by Dan, Matt and Stinky

Photo graciously provided by Carol and Michael, Jeff, Scott and Jerry

PART 4 - Penny Slots and Shrimp


Back at the Spike, we split up into smaller groups, as opinions varied widely on what would be the most pleasant activity to fill up the rest of the afternoon. Amy, Robert and I shimmied down to our swimsuits and walked to the Plaza, where they never bother to check your room key to see if you are a guest. Besides, Jackie Gaughan had taken a bunch of money from me the previous night, and I was going to get it back in chlorine and wet towels if I had to.

Much to my surprise, there were some beautiful young people sunning themselves on the deck of the pool. The tennis courts were in full swing, and everybody seemed to be enjoying the hot sun. I have visited the Plaza pool on other occasions and found it to be completely empty, but not so this June day.

I showed Robert how to stomp his feet on the bottom of the hollow-bodied pool and make it sound like Godzilla is laying waste to the Plaza, and he took a liking to the trick. After about fifteen minutes of constant stomping, I began to regret sharing.

I tried to attract the attention of one young honey on a chaise lounge, but she didn't appreciate me spitting water onto her suntan-oiled stomach. I thought I was being flirtatious and fun, like Pauly Shore at the MTV beach house, but she stomped off, mumbling something about getting a security guard, and we beat a hasty retreat, in case she really meant it. Another attempt at meeting my dream girl in Las Vegas had been thwarted.


"Hey, Jerry," I pulled him aside from the group, "Let's go have some crazy fun."

"I think I'm going with Dan," he said as he inched away from me.

"For crazy fun? Skanky 'hos and rolling liquor stores?"

"No offense, Matt," Jerry said as he backed away, "but I think my idea of fun is different than yours."

Jerry turned around and walked away as I shouted, "It doesn't have to be," but he wasn't listening.

When I went through anger management training, I only learned one valuable lesson, and it wasn't even from the class. I learned it on my own, but it's a lesson that comes in handy when I feel the world betraying me, as I did now. When I am blinded by rage or jealousy, it is better not to fight with everything and everyone in my path. Instead, I take the anger and ache and turn it inward, where it festers in my bowels. This way I either end up getting an ulcer or my rage grows like a tapeworm until its uncontrollable and I erupt like Vesuvius.

For now, I left Jerry in Dan's hands. I needed a new, and less friendly, approach. Let Dan have the kid now, I told myself, and I would snatch him away in good time. Sort of like how the early bird gets the worm, but then the hunter gets the bird, and if he wants he can cut it open and get the worm out. This is not to say I wasn't thinking of Jerry every single moment, it's just that I recognized my time to act would be later, when he least expected it.

Catholic churches have votive candles, where a parishioner can donate money and pray. Las Vegas has slots, where a gambler can donate money and pray. The differences are casinos are much louder than churches (except the Bellagio), the booze is higher quality, and everyone can get drunk, not just the priest. I figured it was time to pay my dues to the city that made the weekend possible, so I joined Feldy, and we walked down to the Main Street Station for some full-pay Double Bonus video poker worship and to take the Lord's name in vain.

Feldy and I found a pair of side-by-side VPs right in the middle of the casino. Actually, Feldy found a machine and I sat next to him so he could tell me what cards to keep and what to throw away.

Between hands, I innocently asked, "That Jerry kid's a bit of an ass, isn't he?" and "You think I should smash in Jerry's face?"


We caught up with the rest of our contingent back at the suites, where we split up once again. Feldy had convinced a group of us to temporarily suspend our cheapo credo and eat at Lindo Michoacan, a fancy Mexican joint. A surprising number of people were happy to have a meal other than a cheap buffet, and we ended up with a group of eleven.

The food was very tasty, especially the fresh tortillas, and the surroundings were amiable as could be. Feldy and Mike Ho each ordered the goat, and each ended up getting about one bite, because everybody else was curious as to how it tasted. I found it gamey but not overpowering, and I kept bugging Mike for another taste until he finally sighed forcefully enough for me to get the hint and I quit asking. I was rather upset that Jerry had not come along, because I had hoped I could get him to cover my portion of the tip.

