Wherein the Boys Expand Their Gambling Budgets Using the American Casino Guide Coupons

Part 5
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Friday and Saturday

The turquoise El Cortez Smart.
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I felt lucky. Not getting your nuts shoved so far up your cavity they tickle your uvula is every bit as good as winning the lottery. That meant it was time to gamble. Some of the crew chose to go back to Henderson, this time to the Eldorado. The Eldorado is the Joker's Wild's less glamorous sibling. Sort of like the Ozzie to brother Jose Canseco. While the ritzy Joker's Wild bumps its craps minimum to $2 for the weekends, the Eldo keeps it at a buck. The tradeoff is that the table closes before midnight. They are apparently catering to the responsible, early-to-bed senior crowd, like Cyberhog, who said he needed to go back to his room at the Flamingo and darn some socks, drink some prune juice and surf the AARP web site.

Meanwhile, Burt, Mr. Dode and myself elected to stay downtown and play at the El Cortez. The El Co has been my favorite place to play craps for ten years. Back then, it was Jackie's basement, a utilitarian facility that hadn't been updated in twenty years. They had quarter chips, there was a Bigmouth Billy Bass mounted on a pillar behind the craps table, and the pit boss would turn it on if you asked. Now, of course, the joint is swanked up. It doesn't stink so bad, the carpet is clean, and the singing fish is gone. The pillar now has some rich-looking wood veneer on it. When things were going well in Vegas, the El Co jacked up its table to $5 minimum and I couldn't play that. Now, however, thanks to unscrupulous lenders and sleazy financiers, the market is in the dumper and craps are back down to three bucks.

The table was half-full. Burt and I bought in for all our ACG winnings. Mr. Dode for the twenty bones in his pocket. I cracked open my Deep Throat energy drink and pulled out a delightful More. To my right, a surly, drunk Canadian yelled at the dice, the cocktail waitress, the dealer and me. I took it from his stream of profanities that he was losing. When he saw my cigarette, he asked if I had any more. I'm always happy to share my passion for the slender elegance of a More, so I comped him one. I don't remember much about the craps game except that I wasn't making money and the cocktail service was good.

Deep Throat and a More.
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The Canadian enjoyed his More so much that he asked for a second. "You got any more of them fancy cigarettes?"

Fancy! See what happens? I still hadn't actually smoked one, but I was already being associated with a higher class of people by just carrying the Mores around. I gladly handed the Canuck another one. He lit up, swore some more at his cocktail glass, the carpet and a stain on the felt.

Soon, the Canadian was out of the game. He lost the last of his chips on some crazy mÈlange of prop bets, and then shouted an expletive that hurt Jesus' ears. I don't remember if it was Burt, Mr. Dode or myself who tipped him off that my Mores were, in fact, not fancy. Rather, they were a discounted brand of ladies' cigarettes. Regardless, he did his country and NOW proud by not caring.

"Give me another of those bitch smokes," he ordered as his parting words. I complied and he was gone, back to wherever broke Canadians go. I suspect that's the snack bar in the back of Mermaids.

The table never got hot and my ACG-earned chip stack dwindled. I can't remember anyone hitting more than two points. When the dice came to me, I sevened out before I could get a good arch on the dice. Mr. Dode managed his meager twenty bucks to maximize the free cocktail intake. It was like Jesus' loaves and fish: no matter how often he lost it seemed there was more. He occasionally put out a field bet, sometimes a minimum on the pass line. Often he just drank and watched.

At the other end of the table, couple of grizzled middle-aged men bought in. Roadhouse had a mop of gray hair under a ball cap and the belly of a man living the easy life. He was a little gruff and barked out his bets in a way that made dealers flinch. Frank the Tank was next to him. He wore a Hawaiian shirt and talked to everyone, including ladies passing by. All laughs and hollering, making sure it felt like something was happening, even when it wasn't. His bets were haphazard. Green chips on props, fifty bucks on the pass line backed up with five in odds. I would have thought he didn't know what he was doing if he weren't so certain.

