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
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
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
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
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.
Skip looks away
in shame as the Soiree attendees slobber over a complete stranger.
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
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
security, and we weren't pestered in the slightest.
With a bitter
Dan and Scott looking on, Lester celebrates victory with Angela
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
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
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.
While John leaves
to prepare for the Shrimp Cocktail contest, everyone else is
dazzled by a flying hobo.
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
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
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
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 intothe 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
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
could go no farther. He gamely tried to soldier on, but
with the injury he spit up more than he swallowed.
John is congratulated
by the Golden Gate's finest, who were more than a little jealous.
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
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