Based on mostly true events.
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the lack of drugs began to take hold. My veins were coursing with a healthy dose of monosodium glutamate and it was getting hard to see in the bright sun. I gripped harder on the steering wheel of the silver tank of a car hurtling through the desert at ninety miles an hour and squinted through the lenses of my glasses. We had two apples, three granola bars, and a bag of chips—not nearly enough to last to Vegas.
“Goddamn!” someone yelled. I think it was the skinny one. “We need some booze! I’m not shelling out ten dollars for some watered-down Nancy of a cocktail in the casino. We have to do this right.”
Murmurs of assent rose from the mouths of myself, the tall one, and the calm one. The car bulldozed on, tumbleweeds flashing past the windows.
The tall one was on his phone in the backseat, reading about blackjack strategy. He had set up a miniature casino pit in the middle seat and was dealing out hands to himself and the skinny one.
“You damn well want to split on a pair of eights. Double down on eleven. Three’s a bust card, you don’t want to hit…”
* * *
We got to Las Vegas just after sunset with a thick darkness settling in the basin. We pulled off the freeway not really knowing where we were going, but knowing that we had two nights booked at the Stratosphere and figuring we’d just drive until we saw the damn thing and then head that direction. We swerved around the darkening desert on some service road that paralleled the Strip, hitting the dry cleaning entrance of every casino on the west side of the street: the Monte Carlo, the Bellagio, Caesars Palace. By the time we hit Circus Circus the streets stopped having Las Vegas names (“Frank Sinatra Boulevard,” “Bellagio Service Entrance Street”) and became states. We turned onto Wyoming Avenue and there it was, blossoming out of the ground and stretching into the sky like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, an alabaster tower emerging from the neon glow of the shorter buildings south of it.
“Well I’d say we found it.” I swung the car, crusted with desert dust, into the horrendously bright roundabout driveway of the casino and was promptly waved all the way through to the mammoth self-parking structure half a block away.
By the time we dragged our luggage into the fourteenth-floor room, the Heisman trophy ceremony had started, and we were just in time to be unsurprised as our man Andrew Luck lost handily to Cam Newton. Dejection is never a good way to start a night, but we were in Vegas, dammit, and there’s no town were dejection can turn to elation and vice versa faster than Sin City.
The room was plain. The bathroom door cleared the toilet by a quarter of an inch, the seat of the toilet never stayed up, and we had a view of an air conditioning unit and a convenience store, but we had no plans on being in here again sober or alert enough to care.
“Let’s find some drank,” the skinny one said.
* * *
Once we entered the 7-Eleven, it took us thirty seconds to decide how the night was going to start: forties. The skinny one, the calm one, and I grabbed huge bottles of Miller High Life off the bottom shelf, while the tall one plucked a Bud Light from the shelf above.
“You’re not getting a High Life?” the calm one asked.
“It’s the goddamn champagne of beers, you philistine!” I said.
He shrugged. “I’m a Bud Light guy.”
We looked at him, skeptical, but he didn’t seem to notice.
The clerk checked our IDs—each one from a different state, none of them Nevada—and packaged each of our beers in an individual brown bag. We immediately resolved not to remove the bottles from the bags.
* * *
None of us had eaten in six or seven hours, and by the time we finished the bottles the beer had started to go to our heads. When we walked about a block past the Stratosphere, I looked over my shoulder and stopped, paralyzed with fear, then grabbed for the calm one. “Holy hell, would you look at that!”
A man had launched himself off the tower and was falling rapidly to the ground, a black silhouette against the white supports accelerating at thirty-two feet per second per second. Either he was making no sound or the screams of terror simply couldn’t reach us, and we watched him plummet to what was surely certain death before, at the last second, the bungee lines tethering him snapped into view and stopped his fall, lowering him gently down.
“Crazy fuckin’ town,” someone muttered, and we headed to the bus stop to take us to the middle of the Strip.
The bus was crowded and claustrophobic, filled with vacationing families, and seemed to move at half the speed of the traffic. After three stops, the driver’s voice exploded from the PA in a burst of static.
“KKKKSSSHHHXXXX—head of sched—KKXXX—stop here—KKSSSSSH—fifteen minutes.”
“That’s it,” I said. “I’m hungry.”
The marquee of Slots-A-Fun advertising one dollar foot-long hot dogs was too enticing, and the four of us tumbled out of the bus and into the casino.
Slots-A-Fun doesn’t have a low roof, but compared to the other casinos’ soaring architecture and lofty lobbies it seemed absolutely stifling, like the ceiling was pressing down on our necks as soon as we walked in. There were no gimmicks here, just cheap as dirt gambling. And cheaper hot dogs.
* * *
Hot dogs in hand, the four of us headed for the sea of lights that marked the middle of the Las Vegas Strip. After a block, we ducked into the Mirage for a drink. The casino floor was staggeringly large and lit in a permanent sort of semi-light that took several seconds to adjust to, a cavernous maw of a room that seemed to open and open and open and eventually swallowed us whole. We wandered through the video poker machines until we found a bar, and I promptly dropped eight dollars on a Jack and Coke.
“Goddamned highway robbery,” I sighed, sipping the drink.
