A good friend of mine has a way with cards.
As such, he’s managed to rack up a considerable amount of comp points from time spent at the tables. And so, he invited me to help him celebrate his birthday at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. We churned through his limited CD collection, mocked the Aussie accent of his GPS and braved a snowy mountain pass during the three-hour drive in his old pick up truck. These are my notes from being in a casino for pretty much the first time.
Step out of the elevators and there it is, the promise of the American Dream we’ve all read about. This is the killing floor, make no mistake of it. The bright carpet designed to disorientate, the jarring lights and the free booze. The wild flash from an army of Japanese-seizure machines hammers away at my senses, strobe lights promising a payout so big you’d have to be crazy to believe.
The seniors manning the slots are caricatures of beings who should be playing slots; satin jackets with the sleeves pushed up, an over-sized visor, once-fit bodies gone all pear-shaped with time and skin like luggage, one hand making the rounds; a non-stop triangle between the drink, the half-smoked Pall Mall and the PLAY button. This one’s up $250. I peered too closely and received an eye scolding for my troubles.
The fairway of betting tables runs along the center of the room in opposition to the jingle-jangle of the penny slots, with the pit enjoying a protected spot in the very center. The comforting green felt of the poker table, the mechanical dance of the dealer’s hands, all actions are decisive, clean and clear. No room for mistrust here. Everything is on the up and up. Real money is at stake. Each gesture by the dealer is like secret sign language transmitted to the black blisters lining the roof of the casino; everything is under the close watch of cameras.
Periodically, the occasional outbursts of a five-dollar win, a whoop-and-hands-up victory against the big machine. The whiskey is free as long as you’re playing, so why not feel good about it?
Hours into it. The tickle of cigarette smoke burns my eyes; the weight and click of the chips in my hand spooks me somewhat. This isn’t real money. None of this is real. Speaking of, the world is supposed to end Friday.
I have grown numb to the lights. While I’m having a good time, I’m also pleased to see I don’t have a true gambling bone in my body. Can’t imagine being a prisoner here, chained to the lure of the “Super Diamond” promise, a nickel and penny death sentence. Pensioners pitted against the odds for survival. Hairnets and dog food.
The feeling of emptiness prevails. I won for a little while, but stopped caring after my first $100 went south. After that, I was hesitant to stick my fingers in the lion’s mouth. This is not my scene. Craps is over my head where numbers are concerned. The room is too loud, and I’m struck dumb. I need silence, now more than ever.
There is a generally amicable spirit among the strangers, each evoking similar body language while engaged in the choke of small talk; hands to heads, deep exhales, fingers on tumblers full of ice and amber-colored hammers. Watch the game. “Go! Go!”
Each tick of the second hand is an eternity mingled with the stench of cigarettes and the tired hope that one lucky hand will turn the tide. The big break. Too bad fortune favors the house.
I sip my Wild Turkey and summon Harrah’s history on my phone: First established in Lake Tahoe when William F. Harrah purchased George’s Gateway Club in January 1955 for $500,000 and opened Harrah’s Lake Club on June 20, 1955… In 1963 Barry Keenan, Joseph Amsler and John Irwin abducted Frank Sinatra, Jr., the 19-year-old son of singer Frank Sinatra, after his performance at the South Shore Room opening for George Jessel… Harrah’s Lake Tahoe earned the first five-star diamond rating in casino history for a $25-million renovation… On December 3, 2005, a shootout occurred in a private booth near the casino floor. One person was killed, and two Douglas County Sheriff’s Deputies were injured… Past performers have included Burt Bacharach, Blue Oyster Cult, Moody Blues, Night Ranger, Rick Springfield, Cold War Kids, Lawrence Welk, David Lee Roth and everyone’s favorite red-haired stranger, Willie Nelson, to name just a few…
Linden Place, the Short North, Columbus, Ohio, just around the corner from the Busy Bee Auto Shop staffed by the Last of The True Greasers, relics with names like Goose and Duck stenciled onto their work shirts. Slicker smiles and more carefully combed coifs you’re not likely to find on a bunch of guys who spend their day crushing Budweiser cans underfoot in the dusty gravel parking lot as they tell you precisely why the ‘51 Mercury was such a superior ride, and what a hot piece of ass they were allegedly fingering not twenty years ago. “Out to here!” Exaggerated gestures.
Follow this flashback further in to the house on the corner lot, and through the open window to an oval dining room table overlooking a dog-shit battleground of a back yard and what could have been a nice patio in another neighborhood. This is the place my poker education should have begun; in a room with a framed mirror of Bruce Lee on the wall, country and western albums playing on the hi-fi and a liquor cabinet full of Jim and Jack and Jose. The devil lives in the details and I remember clearly my stepbrother’s black leather Zippo case that lived on his belt as he strutted and rasped and grumbled, doling out his wisdom.
