Elsewhere: Strangers in Las Vegas | Essay | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Essay

Elsewhere: Strangers in Las Vegas

It must be the shared experience--the transience and the gambling--that makes them so open, so willing to talk.

by

comment

It's probably the gambling. That's a meeting ground there. And the transience. "Where're you from?" is always a good opening. People like to talk about their hometowns whether they're tourists or new residents, and most of the Vegas population is one or the other (and if they're natives, they'll be sure to let you know about it). So it's not the celebrated western hospitality--which is probably overrated anyway--that accounts for the obliging openness of most of the strangers you meet in Las Vegas. It's the shared experience--the transience and the gambling.

Alice was from northwest Indiana. (Her name and some details have been changed.) "I came here with my second husband," she told me, "to get away from the winters. A year later, he wanted to leave, but since I liked living here better than I liked living with him, he left by himself. Now I'm ready to toss out another one. I go through husbands like I go through Kleenex, and Number Three goes as soon as Harmon's family's ready to take him."

"Harmon's your husband?" I asked.

"Paul's my husband. Harmon's a little drug baby I brought home from the hospital." She was a nurse, she said; the baby had been born at the hospital where she worked. "Nobody seemed to want the poor thing, so I took him in until they could find a home for him. Paul's retired and takes care of him when I'm working, but the family'll be ready for him pretty soon, and when Harmon goes, Paul goes too."

She was a short, heavy woman, her white cutoffs and sleeveless blouse displaying her fat thighs and flabby upper arms. Her brown hair, streaked with gray, was pulled back into a stubby ponytail, held in place by a knot of rubber bands, and she wore thick rimless glasses. Although she spoke with a midwestern twang, she reminded me of women I had known from Uptown, tough women raised in the coal-mining regions of the southern Appalachians.

We had fallen into conversation at an end-of-term rally on the UNLV campus, waiting for enough hot dogs and hamburgers to be grilled to feed the crowd that had been attracted there by the smoky aroma.

"If he'd only go to the AA meetings with me," she said, continuing to discuss her unhappy marriage without any prompting from me, "maybe we'd solve some of our problems. But he keeps insisting there's nothing excessive about his drinking, that he can handle it. Well, I know what it's like when it goes bad, and it always goes bad. Seen it happen with my father and brother, went through it myself, and I'm not going to suffer through life again with another drunk."

"You belong to AA?" I asked. I wasn't probing; she had introduced the subject herself.

"Been dry for over 20 years now. Gave up smoking, too, because of the trouble with my lungs. Now I just eat too much. Can't help myself. Getting too fat." All of this was revealed with a soft voice and a pleasant smile, as if she were still discussing the midwestern winters rather than the disasters of her life. She wasn't looking for sympathy or pity; she was merely passing the time of day with someone who was willing to listen. "But I've got a compulsive personality, and food'll take the longest to kill me."

I mentioned that it might be risky for someone with a compulsive personality to be living in Vegas.

"You mean the gambling? It's only the smart ones that get hooked on the gambling. Paul, for instance. He was a machinist, and he gets more on his pension than I earn on my salary, but he's always in debt. If he's got his gambling under control like he says, why can't he ever pay his bills? But my people never graduated into gambling. Just booze and drugs. My father's a drunk and my brother's one too. It's in the genes, you know. That's why I blame myself for my daughter. It was the compulsion, the drugs that got her murdered."

We had finally reached the grill. We had been near the end of the line, and because we had waited so long, or perhaps because they had, run out of hamburgers, they gave us our hot dogs for free. "Now isn't that nice," said Alice. "I should've asked for two."

We ate our lunch beneath a shade tree, sitting on the lawn across from the student union. "They said it was suicide," she told me, "but as far as I'm concerned, it was murder. The drug life murdered her. I sure hope it doesn't carry through to Jesse. That's her baby who I've adopted. I was his grandmother, but since I loved him like a mother, I've adopted him legally. Maybe the drugs won't carry through to him."

I asked her if her husband took care of Jesse along with the baby, Harmon, during the day.

"No, Jesse's old enough for school now, and besides, Paul'll have nothing to do with him. He's a little biracial boy, you see, and when Harmon goes, it'll just be Jesse and me. There won't be any other husbands after Paul."

