1 - Deflower Power
After a long, rain-soaked delay on the tarmac at Denver, a
jittery flight through black storm clouds, and a spectacular
landing over the rivers of lights of the Las Vegas Valley, I
was itching for some action. Gambling would be fine, so would
street-brawling or a crab-walk, anything that didn't require
me and my attention-deficient mind to sit still and be scolded
for pinching the small child in the seat next to me.
Las Vegas! I was excited for so many reasons, the least of
which was that my wife cannot monitor my drinking when she's
too busy hollering at a "Piggy Bankin'" slot machine
she believes has been unusually stingy. I was also excited about
the Big Empire activities, including the Ice Cream Social, Gold
Spike Cocktail Soiree and the Shrimp Cocktail Eating Contest.
My job was to pull together enough people to insure chaos and
then get out of the way.
It was almost eleven p.m. when we landed, and we were hungry.
I made arrangements using the in-flight telephone to meet our
friend Feldy at the Peppermill coffee shop on the Strip. Many
people say the Peppermill's decor is a throwback to the 70s,
but I don't think that's accurate. To me it's a throwback to
the mansion of a rich pervert throwing an unsuccessful orgy circa
1969. Every square inch not covered with silver or plastic plants
is draped in thick, dingy velour. The colors are dark, yet dazzling.
The ceiling is low, so the deep, sexy murmurs of the gathered
swingers carry. In the kitchen, former private dick John Shaft
prepares the eggs. The ham and cheddar omelet is one bad motherfu
- shut your mouth.
Amy is a vegetarian, so she ordered the fruit salad. What
she got was more fresh fruit than our local Safeway has on hand
at any time. The dish must have weighed five pounds and included
an entire pineapple, bunches of grapes, half a juicy honeydew,
a pound of deep red watermelon, a half-dozen fat strawberries,
and a dollop of cottage cheese. Mine and Feldy's beef dips and
fries were dwarfed in comparison, but still tasty. The service
was superb and sultry, the prices were slightly higher than other
coffee shops, but it was fair for the opportunity to dine where
astronauts would not feel overdressed.
The Fireside Lounge, tucked into the back of the Peppermill,
is tackier, cheesier, and infinitely more elegant than anything
short of the Hustler world headquarters. A bubbling, multi-colored
fountain is the centerpiece. In its middle, a raging fire glows
year-round. The booths are low and modular, like leftovers from
"2001: A Space Odyssey." From the back of the room
I heard a voice from a speaker say, "Hello, Angels, I have
an assignment for you" to a trio of scantily-clad, hot-looking
Midnight arrived - the witching hour and the time I had agreed
to meet my new Internet buddy, Bob S. Black, at the El Cortez's
quarter craps table. We thanked Feldy for his always welcome
company, and pointed our dinky rental car toward downtown.
I had never met Mr. Black before. I had never even seen his
picture and was a little concerned that I wouldn't recognize
him. He assured me that I would know him because he'd be the
only guy at the quarter craps table who didn't look like he belonged.
At the risk of sounding like a braggart, I rarely miss a "One
of These Things is Not Like the Other" on "Sesame Street"
and was sure Bob would be an easy mark. With my wife following,
I swaggered across the spooky, shadowy parking garage and through
the little-used back entrance of the El Cortez. I strutted between
the crowded aisles of old three-reel slots, my head cut through
the thick haze that hung in the air, and I wheeled around the
pit to the crowded quarter table.
I was stumped. Nobody there looked out of place. Every drunk,
sour player stooped over his stack of rat biscuits. Around the
table, there was more grousing than cheering, and some bettors
barked at the roller to chuck the dice. Others were in arguments
with the dealers over payments, debts or bet placement, and one
fellow was vigorously fighting with himself. The only person
slightly different was the younger guy at the far end of the
table. What he lacked in age, though, he made up for in grease
and slouch. His T-shirt's collar was stretched to his navel,
his hair drooped from his scalp in stringy black clumps, his
eyes were so bloodshot they made mine water, and his face carried
the weary, haggard look of a man who had either been holed up
in the ElCo for too long or just spent a month wandering around
the deserts of Egypt.