Where the Canadian had been, a couple of young men nervously stepped in. They looked a little unsure about the rules of the game. They also looked a little out of place in the El Cortez. Sure, it's all cleaned up now, but most tourists of n age and gender to be out chasing tail don't end up there. We talked to the two young men, Sean and Drew. They were on a road trip. The taller of the two, Drew, was on his way from some liberal arts college on the east coast to start his career in Hollywood as a screenwriter/box boy at Ralph's. The other was along for the ride, and leaving a young and hot (so says Drew) wife at home to clean the litter box, or bring home the bacon.

I was down to about ten bucks and praying for a miracle when Frank the Tank got hold of the dice. He unleashed them with the fury of Hades letting Cerberus loose on hoodlums in the underworld. They clattered down the felt and struck the point. Over and over. The grim pall of losing lifted as the Tank chalked up winner after winner.

Burt, Mr. Dode and I were all well into the Heinekens by now and feeling chummy. Between rolls, we'd run down and high-five Frank the Tank. Others did likewise and he clearly enjoyed the attention. He would swell up like a puffer fish after each score. He'd whoop and holler and we'd join him. Sean and Drew, new to craps, saw their stacks bulging like blisters in the sun. They still weren't entirely familiar with the rules, but you hardly need to be when the dealers keep shoving chips at you.

The two college kids each accepted a More to enjoy while we played. Now, our entire end of the table had unlit ladies' cigarettes in our mouths. I asked the two young men why they came to the El Co. It turned out they were fans of Big Empire. They must be pretty decent guys.

The Henderson contingent returned after the closing of the table at the Eldorado. That meant it was sometime after midnight. A few joined our table, and a few wandered off to play other games or drink in the lounge. The table went cold again, and by two a.m., Burt and I had blown our ACG stacks. Mr Dode still had his miracle twenty.

The exterior of Larry's Villa.
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Still, the night was young. Mr. Dode had spent much of the evening begging us to go back to Larry's Villa, Las Vegas' dirtiest, scariest strip club. It had been a few years since I had last made the pilgrimage. The Dode claimed it had been cleaned up. "It's like the fucking Bellagio, now, I swear." There was some backstory about Larry dying and whoever now owned the joint taking better care.

We invited Frank the Tank and Roadhouse, who both declined in favor of seeing if the craps table would warm up again. We invited the young screenwriter and his friend. Drew, the writer, was game, but Sean said something about promising his young, hot wife he wouldn't visit any strip clubs. His being allowed to go on the trip was contingent on him not seeing other women's boobs. I saw two flaws in his logic: first, there is a big difference between promising not to do something and actually not doing it. Especially when there was no way to get caught. Second, a trip to Larry's was not titillating. It was more of a sociological experiment, like observing natives in their natural environment, or spending a day in the Black Hole of Calcutta. If anything, Larry's would make a man appreciate his wife more.

Sean was steadfast, apparently afraid that if he came with us his girlfriend would be able to smell cheap stripper on him several days later. She wouldn't. I feel compelled to take twenty to thirty showers right after a trip to Larry's and the stench is gone within a day.

While most of us climbed into a rental Kia and Mike's Prius, Sean made the lonely walk back down Fremont Street to his room at the Las Vegas Club.

More exterior of Larry's Villa.
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Larry's is located in a strip mall northwest of downtown at Rancho and Bonanza. It is across from Big Momma's Rib Shack and behind a gas station. They have no cover, no minimum and video poker in the bar. They'll comp your drinks if you play. I have been there when more people were interested in the slots than the girls shaking their knockers on the short catwalk. Before my first trip here, someone warned me not to touch anything in the bathroom and I suspected that to be hyperbole. It wasn't. The toilets, urinals, sinks and empty towel dispenser were all slightly moist ad sticky. The vinyl booths were patched with duct tape and balloons taped to the ceiling had deflated years ago.

All the way there, Mr. Dode kept telling me how much nicer it was now. When the Prius pulled into the parking lot, I noticed fresh paint on the roof and walls. I thought I was about to be disappointed by how corporate even Larry's had become. The four of us stepped out, followed by four more in the Kia. We were Burt, Mr. Dode, Mike, Steve, Robert, Jeff and Drew and me. A man in baggy jeans walking towards Larry's did a double take. He asked, "How the hell did you guys end up here?" Apparently, Larry's clientele isn't so upscale that a bunch of college-educated-looking nerds fit in.

