Part 2 - Stinky Gets a Fix
As we rode the Spike's stuttering elevator
up to the sixth floor, Mark asked, "How much you wanna bet the room's
a dump?" I agreed, he was probably right. "No, seriously. How much
you wanna bet? Twenty bucks?"
The corner suite was more tattered than
we remembered, and the air conditioners belched out lumps of lukewarm
air. There was no shampoo, one bar of brittle soap and a pair of
undersized, sandpapery towels. Flat surfaces had cigarette burns;
some ours, some not. But it was clean enough and cheap enough, and
the wide balconies gave us a perfect platform for mooning the bums
outside. We dropped our bags and left.
We hit downtown to check into the room
and meet up with some of the gang. The Southern California contingent
had forgone a trip to Arizona to watch a ballgame, and had pulled
into town earlier in the day. We caught up with Steve, Mike, Ghizal
and Phil in the lobby of the Gold Spike. They had met up earlier
with Bill from Texas.
Steve grew up on the Jersey shore, and
likes to think of himself as an aficionado of homestyle Italian
cooking. He suggested we try the food at Montevani's, home of fried
garlic knots and delicious cannolis. At that point, I had been traveling
for more than 9 hours, and hadn't eaten a thing. The only thing
I wanted more than a pile of clay chips was a plate of decent food.
Official judge Mike performs research to determine whether or not the room is a dump. His decision: it is.
Unfortunately, I got neither. I'm not
going to go so far as to say that Steve wouldn't know a good Italian
meal if it came up and slopped red sauce all over his shirt, but
Montevani's wasn't quite as advertised. Forty-five minutes after
ordering, I dug into the most bland plate of pasta I'd had since
the night before, when I'd cooked spaghetti at home. The garlic
knots weren't bad, but they were fried dough sprinkled with garlic
salt. It's the kind of food they can't even screw up at county fairs.
To be fair, I didn't try the cannoli, having eaten far too many
garlic knots while waiting for the main course.
The company, on the other hand, was
fantastic. The restaurant was almost empty, but between the simultaneous
conversations and Mike's famous root beer belches, we created our
own raucous din. The waiter, sensing our good time, decided we'd
be the perfect audience for his riddles and jokes. His material
consisted of "You know you're a redneck if" jokes, with the word
Saskatchewan taking the place of redneck, interspersed with mystifying
attempts to impress us with tales of doing the makeup for a 300-pound
female impersonator. It's not easy to get a group of eight people
to simultaneously stop laughing sympathetically and turn from such
horror, but eventually we pulled it off and were able to leave.
Back downtown, Matt and I took some
time to update our write-ups of the casinos. I'm always a little
saddened to see the stagnation in Downtown Vegas. If their business
keeps falling off, there's some chance that maybe one day it won't
be there to let us sit in its worn out, smoky lap. But it does make
it easy to keep our web site current.
We walked in and out of casinos, to
find the same tables in the same configurations with the same dealers,
and probably the very same players as the last five times we'd been.
Fine by me. I had money in my pocket, and I was looking to increase
it, so the quicker it went the happier I was.
Back in the murky haze of the casino,
I was torn about whether or not to let Stinky sit down at a blackjack
table. If I did was I only letting him perpetuate his gambling problem?
Or was I helping to make the impact of the intervention that much
If I intervened now, Dan would be pissed
that I started without him. Besides, I wanted to play more than
I wanted to distract my friend with card tricks and knock-knock
jokes, even though I am very good at both.
Mostly, I wanted to drink. I had that
fuzzy feeling, like someone shoved cotton balls under my eyelids
and tongue. A waitress staggered by, hauntingly calling "cocktaaaiillzzz",
as though it were the name of her long-lost child.
"Can I get a whiskey?" I asked. "And
can you ask the bartender not to put traces of women's lipstick
around the rim this time?"
The waitress looked at me bored. "I
can only serve well drinks."
"Oh, any whiskey's fine."
"In a clean glass. That's a call drink."
Stinky sat down at first base of one
of the Spike's two-dollar tables. Okay, I rationalized, one last
night of indulgence. Like a prisoner's last meal before an execution,
or the way Jesus gorged himself on Sizzler's all-you-can-eat popcorn
shrimp before his 40 days in the desert. I took the seat beside
him and put out a whopping $20. My palms sweated, the way they always
do when I'm sober, or I'm gambling more than I can afford. So, I
guess they were sweating doubly now.
Downtown may be dying, but damn if it ain't looking good doing it.
Prior to the trip, we had 2,500 Big Empire
matchbooks made. They featured Casino Boy's lovable mug and Lucky
Ned's savvy gambling mantra "Go With Guts!" In ordering so many,
we overestimated the number of friends we had by, oh, about 2,497.
I put a handful of the extras on the felt, and a bearded man with
crazy eyes at the other end of the table picked one up. I thought
he was going to light his beard on fire. He was too clean to be
homeless and too imbalanced to be socially accepted. That's why
he was at the Gold Spike. He turned the book over in his hands,
"I know this site." This was exactly the sort of recognition I crave
like cheap tequila and I felt a flush of pride. Stinky wasn't paying
attention; he was too busy splitting a queen and ten. "Really?"
I asked, "Do you like it?"
"I love it!" The guy's breath was boozy
and rancid, suggesting he was in the middle of a long bender. I
was jealous. "I love Stinky." He said this with too much emphasis,
as though he meant, "I am obsessed and want to stalk him."
"That's Stinky," I pointed at my friend
who was too busy asking the dealer, "How much you wanna bet I beat
you this hand?" to notice my conversation.
