DESERT OLDS Part 7 Las Vegas Winning Streak Print
Written by Magnus King
Sunday, 29 July 2012 09:34

DESERT OLDS Part 7 Las Vegas Winning Streak

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Writing and photography copyright Double Dragon One Owner Collector Car Ltd.

Martin and I drove out of L.A. late at night avoiding traffic and desert heat. No cars just muffled wind at Death Valley Outpost in Baker, California.

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Darkness abated crossing the Nevada border glitzy neon lit small casinos. These places cater to gamblers requiring instant gratification upon entering legal gambling territory. The Cutlass plunged back into darkness running 80 MPH smooth as silk bearing down on Vegas.

Thick warm air pouring in the windows nearly drowned out the AM radio. We were chatting in that good space, in flow, unconscious of what was said. Martin's voice was indistinguishable from an internal dialogue with myself.

Our stream of consciousness chat ended midsentence. A black object appeared in the headlights.

A truck wheel.

I avoided it in time to see a second wheel hidden from view by the first offset just enough into the other lane to block our path.

Seeing it and hitting it at our speed were one and the same.

WHAM!

The car jerked up in the air and smacked back down with a thud we felt right through the seats. We shot into a cloud of black smoke blotting out the windshield. The oil pressure light glowed red so I killed the engine. I got us off the road, wrestling the heavy steering which lost power assist the moment I turned off the engine.

"I'm going to look underneath the car."

I leapt back from gleaming hot black oil racing towards me eating up the white concrete shoulder of the road. Martin had his hands clasped behind his back, rocking from one foot to the other as he watched the river of insidious black spreading across the ground like an oozing malevolent force.

I watched the life of our trip running away, soaking into the sand. I go wild when small stupid things thwart me, but I'm calm when something big happens. It's easier to accept  disaster wrapped in momentous events. We methodically packed our stuff into the trunk in preparation for the 10 mile walk to Vegas. Walking all night just to get stranded in Vegas with no car and low funds seemed futile. There was no real point. in doing anything anymore, but we kept moving.

I climbed a dune to watch a cop car streaking along the opposite side of the highway with lights blazing. Our four way flashers inspired his U-turn a mile or so further up the road. The Nevada Patrol car pulled up with lights still flashing, stopping two car lengths back from the Cutlass which he spot lit. After ID checks and getting our story he explained,

"I was chasing a Honda going 110 MPH on the other side. I abandoned chase when I saw you guys on the other side of the highway."

"Well, we're grateful that you dropped out to help us."

The cop wrote an accident summary at 3:25 AM. He estimated that we hit the wheel around 3 AM. Our Mile Marker position placed us 13 miles away from Vegas, within the boundary of a whistle stop named Jean.

The tow truck arrived eventually. The driver made a cursory glance underneath the car with a flashlight,

"Well you guys are right screwed. Your oil pan is flat as a pancake. Good luck finding one for this car. Maybe in a junkyard... but that's assuming it's only the pan. You've probably got a motor rebuild here. You've got a whole lot of other problems under here to deal with, too."

"You think it got the crank?"

He nodded affirmative. I looked at the mangled oil pan and felt dread, regret, then flat acceptance. All those potential good miles stored in the Cutlass were wiped out in one second. A smooth running machine instantly rendered into a hulk in the howling desert sands of some junkyard waiting for the crusher.

The car was finished and the trip was over.

Like sleepwalkers, we performed steps in sequence the way ambulance drivers try to resuscitate a mangled dead person they assume cannot be revived. The Cutlass was lifted onto the flatbed tow truck.

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We rode into Vegas in the cab after thanking our cop one more time. The highway became South Las Vegas Boulevard as the sun started to rise directly in line with the road, beaming shafts of light along our path. I helped the driver push the Cutlass in front of a Unocal 76 service station, leaving a note.

Carrying our suitcases into red dawn lighting our way down the road we went from one dive to the next. It was getting hot and traffic was starting up. Our inglorious arrival... almost no money, probably no car, hundreds of miles from anyone we knew. One story ramshackle motels appeared that neither of us wanted to spend money on. We had a $200.00 gas and food fund. Motels weren't in the budget. The buildings degenerated right down into skid row quality the further we walked. Martin really likes his showers, so he found the one silver lining in the whole fiasco,

"Well now that we don't have the car to sleep in, we have no choice but to rent a room. At least we can have showers."

Martin paid $15.00 for a room at The Olympia Motel. Dust swirled in his path as he made his way through the dirt parking lot. I hung back up the road. Once inside, he opened the door a smidge for me to quickly slide in with my suitcase. Martin commented that the clerk didn't think it odd for someone check into a motel without a car, lugging a suitcase at 7 AM. He observed,

"I doubt anyone in this motel is a tourist. Probably locals paying by the week. Judging by the dearth of cars in the lot, I'd guess our fellow guests are from an economic group that doesn't own cars."

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Martin reached for the ancient TV set and didn't look surprised when it failed to turn on.

"Oh, well. At least the air con works."

After blank out 45 minutes of sleep on a lumpy sagging bed I woke up to bright sun streaming in shafts through the gap beneath the door and breaking through the pinholes in the fabric of the orange curtains. The battered A/C unit was grinding away. Our travel clock said 8:00 AM. I picked up our room key with the unit number rubbed smooth off the blue plastic holder and walked a few feet on scalding hot earth, then backtracked for shoes. The trek to the garage was almost painful on the broiling hot Vegas strip, shimmering with heat waves, undulating and twisting asphalt melting and mashing underfoot. At the Unocal 76 garage, a mechanic named Hank and I stood under the lift.

"The filter was nailed square on. The oil pan is crushed and you might have lost oil here, too. That control arm is clean here where it must have hit something... see how the engine sags? Both engine mounts are broken. The exhaust is mangled up. These fresh marks and cuts on your tire tread indicate that the steel belts might be screwed up same as if you hit a bad pothole or a curb."

I looked gloomily at the fresh etched depressions in the oil pan. I grasped at a straw,

"Those engine mounts were old enough that the rubber was probably brittle. I wonder if the engine mounts broke first. That may have provided enough flexibility for the bottom end to move upwards with the truck wheel and save the crankshaft."