We got back to the Spike with barely enough time to freshen up before the official hour of the Soiree. Matt and I stayed downstairs in case anybody decided to show up on time. Guests arrived, increasing noticeably the volume in the casino. We discovered a secret weapon for lowering the raised heckles of the security guards - cigars. My brother had brought along some fancy smokes which he had received for his efforts in fathering my niece, and we passed them out throughout the night to anybody who looked ready to hassle us. One security guard at the Spike offered to kick some of the regular bums out for us, but we didn't push our luck.

Once we were convinced that everybody who was going to show up had arrived, we got down to the business of the penny slot tournament. This year's contest involved two rounds, probably so that Matt could laugh at two separate batches of losers. The first round, everybody who wanted to could enter with fifty cents, and the five entrants with the most pennies after fifteen minutes (?) would go on to duke it out with another fifty cents. Phil Feldman and Skip elected to just hang on to their original roll, counting on the poor payouts to decimate the competition. Although Phil was racked with guilt at the unsportsmanlike conduct of such an act, it turned out to be a good strategy. The only person with any pennies left after the first round was Lester.


Staging an event at the Gold Spike is always a dicey proposition. There is no casino in Las Vegas less eager to host our

Skip looks away in shame as the Soiree attendees slobber over a complete stranger.

shenanigans. Most joints in town tolerate us because they think some loose change will fall out of our pockets. But, either the Gold Spike has seen enough of us to know our pockets are empty, or they are just surly and unwelcoming to everyone. We never get too many friends into the joint before security brings the hammer down.

As our large group arrived and started socking away fifty-cent cocktails, the security hovered about like vultures over a particularly juicy cow corpse. Mike's cigars calmed them as much as possible, but they were still leery. The bartendress, who had gone from serving three to 40, watched us with one eye while she used the other to make sure the cocktails were completely watered-down. Our gang swirled through the smoky casino, filling the aisles, spilling into the blackjack pit and making a lot of joyous noise, which always stands out at the Spike.

I was delighted with the turnout. We had dozens of friends from the Internet, most notably the cute girl contingent from the East Coast. Whenever we throw a party, the main intent is to trick cute girls into coming. Abby and Angela looked a little uncomfortable, but not too bad, in the Gold Spike. Their friend Lester was the one who looked most scared, like he would have been happier in front of a nickel slot at the Bellagio. Abby and Angela were immediately descended upon by the single guys, like carrion by vultures. Only, vultures are more subtle than my friends.

A few brave souls ventured into the snack bar and I worried that they would get to those day-old hot dogs before I could. The three regulars at the bar included Reverend Dave, a heavy-set man with thick glasses and a red velvet tuxedo two sizes too small. The Reverend saw me handing out cigars and wanted a piece of the action. He explained to me that he was a minister at a wedding chapel in town. I gave him a couple cigars, he bought me a drink and then offered a prayer for our group. I joined hands with him and we prayed a mix of the Hail Mary and Reagan's speech to the chimp in "Bedtime for Bonzo." Finally, Reverend Dave raised his head and said, "Amen," and I quickly slipped away.


Evening. A time for the earth to spin its little children out of the sunlight and into the dark. A time to get wasted on liquor. I changed into my customary gothic garb: black t-shirt, black vinyl pants, black socks, snakeskin shoes, and a turban, and headed downstairs with Jerry in tow. It was time to make his evening something he would never forget no matter how advanced surgical techniques became.

When we got to the casino, the joint was already jumping something fierce. Many people were there and an air of joviality, reminiscent of a good British comedy, was the tenor. Perhaps it was so many fresh-looking people all smiling and chatting amiably with one another that got the security guard so flustered and uneased, but Mike, Stinky's older brother, and a recent father, managed to assuage all dissenters with the gift of a free cigar. Cigars were everywhere, and as he was puffing away at one of the quality stogies, the guard could hardly raise his ire against us. Add that to the usual inertia of the Gold Spike

With a bitter Dan and Scott looking on, Lester celebrates victory with Angela and Abby

security, and we weren't pestered in the slightest.