"Don't be so sure," I said, trying to reassure her.

"Who're you kidding?" she replied sharply, as if to say she needed no false reassurances to bolster her strength. "Who'd want a fat old lady like me hanging around, with a biracial boy to bring up in the bargain?" I had no answer for her, and after finishing our hot dogs we parted, she to register for another night course leading to a master's degree in nursing, I to the UNLV bookstore to see what they had on poker strategy.

As he waddled and grunted his way up onto the tour bus, his turquoise sport shirt slid from inside his emerald-green double-knit pants and flapped about his rounded midsection, and I immediately ranked him with those blue-collar tourists who spend four days and three nights in downtown hotels, wait endlessly in lines outside the $2.49 buffets, and stuff their meager bankrolls into the slots until they've had their fill of the Vegas experience.

He chose a window seat, sinking deeply into it, and with his large sunglasses, beaked nose, heavy jaw, and almost lipless mouth, with his stubby legs lifted off the floor and stretched helplessly forward, he resembled an enormous turtle fallen onto the back of its shell, unable to right itself. To my dismay, I saw that the only empty seat remaining on the bus was the one next to his.

As we drove down Sahara I made a few unsuccessful attempts at conversation, learning only that he was from Cicero. My suspicions confirmed, I opened the Gray Line brochure to plan my day in Laughlin, while he drifted off into a light sleep, interrupting my study with an occasional snort.

As we pulled into Searchlight to experience what our driver assured us was "the only ten-cent cup of coffee left in these United States," my neighbor awakened and, after a gaping yawn, asked, "Where are we? Searchlight?"

"We're just pulling in. You know the place?"

"Been through a couple of times. Usually in a rented car, though."

"You travel to Vegas often?"

"Almost every year for the last 35. I've seen the Strip built up from almost nothing, and stayed at practically every hotel along the way. The Flamingo, El Rancho Vega, Riviera, the Thunderbird. Usually for nothing."

This last remark challenged the preconceptions I had about the man, and when we returned from our ten-cent coffee I hoped he would feel more inclined to talk, although I certainly wasn't going to pump full of questions someone who had been regularly comped at the Flamingo, the Riviera, and the Thunderbird. The innocuous turtle had turned into a far more interesting creature, but one whose bite might prove to be lethal.

I soon learned, however, that my suspicions were groundless. My neighbor--whose earlier reticence had been due to fatigue and a disconnected hearing aid--had simply been fortunate in his childhood friends, having grown up on the mean streets around 55th and Halsted from where many of his companions graduated to the illegal gambling dens then scattered around Chicago's perimeter. After the war, the boys relocated to Nevada, where their skills and experience were much in demand and where they eventually rose high enough in the casino hierarchy to offer friends from the old neighborhood rooms in a fancy Strip hotel free of charge.

But their generosity usually did not extend beyond the use of a small suite. "Until one year," he told me, "I heard that old Andy was in the hospital, though by the time I flew out to see him he'd already been sent home. But he still had trouble getting around, so I offered to drive him wherever he wanted to go. What the hell. I wasn't doing anything, and he was an old friend. The next week he's up and around, and one night we're in the Stardust lounge, where he introduces me to a couple of wheels working under him. Then a tall guy in a gray silk suit walks over toward us, and Andy whispers into my ear, 'If this guy says anything to you, be real careful what you say back to him.' He doesn't have to tell me any more, and after he introduces me to him, Mr. Big walks over to one of Andy's wheels and asks if that's his new Eldorado out front. The wheel says yes and then Mr. Big asks the other one if he likes his new Lincoln Imperial. The other nods his head, too, and then Mr. Big says, 'And yet Andy's friend here has to spend a week of his vacation driving him around in a rented Buick, while your shiny new limos are decorating the parking lot. You guys are really something. Well, you'd better see to it that Andy's friend here is taken good care of. You hear what I'm saying? Real good care of. Friends like that are hard to find, 'specially in this town.' And ever since then, I've had to practically fight if I ever wanted to pay for anything. Once I'm sitting in the Stardust, and I give this new bartender--who didn't know me from Adam--a buck for a beer. Well, the floor manager comes running over and nearly tears his head off. 'Take it easy, Joe,' I tell him. 'What does he know? He doesn't know me from Adam.' 'Well,' says Joe, 'he'd better damn well know you next time he sees your face in here!' When he's gone, the bartender thanks me, saying he'd never seen Joe that mad before, and then he sets me up with another beer without me even asking for it.

