Part 3 - It's Too Damn Late


By the time we cashed out our winnings from the Eldorado, bragged to each other about how much we won, stopped Flanders from biting the cocktail waitress and drove back downtown it was after one a.m. My headache had returned and I had that floating, dreamlike feeling where you don't realize your motions until you're already doing them.

Being sober, I drove but it was one of those times you don't remember anything about how you got from A to B, but somehow you managed it safely. Neither could I remember how that chunk of turf and "Yield" sign got stuck in the grill, but they did. Weird.

Back at the Cal, the eight of us went up to our small room, unfolded the portable poker table, dished out chips and started a mini-tourney for $5 a head. Flanders had done drunken math in the car and presented me with a piece of paper that he claimed proved the blackjack side bet "Royal Match" was a positive expectation bet. I couldn't make out most of what he'd written except "a woman's vagina." I asked him.

"That's--that's from something else."

We put the table between the two beds and pulled up the footrest and desk chairs. We started with 600 chips each, 5-10 blinds and ten minute levels. People say that poker on TV has slowed the game down because amateurs act like every simple decision is life or death, just like they see on the World Poker Tour. Really, the TV hacks have nothing on bleary-eyed drunks, who not only ponder everything like it's a Freudian dream featuring their mother, but also get distracted halfway through their decision by the color of someone's shoelaces or by remembering an amusing pet name. Add to that the number of chips that were spilt, and trying to shuffle cards after you've forgotten how your hands work, and the ten minute levels turned out to be about two hands each.

At first, Flanders sat next to me on the bed. The only advantage of this was that he showed me his cards every time he looked, even after I reminded him to protect them. Later, he decided he would rather play while crouched on all fours with a glass of water clenched in his teeth.

Do not adjust your screen. It looked this blurry to us, too.

Most of my friends don't play a lot of poker because they have lives and friends and stupid stuff like that, so they play loose-weak: limp into any pot and fold when someone bet on the flop. Very few chips changed hands at first. At the 25-50 level, things finally started moving. A couple of chip stacks had shrunk and a couple had grown to 900 or so. I was a middle stack when I got dealt JJ, raised it to 200 and Shakes called. He had thus far seen every single flop. The flop came Ace high, I made a continuation and he folded. Suddenly, I was the chip leader. A few hands later, I got AK, raised, got two callers and hit a king on the flop. I bet and both of my friends folded. I now had a decent stack of chips.

The blinds were 50-100 and it became all-in time. Stinky was the lucky recipient of a couple of big pocket pairs that held up and two people busted out at his expense. He took the chip lead. Meanwhile, I raised a couple of marginal hands, got called and crushed on the flop and my stack was back down to the buy-in.

A headache throbbed in my skull and I really wanted some alcohol. When the blinds jumped again, only five of us remained. I had about four big blinds in front of me on the button when I was dealt A-9 suited. Like a braying jackass, I limped instead of pushing. The flop came rags and I folded to a bet, leaving me with little to play with. I want to blame fatigue for the mistake, and for the record, I will. I went quickly after that, as I deserved to.

Finally, and mercifully, around 3 a.m. Stinky broke Stevie and the tournament ended with Flanders on his back under the desk, cackling about something none of the rest of us could understand. The game broke up. Hilary and James retreated to their swanky digs at the Golden Nugget. Shakes wanted to go get a Binion's late-night steak. Flanders didn't want food, but he went with Shakes anyway.

At least once on every trip, Flanders heads out with someone and doesn't return. We'll see him later, and we'll be unsure of whether he got lost, how his hands got dyed blue, and with fistfuls of pornography. Once, he got lost walking from one end of Fremont to the other and we ultimately found him in the Transit Center, sitting on a curb, crying. I wondered where he'd end up tonight.

