Las Vegas update.
As our plane cleared the mountains the valley came into view and it was really spread out, a lot of growth. The plane banked and all I could see was mostly wing; we had the wing seat. It straightened out for final descent and I saw parts of the airport and Tropicana Blvd and something caught in my chest and I lowered my head and I fought tears. Kelli reached out and grabbed my forearm and I didn’t cry, but later on I wish I’d just let it come. I felt numb for most of the rest of the trip.
We land and went through the routine of getting our baggage and getting a shuttle to the car rental pavilion. The airport grew and the town grew and everything got big. We get outside and grab a shuttle and I’m in desert again; the heat is like weight, it feels good. The car rentals were consolidated into one area, one building. We get up-sold from economy to a full sized Chevy Impala, only 16 more bucks a day. What the hell.
We are staying at Hooters, just behind the Tropicana. Hooters used to be the San Remo, which used to be the Polynesian. They built a new casino and kept the old towers and swimming pool. It’s alright, comfortable and pleasant; a kind of tropical beach theme and of course tits and hot pants. We unpack and settle in. The rooms are okay but just a little seedy. I don’t recall much about our first afternoon but in the evening we went out trying to find a Wal-Mart in the southwest quadrant of town. Izabel needed a bathing suit. We went up Tropicana. I thought it was on Spring Mountain. I was trying to remember. We stopped at a gas station and I asked a very friendly young black man and he directed me to two possible Wal-Marts and he gave me directions to the closer one. It turns out there are like about a half dozen Wal-Mart’s in the Las Vegas valley. When I got back into the car Kelli said, “That man had a gun!” I look and see a piece in his waistband. I remember years ago being at a gas station in North Vegas and as I was pulling out with my passenger I saw a husky black man with a pistol tucked into the small of his back. My passenger pointed it out, “Look! That guy’s packing!” After Wal-Mart we went back to the hotel and ate in one of the restaurants.
Kelli and I had one room and her teenage daughter and young adult son were sharing a room on the same floor. Kelli and the kids were interested in exploring the strip but I was more interested in chasing my memories, going to the places I used to work, my old neighborhoods. We did a little of both. Much of what I was looking for was gone anyway. I knew it wouldn’t be the same–wouldn’t even be there, but being physically there, moving through it was powerful and disturbing. It affected me more than I had anticipated.
The next morning we went to NYNY and the MGM and later on to the Luxor, just doing the usual tourist stuff. There is a lot free entertainment in Vegas but the town is not really cheap anymore, not like it was. It’s hard to Self Park close to a strip casino and I was walking with a cane. Kelli was driving the Chevy and was intimidated by the six lane strip traffic. She didn’t have time to look around and enjoy the sites and she was stressed and not having fun.
We looked around in a souvenir shop in the NYNY. I asked a lady at some kind of ticket kiosk who owns this joint now but she looked at me like a deer caught in the headlights. She had some kind of European accent, “I…I…don’t…know!” Not long after I asked her, “Is there a food court in here?” I know there is one. “No! There is no food court!” Okay. We go upstairs and there’s a big food court and we have one of those soft NY pretzels. The lady was nice, but who knows? Maybe she was scared for her job. When I lived in Vegas the NYNY was owned jointly by MGM; by Kirk Kekorian and Primm; Gary Primm and I worked for the Primaddona Corporation as a dice dealer, at State Line.
We finished the pretzels and took a tramway over the strip to the MGM and on the way there I gave a beggar a toonie, a Canadian two dollar coin. I explain that the dollar is at par or maybe he can feed a slot machine. He seemed happy enough; he seemed to be pulling down decent money. We get into the cavernous MGM and there is a black lady flogging discount show tickets. “Where is Mr. Ed?!” She laughs, “No more Mr. Ed, he’s been gone a long time.” That’s too bad because Mr. Ed was a mechanical horse at one of the bars and he would wake up and talk sometimes. Touting track bets or some such nonsense. I enjoyed sitting there soaking while a fake thoroughbred lipped off about some horseshit. Anyway I was finding out that time stands still for no man, especially a man as insignificant as me.
We caught the tail end of the lion show in a huge glass atrium. I wandered back a ways onto a section of the huge, soulless casino floor. It was early afternoon and the lids were up on some of the games and some had action. I wasn’t enthralled; I just wanted to see what might come back to me, watching a dice game for instance. We were still looking for show tickets and weren’t even sure which show but one of the Cirque shows and we ended up seeing the Mystere thing at Treasure Island.