Hank wasn't holding out hope,

"It's not likely, but we can't know until we start digging into things."

"If the engine still spins freely see if the pan will hold oil, but don't bother with anything else. We can't spend more than a hundred all in."

I walked back to the hotel passing a balding groundskeeper guy with droopy mustache, cigarette dangling, covered in grease and indifference. He was in front of a rust brown A/C unit in the adjacent motel which equaled the Olympia dirt for dirt in dive qualifications. It would be a miracle if he could make that bent piece of junk workable. The one in our room was on it's last gasp.

I flopped on the bed desperate to sleep. There is no phone in the room, hence no wakeup calls. There is no clock, either. I couldn't let myself go under, constantly glancing at our little travel clock that we usually kept on the dash of the Cutlass. I dropped out for an instant, then snapped awake, confused, how long I was out? I check the clock.

Two minutes!

I couldn't figure out how to program the alarm, and Martin was totally gone, passed out on top of the other bed with its neon orange bedspread. Finally, after an hour of looking at the clock every few minutes, I gave up. The lack of sleep coupled with the see saw temperature extremes of going from icy A/C into desert heat was giving me a headache.

Walking back up the strip to the phone booth it was even hotter than before. Hank had good news,

"Well you sure lucked out! We managed to pry the remains of that old filter off, put on a new one and the engine isn't leaking. The pan looks awful but it's holding oil. There isn't any internal damage. It turns over smooth as silk. It sounds real nice. The exhaust isn't leaking. You've got to deal with those broken engine mounts as soon as possible. You could put your fan through the radiator, or drop your drive train if the tranny mounts give out. I can't say exactly how or when it's going to fail, but it's going to happen soon and when it does, it'll be really bad any way you slice it."

The labor to pry off the old filter, new oil and filter plus inspection cost us just under seventy dollars. Back at The Olympia I announced the good news. Martin was stone cold asleep and knows nothing about cars anyways, so he barely mumbled,

"Good."

"We need seventy bucks."

That woke him up. It was checkout time anyways. While he started packing up and showering, I went back out to pick up the car. I thanked the guys at the garage and drove back to get Martin at the Olympia. I started to tell him about the car despite the fact he hates car talk. He cut in,

"So what you're saying is that it still works, right?"

"Yeah."

"OK, that's all I want to know. Don't tell me anything else about it."

Martin wanted to stop at the first casino in sight to cool down. If there is one thing he hates more than anything, it's sweating.

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Playing blackjack in The Mirage provided time for the blasting A/C to lower his temperature. Martin handed me two bucks to lose in the slots as a sacrifice to the gambling gods. Martin immediately started winning. Within twenty minutes he handed me a stack of chips, 

"Cash these out. I won back the money we paid for the car and last night's room. We're even again. I have to stay with this. I'm on a winning streak."

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I cashed out, and went to watch the famous white tigers that appear in the Siegfried and Roy magic act. Their act began back on a cruise ship and had expanded into an extravaganza. Eventually tiring of the A/C I exited the noisy cold casino into the hot blast of desert air. Lines of Cadillacs, limos and taxis blew scorching exhaust, superheating the already painfully searing pavement. Heat bounced off my ankles forcefully the way heat blows out on you when you open the front door of an oven set at 400 degrees F.

Tourists milled about distractedly walking atop sex related pamphlets dropped every inch of the sidewalk. Guys on street corners handed leaflets out. Newspaper boxes abounded with leaflets. I started collecting the leaflets, intrigued by the various enticing photos and proclamations. Beautiful girls, swingers clubs, strip joints, legal cathouses, duos to your room in 10 minutes... Most incorporated the phrase, "It's legal in Nevada!"

Empty gravel lots surrounded with chain link fence lay open to howling wind, dirty old tattered newspaper and sex ads fluttering about. It was crazy quilt of contrasts: first a stark lot, then a giant block sized new casino, then an old 1960s era mini mall, another empty lot, some giant old casino, an empty lot. This end of the strip still had some old time casinos, pawn shops and liquor stores as well as ancient holiday budget motels.

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I went back into the ice cold air to pick Martin up from The Mirage. He cashed out. We walked long tunnels in the sky to the parkade. I drove him one long hot Las Vegas block to the next enormous parkade. We wound our way through tunnels and walkways as long and elaborate as any airport labyrinth. The pattern of gambling carried on at Harrah's, where Martin nurtured his feverish winning streak.

When I came back he had a small mountain of chips on the table. I took my camera out of its case, slung it over my shoulder and started scooping the chips into the empty camera bag. I suggested bringing the Cutlass back to the Unocal 76 garage to get the engine mounts and exhaust done, but Martin wanted to scale the mountain cautiously,

"I don't want to jinx this. I've got a spark, but we need to wait for the blaze."

Martin is quite superstitious about his gambling. If we fixed the car right away, the implication that we believed the winning would continue could make him fall off the log. Martin feared doing anything with even a whiff of presumption when ascending a streak. Once in a solid run, then blithe expectations of continued good fortune merely kept the wheels turning. But first those wheels had to be turning.

I returned an hour later. It was mid afternoon and he'd been going steady creating a new pile of chips,

"We've got lots of money coming in. Time to eat."

Martin cashed out. At Harrah's buffet we sat in a booth. I turned to look at the wallpaper beside my head and was hit with deja vu tunneling back in time to the wall in my house as a kid.

"This is the wallpaper from when I was a kid! I used some of the leftover wallpaper to create a cover for that book I wrote for school. Remember The Wild Rider?"

Martin didn't.

"It was about a guy named-"

"Wild Rider?"

"Yeah, Wild Rider... crossing the country on a chopper. Anyways, the wallpaper was this exact same wallpaper. The paddle wheeler boats..."

As I pointed to the boats, I suddenly realized what I'd been looking at for a decade of my life and never registered consciously before this moment. The wallpaper said NEW ORLEANS all over it. I started to laugh and laugh wildly.

