Friday - Down to Business

Matt rolled in to town around nine or so, drained of some piss and vinegar thanks to his recent bout of anger management, but still quick with the put-downs. I handed him his Westward Ho "Puttin' on the Ritz" button and told him to put it on. Skeptically, he asked why. I told him the buttons separated us from the masses, and gave us carte blanche to call the shots wherever we went. They featured a picture of a bottle of champagne decadently overflowing, the Westward Ho logo and our names, next to our home state, which was NY.

With our first full day ahead of us, we did what any smart vice-presidents would do: we traded our prestige for awful food. We turned to the famous alt.vacation.las-vegas newsgroup, and told the kind souls that inhabit it that we would endure any kind of hardship for free food. The only taker we got promised to pay our way to one of Las Vegas' worst buffets if the both of us if agreed to eat at least two pounds of food at three of the worst buffets in town, all in one day.

Matt accepted without bothering to consult me, because he knows I have a somewhat delicate constitution, and usually one bad buffet a day is enough to put me over the top. He explained that we wouldn't really eat two pounds of food. We'd just pack away a couple of donuts and yell, "Two pounds!" and be done with it. This seemed dishonest, and caused a guilty feeling to crawl down my back. Nonetheless, free food is free food, so I put a brave face on and prepared to meet our patron.

We headed for the front of the Ho where we had arranged to meet. For the sake of his anonymity, we will call our sponsor John. John, fearing that if he was described in too much details that some of the more frightening Las Vegas residents with Internet access would track him down, asked us to keep his identity as vague as possible. He is a man of nondescript appearance, with no peculiar hobbies except his obsession with strippers and their socioeconomic subculture. He also has a huge goiter on his chin.

John showed up smiling and carrying a postal scale wrapped in plastic and a fancy digital camera to record the momentous occasion. I guessed from the scale that he would be a real stickler about getting all the way up to two pounds, and we wouldn't cheat our way out of this one. We walked to Circus Circus, all three of us groaning at our fate. In retrospect, we should have been happy with the offerings at our first choice, because it would only get worse.

John and Mark weigh in.

John paid the $4.49 plus tax each for the three of us and we lined up, fearing the worst. Immediately, we began calculating food density versus caloric content. Always the clear-headed one, I went with mostly fruit, because I knew that they couldn't put much grease in fruit. John braved a lot of meat on his first trip through the buffet, including the dreaded sausage, and he regaled us with tales of how he and his friends used to wile away the hours in Wisconsin with eating challenges of up to five pounds. He and his friends also used to go to Wendy's and target a single item in the salad bar. Clearly we were dealing with a professional, or else he was just trying to psyche us out, so he could get his nine bucks back when we failed.

After filling our plates, we set about figuring out how to work the postal scale. Once we had all weighed in, we started the slow arduous task at hand. The trick to eating the Circus Circus buffet is to convince yourself that you will throw up upon taking the first bite, so that if you don't, it's a small victory. However, Circus Circus has improved the buffet. They replaced the Sizzlean with real bacon. They have fresh fruit, and they started cooking the food the same day they served it. It is almost, but not quite, a mediocre buffet. Some particularly bad items still stood out. The corned beef hash tasted dusty, and Matt found himself a pear hard enough to break the facade off the Venetian if hurled hard enough.

The three of us ate and complained, and then ate some more. When empty, the plates were put back on the scales and their weights subtracted from the loaded total. As the scale read out my total, I became terrified at the thought that my stomach already hurt after only one pound of the six I had to consume for the day. Matt called me a sissy, though, and I hopped back up in line, searching for the perfect heavy-but-not-filling food.

After second plates, we each had less than half a pound to go. I piled on desserts and vowed to eat only as much as was absolutely necessary to reach the two-pound mark. I waited until Matt and John weighed in, and set my plate on the scale. I calculated exactly how many ounces remained, and left the plate on the scale. With each bite I counted down to the goal, and I knew I had the first part of this challenge licked.

Matt breaks a tooth

After the meal, we sat in abject discomfort and discussed where we would endure the second leg of the decreasingly amusing Buffet Challenge. We determined that the Surf Buffet at the Holiday Inn Boardwalk met our pitifully low standards. John gamely agreed to join us for lunch, but we decided to not have lunch until after enough time had passed for our bodies to process some of the goo in our stomachs. We dropped a few bucks on the table for our waitress and hauled our lard-like guts out of the booth.

For the next four hours, Matt and I waddled around the south Strip casinos, gathering details about free shuttle stops. We raised a few bell-person and drivers' eyebrows with our pre-printed forms, which we filled out in great detail. We hoped to be mistaken for real reporters, who we assumed were treated better than regular people, but received little more than quizzical looks.

At two p.m., we sat outside the Holiday Inn and waited once again for John. Being the swell guy that he is, he again offered to pay, but Matt told him to perish the thought. We each shelled out our own $5.29 plus tax.