I was walking dead. When I stood up the exhaustion made me list like the Edmund Fitzgerald. I needed sleep badly. Or maybe beer. Probably sleep, but I wouldn't know if the beer would help unless I tried. I steadied myself by propping an arm on the wall. I talked Stinky, Stevie and Mikey into going downstairs to play a bank of decent nickel Deuces Wild video poker machines I had seen.

After pushing a few Hawaiians off their seats, the machines were available and we sat down. Unlike craps, video poker is a nonsocial activity. Well, shit, it's not even really an activity. It's sitting on your ass and pressing a few buttons. When sober and conscious, the decisions you have to make are automatic. Draw two deuces and junk, drop everything but the deuces, etc. When drunk or semi-conscious, the decisions can be artistic, based on color, misreading numbers and letters, strictly by feel, or by which buttons your forehead hits when you slump unconscious against the machine.

While waiting for the cocktail waitress to bring my Budweiser, we tried to involve each other in our hands to make it more interesting. At first, I'd call Stinky or Mikey over when I had three deuces and a card to the royal. They'd call me over for a pow-wow to decide whether to keep two nines, or dump them to go for the straight flush. After a while, I thought it was funny to call them over for every single hand, no matter how lousy. They disagreed with the humor content.

It takes a waitress ten minutes to bring a drink, and only five minutes to get bored out of your skull with video poker. I couldn't see the numbers clearly, so I punched and slapped my machine as though it were my misbehaving child and I were a mom in the snack aisle at K-Mart. That strategy seemed to work and I won back the five dollars I dropped initially.

When the waitress returned I tipped her with enough nickels to make her tray dip. The beer made the game more interesting and I wanted to play at least until she brought me more beer.

Which she did, and around 4:45 I slid off my stool and then couldn't get off the floor. That didn't bother me so much, except that the carpet smelled like orthopedic shoes and I couldn't reach my beer. Plus, the Hawaiians were starting to wake and they gave me dirty looks as they stepped over me on their way to breakfast. At least now I knew where the orthopedic smell was coming from.

I called it a night. The waitress helped me to my feet, rejected my wedding proposal, and accepted more of my nickels. I staggered to the elevator and somehow made it to bed, not really drunk, but already mostly asleep. As I drifted off, I swore I wouldn't make the same mistake as Thursday night and get less than three hours sleep.

I slept until ten, a solid five hours. Plus, when I woke, I had no headache, no hangover and no self-pity over what a shitty poker player I am. That made me hungry.

I called down to Stinky's room. He was already up and sounded showered. He asked if Flanders had slept in my room; I looked around and said, no, unless he slept under the boxspring with the dead hooker. Shakes had returned but not Flanders.

Once awake, Shakes shed what light he could on Flanders' disappearance. "We were walking down Fremont when he said he had to pee. He walked into Mermaids, and never came out."

"How long did you wait for him?"

"Eh. About a minute."

The problem with Flanders is that he's a Luddite. He has no cell-phone or pager, barely a car, and almost no interaction with the Internet. He likes his porn hard copy, his television over the air, and his liquor aged in oak barrels. I had to be at the airport in seven hours, so I had the choice of spending that time enjoying myself and working, or chasing down a wayward friend I couldn't call.

So, we headed over to the Nugget to get our free slot play with a new slot club sign up. My ten in play turned into three in cash. Stevie hit some sort of jackpot for $50, and Stinky made like $17. Everyone else went bust or made a few bucks. We took those earnings to the Upper Deck at the Vegas Club. This is not a great coffee shop, but it's serviceable and one of the few where you won't have to wait at 11:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning.

During breakfast, we recalled the trip where we challenged Shakes to eat three Baskets-o-Burgers. This was back when the Plaza was the Union Plaza and we came to town regularly to scam Bob Stupak's Vegas World. Shakes could eat more than a horse. He could probably eat a horse. When we were college roommates, he regularly kept a dozen or more boxes of cereal in stock. He ate a loaf of bread for lunch. He would go to Souplantation at closing time because they let him take over the day's leftover baked goods. It was also negative EV, as I learned, to go in 50-50 with him on toilet paper.