Martin started to try and explain away the wall paper as nothing but a tie in to the Harrah's building motif of a paddle wheeler. It was simple coincidence that my mother had found the wallpaper remaindered in some bin somewhere. Then he too, saw the words repeatedly announcing NEW ORLEANS in elaborate turn of the century type over and over every foot and half of the wall and shook his head in awe in spite of himself. I nodded at him,

"I was staring at the words NEW ORLEANS for years without knowing where it was or what it meant. And here we are on this epic journey. The future is the past. It's all one solid dimension in some other universe- it's all there all the time. Everything has already happened and is always happening. It's just here that we see it as cause and effect and perceive it passing by like a kind of motion. We've already done the trip. It just trickled backwards like a cup sloshing some liquid, just enough for us to remember it before it happened in our linear time perception. We aren't just in the moment, we ARE the moment! We are on a roll and can do no wrong. We are the galactic center of the universe... all time flows through us..."

Martin regained his sarcasm,

"Of course! Who needs Stephen Hawking when you have New Orleans wallpaper. That proves everything!"

Years later, in 1997 the casino was redone following a New Orleans Mardi Gras theme. Martin attempted to retain his skepticism but then murmured as if he could mute the facts by sliding them in under the hubbub of the busy casino,

"Actually now that I think of it there is another childhood connection here. The first road trip we were ever on was to Mississippi Lake."

Martin usually eats as sparingly as a sparrow. He piled his plate so high with food from the buffet he started to chuckle spontaneously at how ridiculously gluttonous he was being. Then he saw my plate and we both broke out in hysterical laughter. It was truly astounding. I had taken one of everything and piled it close to 14 inches high. Sliced meats and other foods extended outwards a few inches past the exterior diameter of the large dinner plate.

"Viva Las Vegas!"

We clinked glasses.

"To Bugsy!"

I responded,

"To Mr. Siegel."

We ate it all and went for seconds. We congratulated ourselves and made victory speeches toasting each other with wild abandon. Then we sat contented beside the NEW ORLEANS wallpaper resting. Just before the 4 PM closure prior to dinner, we hit the buffet for one last encore. We left having eaten one meal all day not needing another.

"Can you believe that? All you can eat for $3.99? And I've been winning all day in here! I love this place!"

I agreed, shouting over the din of slot machines,

"This place is great! We're being subsidized by the gamblers: free drinks, buffets... there are billboards for steak and lobster dinners costing 3.99... free parking everywhere... cheap rooms... no one can stop us!"

The bathrooms were something else to love about this place. Ornate and meticulously clean the way they always appear in movies about rich people. No grey painted graffiti covered metal stall partitions. This place had dark thick well finished wooden stalls. At the marble sinks guys in uniforms waited to hand you towels.

Martin resumed gambling and I checked in occasionally to clear away his chips. Martin felt no need to take a break. The casinos were noisy, but otherwise very comfortable. Sumptuous carpets and mirrors everywhere to make it seem larger, instant free drinks. Anything to prevent a need to leave and interrupt the flow of gambling.

I walked the strip wandering through elaborate theme places. I went back, Martin cashed out, ready to try the Excalibur. I drove him in, losing a buck to the slots to get him set up with the sacrifice. He handed me a few chips he had just won,

"Cash these out and go rent The Olympia for us for another night. I don't want to chance it by getting an expensive place just yet. Let's not rock the boat. We'll just stay on this roll and see how long I can ride it."

I checked in at The Olympia. The rooms were being cleaned, so there was no chance for me to grab even a few hours of sleep. The effects of not sleeping for several days compelled me to lie down in the backseat of the Cutlass right in the dusty parking lot of The Olympia.

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That lasted about 10 seconds. The sun bored through the glass magnifying the 105 degree heat tenfold, or so it felt.

Back to the Excalibur. In the parkade I tried to lie down in the car again in the relative cool of the shaded structure. Cars coming and going, people, voices, doors slamming, endless. It was also suffocating hot even under the shelter of all that cement. I gave up and dressed in my casino outfit. I wore my black leather pants and black leather jacket to ward off the bone chilling A/C.

Inside the Excalibur, Martin single-mindedly played his hand bolstered by the sight of his pile of chips. He cashed out. I drove him to the Union Plaza, wandering around awhile. I checked in on him an hour later to find him behind a new stack of chips. A cute waitress who had brought me a bunch of drinks held my eye just an instant longer than before. I walked over.

Her name was Sharon, and she was standing with her friend Pilar, who instantly took command of the moment. I later realized that being in the presence of her friend Pilar's powerful personality had been the impetus for Sharon to be bold enough to openly return my gaze. Conversely, Pilar was also Sharon's undoing.

Soon I was seated beside the Pilar. This fiery girl played video poker while keeping conversation going. An illuminated screen inset into the table top displayed her cards electronically. She was up $285.00 on her poker hand. Pilar was also a cocktail waitress, gambling on her night off. She pressed her thigh up against me under the table when Sharon left to make her rounds. I got to the point,

"Let's go."

"Sharon's going to finish her shift in a few hours. It would be better for everyone if I didn't leave with you in front of her. She had her eye on you since you first came in with your friend."

It all clicked in place. Sharon brought me half a dozen free vodka screwdrivers despite the fact I had played the slots just fleetingly enough to appease Martin's gambling gods. Usually only real players get free drinks. Her inhibited response to my overtures suggested that she was just boosting her tips. Now I realized that she was interested but too shy to know how to react to my gregarious flirting.

Sharon inhabited a state of mind I call the Waitress Mystery Zone. A waitress genuinely attracted to you is very hard to distinguish from disinterested girls employing coy tip mannerisms.

It was a bit of a silly situation. Here I was with Sharon's friend on a one way track when Sharon actually began the whole thing. I wasn't complaining. Pilar was a beautiful girl who was holding my interest with conversation. The casino provided me free drinks. Pilar was a gambler but not a drinker. She nursed her drink over several hours.

Pilar was born at night in Spain. After growing up drenched in historic surroundings she wound up languishing in some prosaic strip mall US small town that her family relocated to during her teens. She came to Vegas on her own a few years later and soon landed a series of casino jobs.

"Why in hell are you coming to your workplace on your day off? On top of it, why gamble away the money that you just made? This reminds me of waiters and waitresses who make huge tips and then go and spend everything in an all night speakeasy joints."

