Monday - Almost done

Nothing cures a lovesick heart like a good buffet, and my poor little ticker needed the best in town, even if it meant paying for it. So, first thing Monday morning, Matt, Amy and I set off in the direction of Main Street Station. We had eaten there many times before and always came away happy. Perhaps because of the late hour, (we got there as they were just about ending breakfast and starting lunch) or an off day in the kitchen, the meal never raised above the level of decent. Of course, the fruit was fresh and plentiful, but I could only manage to get down half of my dried out bagel, and Matt never raved about the bacon, even though he ate seventeen slices. We realized that our previous impressions of the buffet as an above-par establishment all came from eating weekend brunch, not plain old boring weekday breakfast. It seems they save the good stuff for the tourin' folks, while we business travelers suffer.

Full of mediocre food, we headed back to the strip to give Amy a chance to become acquainted with the Bellagio. While she walked around taking notes and admiring the nice leather chairs, Matt conducted another scientific experiment. He wanted see just how much fun he could have with one single dollar in a high class joint such as the Big B. First he played two quarters of video poker and lost. So far, he did not appear overjoyed. Next, he tried three separate nickel slot machines, lamenting the fact that you can't find normal old reel nickel slots in the fancy casino. Each nickel returned exactly nothing, and Matt was left with 35 cents. Chances are, this momentous event would not come back to him on his death bed in a fit of nostalgia for the good old days. After quite a bit of deliberation and inspection of various slots, he walked to the nearest pay phone and called the estimable 'Billhere.' When Bill picked up the phone, Matt said, "Hey Bill, guess where I am? - The Bellagio!" Now he truly appeared to be enjoying himself. Matt listened as bill detailed his latest conspiracy theory involving viruses attacking the local population.

While Matt chatted with Bill until his time ran out, Amy and I admired the marble floors and watched a couple of custodians clean the spotless walls. One thing I will say for the Bellagio, there ain't no dirt.

Matt joined us again and we walked toward the conservatory to soak in the morning sun in the bounty of nature. A big line of people clogged up the conservatory's walkway, ooohing and aaaahing as if they had never seen plants before in their whole lives. This was problematic only insofar as Matt had challenged me to a footrace. He claimed he could complete five laps of the conservatory faster than me, which is such a total lie.

A race to determine champion. Notice how Matt cheats.

Finally we could wait no longer, so we hunkered down to start and yelled for people to get out of the way. Amy counted to three, yelled go! and we were off. Matt took an early lead because his long legs gave him a better jump over some of the planters, but I wisely paced myself. As he came around the first time, he looked at Amy and waved, showing off like a certain rabbit you've no doubt heard of. He nearly plowed into a yuppie couple admiring a little mosaic ladybug in the sidewalk, and jumped to one side to avoid them. I took advantage of his error, and with a burst of speed, put myself a few lengths ahead. He made a noise like the straining of an overheated motor and leapt after me. We raced neck and neck until the next turn, where a burly security guard in a red jacket stood waiting with his arms crossed. I just missed crashing into him, but as I tried to get past, he grabbed my arm in his big old vise grip of a hand. I cried out in pain, but I got off easy. Since he had turned to hold me, he had no choice but to throw his shoulder into Matt, who went sprawling on the ground, skinning his knee pretty good.

He asked us what the hell we thought we were doing. Matt and I both explained, between panting and complaining about our respective injuries, that we were racing for champion of the world, and that thanks to his interruption, we would have to start all over. He firmly told us there would be no rematch, and suggested we go ahead and leave the casino at that point. Matt tried feeding him a line about being Steve Wynn's nephew, but it turns out that in real life, not all physically large people are incredibly stupid. He walked us to the door, while Matt and I both badgered Amy to tell us who she thought would have won the race.

For comparison's sake, we decided to go check out the other ultra-swank joint in town, the Desert Inn. The Desert Inn appears to be what Steve Wynn hoped to achieve with the Bellagio, only on a smaller scale. It feels like a snooty country club, with golf and tennis courts and WASPs wandering around in Polo shirts. Elegant, but awfully tame. What the Desert Inn needs is Rodney Dangerfield to show those stuffed shirts that us lower-class types are more fun than we seem.

Of course, being Las Vegas, the place inspires at least a little decadence. Even in January, the pool area remained open, and some business guys had taken their paperwork out to the chaise lounges where they toiled away shirtless in the sun. Infected with this wickedness, Matt couldn't resist spreading himself over the fake rocks and worshipping the sun a little himself. Amy managed to snap a great shot of him looking like he was in a "Playboy Bunnies in the Carribbean" spread.

A lusty Matt revels in the wicked Desert Inn atmosphere.