"Only once did I ever personally ask for anything. Judy Garland was opening in Vegas, and everybody knew this would probably be her last show, since she was pretty sick in those days. You couldn't get a ticket for even a couple of C-notes, but I asked Andy to see what he could do. He makes a call and tells me to go to the showroom a half-hour before the performance. Well, they had table number one waiting for me and a bottle of VO sitting there, which the hostess says I can carry home with me after the show, since everything was all taken care of, and all around me people are whispering about me, wondering who I am, thinking I'm some sort of big shot. Me, a nobody, sitting alone at table number one on Judy Garland's last date in Vegas."

When we arrived in Laughlin I had lunch with the man, and afterwards I left him to play poker. But I made sure to sit next to him on the return trip, and for the next two hours he entertained me with tales about Andy, Tommy, Mike, and other casino managers, pit bosses, crossroaders, and hustlers from the old neighborhood on the south side.

The Good Lord looks after grandmothers and drunks drawing to inside straights. Yet I can never resist searching them out at the poker tables and, when the opportunity comes, betting into them. Of course, I'm the one who usually gets burned.

At one session this last trip, I sat next to one such grandmotherly type. She played her cards tighter than most, but like others of her kind she was susceptible to lapses in judgment, Once, in fact, I caught her calling the raise of an elderly opponent whom she had beaten on the board. By then we had established a pretty good rapport, and I asked her in a low voice, "Why didn't you raise him? You had him dead."

"Look," she replied, "he's doing so poorly. He's down to his last chips."

"But you've got to take advantage of your opportunities, otherwise you'll be the one cashing in nothing at the end."

"You play poker your way, and I'll play poker mine." Fifteen minutes later, I went head-up against her, showing a possible low straight, but with a flush buried. She was drawing to a king-high straight, but pulled a full house on the last three cards, checked and raised me at the showdown, raised into me twice more, and sucked half my buy-in into her rack.

"You gutted me," I said.

"You're young, dear. You'll get over it." And then she leaned toward me and whispered, "But I'm sorry it was you, because it's him I'm really after."

She nodded toward my right, toward a balding man who seemed to be immersed in a perpetual sweat, his arms wrapped around his chips, his eyes darting back and forth as if fearful his bankroll might be hijacked at any moment. "I lost $80 this afternoon," she explained, most to that man over there, and he took special delight in humiliating me. Well, this game's all luck anyway, and I think my luck's changing." And the glance she threw toward her adversary was so full of rage, I collected what remained of my chips and retreated. I had suffered enough damage without being caught in the crossfire between an aroused grandmother and her rightful prey.

It was a small amount to cash in, but before I could relate the woeful tale of my bad beat to the woman behind the cage, she interrupted me. "I'm not interested," she said, her voice trembling with the angry conviction of a prophet crying in the wilderness. "I never gamble. I work too hard for my money to throw it away."

An understandable response from a casino cashier who countless times daily sees traveler's checks of large denominations reduced to a scattering of fugitive chips. But it was a sentiment rarely voiced in a Las Vegas casino, where considerable efforts are made to trivialize the product of one's labor and where employees are expected to sympathize with losers at every turn, softening the blows.

But I appreciated her candor, and for her sake, hoped that management's eye in the sky was looking in the other direction, and that its hearing aid was switched off.

Las Vegas is the one city in the country, maybe in he world, where a 1:30 AM outbound flight is likely to be booked solid, and I was fortunate to have reserved a seat three weeks in advance. But I had checked out of my hotel at noon, and for the remainder of the day I floated between the Strip card rooms--from the Tropicana to the Imperial Palace to the Stardust and back again--playing poker until my body, spirit, and bankroll were wasted. An hour before my departure, I found myself in a rest room at McCarran International, stripped to the waist, bathing my sticky torso as best I could from the sink.