The tall one had another Bud Light. “Yup.”
We wandered through the Mirage with our drinks, out onto the Strip, and into Caesars Palace. At some point we all got another beer, I guess. If the Mirage was big, Caesars was colossal, an interlocking web of gaming pits and shops stretching for what seemed like an entire block. We just kept walking, on and on, under dangling chandeliers and fake sky, for minutes, hours, days—it was impossible to tell in the eerie ersatz daylight that lit the rooms with painted sky—until finally bursting triumphantly out of a door marked “EXIT” only to find ourselves in a service lot of some kind on the wrong side of the casino. Cutting down a side road, we emerged once more into the neon spotlight of the strip.
“There it is,” the tall one said, “Planet Hollywood. We have to go.” None of us argued, but we did stop at a 7-Eleven first for more beer.
* * *
The sidewalks between Caesars and Planet Hollywood were lined with short Hispanic men and women, each wearing a different brightly colored shirt with the same words emblazoned across the chest: “GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS.” As we walked past they flicked the stacks of business cards they were holding, making a clicking cacophony of fingernails and cardboard like a stampede of beetles on linoleum. We shouldered through the throng, and suddenly a man in a suit with a shock of bright blue hair half hidden under a pinstriped fedora was striding along next to us.
“You boys know David Blaine?” he asked. “Yeah? Well how’d you like to see some real magic, none of this Blaine shit.”
We stared at him. He took this as an invitation to continue and started flipping a deck of cards around in his hands.
“Now watch carefully… pick a card, any card.”
The tall one grabbed a card out of the deck and the man with blue hair asked him to write something on it with a Sharpie he produced from his pocket. The card was already covered in thick black and unintelligible scrawling, but the tall one added his initials to the corner. As it turns out, the tall one had dabbled in magic tricks at some point—this doesn’t surprise me, though, because at this point I’ve realized that between the tall one, the skinny one, and the calm one I have at my disposal the entirety of the human race’s knowledge about frivolous skills—and he began talking to the man with blue hair in a technical language I could only half decipher, though the fact that I had been yelling at the man with blue hair since he mentioned David Blaine, saying he better make goddamn Cheez-Its come out of my ears, was not exactly helping my comprehension. Eventually I suppose the man with blue hair did something impressive with the tall one’s card, but since it didn’t come out of my shoe and I didn’t have any baked cheese-flavored snack crackers to show for the encounter I was less than stunned. By the time we had shaken loose the man with blue hair, much—I imagined—like the mighty manta sheds unwanted remoras, we were in front of Planet Hollywood.
As soon as we walked inside, I knew why the tall one had made us come here. Here, at last, was Vegas. The room blossomed from a small foyer into a grandiose chamber with vaulted ceilings that towered above our heads. Pink neon lights covered every wall and surface. Cocktail waitresses in outfits with plunging necklines scuttled from table to table like worker bees. On top of each blackjack or poker table, behind the dealer, was a dancer in lingerie, gyrating half-heartedly to the music pumped over the room’s massive sound system and waiting for her shift to be over. Everywhere there were lights and noises—the sound of people winning piles of coins seemed to continuously echo from a distant corner of the casino, and I wondered if people were really winning or if the recorded noise of alarms and jangling tokens was simply piped in with the music. The slot machines were sparsely populated, but the people who were there seemed to have been there for a while, vacant stares in their glazed eyes as they pressed buttons and pulled levers methodically, rhythmically. The card tables were a chessboard of expressions, every other person locked in a paroxysm of fear and despair while their neighbor glowed with joy and excitement. It was too much to take in, too much to process. I needed a beer.
We slumped into seats next to some video poker machines, and I fed the thing a dollar. Pair of queens. Win ten cents. Jack high. Lose ten cents. Two pair. Win twenty-five cents. And so on. I quit while I was ahead—up twenty-five cents, but still up, dammit.
The tall one pushed a dollar into the machine next to me as I got up to leave.
“Shit, I’ll just bet it all,” he said.
Straight flush. Win sixty-two dollars and fifty cents.
“You magnificent bastard!” someone yelled, so quickly the words ran together. “Do you have any idea how goddamn lucky you are?”
The machine spit out a ticket and we walked past the bored table dancers, past the field of ten-gallon hats and cowboy boots surrounding the craps tables, past the girl in the absurd pushup bra manning the Big Six wheel, and cashed out.
“Well, I think it’s time for a victory celebration, don’t you?” the tall one said. “Who’s hungry?”
* * *
It was now well after two in the morning, and after wandering into the Hooters casino and demanding wings only to discover that, while the casino was open twenty-four hours, the actual Hooters closed at midnight, we were desperate.
“Del Taco!” the skinny one screamed, pointing at a sign. They were the most beautiful two words any of us had ever heard, and we immediately wheeled into the food court perched above a small casino somewhere near the Flamingo. We were eating our burritos in serene bliss, when we noticed a man two booths away from us facedown in his nachos.
It struck me then that despite all the lights, all the sex, all the glitz and glamour and neon and tits and luxury, that none of that was Las Vegas. This was Las Vegas. Three in the morning and a man passed out in a pile of fake Mexican food. The American Goddamn Dream.