Before Their Time
Four Vegas Veterans
Tell Their Tales of Woe in the Oh-Eight
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.
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
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
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.
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
"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
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,
"It is literally impossible for me to lose
at craps with all this stuff on," I tell Jerry. "That's
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
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.
"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
"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
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.
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
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
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!"
to Part 3