A fat, drunk man dressed something like a televangelist, but uglier, was at the bar, buying anyone a drink who would listen to his words, which started with the weather, moved to organized sports, and then began to border suspiciously on religion and what he called "salavation." Seeing as he wanted to talk, but that I didn't want to listen, I let Jerry know that a free drink could be his, as well as a rare opportunity to meet a unique Vegas denizen. But Jerry, a teetotaler, refused. I, not, decided on a scotch and soda, and some more lessons about "salavation" from the "lowered." Jeff, also a drinker when appropriate, heard a good deal from the wayward reverend.

At last, with the crowd at a fever pitch, and my horizon pitching as though in a fever, the 4th annual (can you believe it?) penny slot tournament threatened to begin. With fifty pennies in hand, I made a bolt for any machine I could find-along with thirty others. For 10 minutes, the Copper Mine once again swung like it does only once a year.

I burned through my half-fish in less time than you can say "Jack Robinson" very slowly. Then, I watched as the action burned on, hotter than ever. The security guard, with fat doe eyes, fat liver lips, and a fat pig body, looked as though he wanted to say something-I assume about keeping the noise down and not blocking the aisles-but instead he just stood there, looking tentative. Then, the contest was over, and a mystery man held the prize. His name, I did not know. His manner, it was fine. And his prize was a lousy T-shirt.

So we all hoofed out of that old Spike and stood on its northern side for a group photo. Both danger and disgust beset us as

While John leaves to prepare for the Shrimp Cocktail contest, everyone else is dazzled by a flying hobo.

our photographers stepped into the street filled with oncoming traffic in order to frame the huge group and as enormous roaches scrabbled in between our feet and into the hotel in which we were playing, and eating, and sleeping.


I tried to convince Matt that as the two-time champion, I should be automatically advanced to the final round, since after Phil, Skip and Lester, two spots remained empty for the final round. True to form, he refused, clearly enjoying watching me become despondent at the prospect of losing my title. I groused and vowed that I would organize next year's tournament, where we would play by fair rules.

We crowded around the three entrants, each rooting for our favorite. For once in the history of the penny slot tournament, we had no fear of being booted for rowdiness. The security guards stood around admiring their cigars and ignoring the grumbling of the penny slot regulars.

After Skip and Phil ran out of money, Lester was left as the champion. He seemed a little unappreciative of his new crown, perhaps not understanding how much it meant to a guy like me. I have since simmered down, but at the time, I was quite upset, and called him everything from Les-tard to Loser-ster under my breath.

As Lester tried to decide what to do with his brand new Gold Spike T-shirt, the prize for winning the tournament, we gathered up the large crowd of revelers for a group photo in front of the Spike, and then left for the Golden Gate.

John did jumping jacks and other calisthenics on the way down Fremont Street. He later explained to me that this was really just a tactic to scare the other contestants in the shrimp-cocktail eating contest. He was clearly the most experienced competitive eater in the bunch, since he appeared to be the only one psyching himself up.


The field was wide open for this year's Shrimp Cocktail Eating Contest. Steve Elliott, the previous champ, had disappeared from the face of the earth a few weeks prior. This was expected, since the truly great eaters often do one of the following: die, choke on their own vomit, or get hired away by other eating competitions. Even last year's runner-up, Billhere, didn't make it. Scared witless by the threat of a large and eager field, he made up a lie and mysteriously flaked out of the contest and the entire evening.

The generous gentleman Plumber had volunteered to fund the first $100 worth of shrimp. The Big Empire, and its stingy owner Randy Shandis, had graciously offered the first place prize, a T-shirt made from an experimental material that included barley and trash bags.

From the Gold Spike, our rowdy crowd made its way up Fourth Street and then down the Fremont Street Experience. The true competitors stood out. Ghizal spoke of his childhood in New Jersey and how the townspeople would dine nightly on heaps of trash and sewage shipped over from Manhattan. Scott (of Scott&Diane) was a silent hulk, a towering 6'8" man who I would not want to meet in a dark alley or at a salad bar where there was only one plate left. Ted Newkirk had years of downtown dining experience under his belt. I figured if the shrimp got warm and gamey, he'd be most likely to keep gulping them down. And finally, there was John. He looked scrawny next to the competition, or was he? All I knew about him was that in January, after eating six pounds of the worst buffet food Vegas could throw at him, he wanted more. We tried encouraging Lester to enter and go for the legendary Cheapskate Triple Crown, but he deferred, appearing not to be enjoying himself much, despite the spoils of his penny slot championship: a 17 cent profit and the T-shirt.

