Old Before Their Time
Four Vegas Veterans Tell Their Tales of Woe in the Oh-Eight

Part 2- Friday
Part 1 || Part 3 || Part 4 || Part 5

In the noisy room at the Las Vegas Club, the deep fried Twinkies and Oreos had their revenge on me before the sun came up... as the sun came up... and after the sun came up, too. This delayed my next round of grazing by a solid hour. But once the twitching, heaving, explosive gut spasms subsided, I was ready for Main Street Station, one of the last reasonable buffet values in Las Vegas. You can get a custom omelet there, whipped up fresh by a master omeletician, but the sacrifice is a whole lot of eating time wasted waiting in line. So I skipped the formalities and went for the buffet's jugular: eggs, ham, bacon, corned beef hash, biscuits, lots of gravy, and the piece de resistance, a small pyramid made out of cheese blintzes. Chunky strawberry syrup ran down the sides of this structure like the gore from ancient Incan sacrifices.

The rows of vintage pinball machines await the player with a pocket full of quarters at the Pinball Hall of Fame, a very worthy side trip in Las Vegas.

Of course, the plates are too small to do this right in one sweep, but six big plates, three dessert plates, an ice-cream bowl, and one distended belly later, I belched in satiety.

Then it was time for the Pinball Hall of Fame. This is a tremendous institution, tucked away in a generic strip mall. Inside are endless gaming delights. There was lots of pinball, of course, but for me pinball was long ago sidelined by video games. I am a sucker for 80s fun like Asteroids, Defender, and Ladybugs, so I badgered one or two of our group to play with me and get their hineys kicked. When then they wouldn't play with me anymore, the addict in me returned to the lure of Asteroids until my belly reminded me that it was rapidly approaching feeding time. After my last game I walked outside in a daze, much as I did in years past when confronted with one of these machines of endless pleasure.

Tacquerias are a tremendous way to shovel calories down the gullet. We found one with 99-cent tacos that were filling when eaten en masse. I tried all eight meats and then capped it with all eight meats again. This was really pushing my price zone, so I eagerly awaited more tremendous winnings at the craps table. By the way, what is sesos? They were tasty, whatever they are.

By now, my commute to Las Vegas isn't much more interesting than shuffling to the bathroom in the middle of the night. I feel an urgency during the week that builds toward Friday afternoon. Then I extricate myself from the tangle of responsibilities of the workplace and the home and go to the airport where I subject myself to the usual rigmarole like some widget being processed by industrial robots.

Finally, I wake up in an airline seat, descending in the desert, searching the night for The Strip. The airplane buzzes with anticipation. The already drunk frat boys behind me boast about the money and the hearts they plan to win. Of course, I feel excited, too, but I'm not so callow. I've done this many times, and I could tell them with certainty that the money will not be won.

It never is.

And the hearts... well, my old fling with Katrina, and my near-fling with Michelle, and the countless hoped-for flings of my youth that never materialized--they have washed away in the river of married life and fatherhood. Yes, I still eye the lithe young women disembarking with me until the fratty called "Moose" hollers, "Show us your tits!"

"Lummox," I call him, silently.

I hustle through the airport and am glad to spot Jerry's car outside. Jerry is his usual self, a puzzling combination of high spirits and dark shadows, broad smiles and subterranean evil. The time we left him for dead in the men's room at Larry's Villa, Vegas's skankiest bar, has scarred his psyche. Now he cherrily welcomes me to Las Vegas, but stops himself mid-sentence to curse another driver.

The horses line up in wait for the Second Annual Big Empire Sigma Derby Handicapper's Challenge, later that night at the MGM Grand, where Las Vegas's last remaining Sigma Derby machine resides.

"Son of a gosh darn mumble-farmer!" Jerry may have unresolved anger issues, but he is faultlessly polite. Contributing to his current dourness is the fact that his chosen nickname "The Deuce" is not sticking. Too many people have scatological associations with the word. "String Cheese" will not be shaken as a nickname.

Making Jerry even more dour is the fact that he has been steadily losing money at the craps tables along with the majority of the crew. Now that Jerry's chauffeuring me to El Dorado to play more craps, his mood is that of a man condemned to go back and lose more money.

"Not to worry, mon frer," I tell him.

"What did you call me?" He starts to pull the car to the shoulder of the highway with a threatening gesture.

"Mon frer. My brother. It's nothing bad. Anyway, my point is that I feel very lucky tonight. Check it out."

I show him that I am wearing all of my sterling silver skull rings as well as the scorpion pendant that Jerry himself gave me a few years ago in exchange for a Caesar's Palace medallion. Sure he got the better deal up front, but that locket brought me $200 at the craps tables the previous summer. Or maybe it was my lightning bolt ring. Just in case, I am wearing that ring, too.

"It is literally impossible for me to lose at craps with all this stuff on," I tell Jerry. "That's simple physics."

We find El Dorado out in Henderson without much trouble. Inside, Jeff Barr, Ghizal, Phil, Mike, Stevie "Fine Print," "Shakes" Stack, Matt, The Professor and Maryanne are crowding the table--but visibly shaking from the cold, cold action. Regardless, I elbow in beside Shakes, Jeff Barr and a dark-skinned man relentlessly betting the dark side. Naturally, the reports of a dry luck spell can't prevent me from throwing in my money and hopping onto Mr. Pass Line. The cocktail waitress comes by and Shakes doubles my order: he doesn't drink, just passes them on to me. Phil also orders something to drink, claiming it's a "virgin" whiskey up. Whatever. It's dicing time.

