So there I was on stage, dirty-dancing with Toni Braxton. At her invitation I gave her a little spank. “Now it’s my turn,” she said, and beckoned me to stick out my behind. I did. She slapped it. The audience roared. And that’s the moment I decided to try to stop hating Las Vegas.
It had taken more than 24 hours to get to this point. My trip hadn’t started out too well. The plane was overbooked, then late. My suitcase missed the flight. Three times the rental-car guy gave me the wrong keys, meaning three round trips across the sun-blasted asphalt plain of the parking lot. Las Vegas was windy and hot, as it tends to be, since someone decided to put it in the middle of the godforsaken desert. My head throbbed. I wished I were anywhere else.
I put down the top on the car and drove muttering toward the gigantic golden swoosh of the Wynn. I still couldn’t believe some kindly fool of an editor had offered me a plane ticket and a $1,000 bankroll, with the idea that I would fly here, gamble it all away and then write about the experience. When I spotted the subject of his e-mail, “vegas on us,” the words capitalized themselves and began to dance on the screen of my Blackberry, glittering, chiming like a shower of coins: VEGA$ON U$!!!!
If only it were that easy.
Other times, other cultures have given the world Venice, Paris, the glories of Rome. Only 20th-century America would create as its gift to the ages this humongous Fake City, the Las Vegas Strip, a four-mile collection of facsimiles of the world’s other, more interesting places. A whole gleaming city of gold dedicated to the worship and voluntary surrender of money. This is Boomtown USA, where the major remodeling is done with dynamite. More than 38 million people came here last year to toss their hard-earned cash into Vegas’ money-sucking machines and hotels and five-star restaurants.
Why don’t we just go ahead and change the city’s name to Mammon?
But, hey, who was I to complain? This was Vegas, baby! I had other peoples’ cash in my pocket! The Wynn was a huge wedge of gold, and I had a chance to turn this bankroll into some gold of my own. I could win and win big!
I called Suzie Chastain, my traveling companion, on the cell. She was already checked into our room at the Wynn.
“It’s 5125,” she told me.
Her excitement cheered me up. “We’re on the 51st floor?”
“Forty-first. Apparently there are no floors 40 through 50.”
In the rest of the world I can usually navigate fine without a map, but in the vast elegant roar of the Wynn casino I got lost five times on the way to the room. (I still don’t know what happened to floors 40 through 50. Maybe they were taken out in the desert and shot. You want tall? We got tall! You want taller? We’ll give you Fake Tall! It’s Vegas, baby!)
I opened the door to a welcome hug from Suzie, my blondest and most glamorous friend, who had flown in from San Francisco to help me lose all this cash.
The view from our room was impressive, but all I could think was how much it cost. See, I come from a long line of poor Southern people. When I was a kid, my grandmother would periodically receive these hunks of processed Velveeta-like cheese from the Agriculture Department to help tide her over until her next Social Security check. She knew how to make that cheese last. The idea of throwing away $1,000 in a casino is wasteful enough to cause the ghost of my grandmother to rise up before me, wagging her finger.
I sipped a glass of champagne. The $435 room, I figured, was running $1 a minute for all the time we’d actually spend there. In Vegas you can go high or low. You can pay $15,000 a night for The Villas at The Mansion at the MGM Grand, or you can go downtown and get a 99-cent shrimp cocktail. It’s high vs. low. Red vs. black. It’s luck vs. skill, baby, and in Vegas, luck is the winner every time.
Posed before our floor-to-ceiling window, Suzie looked like Sharon Stone in the early parts of “Casino.” The Strip shimmered, the streets paved in pure Nevada gold, more golden than a hunk of government cheese.
I like to play roulette. I like it so much I limit my gambling to one afternoon per year in a casino in Stateline, Nev., where I allow myself to lose exactly $100 on the wheel. (Sometimes I win.) So the idea of giving me $1,000 of FREE MONEY to blow at a casino struck me as risky from the start. Gambling is one of the few addictions I’ve managed to avoid—so far—but I am sure that I could, in a heartbeat, become one of those old guys plugged into the Multi-Poker machine by his Slot Rewards card, blindly pumping the DEAL/DRAW button. I like the buzz in the back of the scalp. The breathless excitement of the big bet, the spinning wheel. It pushes my pleasure-buttons.
