Saturday - Puttin' On the Ritz

Matt and I awoke bright and early, like all good business travelers should, put on our Westward Ho buttons and headed for the Ho's lounge, where a complimentary "Puttin' On the Ritz" continental breakfast was being served.

You can imagine our disappointment at seeing that the lounge was filled with unimportant-looking seniors sporting buttons similar to the ones we had been given. These buttons were obviously not only for high-ranking vice-presidents. As executives, we didn't even get the "priority line sticker" intented to fit in the dotted circle on the button. Despite the fact that there was no line to be seen, Matt and I both coveted this illustrious sticker, and determined to find out how to get it. The breakfast consisted of mediocre donuts and pretty good orange juice and coffee. Tres Ritzy! We loaded up on fried dough and set out for the morning of hard slogging ahead.

While we had spent the previous day scouring the Strip, today we focused on the outer reaches of Vegas, taking down all the relevant shuttle info from the far-flung casinos. The uncomfortable, overstuffed, tear-in-the-stomach-lining feeling we had after the Buffet Challenge had passed, and by early afternoon both of us had built up quite an appetite.

Vice President of Looking Dopey, Matt surveys the scene.

The previous evening, Ted had generously given Matt and me two five dollar "comps" for the micro-brewery/restaurant at Ellis Island. These coupons were intended for local slot club members, so redeeming them would take some delicate maneuvering. First we had to procure slot club cards, then we needed to quickly develop leathery tans and that certain local air about us. We approached the restaurant hostess, loudly discussing a Vegas ballot initiative, and she fell for it all the way.

Ellis Island is a smoky joint with about six blackjack tables and a wide smattering of poor-paying video poker machines. It also boasts the smallest sports book in the world, with a counter no more than five feet wide. The only area where it follows through on its immigration theme is in the restaurant, where huge photos of toothless babushkas and starving Polish immigrants stare down at you as you make a pig of yourself with their oversized meals.

Immediately after sitting down under the picture of a weathered old woman, and not even getting a full look at the menu, our waitress approached and asked if we were ready to order. Stupidly, I said no, so she disappeared for a half-hour. Most of that time Matt spent lambasting me for not being more decisive. When the waitress finally came back, she apologized for not getting to us sooner. She explained that she was running herself ragged, which was in direct contradiction to our observation of her gabbing for five minutes with a friend. I wasn't about to argue I was so hungry, but Matt took the opportunity to tell her we were executives. He flashed his Westward Ho button to impress her and then briefly explained the incremental value of our time to her. I thought I would pass out.

Finally, Matt asked if I had anything to add. I added, "Shut the hell up, Matt." A brief scuffle ensued, and then she took our orders with a space age remote-control device, which we mistakenly thought would help speed the delivery of our meal. This was the exact opposite of the truth.

Another 20 minutes passed, this time, due to no fault of mine, so Matt had to find something else to pick on me about (my knuckles). At long last, our food came. I ate an enormous French Dip sandwich, and Matt enjoyed his equally huge cheeseburger. Both were served with big old steak fries and everything was tasty as the Dickens. After the comps, and including the tip, our total bill came out to four bucks - a bargain even without any coupons, unless terrible service really, really gets you down.

After our big meal, temptation almost led us to find a nice quiet spot in some casino and curl up for a much-deserved nap. As consummate professionals, however, we continued on our fact-finding mission.

The strain of hard work gets to Matt, and he attacks!

We hit the Station properties and Sam's Town. We stopped downtown at the California. We headed north to the Fiesta and Santa Fe, and then back to the Hard Rock Hotel, taking copious notes at each and flashing the "Puttin' on the Ritz" buttons to anyone that came close.

When we next stopped working, it was to cool our jets for a few minutes in the room at the Ho, before getting ready for the evening's entertainment - dinner and dancing at the Ho's complimentary "Puttin' On The Ritz" gala. The promotional materials instructed us to "Get out your 'Sunday Best' because we're 'Puttin' On The Ritz.'" Having left my Sunday best at home, I left on my Saturday best, worried that they might not be good enough. Matt calmed my fears, saying, "Don't worry. It's still the Ho."

We found the ballroom at the top of the casino's escalator, and stood in line behind a whole lot of people with round middles and gray tops. Only one in about 50 had on his or her Sunday Best, but almost everyone was closer to it than me. Going out only slightly underdressed never bothers me, though, so I didn't mind a bit.

The enormous ballroom looked like a big hotel convention room, which seemed appropriate enough. A small big band, complete with those little half-wall dealies in front of the horn players were set up on the stage. Some guy who looked more like a dentist than a swinger noodled away at his piano while several hundred of us took our seats.

The packed room contained wall to wall senior citizens, seated around long cafeteria-style tables. The scene reminded me of the pancake breakfasts I used to attend in college at the Oasis Senior Center on Saturdays. It was, apparently, a universal truth that old people will tolerate sitting very close to strangers as long as they get free or really cheap food. It was true for Matt and me, too.

