Taking the cab into Las Vegas on a Friday afternoon, we find out a few things from the driver. Like this city in the sand has 130,000 hotel rooms and 11,000 are under construction. The cabbie lost some money last night betting on the Kings, who lost to the Portland Trailblazers after blowing a huge third quarter lead.
And he isn’t too happy about it.
I don’t sympathize. If you decide to bet on something, you win some and you lose some. But over time, you’ll just lose. It strikes me as odd that the cabbie is a local who gambles.
I grew up on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe and only remember a couple of locals who ever went into the casinos to gamble. Most went out to dinner occasionally at the casino restaurants, the only decent ones around, or saw a casino show like Andy Williams, or Sammy Davis Jr. But they never gambled.
For them, it was a simple choice. They could live in a beautiful place on their low-wage casino or service industry jobs, and not gamble. Or they could try to get ahead in the casinos and risk the very real possibility of suddenly becoming homeless.
When I was about 8 or 9, my friend’s parents planned a long Vegas weekend. They were our neighbors when we lived in LA, in Sherman Oaks. They phoned us at Tahoe and asked my parents if I could join them to keep their only son, Vince, occupied, presumably while they drank and gambled.
For Vince and me, it was a great adventure to go to what was then a much less glamorous Las Vegas Strip. Still, Vegas was a snazzy, cool daddy kind of place for gamblers to try their luck. The four of us, Vince’s dad Bob, his mom Nancy, and we boys drove off in Bob’s big black Caddie, heading to Vegas from their North Hollywood apartment.
Big Bob was a tall, full-chested man. His hair was jet black and slick with generous palmfuls of Vitalis. Old Spice was his after shave, his unmistakable scent. My mother always said Big Bob had “the constitution of a horse.” Which I later learned meant the guy could drink anybody under the table, get up early the next day and sell more cars than anyone else on the lot. He smoked filterless Pall Malls and he chased women. Nancy seemed, at least on the surface, happy to respond to his sporting as if it were one of his most endearing traits. “Oh, that’s just Bahhhubb,” my mother would mimic her saying.
Nancy was an exotically attractive olive-skinned brunette, with a husky voice. She liked to throw back her head and laugh. She had kind of an Anne Bancroft in “The Graduate” thing going on. Like Bob, she had no aversion to the sauce, but she didn’t smoke. She called both Bob and Vince “babe,” and was nice to me every time I saw her. Her family had money, but Bob and Nancy never seemed to have much. They’d lived in a house when we were neighbors in Sherman Oaks a few years earlier when Vince and I were toddlers. But now they were living in a run of the mill apartment a few miles away, where everything seemed to be painted beige or white.
Bob was a hustler from Detroit, and for years sold shiny new cars at a big lot called Felix Chevrolet. He was a born salesman, street smart and liked the image of being a little bit shady. But he took pains to show he knew the finer things in life. He looked at himself as a man with style, a class act. “Class,” in fact, was one of his favorite words.
He considered himself an authority on the subject, and freely pointed it out whenever he saw somebody showing a lack of it.
“Hey, show some class, for chrissakes,” he’d say out of the side of his mouth.
Bob snapped his fingers a lot, wore snazzy open collar dress shirts and gold cufflinks, a gold chain, a diamond studded pinkie ring. He was quick to flash a big white-teeth smile, flecked with gold dentalwork. He often winked whenever he was up to something. He’d flick his silver lighter open to fire up a fresh Pall Mall, then clack it shut as he winced into his first puff. Bob was a fast and easy charmer of anybody he wanted to hustle. To him, skirt chasing was what a real man did, married or not. Didn’t make any difference to a player. And there was absolutely no doubt in his mind that he was a player.
We crossed into the Nevada desert toward Vegas with the air conditioning on full blast. We sped through Needles and the barren desert blurred by as the unforgiving summer sun broiled the horizon ahead into liquid ripples. Vince and I jabbered in the back seat.
“We’re getting damn low on gas,” Bob muttered, his voice edgy. It got our attention in the back seat. I’d never heard that tone from Bob, who’d always been a big joker around me.
We still had a lot of desert to cross before getting to Vegas. Now we were all nervous.
“Chrissakes, a LOTTA MILES, OK?” he snapped bitterly after Nancy asked how far off Vegas was.