The shrimp bar at the back of the Golden Gate is small and quaint. Our crowd overwhelmed it and the spectators spilled into

The competition: Ghizal, John, Scott and Ted. All were hungry, surly.

the casino. Plumber ordered 50 shrimp cocktails to start the competition and I told the attendees that if they didn't plan to eat competitively they should just back off. My thinking was simple. 40 Big Empire Buddies can eat a hell of a lot more than $100 worth of shrimp and I didn't want to pay a dime.

We started loading the 50 shrimp cocktails onto a central table around which the contestants would sit. John sat, then Scott, then Ghizal and Ted. They all eyed each other warily as they scoured the table for the least full dish.


One of the Golden Gate's security guards came around to see what all the ruckus was about. He eyed us suspiciously, and seeing that we had no guns or anything else, wandered away. Minutes later he returned, as it must have dawned on him what was taking place. Although he tried to look nonchalant, it was painfully clear that our contest had bewitched him. He struggled to tear himself away and tend to the business of keeping riff-raff out of the casino, but the magnetism of the spectacle proved too great.


When I was in high school, I took Tammy Hill to the prom, dear reader. She dressed in white and looked delicious. We went to a fancy restaurant on a boat in Newport Beach where we ate Shrimp Scampi-six to a plate-and savored each delectable bite. This was very different.

I had a hankering for unfresh shrimp, but there's not a competitive bone in my body. Therefore, I took a single cocktail, ate it and gave up. I was called a quibbler by my host, the gracious Mr. Plumber, the kind provider of all that shellfish, but he clearly didn't understand me. I simply wanted a single shrimp cocktail and I didn't want to pay for it.

At the "award ceremony" cameras snapped in all directions, and Jerry whispered to me.

"I thought they don't allow picture taking in casinos!"

"They don't unless you're somebody." I said.


Four cocktails down for each of the gobblers and nobody was shying away from the competition. The bellies distended and the mess of empty dishes piled up. The security guard had left for a moment to make a cursory inspection of the casino and returned to continue watching.

After the sixth shrimp cocktail, the first of our four contestants bowed out. Ted pulled up lame with a sprained tongue and

John is congratulated by the Golden Gate's finest, who were more than a little jealous.

could go no farther. He gamely tried to soldier on, but with the injury he spit up more than he swallowed.

At a nearby table, a twelve-year old boy had been inspired to start his own contest. Although he was scrawny, he was gulping down the little crustaceans with an awesome fury. His ratio of shrimp consumed to body weight was almost inconceivable. Around his fifth one, however, he called it quits to a round of applause. Had there been an under 50-pound class in this year's contest, he'd be going home with a T-shirt. But as it was, he was too young and too small to seriously compete.

After his seventh shrimp cocktail, a pale Ghizal raised the white flag. There was a groan of disappointment from the crowd until someone pointed out that he had gorged himself on a buffet not more than a couple hours prior. His capacity for bad Las Vegas food was to be admired. Next year, I suspect Ghizal will fast before the contest and make a serious run at the title.

Now there were two, Scott and John, going mano a mano, head to head and tongue to tongue. Neither looked remotely close to crapping out, figuratively and literally. The eighth cocktails slid easily into their gullets, as did the ninth. The tenth, however, went more slowly for Scott. He poked around with his plastic spork before declaring it broken and asking for another. It appeared to be a stall tactic, but we obliged him. Meanwhile, on the other side of the table, a cocktail sauce soaked John slowly soldiered on.

Scott finally finished number ten and slumped back in his chair, a wet burp emanating from deep within his soul. He was spent and looked as though he might do an impression of the Mirage Volcano right then and there. John, so focused on his eating, wasn't even aware he was the champion. Egged on by the crowd, he picked up another shrimp cocktail and polished it off, making the new Big Empire record eleven. That worked out to over two pounds of shrimp and another pound of sauce. As we raised his hands in victory, our gang and the security guard gave him a standing ovation.

After giving John a warm congratulations and the two of them discussing their strategies, Scott slipped off to the phone booth to call his wife and report his successful place finish. How proud she must have been to be awoken at one in the morning with a report of her husband's gluttony.


On to Part 5

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