"I know how strange this must look to an outsider. For my first year here I didn't gamble at all. Back then it seemed very odd to me that everyone spent all their earnings gambling just like the customers. Locals make up a huge portion of the gamblers, you know. And they all work for the casinos. I think anyone that stays here for keeps is a dyed in the wool gambler. When I started to make pretty decent money as a cocktail waitress the slippery slope beckoned. We're unionized with good benefits and great pay. If you've got the looks you can earn large."

"Yeah, I haven't seen any bad looking cocktail waitresses in any of these places."

"A friend told me to put an 8 by 10 glossy on my resume. They called me the same day! I had to wear a swimsuit for my job interview! Seriously! If you don't have good legs, forget it."

"So how does having good legs make you a gambler?"

"I'm getting there. Everyone I work with gambles. This is where we come to socialize and this is what we do. Once I started making good money I could afford to play a slot machine without it mattering at all. And that's how it started."

"And now?"

"Last November I won over $2,000.00 and I'm allowing myself to play it. I've been up and down for nearly a year, and I'm still not down to where I started. That money is my play money. When it's gone, I'll stop. I'm planning on leaving Vegas next year. I'll sell my condo and use that money as a nest egg to begin somewhere else."

I told her the story about the wallpaper in Harrah's.

"Did you know that Harrah's didn't build that place? They just bought the original Holiday Casino. That's where the riverboat theme comes from. The Holiday Casino invented it back in the 1970s."

"I've noticed the older casinos seem to stick to Old West type themes. The riverboat, the railroad or the cowboy Wild West places all look like they've been around since the 1950s or 1960s."

Pilar had spent a lot of time with old timers who had worked the casinos. She explained that the most enduring casino concepts were linked to Nevada's early history. Now some space age themes and all sorts of exaggerated concepts were appearing. Pilar was skeptical,

"I don't know how that's going to fly. A lot of those major poker players wear fancy boots and cowboy hats. They like old school traditions."

I went back to Martin's table and gave him the room key to The Olympia. It was well, well past his usual bedtime. He kept on going, deep in the grip of gambling frenzy. He eventually cashed out his chips, now confident enough in the staying power of the winning streak to pay for a taxi back to The Olympia around 3 or 4 AM. The only reason I knew the time was because of Pilar's watch. The sensory overload of lights and noises in a casino mask fatigue symptoms.

Casinos have no clocks or windows, preventing any sense of time, day or night. Casinos run air conditioning very cold. Apparently, TV host Johnny Carson kept his studios ice cold to keep his audiences awake. Maybe he learned the trick from casinos. The consistent cold temperature also obscures that night time temperature drop noted by the body as a cue to sleep. The loud discordant ringing and beeping sound effects of slots follow no pattern at all which serves to keep you alert and awake.

I watched Pilar's hand go up, down, up, down until she had zero on the screen. It was 5 AM according to the elegant gold watch on her wrist. This night conformed to my Las Vegas pattern of heading to bed at sunrise. I drove Pilar to her condo across town in East Las Vegas bathed in red brilliant sunlight.

"I bought this place on a repo. I can't imagine why anyone would buy any property in Vegas for full price. There are oodles of repos floating around. When you have a city of degenerate gamblers, everything is in hock: jewelry, clothes, cars and houses. You'll see what I'm talking about in a minute."

She handed me a credit card sized plastic pass card which admitted us to a high security parking lot.

"Yeah, I see what you mean. This place is amazing."

Pilar's two bedroom luxury condo in a brand new building that enjoyed meticulous care was an oasis of style and serenity. This was the sort of place only lawyers or dentists could normally afford and she had picked it up for pennies on the dollar on a repo.

I was very tired but managed to have a great time with the wildcat that emerged from Pilar's suave exterior once the front door was shut. At 9:30 in the morning as we lay in the nice big bed all done in, Pilar's amazing vitality started to fade out. She was telling me something and then succumbed to drowsiness.

If I fell asleep now I was going to be out cold for hours. Martin was waiting back in Las Vegas at the end of the strip in The Olympia with the luggage and no vehicle. If only there was a phone in our room at The Olympia. I could have instructed him to rent the room for another night and just gamble on the South end of the strip while I slept at Pilar's. But there was no way to get a hold of him.

I headed out to meet Martin at the Olympia. So far we'd checked into the Olympia for two nights and I'd logged a total of 45 minutes sleep there. In fact that was the sum total of all the sleep I'd gotten thus far in Vegas. I arrived at The Olympia a bit after 10:00 AM to find Martin awake and anxious to resume gambling. I jumped the chain link fence and swam a few laps in the very small pool attached to the sister building before we checked out at 11:00. At least I got something out of that place even if I never actually slept there. Martin was impatient to move,

"I need to get to a casino before the streak fades."

He was seized with gambling fever and couldn't care less what casino it was. I could relate to his state of mind in a way. I had been awake for days now. The electric intensity of adrenalized hyper roaming crazed thoughts had me in a similar fever state to Martin. Everything was a series of blurry staccato impressions racing over my eyes. Martin was equally oblivious to everything around him right now.

We headed to Harrah's and once Martin had the groove on he was willing to pause for the buffet. I wanted to sit for awhile after the big feed, but Martin needed to get to the cards. I ascertained where he was stationed and searched for a quiet corner to catch desperately needed sleep. I was in the horse racing room, in the back corner eyes closed seated in a chair when security surrounded me,

"SIR! THERE IS NO SLEEPING IN THE RACING ROOMS!!"

I stumbled out in search of peace. In the parkade the Cutlass was oven hot despite windows down in the covered shade. I tossed and turned in the backseat getting sweaty until it felt like i had a layer of mud or clay clogging my pores. It was impossible to sleep until I entered the A/C inside Harrah's at which point the cold air made me want to drop to the luxuriously carpeted floor falling into the beckoning tunnel of darkness right then and there. An earpiece wearing security guy was in front of me as if he could read my mind.

I went to Martin's table via the blackjack pit. This created a furious explosion of activity. Martin placated an irate big man who was yelling to me that I was "86ed"

Martin quickly explained,

"He doesn't know the first thing about card gaming."

Once they realized that my sacrilegious trespass had been inadvertent, the hallowed hall of gambling resumed dealing cards and placing bets. Martin took this break in his action as a moment to ponder his next move. He decided that it was a good moment to cash in his chips and try Caesar's. The carpets were thick and decorated with Caesar's wreath. They looked inviting enough to lay down on and curl up asleep. Fantastic mirrors warped the world as my fatigue made my brain swim.