Anyway we leave and go to the Luxor and I’m asking where the talking camels are? No talking camels, no Nile River, no fuck all. But they do have a show of preserved bodies and body parts and it was interesting, real bodies in some kind of plastic resin; dissected, different parts exposed everything, genitals and fetuses. The fetuses were disturbing, well delineated at just a few weeks gestation. The end of the exhibit opened into a souvenir shop that sold tee shirts and plastic body parts and what not.
After all this we go back to the hotel and Kerri is up and we all relax for a while and then in the evening we go to the Miracle Mile shops in the Planet Hollywood casino complex and find an Italian type restaurant and across the atrium, the walkway, is an enormous life size replica of an ocean liner, like the front of it and maybe a third back and it is rising up from the shops in front of it.
On Tuesday Kelli and Izabel wanted to do some shopping and they didn’t need me slowing them down so I stayed at the hotel and watched TV and when Kelli got back to the room she asked me do I know who Ernie Shavers is? And yes I do know who Ernie Shavers is. “Do you want to go see him?” “Is he still there?” So I get up and we drive over to the Miracle Mile shops. Shavers is at a memorabilia shop signing autographs. He is seated at a folding table sideways to the entrance and he is a clean shaven muscular man, not a really big guy, not really tall but broad through the shoulders. Shavers was one of the premier punchers in heavyweight history.
Anyway, he’s on his cell phone and he glances at me. He knows why I’m there but he’s not interested. Shortly he hangs up and I ask him, “Sir, can I shake your hand?” He reaches and I try to tell him about other boxing icons whose hands I shook but he isn’t interested and I drift off.
I go talk to the owner of the shop and he shows me a picture of Mike Tyson, “Mike is doing well now, he’s happy and he’s a family man.” I tell him that’s nice. The shop owner informs me that Ken Norton is due to arrive shortly and as he’s saying that Norton walks in from the back using a walker. He’s a big man, tall, and muscular and he looks good despite having difficulty walking. Ken is very open and friendly. I tell him that I just want to shake his hand, that I don’t collect autographs. He doesn’t seem to mind. We talk a bit of boxing. He shows me that famous picture of him chasing Ali on a football field. They both got trunks and gloves on. But they are wearing street shoes. He points, “1970’s.” The shoes have stacked heels. Norton is difficult to understand. He has neurological damage from his auto accident years ago.
I start to be embarrassed. I don’t want to patronize him by pretending to understand him when I don’t. I thank him profusely and we step out into the atrium and I am walking ahead maybe six paces and I start to weep. “Ken Norton, I don’t believe it.” I can’t say why I cried; the passage of time, a great athlete’s deterioration, my own decline?
After this we decided to drive down the strip and I wanted to go downtown. We’re driving and I’m trying to figure out what used to be where and what’s gone and it isn’t easy. There are a few landmarks like The Riviera, Circus Circus, and the Sahara, one of the joints I worked, was fenced and empty, awaiting demolition.
I was feeling disoriented. The Holy Cow was empty, finished. It used to be called Foxy’s and I drank there when I lived in Naked City. The Stratosphere seemed like it was in the wrong place. Naked City was half gone and what was left was more desolate and cracked out looking than ever. We headed straight down LV Blvd past where it splits off onto Main. Still the numerous wedding chapels, cheap motels and bars, one of the porn emporiums’ I used to frequent was still there. Dino’s was still there. We were moving with traffic and I was trying to catch as much as I could, but it wasn’t enough. I was trying to orient my memories with the destruction of my past and of course I couldn’t do it, not in four days that’s for sure. It was always pretty gritty around that area; now parts of it looked like urban wasteland.
We get downtown and make a left on Ogden. I direct Kelli; might as well park in the Vegas Club. The Vegas Club underwent a renovation some years after a quit working there. They made more casino space; more slots. Most of it seemed the same. I noticed they only have two dice tables now and they don’t run quarters anymore, now it’s a five dollar minimum. The one open game had about four players at maybe three PM.
We step out and look at the celestial vault that runs above Fremont from Main to LV Blvd. It lights up at night and presents a florescent light show. It has shows every hour. We walk over to the Golden Gate, my second dice job in 1988. I talk to some dealers on a dead dice game. I notice that it’s a five dollar minimum. No more quarters. You probably can’t find a quarter game anywhere in Nevada now; anywhere in North America. Jersey never had quarter games.