Suddenly it was quiet. Bob looked like a ticking time bomb. Any idle chatter was sure to set him off. He twitched through the chilled air blowing through the car. His mind couldn’t shake the thought of getting stuck along the desert highway without any gas. He got madder and madder the more he pictured the embarrassment of it all: Flagging down a car to hitch a ride out of the middle of nowhere and 198 degrees, to a gas station back in Bumfuck Nevada and 210 degrees, all to get a goddam can of gas and a hitch back to the stupid Caddie.
He’d ruin his silk shirt. That was just for starters. It was a humiliation he wasn’t ready for. He hated people who ran out of gas in the desert or anywhere else, for that matter. Anybody that did that was a schmuck, because it only happened to schmucks and clowns too stupid to keep an eye on the gas gauge.
But he could feel himself getting dangerously close to becoming a schmuck and a clown in front of his wife and kid, and his kid’s friend. Who would sure as hell tell his parents all about the whole goddam clown act.
But Vince and I caught a quick glimmer of hope that -- just maybe --we wouldn’t have to see Big Bob blow a gasket. A roadside sign ahead said: “Las Vegas 13 miles.”
Bob saw it but stayed sullen. Vince and I tried to figure out how much time equaled 13 miles.
We made it into Vegas, but Bob didn’t say a word until we finally pulled into the parking lot of the neon light encrusted Thunderbird Hotel. He parked the Caddie, threw his door open and whistled into the stifling nuclear heat.
“GODFREY DANIEL, MOTHER OF PEARL!” he roared, flashing his big smile over at Nance.
“We’re here, babe!”
“Ohhh, Bohhub!” said Nancy, smiling and rolling her eyes. She, like us, was very relieved. We were all more than ready to take a pee.
Bob and Nancy hung around the huge Thunderbird hotel pool during the day. Vince and I played with our little matchbox metal cars, splashed and hollered as we played like we were scuba divers finding and blowing up bombs at the bottom of the pool.
That night Bob said we could order anything we wanted from room service for dinner. We ordered platters of deep fried food over the phone as Big Bob came into our room and poured himself a generous tumblerful of bourbon and rocks from his own bottle. Having witnessed boozers in my family, I could tell Bob was already half in the bag. But he was playful and a lot of fun.
He lowered his shoulder to Vince. “C’mon give me your best jab!” Vince stepped up and popped him a good one. He reeled back. “Good hit Vince! Atta babe!”
Then he dipped his shoulder at me. “Show me what ya got champ!”
I really wanted to impress Big Bob. So I gathered myself and threw a right hand punch with all I had. But it felt like I hit a padded concrete wall, and my wrist didn’t stay locked. It flipped up, and even though I hit Bob’s shoulder hard, my knuckles and wrist were on fire.
“Jeez, he said a jab,” Vince chided.
Bob joined in: “Yeah, take it easy champ!”
I felt stupid, but we soon got our room service. Bob snapped off some Polaroids of Vince and me eating golden greasy shrimp dipped in cocktail sauce. We felt like kings.
That morning, we were turned loose to go to the next door pancake house for breakfast by ourselves. It felt a little strange without any adults, but we sat in a booth, ordered pancakes from a nice waitress, and got some stares from other customers. I thought this was what it must be like to be a runaway.
We paid with cash Bob had palmed to Vince and set out into the glaring heat outside. “It’s hot enough here to fry an egg on the sidewalk!” hollered Vince.
“That’s what my dad says!”
We walked to a nearby toy store to buy some more matchbox cars with the extra greenbacks we had.
Back at the pool, Vince bet Bob five bucks that he wouldn’t jump off the high dive board. Bob was hung over from a long night of high stakes blackjack. He’d been playing at a fever pitch for hours, riding a hot streak that had the pit bosses watching him and his chip-stack bets like a hawk. But last night, nobody, not even the house, was going to beat Big Bob. He couldn’t miss.
He half snoozed in his lounge chair, drinking in the warm glow of victory. He was rich, a legitimate Vegas high roller that caught the house by surprise. He’d burst into our room at 4 that morning, with a blood- curdling shriek: “I WON!”
He told us what he won, but I don’t remember how much it was. I went back to sleep.