Suzie said she’d rather go shopping. She’d just had a $190 Wynn mani/pedi ($4.22 a minute) and had spotted a pair of Manolo Blahniks in a window downstairs.
“You can’t buy the shoes,” I insisted. “We have to win the money to buy them. We have to win, and win big!”
The Wynn casino was too posh for my taste, the table minimums too high, so we headed across the strip for a taste of Retro Vegas. The New Frontier is one of the few remaining Rat Packish casinos on the Strip. Retro Vegas tastes like cigarettes, lots and lots of cigarettes being smoked all around you. We found a $5 wheel. The ball skittered and dropped. Suzie watched as I played for half an hour, until our eyes burned from the smoke. I lost $20.
Time to head for Caesars Palace, where we spent about 90 minutes with the 900-pound gorilla of the Vegas show world, Celine Dion. We paid through the nose for a pair of seats located, appropriately, in the nosebleed section. For nearly four years, Celine has been packing them in at Caesars’ Colosseum. Among the show’s many spectacular features: Burlwood fog. A stage the size of Nevada. Scampering sprites. Enormous projected doves. Vast herds of half-naked dancers romping. A ghost boy in white. An acrobatic bellhop in yellow. Flotillas of lampposts floating through the air.
Somewhere in the middle of it all was Celine. “Pretty well indeed,” she enthused after one rather wan ovation. “I think we’ve really been feeling awesome for four years.”
Vegas audiences tend to be tired, drunk and older. They sit on their hands until someone tells them it is time to clap and stand up and go play blackjack. Celine was working hard, bless her heart, but behind the professional sheen she seemed a little bored. Who wouldn’t be, after singing “My Heart Will Go On” four or five nights a week for four years? After awhile she didn’t even bother pronouncing the words; she just stood there blaring out these big phonetic blasts with that powerful foghorn of hers.
“I would like to dedicate this song to all the parents and children of the world,” she said, a sentiment that seemed designed to make most of us feel included.
A gigantic moon began to descend at a perilous rate, threatening to squash Celine and the scampering sprites. In the heyday of the Rat Pack, all you needed to rule a Vegas showroom was a microphone, a spotlight, a Voice. Now you’re asking more than 4,000 suckers to plunk down as much as $2.50 per minute to hear this lady sing, so you need your bellhops and flying lampposts, your boy dancers rolling frantically across the floor as if their skin is on fire. You need a stage as big as all outdoors, and a fake moon that is at least one-third the size of the actual moon.
We returned to the Wynn to sit on a terrace by the lake, beside the forested mountain that Steve Wynn constructed to separate his golden hotel from the riffraff on Las Vegas Boulevard. The last time I came to Vegas this was a flat, dusty construction site. Now it is a mountain forested with real trees. The computerized colored lights make the trees look fake. The lake has naked bathers standing in it, gazing at the mountain, but they’re only statues. The mountain puts on a light show every 10 minutes or so, with splashing water and video projections and animated puppet-masks that rise up from the woods. It’s lovely and a little creepy.
We went in to a $25 roulette table. Perhaps a higher table minimum would bring on the thrill that I was missing.
In six turns of the wheel I dropped $300. Then I hit 13, my lucky number. The dealer pushed a big pile of chips toward me. I should have felt lightheaded at the rush of a big pile like that, but I didn’t feel anything. Not the least little buzz.
That’s when it hit me: Gambling with somebody else’s money isn’t as much fun as you’d think. There’s no risk, no sizzle, no thrill in the back of the neck. I wasn’t putting anything on the line—nothing that truly mattered to me, anyway. I’d had more fun all those years up in Stateline losing my measly $100 than I was having now, tossing down hundreds like Monopoly money.