I start talking about my journey through the Vegas dice subculture. I’m talking to the stickman. There is another man and a woman dealer on base and a floorman. “I started at Little Caesars, that’s gone now, then I worked here, then the Plaza, then I got fired and went to the Landmark, that’s gone now, then the Barbary, that’s Bill’s now, then I got juiced into Caesars, then…
By this time the floorman had turned away and presented his back to me and I was winding down. I was wondering what they cut, but I didn’t ask. I mean this is a raw break-in joint. They were lucky they didn’t have to deal quarters because it is relentless and you have to know what a bet really pays. You have to pay a winner to the nearest quarter, which makes you think.
I was hoping for a souvenir from one of the joints I worked in but they didn’t have anything germane to the place; just satin jackets for royal flush winners and what not.
We go next door to a big souvenir emporium which has the usual stuff and clever toys and Vegas chips, Vegas shot glasses, layouts, fake lighters and pens that deliver a shock, every fucking thing. Kelli and Izabel buy some stuff but I don’t buy anything.
Down the center of the pedestrian mall are also souvenir kiosks. We wander along and pass the Mint side of the Horseshoe. When I look on the Binion’s side I see the front street facing dice game is manned by a women crew. The dealers and the stick are wearing Stetsons and hot pants. I never saw a lady dealer on dice at Binion’s in the nine years I lived there, but the place isn’t even owned by Binion anymore. Benny’s son Jack lost his gaming license because he was a junkie. I think he’s dead now and the Binion family, what’s left of them, let it go. Another piece of old Vegas recedes into the sunset.
I want to look in the Fremont, across the street. We go in there and I spot a busy dice game and for a minute I’d swear it was the exact same Hawaiians I dealt to in 1993 before I got terminated for failure to complete probation, which is not the same as getting fired except for one hundred percent in practice. I mean you can come back in six months and give it another shot and they could tell me, “Get the fuck out of here! We already got rid of you before. “
I was looking for a Fremont baseball hat but no; we bought some ice-cream instead. We stop and the Four Queens appears the same from the outside. The Fitz looks the same. Kelli wanted to see the Nugget but now we’re tired or my legs hurt but we walk back to the car and drive east on Ogden and come up on the El Cortez. It looks about the same but different somehow. The entrance moved or it got bigger or something– a renovation.
This whole time in Vegas I was trying to update my memories, make things fit in my mind. Fifteen years is a long time and Vegas never stands still, but I think it changed and grew more in the decade in a half since I left than maybe any decade previous. Explosive growth! And now they overbuilt and the town is in deep recession.
We head back to the hotel and its late afternoon. We meet up with Kerri, Kelli’s son. He likes to sleep late. In the evening all of us drive out to Summerlin, Kerri is meeting up with some on-line gaming friends. It’s in the northwest quadrant of the valley. On the way there the I-95 is backed up, bumper to bumper. I’m not sure, I don’t remember that kind of congestion and besides the freeway has another two lanes now. Finally we come up on a multiple car accident. They’re clearing it away and we start moving again.
We drive and I catch glimpse of areas I know. The development is stunning. It looks fairly prosperous out here. My vision is obscured by enormous sound baffles but I can see at intersections and over passes.
We find our turnoff and then proceed to get mildly lost. We backtrack, we phone his friends and finally we drop him off and head back. We have to pick him up at about 11oclock.
When we went out to pick him up that evening, Kelli overshot on the turn off and I directed her onto the next turnoff so that we could backtrack and get on the freeway again and pick up the right exit. We were looking to go northwest on the 95. So as we got off the freeway we are on Ogden partially under the freeway. There is a huge new retail building and camped out under the freeway are at least a dozen tents, homeless squatters. There is about 10 meters between each encampment.
There are tent cities like that all over the valley. There are people living in the flood tunnels underneath the strip, under the casinos. During the four days that our visit lasted there I saw areas of third world blight coexisting with the massive opulence of the casinos. It was always that way. Now it seemed worse than ever.
One in seven houses vacant, over 14% unemployment, people are upside down on their mortgages, every time they make a payment they are losing money, a negative investment. An estimated nine years for property values to rebound. Almost all dealing jobs are extra board now. No benefits, no promises, working week to week and day to day. It can take years to get on steady. Or you can buy a job for seven or ten thousand bucks for a good job. If you can deal of course. You gotta be good.
Why tear down a perfectly sound and good casino that’s showing a profit? But that’s Vegas. The town devours itself and devours the weak and unwary. Did they overbuild? They overbuilt, there’s a room glut but curiously the town is not cheap anymore not even downtown.
So at any rate the visit was imbibed with a patina of sadness for me. Old memories and their physical manifestations are dust for the most part. I felt the pull, the same thing that drew me there when I moved there 27 years ago, the seductive pull of nihilism.