By the pool, upon hearing Vince’s challenge, Bob stirred to life. He got to his feet, and stretched his big frame like a grizzly moseying out of his winter cave and blinking groggily into warm springtime sun. He re-tied his white swim shorts and winked at Vince.
“You’re on, babe,” he said with his cocky smile.
This was something that never happened in my family. I watched it unfold with my mouth open. Even Vince’s eyes got big as Bob sauntered over to the high-dive ladder and started climbing to the top board. Which was very, very high. Scary high. Big Bob was just bluffing to get a rise out of us. No way was he going to do it!
But Bob was still riding high on his killing the night before. He was King Kong on cocaine, and he was going to show us something we’d never forget.
He counted his steps to the end of the board and bouncing lightly, surveyed the panorama of hotel and pool below. He walked to the back of the high-dive board, turned and blew out a deep breath. He leaned into a running start and powered into a high, end-of-board jump with one knee up, arms extended upward, eyes straight ahead. He bent the board down deep on his plant, and in turn, it flung his 250 pounds high up into the dry blue desert sky, bow-wow-wowing violently after his launch. Gravity then gathered him in and Bob aimed himself arms-first toward the big deep pool below.
Vince and I were riveted, mouths agape. But Bob didn’t knife into the water at a near vertical entry. He didn’t make a dinky little splash like those Olympic divers on TV always did. He was much too slanted when he hit the water, so his chest and stomach took a full-force smack. It was an ugly bellyflop; a thunderous whitewater collision with the pool surface, as if a full-sized Frigidaire had been dropped onto it from a high-flying helicopter.
Bob’s spectacular entry got the stunned attention of every person in or around the pool. And though he didn’t get one, he definitely deserved a standing ovation. So what if his dive had all the grace of a snorting bull plowing through a plate glass window? At least he did it.
It seemed like forever before we saw Bob’s soaked, black-haired head rise from the froth. He spit out some water.
Nancy called out semi-worriedly from her lounge chair, “Bohhhub? Are you OK?”
Bob grunted. We were speechless as we watched him limply drift toward our the side of the pool. Bob dragged himself out with Vince pulling on one arm, and staggered dripping wet to his lounge chair. He eased his tall frame down gingerly and winced.
He had just absorbed the equivalent blunt-force trauma of a head-on collision with a Mack truck, which, just for good measure, included a nice swift kick in the balls. But Bob didn’t want anybody to see he was kissing the canvas and down for the count. We knew, though. And we were impressed at how tough he really was. He showed us. To this day, I’ve never seen a braver act by someone with a hangover.
After his second all nighter in the casino, Bob again burst into our room at 4 a.m., and once again scared us out of dreamless sleep and into heart-pounding discombobulation.
“I WON!” he bellowed lustily, as if he’d single handedly beat the crap out of every demon in his booze-tweaked brain.
The next day he asked Vince if he and I would sleep that night in the next room with Nance.
Vince knew what he was up to, and wouldn’t have any of it. He knew Bob was scheming on a skirt he was chasing in the casino. When Vince shook his head, Bob started in on him. His voice was soothing and low.
“Fer crissakes Vince, show some class,” he pleaded, his voice almost a whisper. “Sleep in your mother’s room tonight. C’mon babe! Can’t ya just do me this one favor? Just this one time…”
He kept on.
But Vince held his ground. We slept in our room that night, our last of the weekend.
And Bob made his last 4 a.m. room-rattling entry.
“I LOST!” he wailed.
us he still
Bob and Nancy ended up divorced, and the last I heard, Bob had re-married the daughter of a famous Old Hollywood starlet. He was driving a powder blue Mercedes convertible, Vince reported several years later, and was living the life in Malibu. But he’d had to quit his beloved drinking and smoking on doctor’s orders. I know Nancy has since passed away, but I lost contact with Vince and got no more Bob updates.
The last time I saw Vince I asked him how his dad always seemed to make out pretty well.
“Well, he always told me,” said Vince. “You’ll never get anywhere hangin’ around poor people!”
Driving into Vegas 40 years later, the cabbie gives us an update on Roy. Siegfried’s been telling local talk shows the details on what happened with the big white tiger. Siegfried explained that the tiger wasn’t trying to hurt Roy. He was only trying to protect him.