I knew Bob was only 27, and that's about how old this guy
looked, so I tested the waters. "Bob?" Those bleary
up from the felt. "Yeah, Matt, how are you?"
His eyes stayed up long enough for a covetous glance at my wife,
then they turned back to the table. "Keep your greasy mitts
off my wife," I advised him, then we shook hands.
I pushed Bob over a bit, squeezed into the table and changed
a new $20 bill for 80 rat biscuits. The waitress strolled by
and I requested a Budweiser. All the beers come in cans at the
El Cortez, even the fancy import stuff that Bob sucked on. The
rookie dealer shoved me $19 in chips, which I wouldn't have noticed
if there hadn't been a five minute delay in the action while
the dealers tried to figure out how to pay a hop bet. My wife
had wandered off into the bowels of the ElCo, in order to review
the decor and theme, so I had time to pay attention to my chips,
rather than keeping Bob from wrapping his octopus-arms around
"Hey, I'm a buck short here," I harped at the dealer.
"Huh?" he asked. "Look, there's only nineteen
bones here." The dealer looked at my stack and nodded. He
said under his breath, "I'll square you up, but I gotta
do it on a payout, when the boss ain't looking."
Whatever, I figured. Bob and I rolled up and down, winning
fifty cents, losing fifty cents and watching the dice move around
the table as our cocktail waitress kept us happy for those big
(by ElCo standards) dollar tips. At some point, my wife returned
and said she was cashing in for the night and hitting the sack.
I turned to kiss her goodnight and so did Bob. After I slugged
him in the arm, he knocked that nonsense off. The dealer never
did give me my missing dollar. Finally, the dice got to Bob and
he "Hung 'em High."
I learned from Bob this night, in addition to the facts that
he isn't above pursuing married women and that he wears Speedos
under his trousers, that there is a Lucky Zone above the craps
table. If you toss the dice higher than six feet, you're gonna
be a winner. And the higher you go, the more luck will flow.
Not to get too technical, but it has something to do with the
winner-dust which floats above craps tables, sort of like the
ozone layer. Bob kept inching higher into the Lucky Zone, until
the dice flew over my head and the dealers gave him dirty looks.
When the rookie dealers finally got the guts to order greasy
Bob to bring it down, he descended from the Lucky Zone and crapped
out. It was okay, though, because I had earned my missing dollar
plus a few others for tips. The dice moved to me and I was aiming
to top Bob's lofty heights. Up, up, up the ladder I went, adding
inches to every toss. I figured I'd be throwing a while and was
in no hurry. Finally, with the dice grazing the dusty chandeliers,
the stickman rapped my knuckles and ordered me down. Even the
rookies, obviously, are aware of the Lucky Zone.
With the dice now being pitched into what I call the "Loser
Zone," I crapped out and decided to call it a night. I bid
farewell to Bob, who was headed back to the Golden Nugget to
prowl for wealthy divorcés or, as he put it, "adventurous
married ladies." I headed upstairs and joined my wife in
our $23 room.
The El Cortez has several room categories and all of their
prices are fixed for all seven nights of the week. Twenty-three
bones buy a night in the portion of the hotel that's been there
since 1941. It's up one open flight of stairs from the casino,
and down the door from a low-rent barber shop. The sounds of
the slots and drunken revelers funnel up the staircase and rattle
around the old halls, making the cheapest rooms a bad choice
for light sleepers. They are small, with barely enough room for
a dresser and queen-sized bed. Otherwise, they are clean and
comfortable. The bathroom was recently remodeled in frilly flowers
and ornate fixtures, and it was well stocked with soaps and shampoos.
The other room choices include bigger and fancier $28 queen rooms
in the new tower and $35 double-queens. For $40, you can move
into the "King Suite." Frankly, if you're getting something
called a "king suite," you're too damn fancy for the
I climbed into bed with Amy and the effects of the long day
hit me. Amy woke up briefly and asked how the craps had gone.
