Rolf goes to Las Vegas with $5 in his pocket, discovers the Mystical High Church of Luck — and ends up losing $100.
By Rolf Potts
I understand this now: Things don’t happen in Las Vegas. Things are happened in Las Vegas. All actions in the town are so meticulously predicted and orchestrated that spontaneity itself exists only as the ghost of compulsion.
Perhaps this can explain why I rolled into Las Vegas with $5 and ended up losing $100.
The plan was simple: My friend Jeff and I were going to conquer Las Vegas by being cheap bastards. We knew that Las Vegas is a brilliantly marketed town that has taken the American Dream, distilled it into a cheery doctrine of potential wealth and replaced the dismal idea of the work ethic with a voodoo religion called Luck. Skeptical of Luck and its dogmas, we decided to milk the city for its gaudy entertainment value and vanish like the proverbial mouthful of sailor’s lies come dawn. We each took $5 from a kitty we were saving for Mardi Gras, jammed our jackets with lukewarm cans of leftover Pabst Blue Ribbon and locked up our van in the Hacienda lot at the south end of the Strip.
The act of walking the Strip itself was delightfully entertaining, since it involved plowing through a gantlet of scruffy men who had positioned themselves every few feet on the sidewalk to pass out glossy flyers for strip bars, private dancers and Nye County whorehouses. In spots of heavy pedestrian traffic, the sidewalks of the strip looked like lunatic fencing competitions, with brochure-pimps tirelessly lunging and feinting their flyers amid the tourists.
Jeff and I trudged all the way up the Strip and each blew $2.99 of our $5 budget gorging ourselves to the point of agony on lukewarm cuisine at the infamous Circus Circus lunch buffet. We spent the hellish ensuing hour digesting and watching tightrope unicyclists at the free Circus Circus circus upstairs. Once we had fully recovered, we came back downstairs to stroll the casino and pretend to gamble, since it is standing policy in Las Vegas for casinos to give free drinks to anyone who is gambling. Jeff and I bellied up to the dollar slots and pulled on the levers for 15 minutes, but the barmaids didn’t seem to be impressed. Jeff sent me up to the bar to get some glasses, so we could drink our Pabst.
The bartender was a flashy young guy who was suavely trying to console a blond, firm-bodied barmaid who stood two stools down from me. “Chin up, babe,” he said to her, winking sympathetically and biting his lower lip. “They’ll come around with those tips. You’re an angel. Just keep showing ’em that smile of yours. Make ’em think you’re their special one. You never know who might give you a $100 bill.”
Not used to hearing someone my own age call someone else my own age “babe,” I assumed that the bartender was jokingly talking like a cheesy Vegas person in an attempt to improve her spirits.
“This really is a circus, isn’t it?” I said to the bartender when the barmaid was gone.
“What’s that, pal?” he said spunkily, not really looking at me.
“Working here is the postmodern version of running away to join the circus,” I said, thinking I was being witty with him. “You know, ‘The Greatest Show on Earth,’ only we’re the clowns.”
“How’s the luck today, champ?” he said with a toothy smile, acting more like I had pulled an invisible voice-box string labeled “conversation” than made a specific statement.
His non sequitur caught me off-guard. “Um, I haven’t really started yet.”
“Gotta put that trust in Lady Luck.” He grinned like a chipper zombie. “What’ll-it-be-for-ya?”
“I’ll just take a couple glasses of water.”
The bartender shot me a stunned and somewhat disgusted look. It took him about 20 minutes to get the water.
Drinking contraband Pabst Blue Ribbon in the Circus Circus casino is not nearly as entertaining as it sounds, so Jeff and I backtracked down the Strip looking to slum poolside at one of the glitzy hotels.
Unfortunately, security at places like the Luxor and the MGM Grand is comparable to that of the White House, so we had to settle for the outdoor veranda at the golf-themed Sheraton Desert Inn. Sitting in our underwear in an outdoor jacuzzi, we drank the rest of our Pabst and smiled dumbly as the cleated retirees clicked by on their way to the adjoining golf course. Somewhere in there we caught a buzz and elected to gamble our remaining $2 away.