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Caesars propped Martin up at first, but then he went down for the first time. Leaving Harrah's had broken his solid lock on luck. He fought the currents and managed to regain his footing, but the winnings merely restored the losses on this run. Time to move on.

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O'Shea's sucked $100.00 of profit out of the kitty instantly. Martin didn't stick it out; simply changing venues back to our good luck spot, Harrah's again. Harrah's was good to him as always and he started regaining ground. Martin was confident enough in the winning streak to request a room upgrade,

"Take some of the chips from the camera case and cash them out. We aren't staying at The Olympia again. We don't want to go hog-wild or anything, but I want to stay in something modern with a working TV, a phone and good A/C."

"And a clock."

"Yes and a clock!"

We loaded our stuff out of the car into a Motel 8 which by many people's standards would be barely adequate but compared to The Olympia, it was a palace. My first thought was sleep, but then I remembered to call Pilar.

"I'll just make a quick call, drop Martin at the casino then come back and crash out."

A few minutes after dropping Martin at the casino I wasn't sleeping. I was driving across town to Pilar's condo where I plunged into her sexual fire. Things heated up the moment I walked in Pilar's doorway and reached supernova heat levels in the foyer. We finally made it to the bedroom an hour later. Lying around with Pilar, I remembered that I left Martin in the casino. A quick kiss goodbye and I made it to the casino in time to see him sitting behind two measly chips fighting cross currents. He looked up when I came over,

"I need some working capital right away!"

I turned the camera case over, pouring a bunch of chips out on the table. He separated out the Harrah's chips and tersely instructed,

"Go to the casinos and cash out these other chips. I need a buffer zone in case I have to ride out any more swells."

At this point I was entering the sleep free zone where sounds distorted, and strange fleeing jackal creatures were racing past my peripheral vision. I didn't want sleep, I needed it but I somehow kept moving. Once out of the casino in the desert heat of evening I stopped surprised,

"It's night time again?!"

desertolds-NV-flamingo night las vegas

The abrupt change from frigid casino air to desert heat combined with sleep deprivation made me dizzy and nauseous. The lights in Vegas at night are spectacular. I cruised up and down the strip cashing in the wide assortment of chips Martin had accumulated. Back at Harrah's he was sitting back behind a chip stack. All was well.

Martin cashed out and we drove to see The Girls of Glitter Gulch. No nudity. Topless only. Admittedly good looking but harsh harping girls berating you the entire time for money. We left in a hurry. Next. Then another. And another. Two drinks in these places cost $20.00 before tip and then you were immediately being crunched for tips from dancers. At one point we stuck it out for a few songs. Instead of the standard exotic dancer formula of increasing nudity with each song until the third song where the stripper writhes naked on a blanket, these acts were frozen in the pre-titillation stage of endless repetitive bump and grind focused utterly and completely on breast implant exposure.

Martin left to gamble next door to recoup the cost of our drinks while I stuck it out for 30 minutes. It was clear nothing was ever going to happen on stage. Dancers drained marks of all their money without ever deviating from the mechanical go-go dance with g-string in place. Martin returned with money, but I shook my head,

"Forget it."

I found it difficult to equate these high sales pressure puritanical g- string bump and grind strip joints with the legal cathouses and supposed wide open licentiousness of Vegas. We gave up on strip joints and entered the first casino in sight,

"We need to atone for depleting our stake."

Not only was it an affront to pay steep drink prices, it was an insult to pay at all. We'd been drinking free for several days now. To further compound the injustice of it all, I'd just spent the last day with a girl who was equally as good looking as any of the strippers. How dare they harangue us for money to see a mere glimpse and portion of what I had not only seen in full but also had full access to just a few hours prior and for free. Are you kidding me?

Martin got settled into his work. I made sacrifices to the gambling gods, packed up chips and ferried Martin to and fro casinos riding the wave again. He took a piece out of every casino in sight as he roamed from table to table on a mission to rectify the strip joint leeching. He succeeded in replacing the money bumped and ground out of us but that was it. At 3:00 AM he started to lose money,

"Time to go."

We crashed out at the Motel 8 around 4 AM. This was the first time in days that I'd been near a bed while the sun was still down.

The next day after finally sleeping I felt coherent and clear. I took stock. Like every other city Martin and I overstayed at we now had a routine and no intention of leaving. The big difference was that this time it was Martin who was keeping us in limbo. I didn't mind at all; our routine here was pleasant.

Our systems meshed seamlessly like the true professionals we were. Martin showered while I swam laps in the pool. I'd rinse off in the shower while he was dressing. We were ready to leave at the same time. Then we had our breakfast at Harrah's buffet. This was now an entrenched pattern we adhered to. Martin was loathe to change any of our routines. He believed in avoiding any change that could erode the winning streak.

After gorging ourselves with buffet seconds and thirds, we started the rotating casino tour. Every day I drove him from place to place minimizing his exposure to outside air to a span of five minutes. Martin embraces artificial light and A/C as a sweat preventative. He is forced to protect his pale skin from the sun because he gets red instantly. He refers to the sun as 'The Cancer Ball'. I'm on the opposite end of the spectrum. I love the sun, minimizing my time in artificial air under artificial light being blasted by insanely cold recycled A/C air.

After appeasing the gambling gods with a sacrifice to the slots I usually wandered the casinos until the A/C drove me out into the hot streets. My typical day included Pilar at some point. In between my wandering and exploring Vegas and Pilar I checked on Martin's status. He gambled with fixity of purpose that shuttered out everything else. Days passed with Martin at the tables and me meandering around all day.

When he felt a small shift in the wind, Martin sent me to cash out some of the chips and changed tables. He sensed seismic events coming, urging me to drive him to a new casino at the first whiff of a downturn. I always showed up at the right moment to keep him in his groove like a race car driver shifting gears at just the right point coming out of a turn.

Martin could feel the table change revs and would shift to another table at the precise right moment, placed a huge bet akin to a driver ramming his foot to the floor, winning the hand, BAM, then down shifting to another table. Just when it looked like his engine would blow screaming on redline hand after hand betting every chip in the stack he would drop out, glide to the pits which in Vegas is the buffet.