I was $400 up, $200 down. What the hell, it didn’t matter. I laid out the money, I distributed my chips, I sucked down the “free” cocktails, but neither the booze nor the gambling had much effect. I won my way back to within $50 of the original $1,000, and called it a night.
Saturday morning I headed downstairs for coffee in a paper cup. I carried the coffee to the only roulette wheel open at 7 a.m. I sipped it slowly and lost $250.
The lady beside me had been playing at this table all night. She said she was winning, but she didn’t look like she was winning. She looked a little bit like my grandmother.
I carried coffee up to Suzie. We put on sneakers and headed off for a Multi-Casino Fitness Walk, hustling two miles down the strip, checking out the skylines of Venice, Rome, New York. We meant to go all the way to ancient Egypt, but we had to hurry back to check out of the Wynn and into the Bellagio. (The Wynn was booked solid for Saturday night, at least for low rollers like us.)
Suzie would have loved a cocktail and a lounge chair near the pool, but I wouldn’t allow it. It was Saturday afternoon already, and we still had $720 to lose!
I was thinking a lower-end casino might get my gambling jones going, so we headed downtown. Along the way we passed wedding chapels with dressed-up folks standing around in the parking lot, waiting to get married. In certain parts of Vegas, when you see all that big hair and too much makeup, it is hard to tell the hookers from the brides.
In Glitter Gulch we wandered into the Four Queens, one of the old casinos that made Vegas famous. Suzie humored me by taking a spin at roulette. She placed the minimum outside bet, five $1 chips on black, at 2-1 odds. The wheel spun. The ball dropped. 17! Black! Her $5 turned into $10.
She guessed black again. The wheel spun. Black!
She guessed red. Red!
She made six correct guesses in a row—a nice string of luck. She was up more than $80. “I like this game!” she said. There was a stirring among the pit bosses. Our friendly female dealer was hustled away, replaced by a scowling man. On the next spin Suzie guessed black.
Red! For the first time out of seven, she was wrong.
We left the table. The original dealer came right back for the next spin.
“I swear the ball jumped out of black and went to red,” Suzie said as we went out the door.
I shrugged. “Welcome to Vegas, baby!”
It was time to get dressed for Toni Braxton anyway. Toni is the Strip’s newest headliner, the R&B vixen best known for “Un-Break My Heart” and a string of breathy, sexy ‘90s hits. She holds forth nightly at the fabulous Flamingo, the house Bugsy Siegel built. When we saw her, Toni put on quite a show in her spangly micro-minis with her gorgeous voice and her gym-toned bod. She went at it with real energy, though it seemed she lip-synched some of the songs, and her husky voice vanished once or twice in the desert air. She was like the 2006 version of Ann-Margret in her Queen-of-the-Showroom Vegas days, all spangles and moxie and legs and sex.
Late in her act, Toni set about seducing various members of the Golden Circle, the group of us that had paid $123 each to sit at the tables around the thrust stage. She came down into the audience, asking a wife’s permission, then perching upon a husband’s lap while purring the sexiest sounds imaginable. It made for good theater, especially when she coaxed the men onstage to make grinning fools of themselves.
It also turned out to be another income stream. A photographer darted about, snapping pictures of Toni cuddling with the guys. Copies of the photos were available for purchase 15 minutes after the show.
My heart sank when Toni pointed at me, and wiggled her finger. I climbed up the steps to the stage.
I knew why she saved me for next-to-last. I was embarrassed but the crowd loved it, so I shook and shimmied and acted out my part, middle-aged white schlub in the glasses. The audience howled—definitely laughing at me, not with me. I got a big hug from Toni when she sent me away. Lots of people congratulated me on my luck as we shuffled out of the arena.
We lined up at the Toni Braxton Shop to wait for our photos. I bought three, at $20 a pop. The British guy sitting next to Suzie bought every snap of him with Toni in his lap, about 20 pictures in all. Four-hundred dollars worth of bragging rights, we guessed, for the guys back home.
Suzie was ready for bed. Not me, baby! I sat down at a slot machine and won $100. I tried losing some more at roulette. I’m a professional writer, after all, and I had an assignment to meet. But my heart wasn’t in it.