My image in the mirror was soon joined by that of a stocky man in a black suit and white shirt open at the collar, a straw hat perched jauntily on his head. As I turned to apologize for my appearance, he said "Don't sweat it. Ain't nothing," and from his suitcase, which he hung next to mine, he removed a plastic bag full of soaps, lotions, powders, and other cosmetics and accessories. After offering me a bar of Ivory, he, too, disrobed, removing first his coat, then his shirt, and finally his hat, revealing a completely hairless head.

After washing his face, he covered his head from crown to chin with lather until it was entirely white, and in his candystriped T-shirt he could easily have been mistaken for a Circus-Circus clown applying makeup before a dressing-room mirror. A young boy, accompanying his father into the rest room, apparently was struck by a similar notion, for when he spotted the man in his white lather mask, he pointed his finger and laughed. The man turned, grimaced comically, and lifted the boy high in the air so that he could touch the top of his lathered head. They both laughed together now, and as soon as the boy was again on the ground, he ran from the room giggling.

"He's going to tell his mom," said the boy's father, following him out into the terminal, and the man next to me grunted, again serious as he removed a straight razor from his bag and began to shave from the top of his head downward.

By the time he reached his cheeks, I was buttoning on a fresh shirt. "Are you on the 1:30 to Chicago?" I asked.

"Just back from there. You heading out?"

"Yeah, and none too soon," and I described the bad beat I had suffered only an hour before, betting four kings into a straight flush.

"Oh yeah? How much you donate?"

"Forty or fifty," I said. I didn't know the exact extent of the damage, but it must have approached my buy-in, since the beat had--as they say in the card rooms--brought me to the green.

"Something like that happened to me once." he replied. "On a quartet of johnnies. Thirty-six thousand in the pot, give or take a few pennies."

He was, I soon learned, a professional bookmaker, responsible for the lines at a major Vegas casino. "You know Bob Martin, don't you?"

"Who?"

He wrinkled his brow and pursed his lips, momentarily silenced by my abysmal ignorance. "Bob Martin," he finally said, "the cutest linemaker who ever set a scale, and he taught me everything he knew. Me, Jackie Gaughan, a few others, there aren't many of us left," and he explained that his skills were at such a premium he was often retained by individual clients to provide "customized counseling services."

In fact, he had flown just that evening into Chicago to advise one such client about the outcome of the NBA play-offs. "He likes me to hold his hand for the big games, even though he never gets much down on them. Most of his action is on the middles I find for him, and big games hardly ever develop in that direction."

"Middles?" I asked.

"Lay early and heavy on the bowwow and when the spread shrinks as far as it'll go, cover the favorite with the family jewels. Catch the soft spot when the line's moving and you've got yourself a sweet score every time," and then he began to instruct me on the secrets of his trade, although with his talk over overlays and underlays, wheeling and reversing, sandwich games, totals, power ratings, and the like, he could have been an astrophysicist lecturing me on quantum mechanics for all that I understood.

"You must need a computer," I commented, "to keep track of all that information."

"This is all the computer I need," he said, tapping his bald skull. He had dried his head gently, afterward massaging an oily lotion into it so that its surface glistened in the fluorescent lights of the rest room. "It's all in here, although I got a little Apple to double-check my calculations."

"And what does your computer tell you about the play-offs?" I asked, hoping to borrow some of the advice his clients probably paid a bundle for.

"The green men got hardly enough legs to stand on let alone to motor with the motormen. But they've got a lot of heart, so set them down for two or three in Beantown. Motormen in six or seven." (After I arrived home, I followed his advice, backing Detroit and winning back most of what I had lost betting four kings into a straight flush.)

On the flight home I sat next to a pair of middle-aged women from Saint Louis. They were wrapping themselves in blankets and plumping up pillows beneath their heads, apparently uninterested in conversation.

But before the plane lifted off and the two fell asleep, one of them mentioned to me that they had come to Vegas for a party that had begun two days before. The party, she said, was still in full swing when they had to leave it to catch their plane. "Piping hot!" said the other, as she turned and dozed off, and shortly thereafter I fell sound asleep too, for the first time, I think, since my incoming flight touched down at McCarran three days before.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kevin Kurtz.

Add a comment