back to the Black Table

LAS VEGAS -- This past week, I spent four days in Las Vegas on a "business" trip, as much as any trip to Vegas can be about "business."

It has been three years since I’ve been to Vegas, and, after four days, I can’t say I’m in any hurry to return for a while. In lieu of an actual column, with an introduction and body and conclusion and a discernible construction, the following are mere bullet-point observations on the city:

  • In the movies, everyone in Las Vegas is gorgeous and tramped-up, the beautiful babies prowling the night in search of high rollers. In reality, everyone is merely tramped-up. It is astounding how women, regardless of age or body type, who at home are probably wearing bulky sweaters with sheep stitched on the front, decide when they get to Las Vegas that they are sex goddesses. The amount of cleavage on display was staggering. Some women were young, and the looked worked for them. Most were not. One woman, who had to be pushing 70, with a bandage over her right eye, entered my elevator. I asked her what happened. "I got a piercing, dear." She was wearing a tube top and appeared to have her nipples tucked into her shoes.


  • Las Vegas is the only city where the first question when you meet someone is "Where are you from?" I think about people who grew up in New York, and how they look at us interlopers like we’re photo-clicking tourist yokels, squatters on their land. I imagined Las Vegas locals would be the same way, but, well, there don’t seem to be any. Anyone unfortunate to grow up in Las Vegas assuredly sprinted out of town the day they turned 18. This phenomenon is so prevalent that the casino employees where nametags that not only say their name, but their hometown. I didn’t see a single one that said Las Vegas. The best was the woman from Vietnam, whose badge said "Vitnom."


  • The official beverage of Las Vegas is not the martini, or the cosmopolitan, or even domestic beer. It is Red Bull, a drink so perfectly suited for Vegas I’d be surprised if it’s not sometimes substituted for amniotic fluid. I spent three hours Friday night sitting at the sports book, watching my Cardinals lose, and at least a third of the drink orders were Red Bull. It was mixed with just about anything you can imagine, including one particularly nasty fellow, who ordered a pint of Red Bull and Jagermeister. Three hours later he was spotted trying to milk the MGM lion.


  • Vegas lounge acts have been a comedy topic for decades, but it’s nevertheless disconcerting to see people who were once taken seriously sliding down that road. The showcased acts at the MGM Grand, where I stayed, were George Carlin, Rita Rudner, Penn and Teller and an upcoming rodeo derby. Most disturbing: The endless advertisements for Pearl Jam, who will be playing the MGM Grand for three days next week. Pearl Jam, competing with Cirque du Soleil and the Blue Man Group for your entertainment dollar. When did <EM>that</EM> start happening? Kurt Cobain died <EM>just</EM> in time, methinks.


  • My father accompanied me on this trip, mainly for the free hotel, which he used sparingly. The majority of his time was spent in front of the Wheel of Fortune slot machine, with which he blinked away 50 bucks in about as much time it takes to buy a vowel. He had better luck at the blackjack table, where he displayed a monk’s devotion. In Vegas, as the night goes along, they raise the minimum bet at blackjack tables, from five bucks in the early evening to 10 by dinnertime and 25 by midnight. But if you’re already sitting at the table, the minimum bet is grandfathered in. Anyone new to the table must play the new minimum, but you can stay at five until you leave. My father took this to ludicrous new heights. He played the five dollar table for about three hours, then for two more after they raised it to 10 and then for two more once it was raised to 25. You could have frozen lava with the glares the pit bosses were shooting him.


  • I actually accompanied Dad for a few hours at that table, Friday night. As tends to happen when I play blackjack, I lost, and fast. I’d been drinking since 2 p.m., so, young turk that I am, I went back up to the hotel room, telling Dad I’d see him tomorrow morning. He scoffed. At 3 a.m., I woke up to a screaming headache, a tumultuous stomach and an empty hotel room. He couldn’t still be gambling at 3, could he? Nightmare scenarios filled my brain. My God, he’s had a heart attack at the table, and I slept through the phone calls asking for his kinfolk, and he’s gone, and it’s my fault, and oh my God, Dad, no! I slipped on a pair of pants and a baseball cap and practically sprinted downstairs. He was still sitting on the table, looking just like he had nine hours earlier. With my hangover hitting the sweet part of the bat, and the casino lights and bleeps assaulting my eyeballs, I didn’t even stop to talk to him. He was alive. Good enough. I went back to bed.


  • The next morning, my father told me a man dropped by his table about 4 a.m., drooling on himself and having difficulty deciphering which of his bills was a 100 and which was a 5. He leaned over to my father, "breath stinking of some vodka from another planet," and asked him if he knew where to find a good hooker. My dad said that, no, he was from Illinois and that his prostitute-spotting skills were rather rusty. The guy said that was just as well. "I think I might have just shit myself."


  • Actually, for the first five hours of Friday – the only day I gambled – I was feeling rather full of myself. I had secured free drinks all day, watched a whole baseball game and was up about $45. I then headed to a $10 blackjack table and lost nine consecutive hands. Fueled by seven hours of screwdrivers, I responded by putting down another 25 bucks on one hand, which I subsequently lost, of course. Remember: If you go to Las Vegas, you are a moron.


  • Las Vegas is for the young, and for the old. Young people can go feel like schnazzy-dressed bigwigs, and try to get away with various debaucheries simply because they’re in Las Vegas. Old people can go and play video poker for nine hours and earn enough comp points to get a free buffet. I am too old to believe I would ever have a chance picking up a stranger at the MGM Grand, and I am too young to plunk quarters and pull slot handles. Three years ago, I was young and exuberant enough to think I was in the first group. I have a queasy feeling in three years, I’ll be more than ready for the second one.




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