The Circus Circus buffet is rightly infamous for having a terrible buffet, but the Surf buffet makes it seem like freakin' Balthazar. The general strategy seemd to involve making a lot of different dishes and hoping some might accidentally turn out edible. Matt dared John and me to take a piece of the green stuffed veal. Braveheart John accepted the challenge but could not finish even one small veal log. I maintained that the most disgusting item on display was the swampy corn. I'm no chef, but I have cooked corn for myself at home, and I always managed to make it without generating any pools of coagulating grease on top of murky water. I swished the corn around for a minute until one of the cooks looked at me cockeyed. Other choices included grimy catfish, stale rolls, a dirty breakfast station and rock-hard vanilla cake.

The Surf Buffet's decor tries to give the appearance of a beautiful, sandy beach, and they even pipe in the sounds of waves and seagulls squawking for that extra authenticity. I have to admit, most of the food at beach boardwalks tends to be pretty nasty, so at least the culinary nightmare could be considered part of the theme realization.

Although it had been four hours since breakfast, none of us had completely digested the morning meal yet. Actually, I think some parts of our breakfasts weren't eligible for digestion. When we sat down to weigh in our first plates of slop, Matt and John looked dang unhappy, and I bet I did too. Nonetheless, we dug in with as much gusto as we could possibly muster.

Our waitress was exceptionally friendly and attentive since we were the only customers, so we explained away the postal scale as part of a contest to see who could eat the most. We didn't have the heart to disparage her employer's "food."

Veal log torture device.

The infamous Surf meat trays.

The second two pounds of the Buffet Challenge proved to be far more problematic than the first. At first, I mocked Matt's "Easy slide" theory, where he first coated his innards with bacon grease and then only ate foods that easily slid down his throat, like Jell-O and soft serve ice cream. But, as I gagged on a prickly piece of cod, I wished I too had taken a Laminar Flow Hydrology course in college.

I borrowed John's camera to get a photo of the meat selection. One of the tray-fillers saw me getting ready to take the shot and asked incredulously if I was taking a picture of the food. I told her that I was indeed, and she asked me, "Why?" It is precisely the kind of meal people tend to want to forget, and quickly, so I could understand her disbelief.

We reached two pounds apiece and then beat a slow, bloated retreat out of that dump. John amazed Matt and I again by offering to join us for dinner, as well. I only went along with this torture to earn myself a couple of free meals, but he was honestly enjoying himself. I guess Ann Landers is right, you really do meet freaky people on the Internet.

John also joined us for the afternoon's work, and offered to document our travels with digital film. We went first to the Monte Carlo, to check out the monorail connecting it with the fantastically hyped Bellagio. We hopped on the bossy train and ignored its exhortations to hold on to a rail. Matt noticed right away that Steve Wynn had displayed his usual sense of chintz and not bothered to cushion the plastic seats. World-class my butt.

Having read paragraph after paragraph of fawning descriptions of the Bellagio, I expected the casino to be fancier than heaven, with tons and tons of marble floors and cherry paneled walls, populated by the Howells from Gilligan's Island. Instead, I found a quieter, more cultivated casino than some other places, but with all the usual trappings, from the swirly-colored carpets to the Elvis slot machines. Admittedly, there were some nice touches, like the many tile mosaic inlays in the floor and the sharply-dressed security guards in their red blazers. Wynn clearly attempted understatement, but unable to do so without also cloying for attention, he ended up with a place that absolutely screams, "Look at me! I'm sedate and refined! Do you see?!! Look! Look! I'm taaaasteful!" The patrons wanted very much to be seen gambling large amounts of money. Luckily for them, the designers put the high-roller slot machines, usually tucked away in some private enclave, in full view. The Bellagio is more like a Corvette with chrome lady mudflaps than a Rolls Royce. Sure they're both well-made and expensive, but the real point of the 'vette is to get people staring.

The rest of the afternoon, Matt, John and I hauled our fat asses all over the Strip from the Stardust to the Polo Towers to the Strat, then over to Palace Station, taking care of our executive duties. Being the trouper that he is, John never complained the whole time, even though we made him carry our bags and step into busy streets to stop traffic for us. We didn't finish the work until almost 8:30 p.m., which is when we had agreed to meet Ted Newkirk, of Ted Newkirk fame, at the Imperial Palace for the final leg of the Buffet Challenge. Ted had graciously offered to cough up the entry fee for the last buffet.

Ted, always the gadabout, burst in about ten minutes late, dressed to the nines, and with a beer already in hand. Clearly, we had in front of us a man who had recently become single and was ready to remedy that situation. Unfortunately, eligible, attractive women do not abound in the Palace's Emperor's Buffet. Neither do Emperors, for that matter. Ted immediately launched into a story about something-or-other and the rest of us sat back and rested our voiceboxes for a few hours.

A delirious Mark freaks out at the Holiday Inn Boardwalk.

By this time, I had already eaten more bad food in one day than I normally do in a year. The prospect of two more pounds of slop appealed to me about as much as spending a night in my crazy neighbor's cockroach infested crawlspace. But Teddy had already paid, and there was no turning back now. Matt's"Easy slide" theory came back to me, so the first item I sought out was the Jell-O. I searched and searched, and found no Jell-O, not even nasty kinds like lemon or plain. I finally loaded up my plate with a few items, and included a massive dollop of mashed potatoes. This was a wise move, because I love mashed potatoes, and they weigh a ton. Matt, also finding no Jell-O, opted for a plate of yogurt. However, he put his taco right next to it, and hot grease from its fatty meat spilled into the yogurt, spoiling the entire plate, and making his stomach turn when he looked at it.

