In Vegas, dollars 40 down and about to die : Theme hotels, English Sex, blackjack, slot machines and the Grand Canyon . . . Simon Garfield, out of pocket and airsick, counts his losses

Simon Garfield
Friday 23 October 1992 23:02

IT BEGINS with a photograph. At 2pm, in 92F, a middle-aged man emerges from the Sahara Hotel lobby, walks up to a young couple by the pool and hands them a Polaroid of himself standing by a slot machine. In the photo, and in person, the man is wearing a T-shirt bearing the words 'I'm a winner. And you're next]]'

'Terry?' the young woman asks, peering at the photograph. 'Is that you, Terry?'

Terry nods. 'dollars 4,000,' he says. 'I'd only been playing an hour.'

'dollars 4,000?' the woman asks. 'Really? That's great] What was it?'

'The one-dollar three-sevens.'

'That thing? I was playing that all night, wasn't I, Ropey?'

The woman's husband stirs from his sunbed. Sweat sheets down his back. 'Uh-huh. You won zip.'

'I was playing for four hours,' the woman says.' I was down bad.'

'It was my money,' Ropey says.

'dollars 4,000,' Terry says again.

'You lost any yet?' Ropey asks.

'I've bought presents for the grandchildren. I've put the money away.'

'He lost it,' Ropey sighs.

'Well I did lose some.'

'How much?'

'dollars 3,000. Roulette.'

'See? I told you,' Ropey says. 'You win, you lose. It's like tennis.'

Four strangers have gathered round to marvel at the Polaroid. They all shake Terry's hand.

'He lost it,' Ropey sighs.

Terry grabs back the Polaroid. 'I still got dollars 1,000]'

'That's great Terry,' the strangers say, 'howdya do it?'

'I just pulled the handle,' Terry says.

YOU PULL the handle and you get money. That's basically all you need know about Las Vegas. Lots of handles, lots of money, lots of Terrys. When Terry deplanes at Las Vegas airport he says things like: 'This town is built on money, this town runs on money.' Obvious stuff, like the one about how the casinos have no clocks. Terry thinks: if I had a cent for every time someone's said the clocks thing I'd have enough to play the slot machines at baggage claim. Terry taxis to the Sahara (though it may as well be the Tropicana, or Caesar's, Bally's, or any of the other 50 huge, starry hotels), where the check-in woman wishes him 'good luck, sir' and he escalates to his room in the Mesopotamia Tower. He places a bet on the keno game on his television and writes down the following on the hotel's thin stationery: 'I have come to play dollars 1,000. I will not exceed this limit. I will not wire for more. I will not use the charge card. I trust myself.' He slides the note into the mirror frame. He means it.

He comes to Vegas most years. He has never won big.

Terry buys quarters and dollars from the woman pushing the heavy trolley; 20 rolls of quarters, dollars 10 a roll, and he walks to Quartermania. The machine says '92 per cent payout'. The running jackpot, ticking over above every machine in spinning red, stands at dollars 350,219.25. In five minutes it will be dollars 300 more. But Terry can't wait, and he starts chucking in the coins, three at a time. In a few minutes he has recorded a small win. In a few minutes more he has recorded a small loss. He looks up: vast acres of these machines, giving way to blackjack, 21, craps, roulette, baccarat, three kinds of poker, keno, a glitter gulch of bells and buzzers and buckets and lucky systems. At 11am most of the seats surrounding the slots and tables are occupied. One of the seats at one of the Texas Hold-'em poker tables is occupied by a man wearing a baseball cap which reads: 'I'm Lardboy Michaels'. Some of the players are holding free drinks supplied by the women in fishnets and Crimplene, and Terry thinks most of the drinkers are suckers. He thinks about turning his loss into a win, thinks about the dollar slots, sees a sign that says 'Dollar Three-Sevens'.

IT IS Labor Day Weekend, the first weekend in September, the last fling of the summer. Vegas is packed with trippers, two-thirds of whom are Americans, perhaps half of these from California or Nevada. As many as 5 per cent of them are in wheelchairs, flown in from afar to be at the Sahara for the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Telethon.

A lot of people in America don't like Jerry Lewis, a sexagenarian comedian/television chat host best known here for his role in Scorsese's King of Comedy, because they think he's past it. But the people in wheelchairs adore him, and call themselves 'Jerry's Kids'. The MD Telethon is a 25-hour nationwide appeal that reaches 30 million people and raises several hundred million dollars. You queue up at the hotel for two hours to attend a 20-minute live shift; the wait is definitely worth it: this is duct city, celeb after quasi-celeb pleading 'take pity, take pity', clip after clip of unlucky people putting a brave face on it; it makes one of our own charity appeals look like a heartless programme called 'We Don't Have A Ramp And We Don't Give A Damnathon'.

On the day of the extravaganza, the Las Vegas Review-Journal has a report about how a large group of people with muscular dystrophy plan to picket the show, claiming they are being patronised. The same issue carries a classic Vegas yarn. A young man of 20 pulled at a slot machine and won dollars 25,000; the trouble is, you have to be 21 to gamble, so the casino wouldn't let him take the money (but they offered to pay for a free buffet). Then his dad stepped in: he claimed he provided his son with the winning quarter, and in fact placed it in the machine himself; his son just pulled the handle. The casino (which films the entire gaming floor continuously) disputed this. The dad said he'd take it to the city's Gambler's Court.