Whango! Points begin to come and pass. One after another. I don't know what the guys were whining about. Very quickly, I am up $40, with four scotch-rocks down the hatch. That's when the guy next to me, Henry, confides that he is a poet.

"Oh, yeah?"

"You want to hear a poem?"


"Okay, what's your name?"


"What's your real name?"

"Um, it's Daniel."

"Okay, Daniel. This is a poem called ‘Life.'"

Henry launches into a rhythmic rant of rhyme aiming to encapsulate and explain all of life from before birth to after death. He conjures the striving of the soul, the love of peace, the importance of family. He also throws my name into his poem to keep my attention. The poem sweeps me into the appreciative swoon of someone speedily drunk on scotch-rocks. Jeff Barr pokes me in the ribs and points at the craps table.

"Your throw, Fang."

While Henry's epic careens on through couplet after couplet, I shoot the dice out, barely noticing where they fall until cheers and cries of delight tell me that I have set, then hit a point.

"Shhh!" I command. "I'm trying to listen."

"Keep throwing," yells Phil.

"I will, but you have to be quiet. I'm getting a headache." Fatherhood has made me sensitive to noise. When the table pipes down, I throw a nine. Henry raves on. Offhanded, I buckshot the nine, and everyone cheers.

"Keep it down!"


"I'll only throw if you keep quiet." Amazingly, the gangly herd of graying mannish boys around the table grant me sweet peace for my throws. Each point I hit results in stifled screeches of delight. Fine Print and Mike Ho show each other stacks of chips representing their new foray into the black.

At last Henry, broke to his last chip, brings his poem in for a landing. It was really deep. Dude, I wish I could remember it, so I could pass it on to all of y'all.

"Wow," I say to Henry while inattentively pitching the dice over the table.

"That's right," he says. "I'm trying to get on Oprah."

"You totally should! Why not?"

"It's a positive message," says Henry.

"It sure is. But I wonder why you always bet the dark side. Why do you bet Don't Pass?"

"Because gambling is evil," he explains.

I didn't quite follow his logic, and I told him so. "Maybe you can do a poem about it that would explain."

"Okay." Henry begins busting rhymes off the cuff about how gambling has ruined his life. The poem makes me very sad. Then Henry's cell phone rings, and he moves off to talk.

My focus finally returns to the game (and cocktail numbers five and six). All around the table, I see a lot of smiles and a lot of teeth. The gang is making bank, and it is still my throw. Though I don't need silence any more, I still demand it. You don't change what's working. Maybe this way I will hear the sevens coming..

I'm pleased to report that that throw was my personal best. Ever. I had never gone so long, nor won so much, nor brought so much joy to so many hearts as I did that night. And maybe I would still be throwing the dice to this day if Matt hadn't put his iPod in my ears and cranked up the punk rock. The noise rattled me bad, and I crapped out.

Now, I'm not blaming "Mr. Ice," but it was his fault. I recalled the previous summer when Jeff, Jerry, Shakes, Ellen, Phil and I all won hundreds at Joker's Wild. Matt had not been there. Perhaps his absence had let us win. Or maybe missing that event had spawned a chilling bitterness in his soul that would not allow more winning without him.

At any rate, the table cooled some, though many of us still continued to pull in profits for another round. The next time the dice came to me, I asked for silence. That's when Henry finally got off his cell phone and back to his poem about gambling. I crapped out pretty quickly. But by then the table was preparing to shut down, and I was ready to stagger over to some other event. I cashed out $160 ahead, which, along with the poetry, made a nice keynote for my weekend.

Through a bit of hard work, some underhanded play and a lot of trash talking, the Big Empire's own Matt was crowned the 2008 Big Empire Sigma Derby Handicapper's Champion. In this photo, the gracious runner-up Cameron congratulates him. Later, he would stab him with a shiv in the men's room. All in good fun.

The craps tables did not disappoint. Matt hung 'em high, higher than ever. Mom joined us for some action, and she's the grand master craps player in this joint. We racked up a number of big wins, and they were even larger than the big losses that occasionally visited us. Fang's skull rings whipped up a tempest of good luck that night. The dice were afraid to crap out anywhere near those monstrous rings.

When they closed the table, I thought about trying to tally my winnings for the night, but a rumble from the stomach had me on a beeline for a late night snack. As Kenny Rodgers said, "You never count your money, when you could be sitting at the table...eating."

After stuffing down a late-night burger with a side of steak, it was time to trek out to the Second Annual Sigma Derby Competition, held this year at the MGM Grand. Sadly, it took the BigEmpire crew nearly an hour to procure enough seats at what might be the last Sigma Derby in town (with the demolition of The Frontier). And while the Sigma Derby horses provided tight race after tight race, I had to duck out early to fill the gullet again...and retire to my room. I had a hankering for bedtime spam, so the California coffee shop filled me up before sleepy time.

Being a relatively new dad has made me appreciate my beauty rest. So I sprung for an actual bed with only one roommate--The Deuce, AKA String Cheese, AKA Jerry. Long gone are the days when we maximized our trip budget by getting one and only one room and allotting 2' x 6' sections of carpeting to however many bodies we could fit, bringing the total weekend hotel bill down to 19 cents per person.

After the somnambulant process of this year's Sigma Derby competition, won by one of the several Bills, I believe, Jerry and I found our peaceful room and quickly fell asleep. I dreamed of six-sided scorpions rolling poem-engraved airplanes. I woke a few times in the night to Jerry's sleeptalking:

"Stop touching me!"

"Phasers on kill!"

"That's my dollar!"

On to Part 3


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