The thumping bass of hip hop coming from inside the club shook the asphalt. We entered the dark, black room and, as our eyes adjusted, saw that the Dode was very, very wrong. The room looked a little cleaner, but not much. It was also way more urban than I remembered. We were the only white folks there. On the stage, a fat black woman was having a dollar fed into her g-string. A small group stood in front of the stage trying to have a conversation over the booming soundtrack, and another handful of folks played VP.

"Oh, man, I must have been really drunk that night," Mr. Dode said to explain his previous claims.

We pulled up some chairs on the side of the stage. The fat girl finished her routine mid-song and went into the backroom to eat some Ding Dongs. There was a lull of about five minutes while the music continued to blare but nobody danced to it. Mr. Dode brought me a beer. Finally, another fat girl came out and did a lackluster job of walking up and down the catwalk in a bikini. Eventually, she took off her top and exposed sagging breasts. A couple guys at the stage's edge dropped some singles at her feet.

The first dancer pulled up the chair in front of us and sat on it Fonzie-style. She got right to the point. " Do you want a dance?" She smelled like Hostess snack cakes. Her name was Candy or Summer or Chastity or something that meant either her parents had wanted to doom her to a life as a stripper, or she had put little effort into her stage name.

I didn't want a lap dance but decided Drew, who had never had one, did. And who better than from a slightly intimidating, heavy-set woman in the back room of a dingy and odd-smelling club? I gave the girl twenty and pointed at Drew. She took his hands and led him into the Throne Room. I normally don't hand out twenty-dollar bills like they were nickels, but I wanted to make a good impression on the kid. I wanted his first trip to be Larry's like mine: a cherished moment that I can share with my grandkids on future trips to Larry's. Besides, my losses for the day were mostly limited to what I had won with the ACG, and I was still flush from the Joker's Wild winnings of the night before.

Two minutes later, Drew was back. He didn't say much about the dance, but he finally lit up and smoked the More I had given him two hours earlier. Meanwhile, his dance partner must have thought I was made of money. She sat down in front of me again.

"So, what do you do?"

"Me? I'm a doctor," I lied.

"Really," she asked but didn't wait for an answer. "Because I have something wrong with my feet. Why do my feet hurt all the time?"

"Because you're forty pounds overweight," I said.

She frowned and lifted her foot up on the table.

"I can't operate on it here. The lighting isn't right."

"No, no," she said, "I just want to show you where it hurts. She pointed to her arch.

I pretended to study her foot carefully. "Let me see the shoes." She handed me one of the six-inched stilettos made of Lucite.

I nodded. "Here's the problem. You need sensible shoes. Go to JC Penney tomorrow and buy yourself a pair of black, patent-leather flats-soled shoes. You'll feel a lot better dancing in them. And for your own good, lose some weight."

Candy/Summer/Chastity thanked me for my time. I told her I would have the office send a bill. It was her turn to get back on stage. Larry's Villa only had two dancers in the rotation, and the other one wore a Milwaukee Brewers jersey and had the same physique as that team's star slugge, Prince Fielder. It was now 3:30 in the morning and time for us to go back downtown.

Latenight pie at the Golden Gate.
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A very late-night slice of pie used to be a tradition for us. It's getting harder to find, though. The Vegas Club and Plaza no longer have coffee shops. Binion's closed at one a.m. and the Gold Spike's diner was still under renovations. We tried the Four Queens but the hostess told us only one waiter was working and he was overwhelmed. So we ended up at the Golden Gate Bay City Diner, which was once great but is now sort of like a TGI Fridays with pancakes and eggs. I ordered a slice of German chocolate cake and it was outstanding: moist, chocolately and with a thin layer of caramel-coconut frosting.