CULTURE is big in Las Vegas, but it is of a particular kind. This city is not just a place to gamble (you can do that in a lot of other states), but increasingly it is a place of family holidays and conventions. The hotels are luxurious and cheap (average double room price dollars 60, you'd be ritzing it for dollars 100); the food, particularly the stuff-yourself-nauseous buffets, is also terrific value. If you visited Vegas 10 years ago you'd hardly recognise it now, such is the rate of expansion. Many hotels are themed - circus, gladiators, rodeo - and they almost all have great pools, where sunburning is easy because the air is so dry. There is even something called 'English Sex' advertised in the back of all the freesheets that litter the strip. What is English Sex? A clue: the adverts carry a little picture of a judge's wig. That's right, our sex is domination and bondage and discipline; could be worse, I suppose - could have been a picture of a basset hound.

I gave a good beating a miss and went instead for Liza Minnelli at the Desert Inn. I bought the dollars 65 ticket, refused to tip the maitre d', and so, sat at the back. On the side. By a pillar. While I waited I chatted to another mean fan, a man called Brian Brunt, who was born in Surrey and moved here for good five years ago after falling in love and finding a job in a hotel. We both bought battery- powered flashing earrings from the cigarette girl. I told Brian I had been out here for four days and was missing my children. Brian had a kid too, a girl, name of Viva. 'Ah,' I said, thinking of my teenage years in Surrey, 'as in the Vauxhall Viva.' 'No,' he said. 'As in Viva Las Vegas.'

Liza was terrific. She did 'Cabaret' and 'New York, New York', and the local biggie 'Maybe This Time (I'll Be Lucky)'. She did a sappy tribute to Sammy Davis Jnr, but that was as Vegas as it got: no showgirls, only one frock change. For the real Vegas thing I was told to see the illusionists Siegfried & Roy, who have been Strip stalwarts for decades, or Wayne Newton, who does a serious Elvis-style blow-out.

These were sold out, so I went instead to see 15 skydiving Elvises in a film called Honeymoon In Vegas, at that time the box-office number one. It starred Nicholas Cage and James Caan both chasing the same woman to a chapel of love; the skydiving Elvis impersonators drift down from the sky near the end. The problem with seeing a film about Vegas in Vegas is that the locals do tend to go crazy when they see a recognisable landmark. The audience consists largely of people pointing and shouting at the screen: 'It's Bally's] There's Frank]]'

WHEN YOU get bored with the Strip and the gambling and the English Sex, you can take a sightseeing coach trip to the Hoover Dam or Ethel M's Chocolate Factory or the Grand Canyon. I plumped for the Canyon. On the way your tour guide says: 'A lot of you haven't yet signed up for the plane trip yet. This might be the biggest mistake of your life. The Canyon is wonderful from the rim, but from inside, seen from a plane, it is something you will never ever forget. And it's only dollars 90 more.'

I fell for this, and signed up. Five minutes after you've paid, they roll out the wheezing Cessna, a six-seater, the sort of plane you can buy at model shops, and the guide asks, 'None of you suffers from motion sickness do you?' This is a bad question for me.

I was puking into a little bag the minute we took off. Inside the Canyon the turbulence was extreme, not sudden shudders like on bigger aircraft, but huge plummets and soars, the plane tossed on malicious pockets of air that say, 'this excellent rock formation has been here for millions of years and it's beautiful, but you're going to die quite soon and you're dollars 40 down at blackjack.'

'Where you from?' the pilot asked as I turned green.

'England,' I spluttered, hoping he wouldn't produce bondage gear.

'I'm from England, too. Wolverhampton. Moved here 10 years ago. Don't you have planes in England anymore?'

'We have planes,' I said, 'but no Grand Canyons.'

'No Grand Canyons?' the pilot said, 'too bad. Cute view.'

That's right. The Grand Canyon, one of the most stunning natural sights in the world, was described by a jaded pilot from the home of Wolverhampton Wanderers as 'cute'. I could have gagged him, but I was too busy gagging myself. Then he went for the kill. He asked: 'You a fan of QPR?'

Behind me a couple of Japanese made a mental note not to visit Britain.

THE BIG, real plane that waits for you at McCarran International Airport takes you back to the place where they don't have blackjack or legal hookers or dollars 2.95 buffets, where they have clocks and early closing and recession. Lives without neon. Terry won big on his final day, when he was down to his final bucket of dollars, so he boarded his plane marginally richer than when he arrived. But he promised himself to plough it all back.

I was unlucky at the slots (lost dollars 100), but I caught a lucky plane out. In the seat behind me was Don King, the sports promoter who looks after Mike Tyson. The first thing he said concerned fried chicken. Las Vegas chicken is lousy, but LA chicken is great. Then he started talking to a man called Godfrey in the row ahead. Godfrey runs a clothes shop.

'Godfrey, you learn from me and you won't be just working for some guy with your clothes. You'll be that guy, you'll own the lot. Only in America.'

Godfrey: 'Yeah]]'

King: 'Yeah man]]'

This goes on for a little while, until another passenger asks King whether he ever gambles. He says, 'I never bet on things I can't control,' and pulls down his tiny plastic tray and starts working on contracts, including one for the Jimmy Connors vs Martina Navratilova exhibition game at Caesar's Palace.

That was six weeks ago. Terry's back at work; King probably got his chicken. I thought of these guys when the result of the Connors/Navratilova match came through, but most of all I thought of Ropey by the Sahara pool. It really was like he said: 'You win, you lose. It's like tennis.' Martina lost.

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