“That tiger could have killed him any time he wanted,” says the cabbie. He tells us the inside dope:
or so of
Now that’s something new and different. Evidence of actual sentiment. In Vegas, of all places. How often does that happen, in a city where sentiment of any kind -- at least on the Strip -- is about as rare as a giraffe with tits on its head?
After all those years and all those breathtaking tiger shows, it’s finally sinking in. Siegfried, Roy, the tigers, the show with all its tricks, are now just a gaudy memory on yesterday’s faded billboard.
Checking out Vegas for essentially the first time now, it’s hard to comprehend how much money has been poured into its surreal hotels and casinos. And to think all this large scale opulence has been paid for by the endless waves of gamblers willing to pony up their (in most cases) hard-earned cash, so that even more outlandish gambling environments can be dreamt up and built.
Apparently the hotel/casino developers have struck upon a theme which gamblers really go for: Lots of lights, fountains and luxurious, detailed fakes, of something famous and original somewhere else in the world. As if making something fake ultra fancy and as real as possible, is just as good, if not better, than the original.
Talk about all those frequent flier miles you’ll save by not going anywhere overseas, or even landmark spots in this country. Go to Vegas. No passports needed, no hateful foreigners who won’t speak English. And better yet, smoking, drinking and gambling is everywhere.
Most casinos have adjacent malls with high ceilings painted blue with puffy white clouds, and lit to make it seem like you’re outdoors. And real-looking plastic trees. All this around casinos that make it easy to gamble all you want while breathing in endless acres of stale second-hand cigarette smoke. You can shop, eat at a buffet or restaurant, see a pricey show, all whenever you want. You just have to have the dough, and a lot of it, if you want to do anything other than beg for change.
go to Paris,
Go to Egypt?
Besides Venice, screw ever visiting that whole country. Head into Caesar’s Palace, where there are fake Roman statues, and even a fake Michelangelo’s David. It’s as good as the original.
Want to go somewhere famous in the States? Don’t even bother with the travel time to New York City. Go to the New York, New York hotel in Vegas. It has a fake Statue of Liberty and fake street scenes with real steam coming out of fake manholes.
a few bets
Just how many Big Bobs who have gambled at Vegas over the decades have actually come out ahead? It would have to be someone who hit big at the tables, or even somebody who just scored sixty bucks in quarters on a slot machine, who then gathered in their winnings and walked out into the smoke-free air, never to lose at gambling again. Who the hell’s ever done that?
I wonder if it occurs to all the Big Bobs who loyally stream into Vegas with big hopes of winning, but who instead go home once again with their pockets turned inside out, that this is a place that they, the extended family of gambling losers, built. Built it from a vast stretch of glaring, barren, unforgiving hot desert sand, into an equally unforgiving setting with the fanciest marble-lined hotels, casinos and fake environments money can buy.
And I wonder if it dawns on them that through their collective losings, they’ve already paid the bill -- many times over -- for the fancy hotels they stay in.
I don’t know about you, but right about now I’m hearing the voice of W.C. Fields on the black and white TV flickering on my mental screen: “Yessss, yess,my bitty boy,” the top hatted one with white gloves confides sideways. “There’s a sucker born every day…and Vegas, my boy, is fulluv‘em, yesyess….”
Danielle, who came to Vegas three years ago from her native Northern Italy, is our gondolier on the fake Grand Canal ride at the Venetian hotel. While paddling, she begins to sing expansively in Italian, her rendition of a mournful folk song about the city of Sorrento. The fake blue sky dome above gives her soaring operatic voice an eerie echo. After she finishes to applause from us and mall-goers on each side of the canal, she tells us the song’s story.
“It’s about going home to family and friends in your home town,” she says, “when you’re on the verge of dispair.”
she says, “is
Danielle wants to see the East Coast, but hasn’t been able to get away from her job long enough. While she’s seen San Francisco, she wants to check out a lot more of America.
Why does she live in Vegas?
“I don’t have kids,” she says, “so it works for me. But I wouldn’t live here if I had kids.”
But why is she here, of all places, working at a fake Grand Canal?
She takes a deep breath and looks up at the painted, air conditioned sky.
“There’s no place like Vegas,” she says. “No place like it at all.”