One night at the Union Plaza I told Shakes he should get the Basket-o-Burgers, causing our waiter to shudder and say, "Oooo, they're nasty." The challenge was born. We would pay for the meal if Shakes ate one basket, comprised of three burgers and a pound of fries. We'd pay and give him five bucks to eat two. And he'd get $20 if he ate three, meaning nine burgers and three pounds of fries. The catch was he had to keep it down for at least a half hour.

Shakes polished off the first three burgers and the giant bed of lukewarm, mushy fries. He slowed down on basket number two, complaining that the cold fries were the killer. Before basket three, someone slipped the waiter five bucks to make sure there were enough fries to feed a Russian army this time. And the basket came stacked as high and structurally unsound as a Indonesian skyscraper. Shakes groaned, but dug in and finished the job: nine burgers, four or so pounds of cold fries and a shitload of water to wash it down.

Shakes moved slowly and deliberately. He was a very skinny guy, and his stomach was bloated like the ones on those poor kids in Africa with the flies buzzing around their mouths. He made it through the half hour, though. Just barely. As we walked downtown I declared Robert a winner and told him I didn't think he could do it. He said "Neither did--rrrrrrooolllff." All over Fremont Street. And as he vomited, a bum approached and asked if he wanted to buy a Walkman for five bucks. Robert replied, "Bllllleeegggghhh."

I told this story because the meal we ate this time wasn't interesting in any way. Be thankful I didn't tell the story of Flanders and his reunion with a Star Trek-obsessed high school flame who, along with her husband, had become "Swingons" and seduced him in full battle regalia.

After lunch, we all went our separate ways again. Stinky and I headed north to review more off-Strip casinos. The Cannnery was first. It's way the hell north of the Strip in the middle of an industrial/low-rent area. There is almost nothing interesting about the hotel, except that the craps has good odds, and there is a half-assed WWII-era theme. Pin-up girls hang from the walls along with a few references to war bonds. The poker room is out in the open and not very comfortable. The $4-$8 action looked as soft as Santa's belly, though, with several players calling to the river with overs and no draw

From there we headed west to the Santa Fe, which has removed the unspectacular Memphis Championship Barbecue franchise. Otherwise, the place continues to be bland and smokey. The poker room, though, is really damn nice for a small off-strip casino.

Next, we headed south on Rancho to the decaying Fiesta with its embarrassing excuse for a poker room. The tables are just an extension of the table games pit, right in the open and not open that often. It's a prime example of the "me-too" mentality of some casinos who think that all you've got to do is throw a table out and people will show up. Maybe they're right: people were playing.

Arizona Charlie's continues to be a filthy armpit. That is the only way in which it is like a French woman. Otherwise, it smells worse. It's cramped, run-down, popular as a whore at a military convention and has the best-named lounge in town: The Naughty Ladies Saloon. Charlie's has a franchise of the worst pizza chain in the world: Noble Roman's, along with its own selection of pretty crummy restaurants. The only reason to eat here is if you're so damn drunk you can't tell the difference between a cheap steak and shoe leather. In that case, the $2.99 steak and eggs is fantastic.

Driving, Stinky and I wondered aloud what happened to Flanders. We weren't too concerned, because he always finds his way home. Even the time we abandoned him in a rest area in Utah after he had turned one too many Penthouse Forum letters into a Mad Lib exercise.

Around this time I got a craving for ice cream. I wasn't really hungry, and probably wouldn't be for a while, but I wanted ice cream. I started talking about it non-stop: how good it tastes; how filling it is; how easy it slides down your throat; how it's like a frozen daquiri, but with milk instead of booze. Finally, I got Stinky thinking ice cream, too.