The Vegas strip fell before Martin's prowess. The small drain he created wasn't enough to even cause a blip on the cameras overhead monitoring the action. Vegas could absorb his winnings from a millisecond of profits. It's a pretty big city once you get outside the main gambling strip. Most of the people living in the miles of suburbs work in some capacity in the casinos. The vast scope of housing illustrates how much employment gambling provides.

Despite plenty of job opportunities, there were quite a few beggars on the main drag. I wondered,

"Are some of these guys degenerate gamblers who got stranded here and then devolved into begging or were they all born and raised here?"

Martin shrugged,

"All big cities regardless of prosperity or stagnant economies will breed a certain number of beggars."

"Yeah, but I'm wondering if the street people here are just the normal percentage or if there are some gambling casualties mixed in there."

The marginalized guys plying their trade outside 7-11 and pawn shops stayed away from the casinos so Martin hadn't seen many of them. Street guys were out in force at one casino, however. The Howard Hughes Desert Inn is the buffet of choice for locals. Old ladies in line explained to me about how Hughes checked in for ten days in the 1960s taking over the top floor. When he refused to leave and management made noises, he simply bought the entire building. Vegas has a large population of old age pensioners who line up for an hour or two prior to the opening of buffets. Mingled in with them was a smattering of dirty, dark tanned street people.

Oldsters finished the buffet and then relentlessly played the cheap slots with collapsed faces and glazed marble eyes of dead mannequins; only their arms move repeating the same motions with grinding sameness. These people were the grey figures but there were plenty of peacocks.

The cool thing about Vegas was that everything you see in the movies is real. Nothing looks wrong here. Hawaiian shirts, cigars, shades, big lapels out over leisure suits, snakeskin boots, and ornate feathered cowboy hats abound. Girls with 2 inch long eyelashes, impossibly tight cinched belts, stilettos, gigantic wigs, everything.

desertolds-NV-vegas gambling

Out of towners come in categories. Couples on vacation, rowdy groups raising hell, women in packs shopping and gossiping overdressed and attempting to appear imperious. They all gambled for periods of time, but balanced it with socializing and show going.

The real gamblers were in the poker rooms. Before they even made it into the rooms you knew who they were. They head there with no other life interests. Loner males dressed in suits with cowboy hats, attache cases, cigars, shades, purposeful.

I watched a movie filmed on a section of street wetted down to make it look like fresh rain. I saw acrobats at Circus Circus while Martin won money from them. Caesar's had fake ruins and under a phony sky in one of the aisles.

desertolds-NV-caesars fake sky and ruins

Shows dazzled the eye with elaborately dressed very beautiful women dancing in synch like the classic old MGM musical films. I thought of Ben Hur when I squinted into the sun at a gold statue of a chariot pulled by straining horses backlit by a sun halo seemingly otherworldly and fantastic.

Pawn shops buying gold occupied every small one story mall that was sandwiched in-between the casino complexes. Cadillacs screeched up, jettisoning rumpled 40 hour marathon jagged out degenerate gamblers. The gambler rushed in, then banged the door coming out in a rush minutes later sans gold watch and chain flooring it out of the lot to resume gambling.

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Signs all over town promised CASH FOR GOLD! Always close to the pawn shops signs screamed OUT OF STATE CHECKS CASHED!. Mini wedding chapels and Cuban Cigars and used car lots piled with Caddies and Lincolns... the wedding chapels are nearly as plentiful here as fast food joints in a normal city.

Harrah's Car Museum

Vegas is a city of Cadillacs. In front of any pawn shop or hotel, even at the lowliest 7-11 or bargain gas station you were guaranteed to sight a white Cadillac Eldorado convertible. It wasn't a likely possibility, it was certainty. I viewed nice cars at the Harrah's car museum, which included- Cadillacs. Some of the Cadillacs were formerly owned by Elvis. The Elvis connection is so strong that Vegas and Elvis are as inextricably linked as Memphis and Elvis.

The latter day Elvis white jump suit phase is often the strongest image associated with Elvis at least for the general public. Elvis fans use the single word Vegas when classifying Elvis life chapters. Prior to Vegas the chapters count back through his Black Leather comeback, his Hollywood phase, Army period, and then pre Army days. But only here in Vegas where exaggeration and magic shows flourish could Elvis' white jump suit make sense.

Evel Knievel's stars and stripes suit had some similarities to the Elvis outfits of later years and he, too made a mark here when he crashed his cycle jumping the Caesar's fountains. Another over the top stylist, Liberace could only exist in Vegas where everything is over the top. In fact, there is a Liberace Museum in Vegas. Knievel once claimed that his uniform was inspired by Liberace's outfits.

The only other cars on the street besides Cadillacs were a fleet of limos and taxis with billboards atop them advertising the odds at this or that casino.

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Private planes crossed fifty feet above main roads regularly as gamblers jetted in for a gambling fix. Some of them didn't jet out of town again. At the end of Las Vegas Boulevard there were always one or two guys who went bust hitch hiking out of town. The desert at the edge of town was 110 degrees hot. The guys had their thumbs out wearing an expensive suit, tie loosened, top buttons undone, sweating, unshaven after a three day degenerate gambling jag, despondent and exhausted, tapped out. The ranks at the edge of the city were constantly replenished with new losers just as fast as the old ones found rides to L.A.

The sight of constantly rotating losers hitching out of town didn't affect our complacent view of Martin's winning streak. The winnings were a given, certain as any paycheck. He got up and went to work, which happened to be blackjack. My job title was chauffeur. As the days rolled over we spent money as if his winnings were a predictable, permanent income. I developed rolls of film that had been neglected due to meager funds. I gassed up with premium gasoline. We went out to shows, ate good food. We should have taken the car in for further repairs but we were unable to tolerate the downtime. The Cutlass was in constant use ushering Martin from one win to the next as well as taking me across town to Pilar's place.

One day I checked in on Martin. He barely looked up,

"I need some funds."