I told her I won a little and said there was something I needed
to tell her but couldn't remember. As I tumbled into Slumberland,
I still couldn't remember.
Morning came with the ring of a jackpot bell just down the
stairwell. I awoke and immediately remembered what I had forgotten
the night before. Amy was already up and in the shower. When
she came out I sat her down and said, "Here is what I wanted
to say last night: stay away from Bob. He's a Lethargio."
"Lethargio?" asked my wife. "Yes," I warned,
"a lazy Lothario."
It was almost eight a.m., the time Amy and I were to meet
Jerry. Jerry is an old friend of Dan's from their Arizona State
University days. I had only met Jerry twice, but had enough information
to know we would get along just fine: he was a Vegas Virgin.
I have always done well with virgins. Not sexually, but I have
been able to mold their still soft ideas and will to my whim.
I planned to take Jerry under my wing before anyone else brainwashed
him, and I would show him my Vegas, the way this town should
be seen. I'd drag the poor boy through the muck, give him a wedgie,
introduce him to skanky ho's, and he would be forever grateful.
By the time the rest of our friends arrived that evening, Jerry
would be eating out of my hand, no matter what I put there, even
Circus Circus scrambled eggs. He would be another foot soldier
in my cheapskate army.
An incredibly nice person named Amy (not my wife) from a newsgroup
I frequent gave me two free buffet coupons for the Orleans, and
I figured my wife, Jerry and I could split the cost of the last
buffet among us. This would put a decent meal under Jerry's belt
and have him thinking being cheap was an easy, fun business.
By the time we got downstairs, Jerry was waiting. Per
my instructions, he had ridden all the way to the Downtown Transit
Center from the airport on the CAT 108 bus. He was one dollar
poorer and a little shaken by the 45 minutes on a crowded bus.
"I'll protect you," I said as I gave him a wedgie before
I forgot about it. We walked to the ElCo parking garage with
Jerry desperately trying to de-wedge his underwear.
The Vegas Virgin
The Orleans buffet was mediocre at best, but worth the $1.33
we each chipped in. I explained my Las Vegas philosophy to Jerry:
Las Vegas is best seen with both feet planted firmly in the gutter.
I wanted him to be able to enjoy what the city had to offer,
from the bottom up. I told him about how Dan had fallen in love
with a rich girl last year, and how I spent my whole vacation
trying to save him from a lifestyle he couldn't afford and a
girl who wanted him for his body and brain, but not his face.
Over waffles, I regaled Jerry with Stinky and my midnight
raid of a Rio suite, and the free souvenir cocktail glasses we
got. My virgin hung on every word and he believed my side of
the story, for lack of anything else to believe.
"Dan was wrong, very wrong," I said in a hypnotic
voice, working to plant the idea deep within Jerry's psyche.
"I want to see your Las Vegas," he begged before
going back for a second plate of eggs. He understood the virtues
of cheapness and the high adventure it could lead to. Now all
I had to do was get him to ignore Dan. I knew Dan would have
his own nefarious plans for the boy, but I had first dibs.
As a well-respected and foul-mouthed film critic, I had to
do my duty and see a movie. Amy and I dropped Jerry off at the
Sahara and returned to the super-comfy theaters at the Orleans
for a matinee showing of "Austin Powers 2." Jerry really
wanted to go to the Hilton to see the weird Star Trek stuff,
but we dropped him off at the Sahara and ordered him to walk
the rest of the way under the blazing June Sun. That would toughen
him up for the job ahead.
After the movie, Amy and I returned to downtown and made a
business stop at Fitzgerald's. Originally, we planned to host
our Saturday afternoon Ice Cream Social in our lavish suites
high atop the Gold Spike. But, a last minute move to the Fitz
was necessitated by the size of the expected crowd. Had we kept
it at the Gold Spike, disaster was imminent. One of our more
litigious Big Empire Buddies would have sued us for causing heat
stroke when the air conditioner failed under the strain of trying
to cool 35 bodies packed into a small room in 105 degree weather.
Or we would have been kicked out of the hotel for smuggling dozens
of people up to our rooms, and that would have left us with no
choice but to sleep out in front of the Western with the crack
bums and cockroaches.
