PART 1 -
The Birth of Cool
My whole life I've been meaning to be cool. I've meant to
buy the clothes, grow the facial hair, strike the pose and lease
the car. I've had the coolest of intentions, but something always
went wrong. The cool khakis cost three times the price Sans-a-belt
slacks from Mervyn's, my facial hair comes in spotty, and I slouch
too much to strike the pose for more than five minutes.
I thought Las Vegas was my opportunity to be cool. Here was
a chance to free myself from the shackles of geekdom. Nobody
in Las Vegas knew I collected comic book action figures, still
played Dungeons and Dragons and watched 80-100 hours of science
fiction on television each week. I bought dye to turn my hair
black and gel to boost its volume. I stood before the mirror
every night, not loathing my oily skin and crooked teeth as usual
but practicing winks, gestures and handshakes. I shopped in Denver's
vintage clothing stores, looking for the coolest clothes; the
classic black shirts and tapered slacks. I planned to shop until
I got it just right.
Sadly, I never learned patience and I panicked as my departure
date neared and I still couldn't find cool clothes that didn't
cost an arm and a leg, or less than twelve bucks. I took a last
empty stab at the vintage stores, then ended up where I feel
most comfortable; the Salvation Army. In my panicked delirium,
I spent seven dollars on golf pants, a woman's blouse and a gimme
cap that said in fat block letters "Sexy Grandpa."
They seemed cool when I snatched them in my rush, but by the
time I walked home I realized the flickering fluorescent lights
and low prices had confused me. The pants were a mistake.
A mistake I was obligated to make the best of.
Wednesday night, I arrived in Vegas a little after ten p.m.,
the time all the cool cats were getting out of the triple-sheeted
king beds in their Strip View suites, giving the beautiful, naked
women next to them one last go-round, and pouring themselves
their first Manhattans of the evening.
As my plane landed, the Strip sparkled like a neon galaxy
surrounded by a vast empty universe of identical tract houses
and dull yellow street lamps that stretched into infinity. Stinky
was supposed to land at the same time and meet me in the airport,
which was cool. But his arrival was delayed by storms on the
East Coast and the aircraft would not land until 3 a.m.
Being cool while traveling alone is hard to do. It can be
done, but not in plaid golf pants and a woman's blouse. My outfit
drew the wrong kind of stares. Of course, sitting around an airport
for five hours is equally uncool.
Secretly, I had hoped Stinky came up with a better and bigger
coolness, and when he arrived I could imitate or coast off of
it--that his cool would be so enormous I would be assimilated
into it, the same way David Blaine is a dork but gets laid just
because he knows Leonardo DiCaprio. Without Stinky, I felt lost.
I picked up the rental Chevy Cavalier from the obese, wheezing
man at Affinity and checked in to our free room at the Stardust.
Free rooms are cool. This late on a Wednesday night there was
only one person in front of me at the front desk. There was also
only one girl working, with two more standing around chewing
cud like cows. The one working girl was haggard and a little
grumpy. Not cool.
As I checked in, I tried a new approach to the upgrade. Many
people slip the clerk twenty bucks and get bumped up to a suite.
Others use courtesy or lie about a special occasion, such as
an anniversary or wedding. If there is only one thing I learned
from "Beverly Hills 90210" it is that indifference
is cool. So I let on that I didn't care if they put me in the
dumpsters out back.
I propped myself against the counter on one elbow. "I
don't care if you give me the crappiest room in the joint."
"Okay," she said.
"I mean," I laid it on thick, "you can give
me a suite if you want, but I don't even want one. I dare you
not to give me one."
And then she screwed me. I got a standard room on the 17th
floor of the West Tower, looking across the Strip at the Desert
Inn. Note to myself: In the future, be more emphatic about
not wanting a suite. I thanked her, winked and said "Smell
The Stardust tower has been renovated in "Mirage-Lite"
style. The room was vaguely European with tan carpet, tan bedspreads,
light wood armoire and table, and a fresh bathroom. First thing,
I put the shampoo and lotion in my backpack because I knew once
Stinky got here the cheapskate would steal them.