Damp and smelling of chlorine, Jeff and I trudged over to our dream casino: a nickel-slot joint that advertised 18 doughnuts for $1.50. We reasoned that if we had any luck at all on the nickel slots, we could cash out in doughnuts and ride triumphantly out of Las Vegas.
We weren’t there five minutes when I hit a jackpot and won $30 in nickels.
Somewhere high up in heaven — in what was no doubt their most thrilling pissing contest since Job — God and the devil put down a wager on me. This time the devil won.
I took the $30, gave half of it to Jeff, swaggered into the Mirage casino and set up camp at the quarter video-poker machines. Inexplicably, my streak of good fortune continued. Full house. Flush. Three of a kind. The quarters kept showering down into my tray. Chowderhead that I am, I metamorphosed into an obnoxious winner, yelling loudly and slapping high fives with Jeff. As if on cue, a seductively clad barmaid showed up to offer me free drinks. Somewhere around my third or fourth Heineken, I hit a straight flush, turning four quarters into $50 worth of change. By overall Vegas standards, my jackpot was jack squat, but I celebrated like a high roller.
A couple cocktails later, I was sitting at the dollar video-poker machines at the Treasure Island casino, shoving my last token into the slot. It had taken me about 10 minutes to lose everything I’d won at the quarter and nickel machines.
Still, I had been born again hard into the Mystical High Church of Luck. I was convinced of my immortality. When my last token bore no fruit, I haughtily denounced the Treasure Island, reloaded to the tune of $100 at the conveniently located ATM, and took a tram to Caesar’s Palace. I was broke again after about 15 minutes.
Jeff steered me away from another conveniently located ATM and took me to the bar for a cappuccino. Sipping our coffee, we exchanged what we hoped were meaningful glances with a couple of girls across the bar. We didn’t have the courage to actually go and talk to them, since we weren’t up for explaining how “our place” was parked in the Hacienda lot. Plus we still smelled like chlorine.
Sobriety heightened my sense of moral indignation at what I’d become. Too proud to blame myself, I started to spout bitter rhetoric about Las Vegas.
“Where does all this money go?” I asked an uninterested Jeff. “Do people live here? How much does the guy dressed as Caesar get paid? Or what about that guy with the unicycle at Circus Circus? Where did he come from? Did he dream of being the Circus Circus unicycle guy as a kid? Is this self-actualization for him? Is there a hierarchy for unicycle guys in Las Vegas? Do they belong to a labor union? Is there really all that much difference between going to work every day to do tricks on a unicycle and stocking food in a supermarket?
“Have you ever looked at a photo of those chorus girls? Where do they come from? Why do they all look alike? Are they clones? Is there some town out in North Dakota that breeds chorus girls specifically for Las Vegas? Are chorus girls classified as livestock in Nevada? And why are there so many performers who impersonate dead people in this town? Why not do a celebrity impersonation of me? Or you? Or those girls over there? Why this obsession with dead people? Is this heaven? Hell? If so, where are the normal dead people? Where are my ancestors? Is there anything original or alive in this entire city? Is everything here nostalgia? Are we supposed to be already feeling nostalgic about tonight? Was I supposed to feel nostalgic when I was saying that?
“I want a casino where the bartenders wear T-shirts and rubber flip-flop sandals and give you warm beer in cans, and the barmaids dress up in cut-off jeans and fuzzy bedroom slippers and bring you Halloween candy as a consolation when you go on a losing streak, and everyone who wants to gamble has to first go up to a microphone and tell the story of their first kiss, and people only get free drinks if they make ironical allusions to the laws of entropy or the Articles of Confederation or the Pauline definition of love. Shit, Jeff. Let’s open the place up ourselves. We’ll call it Jeff’s. Or better yet, we’ll just hang an electronic reader-board out front, and whenever a customer wants to change the name of the place, we’ll change it. What do you think, man?”
Jeff didn’t even pause. “I think it’s time we left Las Vegas.”
This essay originally appeared in Salon on April 28, 1998.