I opened the camera case and dumped the chips on the table. They were all from Harrah's where we happened to be at the moment. I'd cashed out all of the chips from other casinos to bolster Martin's position in a temporary crisis a few days ago. Was it really days ago? Yes, I think it was days ago. No idea if the crisis had happened in the day or the night, or even how much was lost. That drop was a hazy memory since he quickly rebounded letting us both ignore that touch of turbulence. Gambling had become so normal I'd lost track of time and money. Martin looked a bit tense,

"This is all of it?"

I nodded. He refocused on the game without further comment, but he was clearly a man caught in a downwards spiral. A few minutes later when I came through again, his pile of chips had grown. I assumed that this was just another minor drop.

desertolds-NV-golden gate las vegas night

Martin announced that it was time for a change of casinos. I drove him further downtown where the old time casinos were. i dug this area. Old west and dancing girl logos all lit up. Some of them were a bit sparsely attended and sliding into obscurity. A few hours later I was heading to Martin's new table when he got up from the table. There were no chips in front of him,

"I need all the cash. I have to dig myself out of this before it buries me."

I emptied my pockets of all cash. He raced back into action. I waited nearby for him to extricate himself from this mess. I sat in the lounge where an older waitress named Mandy had developed a pattern over the last few days of bringing me a vodka screwdriver with each pass she made of the area. I was always done in time for her to collect my glass on her return route.

She had become intrigued by me because I didn't gamble. In bits and pieces of drink delivery and empty retrieval she'd gotten our story and she'd told me hers.

Mandy was from Florida and had been in an abusive marriage until she was 28. She ran away and had been a cocktail waitress in Vegas ever since. She didn't mention her age, but was likely pushing fifty. She had kept her body in good shape which enabled her to hold this job in a young girl's venue. But as the years crashed down she had slid to this lower rung casino where she was barely hanging in.

The sexual undercurrent running between us bubbled unacknowledged partly because of the age gap but mainly because she had seen me with Pilar. Mandy told me horror stories of casinos she'd worked in.

Some obsessive gamblers literally would not leave their seats for over 16 or 18 hours, even 24 hours wasn't uncommon. Once the gambler had invested so much time in a particular machine, they were convinced that if they got up for even one second, someone else would take over their spot and reap the rewards that they had sown. Pissing themselves was just standard procedure. Some of them shit themselves. The casinos had a code word for these 'incidents' and had quick efficient teams at the ready to diplomatically get the insane gambler out of there, usually with a credit. A team whisked the soiled chair away the instant it was vacated and special sterilization chemicals were applied. Mandy referred to these gamblers as degenerate gamblers, pronounced 'dee-generate'.

Mandy dealt with angry bottom feeder drunks clanging away at machines, shrill women demanding special drinks while they played penny slots, strange old drunks caressing her leg as she served them. Sometimes they clung to her, refusing to let go while relating pathetic life stories. She had to gauge subtle clues as to the intoxication level of lifelong drinkers who can hide their condition expertly.

Hourly she had to extricate herself from hostile scenes when the sticky situation of cutting off nasty drunks came up. An endless supply of loser loner cowboys slurred with booze were primed to intervene in these cases under the guise of concern but really to bolster their macho images, making the scenes even worse than they already were. Fights could break out in an instant. The big-time casinos kept order, but the older understaffed places were reacting rather than being proactive.

Mandy related the latest story as she automatically brought me a screwdriver. She didn't care that I wasn't doing any gambling which is usually a prerequisite to a free drink. I'd been tipping her one buck every time, but the main appeal was that we had camaraderie. Her stories were sad, but I would see the bizarre side to it and ridiculed the weirdos so expertly that it broke her up. This time when she came round I warned her,

"Sorry I don't have tip money right now. My friend needed all the cash to get out of a hole."

"Honey, take the drink. I'll keep your drinks coming as long as you want them and don't you worry about tips."

"That's really nice of you, Mandy. Thanks a lot."

She smiled and leaned her tray on the corner of a banister to shave some weight off her load.

"I hope you stashed a bit of money somewhere else?"

I shook my head no. She grimaced,

"The thing with a dee-generate gambler is that they will burn through every last cent. You need to hold something back on them or they'll keep going till there's nothing. It happens everyday here. They all think they can turn it back around if they just throw enough money at the game for long enough. They can't stop themselves, so you have to take precautions to prepare for this sort of thing."

She told me a tale about a guy she went out with who worked as a dealer in a casino. He got into a gambling jag so badly that all his downtime was gambling. All of it. The moment he finished a grueling shift he gambled all the way through until his next shift, drinking the entire time.

"It was sad to watch him lose everything. He couldn't pay rent, and the crazy part of it was he didn't even notice when he lost his apartment. All of his stuff was held for back rent. The only clothes he had was his work uniform! He would freshen up in the change rooms before his shifts. I believe he didn't leave the casino at all for a full week. Of course the body can't stand up to that kind of punishment and he fell apart. He lost his job. I tried to help him with some money but he just gambled it. That kind of person can't be reached until the light inside switches on."

Mandy suggested I go over and retrieve a few bucks from Martin to 'hold aside', then got moving on her rounds again. Mandy's idea was a sound one, but too late.

Martin came over. He muttered,

"I just lost everything."

"At least we have the Cutlass, so we can drive out in ruin instead of hitch hiking out in ruin."

Neither of us was in much of a panic. We had arrived in Vegas in a car that had been supposedly dead and the trip over. This was just another inconvenience. We were still on the wave. Despite the heat Martin wanted to get out of the casino to recoup. He came up with a brainstorm.

"All I need is a small amount of working capital to turn this around again."

At a 7-11 payphone flanked by street beggars Martin called his dad collect so he wouldn't have to shout over the sound of slot machines.

Martin's Old Man is the best guy to call in a pinch. Throughout our childhoods he had unflinchingly paid admission and chauffeured us to countless films. The routine was always the same. Martin and I went over to his house after school to wait for his Old Man to get home. Martin hustled his dad over to the dinner table pressing him to get busy eating while explaining the title, time and venue of the movie we were seeing that night. Martin never bothered with even the slightest pretense of asking. Just a quick notification of the itinerary he had worked out for the night. Such and such a movie and it was playing at 7:20 PM and we can't be late... Martin won't watch a film if he can't see the previews and the end credits. We raced to theaters so that Martin could see everything start to finish. And his Dad was cool with all that.