As we returned from the outer reaches of Vegas we scanned the strip malls in search of a Baskin-Robbins or a Dairy Queen. Mark saw a Coldstone Creamery, but I said, no, it was on the wrong side of the street. Really, that was just an excuse. I love their ice cream, but the workers scare the shit out of me. Every time I go to one, the teenagers start singing out loud and I've had a phobia about fake teen spirit ever since this kid Jamie at my high school fell off the cheerleader pyramid and landed face first on the sidewalk. I was in the dean's office getting my ass chewed out for something when he came in, his teeth shattered and his mouth spewing blood. Ever since then, peppiness just gives me the willies.

Las Vegas is the desert. There's got to be ice cream stands every block, right? Wrong. They're nowhere. We got back to the Strip and headed to the new Hooters Hotel. Hooters wasn't officially open yet when we visited. In fact, I don't know if we were supposed to be there, but we had clipboards with us and maybe blended in with all the activity. The casino was a week from grand opening, but nothing was finished. There were loose pipes, blackjack tables still wrapped in cellophane, restaurants without tables or chairs and exposed tacks and screws everywhere. In front, a bar seemed to be working and taking cash from customers. But the deeper we went, the less real money we saw. On the few unwrapped tables Hooters' girls were being taught how to deal to other Hooters girls. Other girls were being shown how to serve cocktails. And men were using fake chips to learn how to deal craps. I have no idea why girls can work the blackjack tables but not the craps.

Overall, the casino is a huge upgrade over the old, dingy and shitty San Remo. There are hardwoods replacing sticky old carpet, and nice pine paneling. The Dan Marino steakhouse looks like it'll be sort of nice, maybe slightly steakhouse. Plus, I heard that Marino himself will do a nightly tap dance. Still, it's a mediocre place and it looks like the games will be as tight as a Mexican facelift.

The biggest downside is that they don't serve ice cream. And, holy crap, I wanted ice cream. My flight time was nearing, so we continued toward the airport, and then past it. Still no ice cream parlors. We cruised by the UNLV campus and saw plenty of head shops, but still no ice cream. It made me sad, really, to think what college has become. In Harold Lloyd's "The Freshman" he treats the entire campus to free ice cream to show them what a big shot he is. Now, I guess he'd have to treat them all to nickel-bags.

We'll be seeing you, in old familiar places.

Finally, somewhere approximately as far north as the Stratosphere, but east of the Strip on Maryland Parkway, we found a Dairy Queen. I swung an illegal U-turn over a median and into the parking lot. I ran from the car to the store and basked in the smell of deep fried everything as I yanked the door open.

There was Flanders, sitting alone reading the Nickel Ads and eating a Dilly Bar.

"What the hell are you doing here?" Stinky asked him.

"I was hungry."

"You're, like, ten miles from downtown." I said. The sweet, sickly smell of Southern Comfort still hung on him. "Are you still drunk?"

"Probably a little," he answered, and then giggled.

Flanders didn't explain how he had arrived there, or where one of his socks went. I'm not sure I wanted to know. I got the dip cone I 'd been craving, and Stinky got a Blizzard. We sat with Flanders and silently enjoyed our ice cream. I needed to be at the airport in a half hour, so I said we should go. When we got up to leave, Flanders remained.

"You coming, Flanders?" Stinky asked.

He thought for a moment and said, "No."

"How are you going to get back downtown?" Stinky, Flanders and the rest would be there one more day.

"Same way I got here, I guess."

We left him there and headed for the airport. I got dropped off in front of my airline, checked in for my flight, checked my e-mail using McCarran's free wireless, and boarded my flight.

As I flew back to Denver I thought of my friends still in Vegas. Right now I imagined they were all standing around somewhere downtown being noncommittal about their dinner plans. They'd figure it out, though, and then they'd play craps, and Flanders would show up, get drunk and probably write down the cure for cancer on the back of a cocktail napkin, only to drop it in the toilet.

I fell asleep and didn't wake until our plane hit the tarmac. I drove home, went to bed, woke up and took my son swimming.

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