Surviving Sin City

"The gig's up. We've found you," a familiar voice said over the static of long distance.


To my old loadie friends, I'd definitely been in hiding. And they had indeed found me, and found me married and leading the life of journalist, far cries from the days of bourbon and magic carpet rides. Luckily, a second member of the old crew also was on the verge of going into hiding, and a bachelor party had been planned.

"Er, when is it?" I mumbled incoherently, staring at a clock that read midnight.


"Where?" I muttered suddenly awake.

"Las Vegas. We've got free rooms, and we're expecting you. You still owe all of us for that Tennessee trip you dragged us on."

The receiver went dead and I picked my brain for any memories of Tennessee.

For a large portion of my life, I've imagined driving through the gates of Sin City. I even tried talking my parents into letting me and a group of friends take a "cultural journey" to Vegas during high school. They encouraged us to find our culture a little closer to home, and we ended up having our adventure in mighty Grand Junction.

That old dream was to be realized, however, a mere 11 hours after my phone call, as a dusty Las Vegas welcome mat rolled out to greet me. The original Vegas Strip had none of what I expected. There were no gangsters, no glitz and next to no Hollywood appeal. Legendary haunts like the Golden Nugget and the Flamingo sported dilapidated faces and only a handful of confused Shriner-types wandered around. Next door, other lesser-known casinos told uglier tales with boarded-up windows, cracked plaster, signs reading "condemned" and faded neon that hadn't been fired up in years. Looking over this graveyard, I briefly thought that I'd missed it, that the Vegas I'd hungered for was but a memory.

But it didn't take long to see that the party was still happening just down the road in Nuevo Las Vegas. And I would spend the next few hours exploring the Disneyesque landscape of New York, New York. As I waited for my reunion, I wandered aimlessly around the faux New York City streetscape, stepped over a man-hole cover emitting fake steam, shook under the rumble of the roller coaster passing a phony Statue of Liberty and frequently considered walking out the door and getting back into the car.

Instead, I took my sleep-deprived stumble into the casino, an intricate maze highlighted by the ring-a-ding of slots and a kaleidoscope of greens and reds. I observed several bearded women feeding the dime slots and sipping on screwdrivers. Nearby, a woman sporting a wedding veil on her head paraded around with no apparent knowledge that she was also wearing a shabby, gray sweat suit. Around a tight corner of dollar slot machines, a trio of dyed blonde, surgically altered call girls in fishnet hose appeared. Three heavy, balding executives followed in slobbering trances. Daylight was nowhere to be seen. Not a single clock adorned any of the walls. The only seats to be had were at slot machines or tables.

Suddenly, a siren screamed loudly and was immediately followed by the applause of three Asian gentleman clad in white linen suits. No fewer than eight eastern beauties watched in quiet submission. Silver dollars began raining out of the garage-sized slot machine, and the three movers and shakers were now living the American dream with the help of a $25,000 jackpot.

Seeing what looked to be extremely good fortune, I reached deep in my pocket, felt for a quarter, plugged it into a much smaller machine, and experienced a thrilling two seconds before seeing a single bar, a cherry and what looked like some grapes.

I reached for a second quarter, when a hand tapped me on the shoulder. The whole crew was there, and after a glance I no longer felt strange about journalism or marriage. The gonzos now consisted of a half dozen lawyers, three investment bankers, a dot-commer, an airline pilot, and two med-school students.

"To the tables," a martini wielding investment banker pronounced, and we were there instantly, the group having commandeered two blackjack tables with a couple of burn outs as dealers. While I'd been lost in the slots, my friends had been hitting the martinis for some time. As a result, they were all losing badly, to the point that they routinely got free rooms at New York, New York and so badly that one of the lawyers asked me for a quick thousand-dollar loan. I informed him that I only had 60 bucks in my pocket and was rewarded with laughter from not only my friends but every gambler and dealer within earshot.

Trying to skirt total humiliation, I worked my way over to the second table. The dot-commer had just drained a scotch and sat in the corner talking to what I took for a pit boss and signing a piece of paper I took for a cash-advance slip. I watched as they whispered back and forth, but never saw the explosion coming.

"God damn it, just do it, and do it now!" he screamed at her before slamming the blunt end of the pen into her cleavage.

The pit boss grabbed the pen from his hand, turned it around and stuck it, sharp end first, into his arm. "Okay, I'm doing it," she screamed back.

Maybe it was something I ate, but at that moment things got a little topsy-turvy. The faces, tables and Central Park fa`E7ade became a whir of light. The loud clang of coins on metal trays drummed at my ears. Sweating and anxious, I searched for relief and not so calmly exited the Big Plastic Apple at a brisk trot.

To cut to the chase, I wound up passing time beneath the talking statues at Caesar's Palace, in front of the cheese whiz effects at Excalibur and immersed in the laser light show at MGM Grand. I bumped into Elvis' white jump suit at the Hard Rock, drank free top shelf bourbon for hours and, at one point, watched my $60 become $400 at the blackjack table. At another, that $400 magically transformed into a solitary $20 chip. And in the dark oxygen-rich confines of a casino, I eventually looked over my shoulder and was blinded by a bright flash. Daylight was streaming through the front door.

It was 10:30 in the morning, and my companions were off to try their luck at fresh tables. I headed straight for one of the free rooms, a shoebox with two twin beds and six aspiring gamblers passed out in chairs, beds and on virtually every piece of floor space.

I awoke a couple hours later to one of the med school students asking, "Where are we going to have the strippers?"

Luckily, visions of my Colorado hide-out returned, and I managed to sneak out of that stinky shoebox, finger my 20 remaining dollars and finally make for the front door. On my way toward the exit, I got an extra push out of Las Vegas and back home. In the distance, I spied three Asian gentlemen in now wrinkled, white linen suits and standing in front of a garage-sized slot machine. The eight eastern beauties were nowhere to be found.

As I approached, I realized they were arguing. After all, their last silver dollar had just dropped, and the siren was no longer screaming.

Will Sands




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