The Ho's new marketing director, John Gjonola, who had extended the offer of free rooms to us on alt.vacation.las-vegas, took the stage to say a few words. He grabbed the microphone, dressed like a kid playing Bugsy Malone in some high school musical production, and thanked everyone for coming. He explained that, to avoid complete buffet chaos, we would be herded a few tables at a time to the steam trays. Then he suggested we listen the sounds of this dentist fellow's orchestra. He said that after eating, we might enjoy cutting a rug under the disco ball. A few of our table-mates joked about how many free drinks they would have to consume before pulling a stunt like that.

Matt went over and introduced himself to John, telling him that he was a vice-president at the Big Empire. John nodded politely in the way people nod at drooling children with no noses. Despite his attempts to suggest otherwise, John's body language made it clear that he did not know of the Big Empire, and did not care. Like so many of the girls we fruitlessly pursued in college, John suggested we all talk after the show. It was the brush-off.

Otherwise, John was a nice guy and a very competent host for this attic full of hungry folks.

At first we were regarded with suspicion by the old-timers at our table, probably because we kept using phrases like "old-timers "and "all these silver-headed schlubs," but after the drinks arrived, (two apiece - liquor-heavy and in plastic cups) one woman asked where we were from. We made small talk about how bad today's music is and how white the band leader's teeth were until our turn for the buffet arrived. Then we shoved the seniors aside and made a mad dash for the London broil. The food looked and tasted better than the Surf Buffet, but worse than what one would get at an average American grill. I never expected more for the price, though.

During the meal, the guy sitting next to Matt took a big old bite of country rib, and when he tried to swallow, it lodged in his throat. He gagged, trying to gasp for air, while we all looked at him, slightly panic-stricken. Just as Matt stood up to give him the Heimlich, though, the man coughed, and out flew his half-chewed meat. We all breathed a giant sigh of relief. Matt told everyone about how he would have jumped right in there any second. The man's wife asked if Matt knew the Heimlich maneuver and Matt nodded, "Oh, yes, although I'm not sure I would have been able to flip him over and tickle his feet all by myself." I nodded knowingly. For some inexplicable reason, she then asked me if I were a paramedic. I guess she figured that by agreeing with Matt's appraisal of the situation, I had demonstrated my uncommon knowledge of emergency medical procedure.

While we ate, some couples took to the dance floor. They were all accomplished dancers, and I had the feeling that the casino hired them to warm up the crowd. For the most part, their plan failed, and only a very few couples joined the professional ringers. Those that did, though, appeared to be having a heck of a time. The lady next to me kept asking me if I liked to dance. Then she started asking me if I wanted to dance. I declined, partly because of the fiery jealousy in her husband's eyes, and partly because her suggestive winking made me a little uncomfortable.

We finished our meal, and dug into a cherry-raspberry-something-or-other cobbler they served for dessert. The conversation died abruptly once again, thanks to the choking guy's story about how he had barely survived cancer, and Matt and I decided to get out of there before somebody really did die.

We had some time to kill before we had to head to the airport and pick up Matt's wife Amy, so we stopped at the Slot Club counter to join up for additional free goodies. The cute little slice of heaven who handed us our application forms took my breath away. I kept looking at her suspiciously, because I never expected to see a pretty girl working at the Ho, but each time I looked, the more I became convinced. Matt nudged me and said, "hubba-hubba," loud enough to get the object of my affection's attention.

I checked out her name tag, to learn what to call this gal who was about to get the sweet-talking of her life, and it read "Miss Clairol." As she entered our information into the computer, Matt asked her what was with the name tag. She indicated her naturally blonde hair and said, "I don't know why, but that's what they call me," then she let out a giggle that sounded like chords plucked on some kind of angelic harp. Matt continued, "But why?" She again giggled and repeated, "I don't know." "Didn't you ask them?" Matt persisted, half-curious and half-trying to make it more difficult for me to freak her wild. I tried chatting with Miss Clairol for a few more minutes, slipping in a clever phrase or riddle whenever Matt wasn't hassling and berating her, but we never got to the bottom of her nickname. Finally, some rude lady behind us started squawking about how long she had been waiting.

As we walked away, Matt scolded me for not asking her go out after her shift ended. But that's not really my style. I'm from that school of girl-meeting that maintains it is best to wait until it is too late, and then pine away, idealizing girls I meet in my head. So far I have not scored a whole lot with this method, but I have avoided some pretty awkward conversations. One thing's for sure, though: the presence of Miss Clairol has guaranteed I will return to the Westward Ho.