The next morning we drove to the Liberace Museum, which still gamely occupies two buildings in a strip mall on East Tropicana Avenue. Who would have thought that old show queen’s ridiculous spangles and rhinestone-studded Rolls-Royces would now seem sweet, old-fashioned and rather innocent?
We went all the way to the Las Vegas Hilton to discover there were no Star Trek theme weddings scheduled for that day. (We had really wanted to catch one of those.) I was kind enough to let Suzie have a couple of hours at the pool, with no gambling. Then she had to fly home to her regular life. I was jealous as I waved goodbye to her plane. I wanted to fly away too. The $600 in my left-front pants pocket was dragging me down. I had tried to fail, and I had failed even at that.
I went to the MGM Grand and tried my best to lose it, but it just wasn’t happening. Within an hour I was up to $1,200 again. I couldn’t bear sitting at a roulette table trading the money back and forth, with only the other loner-losers for company. Shouldn’t I put it all on black? Maybe I’d be lucky enough to lose it all, and then I could quit.
Listlessly I wandered down the Strip. A sweet ticket-seller called Clarisse talked me into a discounted last-minute seat at the hottest show in town, “LOVE” featuring the music of the Beatles as interpreted by the Cirque du Soleil. “It’s not as awesome as Carrot Top, but he’s not in town,” she told me. “And it is awesome.”
On my way to the Mirage I noticed a man in a wheelchair. He had one arm and one leg. He was not asking for money. He was just manhandling that chair down the sidewalk as best he could, with his fake leg and arm.
I reached in my pocket for money to give him. The man hawked and spit at my right shoe. I moved my foot just in time.
My sense of charity evaporated. I kept my hand in my pocket and walked on. I smelled wax in the air and realized I was downwind of Madame Tussaud’s.
What impulse had made me stiff that man? Did spitting make him suddenly less worthy of concern? I turned around and went back to find him. You’d think it would be no trouble to catch up to a one-armed, one-legged man in a wheelchair. I searched the sidewalks all the way to the Barbary Coast. I never found him. I told this story while eating a maki roll at Japonais, in the lobby of the Mirage. The food expediter at the bar was a native Las Vegan, William Jones, who told me about the new anti-panhandling law. I Googled it on my Blackberry and found out that as of July, Las Vegas enacted what is believed to be the first ordinance in the nation prohibiting not just begging for money, but the giving of money, food or anything else to a person on the street.
This means that if you have nothing, and I have $1, and I give it to you on the street in the City of Las Vegas, I am committing a crime. If you are hungry and I have a sandwich, it is against the law for me to split my BLT with you. (The ordinance doesn’t apply on the Strip, which is mostly in Clark County. The A.C.L.U. and homeless advocates are gearing up to fight it.)
Somehow I survived “LOVE.” The arena at the Mirage has the best sound system you’ve ever heard. I know, because I spent a good portion of the show with my eyes closed. The worst part I actually witnessed was the disembodied voice of Paul McCartney sweetly singing “Blackbird” while the acrobat in the flappy blackbird costume bounded up on the bungee cord and pretended to make doo-doo on the other guy’s head.
Until that moment, I’d never thought it was possible to miss Siegfried & Roy.
The next morning I went downtown. The first needy person I saw was hanging out in front of the Golden Gate, the oldest hotel in Las Vegas (built 1906). He said his name was Terry Johnson. He was an Army veteran, 503rd Engineers, he said, but now he was having hard times. He told a long story with many details. I gave him a $100 bill. “Can I give you a hug?” he said. I agreed. He hugged me.
I got rid of the rest of the money in 20 minutes. Every homeless guy on Fremont Street got lucky that day. I guessed that made me a criminal. It was time to get out of town.
The streets in Vegas aren’t paved with real gold; they just look that way from the 41st floor of the Wynn. But on a cloudless Monday morning I got to be the casino for a few minutes, giving away little jackpots wherever I pleased. It’s Vegas, baby. Casinos get to have all the fun.
Copyright 2007 by Mark Childress. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine. All Rights Reserved.