The message light on the phone blinked and that was cool;
in town five minutes and already in demand. The message was from
girls, even cooler. Abby and her friends wanted to meet at the
Peppermill at midnight. They could have chosen anyone, they could
have wheeled that legless guy down from the Imperial Palace,
or promised free booze to the bum at McDonald's. But they chose
I rubbed the hotel soap all over my body and face. I put my
pants on the chair and sat on them to get out the wrinkles. I
brushed my teeth with my finger, and massaged a couple more ounces
of gel into my hair.
Matt was not meeting up with.
I walked to the Peppermill fashionably late, 12:03 a.m., and
wandered around the dim, romantic booths looking for the ladies.
I strutted past the bubbling fire pit, the silver trees, the
deep blue cushions and the purple neon bar.
But, Abby and friends weren't there. Did they set me up like
so many girls have in the past, or were they face down in a gutter
somewhere? Maybe they got so excited about seeing me that they
took a nip, and ended up so drunk they couldn't see their own
I did what I always do when jilted. I went back to my hotel,
had a good cry, broke something that did not belong to me. But
that wasn't cool at all. I debated whether to eat a whole bag
of Chips-Ahoy and cry myself to sleep or pick myself up and have
a good time. It was harder decision to make than you might imagine,
but I ultimately went back out with my notebook and did some
research for Big Empire.
I hit the Sahara sports book and poker room. The poker room
is in the casino's last hallway still in need of renovation.
It feels musty and has old murals of camels on the walls and
even older patrons. I spoke with the skeptical night manager
whose answer to most questions was "Ask the day manager,"
and "is that a woman's blouse?"
The Sahara's sports book is nothing more than an afterthought.
It just sits in the corner like a lazy spider's web, hoping to
catch the sports-betting flies too bored to go elsewhere. It
neither looks like a place I would want to watch a game or bet
on one. The good thing was it didn't take long to cover and I
was soon off to my next destination.
The Stratosphere parking structure is still as confusing and
dingy as when Stupak was in charge and a Vegas World guest got
murdered in it. Inside, the casino was quiet and starting to
look worn out. The faux fun of the "World's Fair" theme
has mostly been abandoned. The poker room is some space off to
the side that they didn't know what else to do with. They put
up a railing and called it a poker room. It's a huge, dark open
space and at midnight on a Wednesday, there were no players or
a manager on duty. The sports book was better, like they actually
meant to put it in.
I toured the small pit and saw the $5 craps game with 100x
odds was empty while the "Crapless Craps" table was
packed. They have added $2 dollar blackjack, and that drew a
crowd of drunks doubling on blackjacks and splitting tens. But
in the entire pit, there hangs a cloud of ambivalence. I have
never seen people really having fun in here. Both the players
and dealers just humorlessly plug away.
As much as I dislike the ambience of the Stratosphere, I dreaded
my next stop; the home of that nasty clown. That fat neon bastard
out front of Circus Circus creeps me out. When I was little,
my father told me that the clown ate bad children. I didn't believe
him then, but over the years, as I have become more familiar
with the city and the hotel, his story has grown more plausible.
I quickly hustled past the sign, wary of his grabby hands.
Whether it's noon or midnight, the casino always has a tangle
of dirty, loud children. On this Wednesday night I had to dodge
strollers and eight-year-olds as high as kites on sugar from
lollipops and cotton candy. They screeched, squealed and whined
because they were tired. Packs of them sat on the dirty carpet
just off the casino floor, waiting for Mom and Dad. Some leaned
against columns and walls, slowly nodding off. Others ran and
ran, forward, backward and straight into me. These children were
Circus Circus's ceilings are low and the air was thick with
a mixture of dust, smoke and fudge. Overhead, the midway was
dark, and little bits of paper and empty soda cups hung in the
The poker room is a tiny oasis where little ones are kept
at bay by a railing. The night manager sized me up as a rube,
and then spent a few minutes trying to talk me into feeding myself
to the local sharks, who kept looking up from their games to
salivate over the dumb new kid with the notebook. When I explained
my mission, the manager was helpful and told me that three to
five hours of play scores a food discount and rooms for $35 weekdays
and $55 weekends. In general, poker room managers are the friendliest
and most helpful people in a casino.
