things at them.
Oke's feeling queasy, from shrimp and the reflection off of his tacky shirt.
Then, just like that, they held up their hands. "We quit," said Phil while Michael and Oke slumped in their chairs.
They can't quit. They aren't allowed to quit. Not after only seven lousy little cocktails. There was a record to be broken. The fans had come to capture the ultimate Vegas souvenir: watching a man's stomach literally split open. People made death threats, cajoled them to keep eating, tried physically forcing more shrimp into Michael, and exposed their breasts to change their minds. "You're a bunch of losers!"
The way Phil, Oke, and Michael saw it, they were all winners. A three-way tie. Like this was some sort of Special Olympics and everyone gets a medal.
"You didn't all win," argued attorney Andrew Skier, "You lost."
Lawyer Stevie leaped in, "I'll sue your ass!"
"Class action! Class action!" screamed Andrew, his mouth frothing.
Stevie and Andrew raced to hand out business cards. The Golden Gate's deli darkened with the swell of anger pressing inward on Oke, Phil, and Michael. Then, as mobs always do, they turned their bloodlust on the organizers. I felt the need to do something to calm the crowd, and quick. I needed to take a bold and strong position on what had transpired.
I ditched, with Dan right behind. We bolted for the greener pastures of the El Cortez craps table. It promised a less bloody ending, although not by a whole lot. As we ran past the roulette wheel, Stinky looked up. "What's going on?"
"We gotta go."
"The table's hot," he protested, holding up a handful of chips.
"They want to kill us," I said without breaking stride.
Stinky rolled his eyes. "Again?"
On to Part 7