Las Vegas is a city to be both loved and deplored. It’s the city of sin, status showcase and escape. In a place where everyone is a tourist, new friends and new experiences are givens. My recent visit to the fantasy façade was for a birthday, filled with toasts and laughs. However, I still managed to explore outside the celebration walls to uncover glitz’s grittier side.
Someone once told me that the patrons of Vegas can be easily divided into three categories. The have’s, the have-nots, and the have-nots that pretend they have. Although I remain skeptical of trite classification, I have routinely overheard others try to box people by hotel location, desiring to be associated with clear “have’s.” Once such eavesdrop occurred at the Encore bar while I was waiting for my friends.
“So, where are you staying?” A top heavy, eyeliner-laden woman pointedly asked a young man conversing with her.
“Umm.. ..you know, that …er…new place across the strip,” he replied quickly and then feigned interest in a far away object. “Oh, what’s that over there….”
The woman either saw through his lodging deception attempt or noted his plastic Casio watch. She turned away from him only to catch me in mid-eavesdrop. There were no other men close by and she struck up conversation with me, stating her hotel of choice loud enough for the entire bar to overhear. “I’m rather far from home now. I'm staying way over in the Bellagio. How about you?”
“I'm actually here, at the Wynn Encore.”
“Oh. Well then.” She raised her eyebrows in admiration. “You win.”
“Uh, yes, I Wynn.” I didn’t tell her my ‘Wynn’ was shared with three other women in the room and a special deal found online. Because then I would be boxed as the 'have-not pretending to have' when in reality I had just gotten lucky.
In Vegas, everyone abandons the American notion of working for fame and riches. In Vegas, it is supposed to come automatically by only saying a small prayer to Lady Luck. The slot machines were pews of new religion, housing men and women who prayed each time they put in a coin. I decided to introduce myself to one convert, curious how faith worked in a house of sin.
Betty was in her late 50’s here on a girl’s trip from Ohio. She wore comfortable shoes and a sparkly Hard Rock café T-shirt that they got yesterday at lunch while eating cuisine with quirky names like “The Rocker Roll.” I spoke to her only for a minute; her face was too focused upon the slot screen to converse with an ambling writer. I walked to the other side of the casino but was able to read her mind; her eyes had revealed everything.
She was going to win. She knew it. She could feel the luck in her arms. The cherries and “7”s danced, ready to line up at her command. She couldn’t wait until she told her friends about her winnings. She would be the talk of the town. “Betty always had a lucky streak,” they would say. She would host the next book club at her house with a newly remodeled living room and serve gourmet sandwiches that came from the French bakery instead of day old Wonder bread and Oscar Meyer deli meat. After all, she could afford to be generous. In fact, after she bought herself a new handbag (with Italian leather!) from the Esplanade shop, she would then buy her friends Vegas gifts. A shot glass for Margie, a bubble pen for Lou, and perhaps a little bell for Agathe. Her eyes gleamed and she reached out for the slot arm.
I jumped out of Betty’s head before she pulled the slot down. I couldn’t bear to face her disappointment if Lady Luck failed to make an appearance. Lady Luck and I had a big break-up years ago. She was a rather unreliable lover.
Playing a Losing Hand
Rather than linger with the slot devotees, I decided to join other gambler types and seat myself at a blackjack table. It wouldn’t be the first time I played against the odds in my life. Nor even the first time today. I had been at Randy’s table earlier, joining a rowdy group of New Yorkers who howled with each win. They also howled each time my friend Mazz swiped the cut card on my bum for good luck. In Vegas, gimmicks work wonders. The rowdy howling group was now gone. They had left to secure their stretch Hummer limo for the evening. It was their ‘insurance.’ Even if they went through poker chips quickly, their transportation would clearly mark them winners in life’s game of chance.
Randy, like any other dealer, prayed to lose each hand. In the career of a blackjack dealer, losing means winning. No one tips a dealer that routinely gets ’21.’ Randy had been dealing for over ten years. She told me she enjoyed the job as she got to meet different people each day. However hoping to lose was stressful. If she won too many times, she wouldn’t make much money. And she needed money to newly support herself. Randy had just moved out of her boyfriend’s house. “There was something missing,” she said. However, Randy didn’t know what the ‘something’ was. She continued to see her boyfriend even though she wasn’t sure of their future. “Besides,” she said, “Outside of the tables, I wouldn’t know what a winner looks like.” I told her that I wasn’t so sure any more either. And then, after repeat losses, I blackjacked. Sometimes not expecting anything brings everything.
A friend in our birthday group was a bit nervous to be in Vegas. She was leaving her two children behind and felt enormous guilt at putting herself first for a rare instant in time. We encouraged her to don her shortest dress and almost un-walkable heels. After all, if she was going to escape for a day, she might as well make it as fantastical as possible. She was the sexiest mom I had ever seen.
She smiled. “Usually I get my excitement picking out which snack in going to go into the kids’ lunchboxes,” she said.
Although she loved her family, she was envious at the single girl’s ability to slip on a dress and hit the dance floor on a whim. In a dark booming club we watched scantily clad women rub up against unknown men…perhaps also on a whim. I looked at her. “Grass is greener. I bet half of the girls tonight would happily switch places with you. In fact, they are hoping that a spontaneous Vegas encounter may someday lead to packing school lunches.”
We stood at the bar and watched women trip over each other laughing. A group of lively girls all toasted each other shouting, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas!” They then raced off to equally drunk men, batting their eyes. If I could jump into one of their minds, I would probably discover that she secretly hoped whatever “happened” wouldn’t really stay in Vegas at all but rather write love letters afterward and eventually propose marriage. I am not sure I would encourage placing a large bet on such an event, but nothing wrong getting slightly lost in a little Lady Gaga inspired fantasy.
Poker and Prostitutes
Over a late night (or early morning?) meal we met Mark, a professional gambler. Mark lived the hours of a vampire, playing cards from 4pm to 4am during poker tournaments. He could read cards and he could read people. “The problem with blackjack,” he said, “is that you cannot bluff.” As a frequent tournament player, Mark knew the guts of Vegas from the tables to the prostitutes. He pointed to a vampy petite woman in black leather. “See how she lurks about the bar,” he said. “She is waiting. As soon as a lone man approaches her, she’ll work her magic. She’ll get him drunk, and lure him upstairs.”
Mark nodded at a small balding man in glasses. I didn’t need Mark to tell me that the nervous thin man likely had poor luck with women outside of paying them. His eyes darted around his wireframes like a scared weasel. His hand shook when he grabbed the drink menu, making black hairs on his bony wrists quiver. He was no match for the dark haired beauty that danced around him. Forty minutes and three shots later we watched him crumple to the floor. The prostitute took him in her arms, victorious.
Mark said, “Hopefully she is a nice one. Once a poker friend of mine got a $6,000 watch stolen.”
“How did that happen?”
“Anything can happen when one is intoxicated,” he said simply. “And anything can happen in Vegas.”
Although Las Vegas is a writer’s treasure chest of material, I was ready to leave it behind once the birthday fête was over. Yes, it’s a fun place full of fantasy. However, the non-stop belief that anything can magically happen disturbed me. Instead of waiting for something to happen, I wanted to ensure it did. I had enough fantasies in my own head as it was. Sunny San Francisco, laden with real opportunity, was calling me back home.