The Circus Circus sports book is a small affair. It used to
be a massive space in the sky tower casino, but it's been moved
to the main casino, just inside the entrance. It is cheaply decorated,
featuring jerseys from the second-string players of small-market
professional teams, and the TVs are mostly small.
It was nearly 1:30 a.m. by the time I maneuvered through the
obstacle course of children's bodies and headed out to Slots-a-Fun
and then on to Westward Ho, all to update my information about
them and to see if I could score any leftover bits of half- and
three-quarter-pound hot dogs. As I always do at Slots-a-Fun,
I left a suggestion in their comment box: "Gladiators. You
know what I mean."
Because the single-deck blackjack game is so good, and because
there was nobody else playing at the table, I sat down for fifteen
minutes at one of the Ho's tables. There were plenty of people
at the next table, a shoe, betting $5, but I was alone with the
favorable rules and a silent dealer.
The Ho is dingy and not much different than Slots-a-Fun. The
main difference is that the employees don't act dead. Maybe that's
because of the festive "Ho"waiian shirts or because
they're all from the Midwest and still all agog over the metal
weeping willows out front. After fifteen minutes, I made a cool
$25 bucks as easy as knocking over an expensive settee at Ethan
Allen before leaving to pick up Stinky.
Big black clouds rolled into the sky, blocking the sun from
entering my office at work. They were the kind of clouds that
dumped tons of rain and generated enough electricity to scare
sissy air-traffic controllers into keeping planes on the ground.
I called National Airlines, the hipster's choice, a few hours
before my flight was scheduled to leave. I had been down this
road many times before. The fates never let me get to Vegas without
a hitch or two, and this year's trip looked to be no exception.
The woman on the other end of the line informed me that my flight
would indeed be delayed by at least an hour, and suggested I
call again before heading to the airport.
I went home instead, and sat around wishing I had cable television
so I could track the storm on the Weather Channel. Outside the
rain came, and the thunder drowned out much of the horn honking
on the street below. Feldy called me from the airport with bad
news. He had been scheduled on an early afternoon flight, but
remained on the ground. They had shuffled him and his flight-mates
from terminal to airplane and back a few times. He sounded exhausted
and just a little angry. I thanked my own ingenuity at calling
ahead, because being delayed in my apartment was much nicer than
being delayed at the airport.
Finally, I got word that the flight was scheduled to leave
at 9 p.m., about three hours late. The news wasn't great, but
certainly better than if they had told me they canned the flight
I made my way to Queens without much trouble. I looked on
the bright side and took note of the lack of rush hour traffic.
My cab driver hurtled through the relatively empty streets, and
even managed to splash some pedestrians when he tore through
a puddle. Had I been one of the unfortunate people on that curb,
I would not have laughed, but from the cool comfort of the backseat,
I chuckled heartily.
Peanuts, the elephant, sleep tight.
The International terminal at JFK, where National Airlines
loads passengers, resembles a modern airline hub about as much
as my bedroom reminds people of a suite at the Palace Hotel.
It's like the Greyhound terminal in El Paso. I didn't care, though,
as long as they had a plane capable of taking me to Las Vegas.
As luck would have it, they did. It left an hour later than expected,
but a 10 p.m. take-off meant a 3 a.m. landing in the Meadows,
which beat the heck out of arriving a day late.
As always, the touchdown at McCarran airport was rough, but
nobody died. I had been up for almost exactly 24 hours, and was
on my third wind, which blew significantly less than my second.
Matt waited for me at the terminal, and once again laid all the
blame for my late arrival squarely on my shoulders. I didn't
have enough energy for a headlock, so I let it pass.
We beat a path out of the airport and on to the Stardust hotel.
to Part 2