A phone call to Fitzgerald's found their marketing department
very accommodating, partially because we told them that we were
the Big Empire, but mostly because we showed them a credit card
that was not maxed out. They would be thrilled to be associated
with paying customers, they told us. We would have exclusive
use of their balcony for two hours on Saturday afternoon. We
figured two hours was plenty; if anyone passed out and couldn't
leave under his own power after that, we'd haul the body into
the casino and prop it up at a slot machine. He or she would
undoubtedly get picked up by a tour group at some point and end
up in Phoenix or somewhere, and would no longer be our concern.
It was now late afternoon and our Southern California friends
would be arriving soon. We returned to the Gold Spike and found
Jerry in his room, pampering the blisters that developed when
he returned to Downtown from the Hilton on piping hot sidewalks.
He proudly showed them to me and bragged about how he had saved
a buck by avoiding the bus. Seeing him in such pain brought a
tear to my eye. "I'm so proud of you," I said. My little
guy was growing up so fast.
After a long dehydrating day staggering lost through the valley,
however, Jerry wasn't the eager student he was at breakfast.
It was time for his next lesson, the one where we got some skanky
'hos from North Las Vegas, but he wasn't budging. "Later,"
he pleaded. I countered that later all the good 'hos would be
claimed and we would have to sift through the dregs.
"Skanky 'hos?" he repeated in a shy, confused way.
"Are those anything like Ring-Dings?"
"No, no, my friend. They're the holy grail of slumming
it. I'm talking Grade A, leathery, aged, withered, heroin-addicted
'hos," I elaborated with a series of hand gestures, trying
to get him in the mood for action. "You're gonna do the
"Um," he giggled nervously. "You know, I'm
"They don't care."
"I, um, oh, gee, I'm gonna have to pass on this one,"
Jerry stammered. I could have kicked myself. Did I push too hard?
Did I think he was more advanced than he was? Should I have pulled
back? I could feel Jerry slipping from my grasp as he went back
to tending his blisters.
As I boarded the plane at SFO, I couldn't help a wistful smile.
What adventures awaited this year?! It turns out that I did manage
to find the e-mail of Katrina (my fling of last year), and we
corresponded a few times, realizing quickly that we had little
in common besides last year's Paree in Vegas. So, in a sense,
I felt turned loose to allow my libido to run wild again. And
yet, there seemed to be a hollowness to the prospect. As I learned
last year, this one-dimensional type of adventure, no matter
how extravagant, does not feed the soul. No, give me a quiet
pond, some port-du-salud and Merlot, and Whitman's Leaves of
Grass. Barring that, give me Las Vegas-give me its very soul!
Robert, my ever-vigilant travel companion, got us into the
last row on the plane-a good spot, he said, for one can slip
one's carry-ons under one's own seat and stretch one's feet out
ahead of one. And that's just what this one did. Robert began
to tell me about why Southwest is the second best company to
work for and why Davis, California, and Santa Fe, New Mexico,
are the best places to live in the U.S. That, and dozing, made
it a short flight.
We arrived at MacCarran, and my spirit soared with excitement,
"the rush and crash" as Michele Clinton put it. Las
Vegas enriched my chakra, and I got a slight woody. Pardon if
that's an "over-share," dear reader, but I could hardly
eschew these feelings, nor the tittilating vibrations of the
Robert and I went to rent a car. Although the slogan of this
rental company was "Unlimited Smiles!" our representative
proved to be a complete bitch. Fortunately, my studies of transcendental
philosophy, Zen meditation, and crystal power over the last year
enabled my groundedness to prevail, and Robert and I pulled out
shortly in a white car of some sort.
I desired sustenance, not having eaten for some hours. Since
a spirulina and tofu wrap was not available, I pleaded with Robert
to stop at a Burger King. I ordered a Whopper, offered Robert
a bite, and ended up with half a Whopper. No bitterness here;
merely observation. I also observed a gnawing half-a-Whopper-sized
emptiness in my stomach for the rest of the evening.
On to Part 2