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Monday, March 14, 2005

A Thousand Trumps, and More

I am back. Lonely and depressed, and back.

The first time I visited Las Vegas I was completely unprepared. I had arrived, still aglow, out of New Orleans, and in that leap from city of soul to city of none my guid scots sensibilities were shocked to their pursed-lip core: I had come from streets draped in song and music and drink and food and life led full, and landed in this harsh, glaring, tasteless, shameless, monstrous money machine, where everything molded or burning-bright or clanging-loud or otherwise was built to ream my hard-earned from my pocket. Unable to comprehend its size and scope and horrorshow gaudiness, I fled, benumbed, into the desert that first time, to escape its terrible cheesy chintzy tunes and bells. Bells that haunt waking, sleeping, drinking hours. I trolled the dark, quiet tunnels of the nearby Hoover Dam and rapped my knuckles along its walls, all to reassure myself that this, at least, was real and made of stone?

I did not gamble then, that week: being in town for a trade show, I personified local taxicab wisdom which holds, still, that coders – who are despised here - arrive in town with one shirt and one twenty, and change neither.

Though I did not then, I - we - love Vegas. Now that I live and have married in southern California, now that I'm five hours car-or-plane away, Circus Circus and Luxor are home-from-home to us, my family and me. Road trips to Vegas, once or twice or thrice a year. Sometimes all, sometimes not. Depends who wants to go, or who we need to take? Two routes from here to there: although of late we've dabbled with the freeways - 118, 210, 15 - we prefer the back way through the bumpy desert: through Antelope Valley to Palmdale, then deadly Pearblossom to meet the I-15 at Victorville. But trips are a tale for another day. Imagine, instead, that four hours later you're bombing round that final bend and there before you is the sprawl of Vegas...
I left the blessèd one behind. Not willingly. Never that. She must attend a convention. Not willingly. Never that. Three nights apart. Three nights more than we can bear. The longest time in six years. Not alone, me, but lonely. All alone, she, and lonelier.

Bombing round that final bend at night, in darkness, where mountains part for a carpet of light, intricately woven, grander by far - but not quite so magical - as its herald at State Line sixty miles back, where a miles-long emergency truck ramp is fenced by signs "No Stopping At any Time!" all the way down the hill? Not quite so magical, the turkish ravel Vegas, but never mind that - nobody stays at Primm, or Jean, Nevada: all roads lead all cars to Vegas.

No cable, no comfy beds in hotel rooms. Neither clock nor compass in casinos. A maze of lights, of noise, the casinos, where bearings are pointless, where aisles of slots stretch and twist and criss and cross, 5c 10c 25c $1 $5 spin, though only a fool plays one coin only - what if you hit something? Save a buck, lose five hundred? Tables green and baized and crowded-quiet, Blackjack, Pai Gow, Caribbean Stud? Where aged ladies in another life are grandma soft and sweet, but here they cast the Evil Eye and curse like sailors for fucking-up the deck. Here they are vicious, feral, snarling - they watch and count, need you to pick up the dross but not too many; save, for them, the best cards until last? Other tables green and baized but crowded-noisy are the Craps: shouting, cheering, jeering, leering. Crowded with every mix and sort: full Cincinnatis; belted midwestern shorts with gartered socks and slip-on shoes; nice people nasty people. Jersey mobsters real or not, rubbing dice on girlfriend's crotch, shout across the pit "She's on the rag this week!", laughing deeply, "Twelve hard! Twelve hard! Oooooooh!" Suited men watch everywhere, talk quietly together, all brusque hair stood tall and likewise-dressed. A thousand Trumps, and more.

I can't play craps. I'm too confused, and dazzled. I can't see how those guys keep track of who bets what on where? I'd lose my place myself if ever I dared? I can't play Blackjack either. I twist when I shouldn't, stay when I shouldn't, never double-down when I should? I forget the bloody rules - not the rules, the Rules - I know how to play, just not how to play.

I play slots. My wife does too, but she's lucky - like, Luck Lucky McLuck lucky. Comped up the wazoo, but not me. I'm a little bit lucky, sometimes lucky, but mostly not. I don't care that you think slots are mindless. I really don't. I never look, just listen. To look is bad joss, is to see an empty spin coming. I look away, and listen. Listen for the bells, the jingles - the winning ring. The longer it rings, the more you've won. Sometimes, once in a while, the mad clatter of a jackpot. Filling-out tax forms before being paid, cash counted out one, two, three, one thousand, one thousand one, one thousand two, and on: the last hundred always paid in tens and twenties to tip the cashier lady and her boss.
I love Vegas. But not tonight. I had to leave her there tonight. Home to an empty bed is not home at all.

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