The strain of all the bad food was getting to Matt. His first plate weighed in at barely over ten ounces. This challenge was shaping up to be a real test, not only of the physical limits of our stomachs, but as an emotional contest for our minds. Struggling through a whole plate of unappetizing grub is an unpleasant task, but it's even harder when you know you have to go back, again and again. It can really get a fellow down, especially in the creepy crawly haunted Tiki Room atmosphere of the Emperor's Buffet.

Matt returned from his second trip with what he thought was a full plate. But when he weighed in, he had again only managed about ten ounces. He looked around dejectedly, his eyes starting to water, and the lights visibly dimmed, casting long shadows over the table. He sat silently, slumped over and slowly shoveling baked fish and apple cobbler into his dour mouth.

After struggling to the end of that second plate, Matt let out a long sigh, stood up and trudged back to the steaming trays and yellow lights, a nearly broken man. He returned with an appetizing mix of off-color meats and vegetables, sat back down and ate. And ate. The rest of us had finished, mostly rounding off our requirement with some decent tasting soft-serve ice cream. After clearing off his plate, Matt dropped it on the scale, convinced he had finally crossed the two-pound mark.

John's calculations revealed his total to be 28 ounces. Four more to go! At that point, I truly believed Matt would crumple up into a sad little grease-stuffed ball. Ted took him by the arm and said, "You don't have to do this." Matt shook his head, "Easy for you to say. You're not an executive." He took a deep breath, stoked the remaining fire in his heart, and approached the buffet for a final gasp.

At last, after a small bowl of soft-serve, Matt finished, and he, John and I rejoiced at having completed a task more amazing than wrestling an alligator bare-handed, more breathtaking than building a great pyramid, more impossible than enjoying "Nudes on Ice," more death-defying than climbing Mt. Everest in a blizzard. We had conquered the worst Las Vegas could throw at us. Ted, having eaten only one of the three buffets, suggested we go find some more beer.

Mark is just happy to be alive.

We took off from the IP and headed downtown, to check out the scene. We pulled into the big, free Plaza parking lot off Main, queasy from the hard day's work, but also delighted with the idea of being in Downtown Las Vegas at night. A quick walk through the Plaza casino revealed the good fortune of Jackie Gaughan. The place was jam-packed with gamblers. They were three deep at the craps tables. An empty seat couldn't be found at the blackjack tables. The hilarious musical antics of the Sunspots had them soiling their pants in the Omaha Lounge, and flagrantly violating the clearly posted "No Dancing" rule. The place heaved and swayed with the energy of thousands of giddy, drunken men and women throwing blue, red and green chips about in frantic ecstasy.

Scattered through the heaving mass were people in crazy get-ups. They had on bright hats, royal-looking uniforms, buttons and ribbons. Large feathers in their hats stood out above the crowd. We surmised that they must be Shriners, in town for a convention of sorts, because nobody else dresses that way unless they get drunk inside the costume room of their local community theater.

Not wanting to fight the crowds for a spot at the tables, we went to see what was shaking in the other joints on Fremont Street. A quick stop in Binion's gift shop gave Matt and Ted a chance to procure a couple of cheapo cigars. In search of a game at our low level of play, we continued east, out from under the Experience and all the way to the Western. John, who had never been, had the typical reaction of a rookie. He nervously pleaded, "Let's get out of here before we get mugged."

In addition to the recent renovation of its snack bar, the Western has expanded its blackjack pit from eight tables to ten. We thought this would be our chance to get into a dollar game, but the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday had drawn Western customers into town in droves. Postal workers were elbow to elbow, and the only openings were at the glitzy two dollar tables. Ted wisely said, "If we have to play at two dollar tables, we might as well go to the Gold Spike where we're treated like two dollar players."

On the way to the Spike, we checked the quarter craps game at the El Cortez. It was just as crowded as the Plaza's, only without the wacky costumes. I could not believe the crowds around town. Without the patience to wait out the players at the El Cortez, and without any space to stand or breathe, the four of us headed for the Gold Spike, which has yet to do us wrong.

The casino at the Spike was hopping, with the sound of clattering pennies almost drowned out by the low moaning of one-hundred broken-spirited gamblers. But as though they had been expecting us, the action at the $1 blackjack table was slow enough to give us some room. Ted, self-anaesthetized to the point that he probably could have had a root-canal, showed us his patented "tip-when-you-ask-for-your-first-drink" trick, but I remained skeptical. The waitress moved fast enough for the Gold Spike, but was not interested in getting us ripped. Probably it was for the best, considering Matt and I were there for business, after all. John headed to the copper mine to try his luck with a dollar, while Ted, Matt and I played for a little over an hour. I middled the whole way, ending up about $1.50 ahead after tips and a few drinks.

We called it a night and headed back to our room in the executive wing of the Westward Ho.

Part 3

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