Martin's Old Man was also cool with a degenerate gambling spree. He was wiring us $100.00 in my name. I had the driver's license needed as I.D. to cash the wire. Back in the casino Martin hid from the heat waiting, checking Western Union which had an outlet beside the teller's cage. I sat on an ordinary kitchen chair in a corner of the casino. We were out of the heart of the strip away from the grand scale of Caesars or The Flamingo. The stage was raised one foot off the ground facing rows of empty chairs. An old lady sat in a vacuum of loneliness. Ten seats down an old guy with a hearing aid wired to a battery in his front shirt pocket fiddled with a racing form, making notes. I was the third member of the 'audience' attending a show from The Twilight Zone.

A stylized neon sign identified 'The Omaha Lounge'. Below that a hand painted sign on a stand declared that the act playing was named The Sunspots. The girl singing a country western song had an elaborate hairdo and a carnation pinned to the left shoulder of her purple silk dress. The guy wore a tux, sympathetic to her performance pushing support to her via body language and emphatic organ notes. An alternate reality version of the Poppy Family, a Canadian echo version of a USA hit parade boy/girl singing team like Sonny and Cher or Ike and Tina. So in a sense this was a photocopy of a photocopy. Things get blurred under that many layers.

desertolds-NV-vegas plaza omaha lounge sunsots

The tuxedo clad guy made attempts to reach the audience introducing each song with practiced banter. I looked up above the stage expecting the wall to dissolve into a starry night scene with Rod Serling smoking and introducing the characters, "This is Mr. Bobby Gentry. 29 years old and still clinging to a dream that has already left."

Mandy informed me that this group had honed their chops in G.I. bars overseas and had been going strong for decades. She said they can play literally anything and pulled stuff out of left field to cater to the audience. Tonight of course there wasn't much for them to work with but they ranged over some serious territory searching for the audience sweet spot.

The repertoire had shifted from country songs to top ten songs of the seventies which succeeded in engaging the old lady. Hearing a pop song that was famous for a guitar and male lead vocal rendered by a female backed by organ left me at sea for half the song until it clicked in as to what I was hearing.

The Tuxedo man stepped up to the mike and nailed "Piano Man" by Billy Joel. He sang about losers in a second rate joint with pathetic lives which included the song narrator. He had to see the ironic parallel to this reality. His voice packed with emotion took the purple clad woman on stage from polite attention to entrancement. The Old Lady in the audience dabbed at her eyes. Mr. Racing Form never looked up. The Old Lady and I applauded loudly at the end. This guy was GOOD.

The set veered into some down on your luck country songs while I reflected on the moment. I was conscious of being conscious of self as if I was in a movie scene- existing in the moment but detached. I watched it all as if I was in a darkened movie theater watching Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman in one of those marginal drifter buddy films from the seventies. You are watching and then the moment of identification hits- as if it's YOU out there in the middle of nowhere living on your wits cut adrift: no taxes, job, TV or grocery stores- just raw adventure and uncertainty. Martin showed up reminding me that I wasn't identifying with Pacino, or Redford or Hopper or Warren Oates or any of those guys. I was really here in the movie scene waiting to see the next scene.

"The wire is here."

After I cashed the wire we proceeded to a gas station to fill up. Spotting an as yet unexplored strip joint, Martin suggested a celebratory drink.

"Maybe this place will be different than the others..."

Vulture women with fake tits swooped down on us immediately.

Martin ducked out to gamble back the drink prices. He won very quickly, returning almost immediately,

"I want to gamble long enough to get a free drink. That should give us time to build sufficient winnings to get us to New Orleans. The one free drink is the cut-off. That way we don't get dragged down into a weeklong gambling jag again. After my free drink we'll do a final feast at the buffet and blow town."

This strip joint managed to spin its wheels in the endless breast implant zone of partial nudity just like all the others. We drove down the street to the old time casino where I settled in to watch The Sunspots again. They were doing "Piano Man" again. Second time round was just as entrancing. It put me on a mind trip. Time unraveling senselessly while it whittles away at your body lessening your chances each day of ever doing anything spectacular with your life. For the old lady who was amazingly, still rooted to the spot in her chair, this was a reminder of where she had sunk to. She was close to the bottom where the mud waited. She was still in the water, but barely. We were all in cloudy water... this time there were a few people in the audience.

The hair stood on end on my arms when the purple dressed woman began the song "Those Were The Days." It was a huge hit for Mary Hopkin in the sixties. The eerie line when she sees the old lady in the reflection that is her never fails to knock me out. It seemed that the young singer and old lady were locking eyes as the line was delivered. Of course, the singer probably couldn't see us because of the lights shining on her. But it felt like the lyrics were being acted out in front of me. Before you know it you are old and you never did anything.

Martin meanwhile was across the room losing money without getting a free drink. He kept losing. The drink was still not forthcoming.

I looked up as the song finished. Martin thrust all the remaining cash in my hands, to prevent further losses and snarled,

"Get me out of here before I lose the rest of this!"

We left town fast before he could succumb to second guessing, 'one more time' and other gambling rationalizations. We left with $60.00. Martin never complains, so it was rather strange to hear him griping,

"How is that for a whole week every time I was trying to plan my betting strategy I had a waitress interrupting me trying to give me a free drink.."

I cut in,

"They want you to drink so you'll gamble recklessly."

"That's obvious, but THE POINT IS, when I actually wanted a free drink I couldn't get a waitress to acknowledge me. I kept gambling to make up for the money I lost trying to get a free drink...."

The Cutlass took us through the warm darkness past one or two hitch hiking guys in rumpled suits and out into the vast emptiness of the desert. We paused to take in The Hoover Dam which was spectacular in the night.

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Martin started adding up expenses in his head versus how much money we started out with when we arrived in Vegas and started to smile. Then he started to chuckle and soon was laughing uproarously. I was reminded of John Huston at the close of the classic film, The Treasure of the Sierre Madre. But, no, he wasn't laughing at the irony of fate, he was chortling with glee about his success,

"After deducting the money my dad sent we're still actually UP several hundreds of dollars when you take into account all the money we spent in town!"

 

 

Last Updated ( Sunday, 08 August 2021 18:44 )