Everybody wears the Yoda hat come last call, but nobody had more to offer on the subject of cowboys and ladies, deuces and pistols and miners than my stepbrother (also named Mike), with a head full of pepper and the voice of Sam Elliot on morphine. The slow miles I spent riding shotgun in an 18-wheeler with Mike behind the wheel as the white lines rolled along were my early education in arcane greaser knowledge. I was subjected to decades worth of dubious stories with, conveniently, no one left alive to confirm or deny the specifics. (Exaggerated gestures: “Out to here!”) It was as if he knew, somehow, that I wasn’t from this world. Like maybe he was hoping I’d take this secret information and run away with it, preserve it while there was still time. He could sense my thirst for knowledge. There was some take away in all of this; I learned to clean up nice and walk tall, and I learned to keep shut when I had nothing useful to add. I’m not sure what he thought was going to happen to me in my lifetime, but he was the first person to tell me to always pay attention to the exits and never sit with my back to the door.
Sadly, I only retained enough about poker to be dangerous to exactly no one, and for the life of me I’ll never understand Euchre. I think it’s actually a requirement to be a resident of the state of Ohio at this point.
It’s early. It’s late. It doesn’t really matter. But it’s true that dealers are harder to reach than strippers. Tipping the dealer is an awkward maneuver and feels not unlike offering a stripper a sincere compliment or a bouquet of flowers. Friendly banter bounces off an invisible wall. The three-card dealer on the late shift has the sharp glacial, facial features common to Eastern European women. She is cold, Polish and therefore beautiful. She doesn’t laugh easily, have a favorite sports team or think highly of chitchat. She isn’t paid to. I look down at the green felt surface at the faded and repeated image of a tall pine tree, nearly mistaking these imperfections for a series of identical drink spills across the silent sanctity of the felt, like oopsy-daisy fractal patterns.
“You have such expressive hands.” I don’t know why I said it. I might as well have told her I was admiring the shape of her skull, but that’s been done too…
“Oh?” The voice replies, the face does not. Shuffle, slide, and deal. Every cards lands perfectly, as if flown in on miniature guide wires. Dealers must have cast iron hearts. I wonder if they get beaten with bamboo poles or something equally disturbing to harden them against the song and dance routines they hear every day, akin to those who’ve given up on giving money to the homeless.
“Are you in or out, sir?” Some smile and nod, but not many.
Music: “One more / silver dollar…” Here and now: Mike wins $250 on a single hand. Earlier tonight, he won a royal flush on a poker machine with three to one odds. It doesn’t seem to faze him much. No ripples in his lake, zero emotion. Lights another Parliament. This windfall was more or less expected. He makes a swipe on the table with the cards in his left hand held face down. He goes, and goes, and he goes.
Sleep deprivation makes every thing really neat, and as coherent thought begins to leave me I finally know what bugs me about this place. This whole thing is right out of an episode of the original Battlestar Galactica series: Starbuck and Boomer discover paradise, a vast underground network of entertainment and gambling venues packed with humans from the Colonies, some of who’ve been there for months, years even. Meanwhile, Apollo thinks he’s found the Tylium that the Galactica needs for fuel. Bonus! But then he’s surrounded by a horde of insectizoid aliens known as Ovions. Foreshadowing! Long story short, several drunks take elevators to their hotel rooms in order to get space busy with some space ladies but wind up in the deep bowels of the planet where they’re seized by Ovions and paralyzed for use as food for Ovion hatchlings. So I’m going to be real careful when I go to my room, because fuck flies…
And I’m gonna go soon because I ache in all parts of my body from need of substance and emptiness of heart. My body is numb and my brain hurts. Yet waves of disjointed rock lyrics continue to attach themselves to the soft tissue walls of my thoughts, digging in, taking root like a seed to a tree, ivy to a brick wall.
The music is the sort of sound that reminds me of brushed-aluminum front stereos, giant volume knobs, backlit dials and giant cloth-covered speakers from those early days when people still gave a flying fuck about hi-fi systems. See also: the era of the state fair, before that shit went completely over to the meth heads. Hearken back to a simpler time… stoner chicks named Roxanne or maybe Carla, probably wearing a Panama hat with a Pink Floyd band, definitely red-eyed winners of Led Zeppelin mirrors.