We returned to the Westward Ho to sign up for our free slot tournament and to put some more of the nickel video poker action on our slot club cards. We wanted the Ho to know that we appreciated the free rooms and would gladly come back for the right price. After half an hour, our fingers were black with coin-dirt, and all three of us were up a few nickels, so we decided to quit. We stuck our cards in a slot card reader to check our point totals. After today and the other night, I was at 37 points and Matt was at 39, thanks to his slightly faster fingers. What would all those points get us? we wondered. Matt thought each point must be worth another free night.

By the slot club there is a large chart that tells what slot points can be redeemed for. At the very top of the list is a shrimp cocktail, for 400 points. We were crushed. After more than an hour of playing max-coins video poker, we were less than 10% of the way to a shrimp cocktail that cost 99 cents in the deli. We didn't know for sure, but we thought that free rooms would take more points than free shrimp cocktails. Rather than work nine more hours for the comp, we decided it was time to ride the shuttles.

Matt and I again carefully plotted a big round trip shuttle journey, and took our leave of Amy. Her mission today was to review the crumbling casinos of the North Strip, including the Frontier, Circus Circus, Stardust and the rest. Matt and I drove out to Boulder Station and rode its shuttle to Sunset Station, where our meticulous plans hit a major snag.

Earlier in the week, we had picked up an out-of-date Sunset shuttle schedule. It listed a now-defunct Sunset to Belz Mall shuttle which we had planned to ride. Luckily, an attentive driver heard Matt and I discussing our route and set us straight. Unluckily, the setting straight meant we had to patch together a whole new schedule. This would have been fine if we were on the Strip, but Sunset Station sits all by itself out in Henderson, and you can't walk down the street to another shuttle stop. We had to wait an hour, then catch a shuttle to the Trop. All we wanted to do was get back to Boulder Station in time to get the car and drive back to the Westward Ho for the 8:00 p.m. slot tournament.

We made the best of our bad situation by using the extra time at the Sunset Station to eat a bagel and listen to some local teenagers talk about their crappy Sunset Station food court jobs.

Before leaving, we stopped and watched a guy play a Monopoly slot machine for a while. I used to avoid playing slot machines because they bored me and took my money. Now I avoid playing slot machines because, thanks to all the crazy gadgets and extra graphics they pile on them, I can have just as much fun watching somebody else play as I can doing it myself. I did try out one of those new stationary bicycle slot machines, but it only let me pedal for about ten seconds for one quarter.

Somewhere along the way, we stopped for clandestine pictures of the Rio slots.

Once we reached the Tropicana, our schedule was tight. After some serious calculations and cross-referencing our shuttle schedules, we decided the quickest way back to Boulder Station would require crossing the street to MGM monorail, riding it to Bally's, and then hurrying up the Strip to Harrah's to catch the shuttle to Sam's Town just as it was leaving its bay. At Sam's Town, we hoped for a 107 bus on Boulder Highway to come by and deliver us the two miles to Boulder Station. Realizing none was coming, we grabbed a cab back to the Boulder Station, which for seven bucks included not only the ride, but also the driver's sociological theories about Las Vegas being a big magnet for losers of all stripes. One overlooked advantage of shuttle travel is that if the driver makes me uncomfortable with chatter about "the white trash and the blacks," I can move to the back of the bus. In a cab, I had no place to go.

Matt and I met Amy back at the room at 7:45. We took it easy for a few minutes, stretching our fingers and practicing our put-downs before we headed down to the slot tournament.

The Westward Ho's slot tournament is free for executives, and anyone else important enough to receive the "Puttin' on the Ritz" package. It is also pretty boring. Instead of playing against a timer, everyone is given a set number of credits to begin with. The person that turns those credits into the most points wins, no matter how long it takes. There is no frantic pounding of spin buttons. Points are added immediately, meaning you don't have time to get up and walk around and insult other players. And disco music throbs in your ears in a failed attempt to pump up the energy of the mostly disco-hating seniors that are playing.

When it was over and Matt, Amy and I were declared "not winners," we wandered to the Ho's Caf*ae to redeem our free buffet coupons, the last perk of our 'Puttin' On the Ritz' packages.

To save room, the Ho combined their coffee shop with the buffet, which makes for a wonderful deal when eating on a comp. In no mood for more buffet food, we were allowed to use the coupons for $7 worth of normal menu items. The menu didn't exactly knock my socks off, but I appreciated being given the choice. We got caught in the middle of a nearly deadly game of waitress table-wrangling, as two different waitresses tried to take our order. We certainly didn't want to screw anybody out of a tip, especially if it meant somebody might feel slighted and scald our laps with hot coffee or something, so we tread lightly. Matt wanted to suggest that one of them apply for a job at Ellis Island, where there are always plenty of customers waiting to be served, but wisely held his tongue. Our food was standard coffee shop fare.

After dinner, we packed up our crap and took off for our swankier digs. I took one last, longing look at Miss Clairol, who was again too busy signing some yahoo up for a slot card to give me the time of day, and we left for our free room at the Hard Rock Hotel.