With our new slot cards in hand, we found spots at the progressive nickel poker machines near the lounge. As we settled in for a few minutes of play, I noticed that the guy doing his one-man-band act in the lounge was really stinking up the joint. He played "funny" versions of bad songs, and seemed to have a heck of a lot of puppets, hats and trash or something on the stage with him. I have seen bad acts wow a crowd, and I have seen horrible comics have them on the floor. But, this hack was so bad that he could elicit nothing more than polite laughter at Bill Clinton jokes that even the people from Iowa had heard a dozen times.

Luckily, I was winning, so I couldn't care less who did what in the lounge. After going down a couple of bucks, I earned it all back with some flushes and a full house or two. Then, holding onto two fours, the machine gave me two more, and I had scored the very first 4-of-a-kind in my extremely limited video poker career. The old couple sitting next to me looked over and offered congratulations, although I think they were secretly upset at the turn of fate that had made them sit down just one seat away from the hottest machine in the house. Matt punched me hard on the shoulder and said, "Go show Miss Clairol your nickels."

Within minutes, I had done it again, this time with four jacks. The woman who had congratulated me before gave me a hearty round of applause this time. At about that point, Matt said we had better get to the airport or else his wife would give us both an earful of the blue streak for which she is world famous. I got up to another round of applause from my number one fan, and her husband said, "See, he's smart. He leaves before he loses it all again." She just snorted in response and kept on playing.

I cashed out six bucks ahead, pleased as punch, considering that I had more than covered the two bucks I had spent over the course of the day. On the way out, I tried to get Miss Clairol to look at me and smile her perfect smile by walking past her with my eyes fixed directly on the carpet. But the little dickens was working vigorously and I had to be satisfied with the image of her cute furrowed brow to take with me on the ride to the airport.

At McCarran, a freakish-looking America West gate agent told Matt that Amy's plane would be arriving on time, despite the fact that what she really meant to say was that she had no idea what time the plane would land, and that she didn't really want to bother to find out. She was kind of sweet that way. So Matt and I waited and waited at the gate, until forty minutes after its scheduled arrival.

Finally, Amy came amblin' out of the runway. She explained that the plane was late because the pilot was feeling ornery, and we lit out for downtown quick-like.

Ever seen Germans shake their booties? Not like this you haven't.

Lookout! Drunk Germans!

We stopped at the Plaza first thing, which was filled to the brim once again with the sounds, sweat and odor of happy gamblers. At a bank of quarter slots, we came upon a woman in the apparent Shriner garb, her peacock feathers rising high above the change lights atop the machines. Matt and Amy approached her to find out what exactly was going on and whether she had voluntarily dressed this way. In a thick Old World accent, she explained that she had come to Vegas to participate in the German-American Mardi Gras celebration, which was taking place in a ballroom on the third floor. "You should go up and see," she offered. "Is it open to anyone?" we asked. "Oh, no," she replied before turning her attention back to the spinning reels. The three of us could hardly contain our excitement. This we absolutely could not miss.

We headed upstairs along a dark crazy, mirrored hallway that looked abandoned, except for the drunken German royalty that stumbled past us on their way to the casino. On the third floor we wound our way through the hallways, following the increasing volume of accordion and bass. Trying to look as German and comfortable with being there as possible, we turned a corner and ducked into the ballroom. What unfolded before our eyes amazed us beyond belief. As far as we could see, a thousand Germans of all ages in red and green felt costumes, some with eight-foot long feathers sticking out of their caps, danced and sang and drank and drank and drank. A polka band named "The Dreampolice" sang and spoke in German, but everybody in the room acted as the chorus. Whole tables of drunk German-Americans locked arms and swayed back and forth while belting out folk tunes at the top of their lungs. Elderly women stood on top of tables and rousted their compatriots into a frenzy with high-kicking and sharp commands. In the corner, the cash bar was twenty deep with drunken men waving dollar bills and shouting out their alcohol needs.

We surreptitiously snapped a few photos, hoping nobody would start yelling at us in German or release the police dogs. Soon, a sort of polka-conga line snaked through the room. If I were just slightly braver, I would have hopped right in and had the photo opportunity of my life. Unfortunately, just as I reached the point where I might have considered making the leap, one big mean-looking guy looked at me funny and put a rest to any bravery I had. We wandered around for a few more minutes, marveling at what a fantastic party these German-Americans had managed to throw. However, as the conga line grew, we became more conspicuous for both not being in the line and being dressed in beggar's rags.

Finally, we had soaked in enough revelry and walked back down to the casino. Matt and I scoped out the quarter craps game. Nobody at the very full table looked ready to give up his or her spot and then knock out the person already waiting behind him or her, thereby opening up a slot for us, so we took off for the El Cortez. Again, the games in our price range were all filled up, and we decided we were tired enough to call it a night.

Back at the Ho, Amy reaffirmed her nickname Shovey as she tried to send me flying over the railing of the second story walkway and onto the hard asphalt of the parking lot. Of course, it was done in good fun, but I made a mental note to watch my mouth when I saw she was tired.

Part 4

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