Music: “Sitting in a smoky room/ the smell of wine and cheap per-fuuume…” Every three minutes, a girl in a white vest and glasses in the center of the room lets out a whoop of joy. The rest of the casino rolls their eyes, visible to me as millimeter wave bands of exhaustion rippling here and there throughout the room. I can see how tired I am.
A waitress shuffles in from the late shift. She’s visibly tired. With a heavy sigh, she takes a seat, waves for a drink and neatly fans three Benjamin’s onto the felt. “Change out $300,” intones the dealer. Pop the clutch on the night, shift gears and reshuffle the small talk. Move the music dial along to Rush and Neil Young.
The girl in white gives another shout. Again the ripples, the rolling eyes.
The guy at the next table gives his girlfriend’s near-perfect ass a subtle but affectionate squeeze under the roulette table. Once, twice, and thrice for luck. There’s every possibility that her soft sighs and moans will be captured in the fabric of the hotel room curtains later tonight, ensnared in the bedspread, trapped in the fibers of the rug and preserved as ghost passion like leftover human radio signals.
The fog lifts. I’m up $60 on poker and $100 on Clue. And that’s as good as I’ll do here. But let me tell you this: never lay a $50 bill on the blackjack table. Old timers will glare at you as they slink away, like maybe you got a weird thing for horses.
Ad in a magazine offering over-the-phone plastic surgery consultation from the comfort and convenience of your room: “Yeah, it sounds like you’re pretty ugly. We’ve got a suitcase ready, we’ll be right up. Don’t worry, we’ll make things good again.”
(From my Twitter feed) @TWM71: They’re playing Steely Dan at the bar. I mention offhandedly that the name comes from a sex torture device in a Burroughs novel. #MoodKiller
(From a letter to a friend I drafted on my phone during this time) “Hullo some more from Harrah’s. It is now 3 a.m. We’re closing down the bars one at a time. Into ginger and Crown, beer is no good on long nights. I usually drink Guinness. Devil gin isn’t right for tonight and Wild Turkey is only for certain occasions. (“It’s over too quick if I use the nun chucks.”) But G&C is a long haul drink, likewise Bloody Mary’s. Vitamins or some such, I’m told. They’re playing Led Zep on the game floor. There’s a quiet crowd tonight, small clutches of conversation grouped around the brightest lights like moths bleeding clots of tens and twenties.”
No serious betting taking place anywhere now. We, the species, in order to tell more perfect stories, gather such events in the window-boxes of our experience, like common garden spices. These become our credentials when we grow old.
Later, drinking too much Irish coffee and shooting craps. I can’t make a lick of fucking sense of this game. I’m starting to hear music that isn’t playing over the PA system. “I’M GOING OFF THE RAILS ON A CRAZY TRAIN!” (Guitar solo.) Seriously, this game is more confusing than watching bees fuck in the center of a Chinese traffic jam. Maybe it’s all this devil booze. Probably. There is no point looking at my watch now.
“Peace be with you / and also with you.” Now where the hell did that come from? I’m not fucking Catholic. (I’m not fucking anyone, truth be told…)
How long can we keep this machine in the air? A great and powerful form of exhaustion is settling into my body. No more extra lives, no more levels, no more coins. Mario doesn’t live here anymore.
MT @M_Lutzey: I’ve been playing poker since 2 am #BIRTHDAY<-I passed out @ 0530. Wake up; he’s got the whole casino eating out of his hand.
Music: “Come on and take a free riiiiide!” The snow has stopped. It’s the next morning. Tickets to Hoth are paid for, the Padawan has his presents. Everything else in the care of the Great Magnet and these people won’t stop with the drinks or the Irish coffee. Ever.
An older man with a balding mullet and a paunch wanders through the kill zone in ill-fitting khakis, white marshmallows on his feet, stumbling slightly. I am moved to prayer:
“Crom, I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were good men or bad. Why we fought, or why we died. All that matters is that two stood against many. That’s what’s important! Valor pleases you, Crom… so grant me one request. Grant me the dignity of not dying in starched Wranglers, a Christmas sweater and New Balance sneakers when time finally catches up with me and I begin to show my age. And if you do not listen, then to HELL with you!”
Asian girls with straight black hair and Ugg boots storm the floor invasion style. It is 8 a.m. Theirs is the modified evolution of the “rawk grrl” look of the late 80s, minus the denim jackets, the teased bangs, the fingerless gloves, Mötley Crüe pins and a ceaseless, senseless dedication to a nowhere-bound deadbeat boyfriend named Donny who drives a Nova, fucks way below his age and hits her up for money more often than he ought.
So long, Harrah’s. I’ll never drink another Irish coffee as long as I live.