I felt a little funny about abandoning the Ho, even for a nicer free room. The Ho had embraced us for what we were, low-rollers, and given us free food, free fun and the lovely Miss Clairol. Like a middle-aged millionaire, though, we were dropping our trusty old Ho for the flash and glitz of a younger model that only wanted our money. The curiosity outweighed the guilt, though, and I had always heard that lots of pretty girls hang around the Hard Rock.

As Matt checked in at the front desk, Amy and I surveyed the scene. One of the aforementioned pretty girls walked by and gave me a look that could have meant, "hello, I'm interested," or else, "hey, look at that picture of Eric Clapton over by the goofy looking guy." Amy noticed the Harley that belonged to Vince Lee of Motley Crue and whistled approvingly. I always suspected Amy was a big Crue fan.

The room looked a whole lot like Mortoni's, where we had dined with Jean Scott. Matt guessed they must have gotten a good bulk rate on cherry-stained hardwood furniture. Our windows, which were actually doors, looked out over the MTV summer house-style pool under construction, and further on we could see the strip in all its tacky glory. The doors could be opened, but there was a set of railings that kept you from stepping outside. The sink featured crazy fixtures that some designer had busted his hump to make look good, but not bothered to test out to see if they worked well for washing dirty hands and faces. Clearly the hotel had approached the limits of their budget before designing the rest of the bathroom. As I stepped through the door to the toilet and shower, I left the hipster surroundings of the Hard Rock and found myself back in the Dayton, Ohio Motel 6.

We bounced on the top-notch queen beds for a few minutes and then left to check out the casino. The place swarmed with college kids, primarily of the greek system variety. Interestingly, more people congregated in the big bar in the center of the round casino than around the games. Apparently everybody had blown their wad on the fancy room, overpriced dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe and turtlenecks at the Gap, which left them with no money for gambling. The odor of pheromones was overwhelming as every creature in the joint was on the prowl, primping, preening and talking too loud. The guys gave each other high fives when the girls looked, so the girls would understand how cool they were. The girls squeezed their bodies into silly, impractical dresses that made their boobs look like zits under so much pressure that they would burst. And everyone was wearing clothes they didn't look very comfortable in.

Matt and I sat down at the 100.8 percent payback video poker machines while Amy, ever the diligent worker, took notes for her theme review. A young, pregnant cocktail waitress approached and asked for our I.D.s before offering us drinks. Amy had forgotten hers upstairs, and had to go back up and fetch it or get the heck out.

A few minutes later, the cocktail waitress came back with Matt and my drinks, but apparently we didn't tip her enough, because that was about the last we would see of her for the next hour. The $20 I put in paid me back significantly less than the promised 100.8 percent. I know all about long-term expectancy, but I don't have that kind of patience. The bad drink service, the losing streak, the lack of Miss Clairol and the annoyingly loud music all combined to keep me plenty unhappy. In my sour mood, all the giggling girls and cologne-stinking turtleneck guys made me want to scream. I finally cashed out down fifteen bucks and with only one and a half hard-earned drinks to show for it. Since I most likely will not receive an offer for another free room based on my level of play, I doubt I will do much gambling in the Hard Rock casino ever again.

Finally, exhausted from four days of honestly hard work and very late nights in smoky casinos, we took the noisy elevator upstairs and crashed into bed. At 5:00 a.m. we would have to leave the hotel and our vacation in Las Vegas. I assured Matt and Amy that I could set the clock radio, considering that I have the same model at home, but somehow managed to mix up my AM's and PM's. Matt jabbered for a few minutes about how he almost hit a royal, and we all drifted off to sleep.

Tuesday - I believe our work here is through

A very few hours later, Matt woke me up by calling me a stupid idiot who can't even set a goddamn alarm clock, and we all rushed around getting dressed and un-blearying our eyes so we could get to the airport in time for our 6-ish flights.

At the airport, I realized that in the hurly-burly chaos of changing hotel rooms, I had left my plane ticket back at the Ho. Expecting the worst, I approached the TWA counter and began formulating a plan to stow away on a flight so that I wouldn't have to pay an exorbitant fare. The woman at the counter must have been an employee of another airline who happened to show up in the wrong spot, because she treated me with kindness and respect, and didn't sigh dramatically even once while fixing my error. She got me a better seat than the one originally assigned to me without any hassle, except for the small matter of a $75 stupidity fee.

All my early morning screw-ups repaired, Matt and Amy took off for their gate and I for mine. Usually four days in Vegas leaves me plenty ready for home, but for once I actually wished the trip could have continued.

A mere 12 hours of busted up brake valves and wind storms over Newark later, I climbed up the stairs to my apartment and passed out cold on my bed, satisfied with a job well done.

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