The conversation of the eight of us was slurred by the volume of beer and the late hour. Drew explained a little bit more about his plan to move to LA and write movies. At least he understood there were about 20,000 other people with the exact same idea, and the studios only made a couple hundred movies a year. He thought it was better to try when you're young and not saddled with kids, or a wife who won't let you go to strip clubs. I hope he succeeds, and I hope one of his stories is the coming-of-age tale of a kid dragged to a scary strip club by strangers where he learns what truly is important in life: good arch support.

Nearly five a.m., we said goodbye to Mr. Dode and Drew and returned to our $3.65 room at the Four Queens. I fell asleep immediately with the sweet taste of coconut on my lips. The trip was complete and I was ready to go home.


Saturday was leaving day. Almost nothing ever happens the day we leave town, and today was no different. We slept in as late as we possibly could while still escaping an additional night's charge. Breakfast was the "champagne" brunch at Main Street Station, reduced to half-price ($7) thanks to a coupon in the ACG for the Fremont Street "funsheet". While it's the best buffet downtown with eggs benedict and omelets made to order, it gets slightly weaker with every visit. Still good, it's just no longer great. The tasty cinnamon rolls are gone and the desserts are just on par with the north strip buffets.

The Encore's charnel house chandeliers.
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Some of us had to leave after brunch, and some of us got to stay a few more hours. Or had to stay. For me it was had to, since I already mentally prepared to leave and was sick of looking at slot machines. The last major stop of the trip was Steve Wynn's new homage to himself, the Encore. Blah.

The Encore's casino is deceptively large. It's supposedly as big as the Wynn's, but it feels smaller because it is broken into small sections that are meant to act like boutique casinos. In reality, the rooms are so similar that they blend together. Plus, regardless of how fancy the carpet marble floors, ornate columns and seats are, Texas Tea and Wheel of Fortune slots are still just cheesy machines that make silly noises and have corny animation. Wynn can only class it up so much while still giving people the cheap thrills that butter his bread.

The casino has an over-the-top red dÈcor and creepy, dripping-blood chandeliers. I'm sure the lighting was expensive because Wynn's major design theme is usually "Look how much I spent!" But it's ugly as shit. Beyond the casino is a walkway with the consistently fancy restaurant. I understand that Wynn is looking to attract an affluent clientele that want an escape. Even when the rich are escaping, though, they still probably would like a simple breakfast for less than $25. Encore feels like it's priced to the max in every aspect, in order to make everything an "event". Events get old fast. It would be cool if a place like this had a knockout little breakfast bar with the best bagels and egg sandwiches, for less than five bucks. Something that offered valued, instead of pomp, along with quality.

The fabulous Welcome to Las Vegas sign.
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The Encore's conservatory looks nice. The natural lighting that pours in through overhead glass is lovely. It's also redundant with Wynn's other creations. Adding Danny Gans as the entertainment is Wynn's way of saying, "I tried being snooty by transplanting Broadway hits like Avenue Q and Spamalot. Now I give up. Here's a crappy impressionist who's been around forever because that's what you people will pay for." Las Vegas is the only town in the world where a guy doing tired George Burns imitations is considered the height of class.

The nicest thing about the joint was the free slot play we each got for joining the Red Club. We each got around $20 just for joining, and quickly turned it into cash.

After Encore, Mike and Steve took off for California. Robert and Jeff gave me a ride to the airport. On the way, Jeff wanted to take pictures at the "Welcome to" sign just south of Mandalay Bay. Years ago, you had to park at the decrepit Klondike casino and dodge oncoming traffic to get out to the sign in the middle of the road. Now there is a parking lot in the median and a little mound to stand on for photos. Fewer people probably die, but it just feels like another tourist attraction. Jeff and Robert had their pictures taken, but I was much more interested in the two lovely Mexican girls ahead of them in the line. They were shapely, lively and secreted sex appeal like I do body odor. It was overpowering, and hard to focus the camera on my unattractive friends.

It also gave me something to think about on the flight home. Robert and Jeff dropped me off at McCarran. I waited in a few lines. I got on a plane and slept until we landed in Denver. I left Las Vegas behind with a little more money in my pocket, a lot of fine memories and a sincere hope that those two Mexican girls would still be there when I got back.

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