The dealer said, "That's what the betting
circle is for, sir."
Stinky nodded, "I mean you. Wanna a
little side action?"
The obsessed guy yelled, "Stinky? I
I felt sort of left out. I never get
obsessed stalkers and Stinky has dozens. Why do only the boring
people like me, the ones who like to point out typos and grammatical
errors? The crazy man leaned over me to talk to Stinky, and his
breath was nauseating. I cashed in my chips before I vomited but
after I got my drink.
"I'm going to bed," I told Stinky and
he asked why so soon. "I'm tired. Have fun with your new friend."
The bearded guy was already shifting
his ass into my seat to be closer to Stinky. Stinky eyed him suspiciously.
"How much you wanna bet he stabs me?"
Back in the dim suite, I quickly got
drunk on a fifth of cheap bourbon I always carry, cried about something
I can't remember and fell asleep.
I had planned on winning big this visit,
and knew that only the real high rollers had the kind of stake it
takes to beat the tar out of the casino's built-in edge. In anticipation
of the trip, I had been holding back on my normal sidewalk craps
games at home and on living the high life with things like putting
butter on my bagels. All of the dry bread and duct taping myself
to the couch to keep from rushing to the siren call of the dice
paid off handsomely, and I arrived in town with $57 cash. I was
primed for the kind of action that is usually reserved for whales
from Hong Kong.
I pulled out the whole wad as I sat
down at the Spike's $2 blackjack table, and I could swear I heard
a distinct sharp intake of breath that meant one of two things.
Some other player in the casino was either mighty impressed, or
there was a problem with his portable oxygen tank.
I lay seven dollars on the table and
told the dealer to "give me some red with that." As he handed over
my two silver dollars and worn $5 chip, I could tell he was impressed
by my largesse, which is always a great sign. With the dealer on
your side, the cards have a tendency to come up in your favor.
Sure enough, my first two cards were
a seven of diamonds and a five of clubs. Twelve! That's got to be
one of the best bad hands you can be dealt. I hit, and the dealer
tossed me a five. Seventeen! That's practically already a winner.
That is, until the stupid dealer showed me his 20 and ripped the
very heart out of my chest.
I refused to let one bad hand ruin my
whole weekend, although it was tempting, and kept playing, up and
down for a while. Matt was busy talking to some weird looking guy
about Las Vegas web sites or some such nonsense, so without any
distractions, I was able to get in a zone. I had a run of cards
like I'd never seen before, and must have been up by at least $15
at one point.
Phil and Mieko Sunbury, Soiree regulars,
dropped by the table to say hello. It's a great feeling when people
you actually know, and who aren't just pretending to be old friends
in order to get close enough to pick your pocket, run into you at
the Gold Spike. Mieko, it seemed, had started drinking some time
early that morning, and being blotto really became her. Normally,
Mieko's a very happy person, but with about 128 ounces of cheap
daquiri in her, her smile was so big it seemed it might swallow
up her whole face at any moment.
Matt got up and said he was going to
bed, and after I got through detailing all of the ways in which
he was a spineless pussy, I told him not to wait up, because by
the time I was through, I would probably own the bed he was sleeping
in, along with the rest of the hotel, and that Jackie Gaughan would
be handing over the casino by early the next afternoon.
I'm not sure if it was Matt's sissified
bad vibe that did it, or the guy with the beard who kept asking
me more and more detailed questions about the location of my apartment
in New York, but something got to the cards, and the dealer kept
taking away more and more of my chips. I cashed out, gave a thought
to going up to bed, and then decided that what I really needed was
some fresh air.
There was plenty of it to be had in
the four minute walk between the Gold Spike and El Cortez, whose
$2 blackjack table has slightly more favorable rules and older but
friendlier cocktail waitresses. The El Co is a "break-in" joint
for dealers, meaning that the people handing you cards are often
fresh out of dealer's school, and I sat down at a table across from
a young Asian woman who didn't even yet have a name tag pinned to
her shirt. She dealt slowly, under the watchful eye of a crusty
old veteran who had probably been there for all of a week and a
half, and I learned that she was auditioning for a job. As a very
moral person, I frown on cheating, but I think even Socrates himself
wouldn't find any ethical dilemma in using any advantage you can
get in a game that's designed to guarantee you lose.
So on every hand I lost, I would say,
"Uh, I won that."
About three quarters of the time the
fresh-faced trainee knew I was wrong, and when she didn't, her goody-two-shoes
shadow would correct her and tell me to cut it out. After half an
hour or so, the pit boss finally said, "Sir, if you grab for those
chips one more time, I'm going to ask you to leave."
I can tell when I'm not welcome, so
after the next time I grabbed for the chips and he had security
escort me out, I got the hint. Fine, I don't need their lousy game
anyway. I wanted to keep playing blackjack, but after a quick count
of my crumpled bills, I realized I was down a little over $20. That
meant the only other table I could afford would be back at the Spike,
and I didn't want to run into my bearded stalker again. I had no
intention of going to bed, though, so I thought I'd sneak into the
Copper Mine, the Spike's penny slot area.
Sure, penny slots are for low rollers,
but on most machines, you can play five at once, which is essentially
the same as the nickel machines the big boys frequent. I got my
pennies and made it to the dusty back corner of the casino without
any weirdos recognizing me, and settled in for a little video poker,
which I vowed to play until I was tired enough to fall asleep in
my chair and bang my head on the fingerprint-covered screen.
On to Part 3