Weathering Sin City

Christopher Thomas Schmidt

© Copyright 2004 by Christopher Thomas Schmidt

Photo of Las Vegas at night.  Photo by M. Owens.

Anyone who reads this article will know what has precipitated the article entitled “What’s the Problem?”  Photo
by M. Owens

8:00am Friday - The veteran Las Vegas weekender will tell you that despite significant amounts of sleep you will be losing in the coming days, an early start is imperative. To properly do Vegas you must give yourself sufficient time to get there, get settled, and get to gambling, drinking and debauching. The well-prepared expert will tell you it is more advantageous to forgo the early start in favor of leaving the night before.

Veteran Vegas weekenders will also tell you that the only way to get to Vegas is to fly. This is especially true when traveling from Southern California. Somewhere between your twentieth and twenty-fifth Vegas road-trip you and your friends make up your minds to “fly next time.” No matter how much air fare happens to be, myself, I will gladly pay twice that to avoid the misery that is the Sunday afternoon commute on Interstate 15. The I-15; a magnificent black river of asphalt expanse that stretches due north and south in, through and out of Las Vegas. The I-15 on Sunday afternoon; a miserable gummy fly-trap of a road that invariably strands you on its blistering, congested sprawl because it is always too crowded no matter how many lanes are added to it. Traveling the I-15 on a Sunday, following two or three days of massive over-consumption of alcohol, and extreme sleep deprivation, is enough to discourage even the most dedicated Vegas-addict from coming back for days, even weeks.

9:00am - By now I like to have my group assembled at the airport and moving well into the second round of Bloody Maries. Failure to get and early start, both on travel and on drinking, can severely jeopardize and abbreviate a successfully lost weekend.

If the group is not keen enough to get in that first Bloody Mary while awaiting the cab that takes us to the airport, then the airport bar is an ideal setting to put things right. Any terminal that has airlines servicing Las Vegas is likely to have in it a bar teaming with a significant number of celebrants just like us, who are always willing to assist in getting the ball rolling. Impulsive as I am, I try to be wary of overdoing it in the beginning. A good rule of thumb is to try and be in the airport-bar an hour before departure, and to try not to consume more than six Bloody Maries during that hour.

This rarely goes to plan however, as within the circle I commonly travel, because of the amount of free Bloody Mary’s we try to squeeze in before leaving for the airport we commonly don’t arrive until roughly sixty-seconds before take off, and we are forced to bypass the bar in a duffle-bag flourishing panic.

9:15am - It is around this time that one of my particularly bright friends realizes he hasn’t brought nearly enough cash, whereby he will opt to pay a three-dollar fee to withdraw money from the airport-ATM. It will be some time later when one of my less-bright friends realizes that he hasn’t got enough cash, except by then he will be relegated to the use of a casino-ATM, which charges roughly $10.00 more per transaction.

10:00am - I want to be on the plane by now. More specifically I want to be back on the ground, on Las Vegas soil by now, sipping Long Islands by the pool at the Flamingo Hilton, but at the very least, by now I should be on a plane. The average flight from any of the numerous South Western points of embarkation to Vegas is about an hour. The average time it takes a flight attendant to get from our seats, to the galley and back with the beer we ordered is about ten minutes. Armed with this information it is important to budget your time. Amateurs will waste precious minutes by waiting until they have consumed their current beer before ordering the next one. We have discovered a more practical and effective approach, which is to order a beer every time an attendant passes within our field of vision. When the head-flight-attendant comes to suggest that we cap our drinking, or that we at least think about returning to our seats and stop playing soccer in the aisle, I like to order another round from her, and suggest that she hurry as I am pretty sure the plane just landed.

11:00am McCarran Airport - The temptation to stop into one of the Vegas airport bars is almost undeniable. As we may have been able to convince the flight attendants to let us have a beer while the plane is landing, and we have even gotten one more round while taxiing, the flight crew simply does not let us take beer off the plane. However, the Vegas airport bars are a needless waste of time and money as the casinos are just a brief cab ride away, meaning we are mere moments away from having all the free alcohol we can handle brought to us on little trays. The airport bars are best left until you come back for your return flight.

We must also fight the urge to gamble in the airport. Vegas newcomers and those who don’t come terribly often will be struck by the bright lights and the Siren song of the in-terminal slot machines. Actually, what one usually notices first is how Nevada maintains fairly liberal smoking laws. Like a collision with a tangible wall, passing from the jet-way into the terminal slams visitors into a lingering barricade of cigarette smoke. Strangely, the Las Vegas Board of Tourism fails to mention the unbreathable nature of the atmosphere.

The second thing one notices, then, are the slot machines. Resist the urge to put money into these machines as the odds at the airport are the worst you will find anywhere. The odds of winning do not increase a great deal once you hit the casinos, but they are better, and at least in the casinos indescribably-beautiful women bring you free drinks.

11:30am - My friends and I that are smart enough to fly are also smart enough to avoid checking any bags. This saves considerable time as the wait at the McCarran baggage claim is commonly longer than the flight. Failing to pack lightly condemns one to an unhappy baggage-retrieval experience that is like no other. I have been to O’Hare, and LaGuardia, and Heathrow, and Maurice Chevalier; airports where rudeness and impatience are the norm, but I have seen nothing to rival the baggage claim at McCarran. In other airports you have to deal with tired-cranky-irritated businessmen, and tired-cranky-befuddled vacationers, who think little of pushing in front of you, of jostling you with their excessive luggage, and being generally inconsiderate and unapologetic. At McCarran you may encounter the very same angry businessmen, and the same confused vacationers, except now they are in Las Vegas where adrenaline seems to seep out of the ground, and they will think nothing of shedding a little blood if it will help speed them along their way to the casinos. I have seen a grown man hurdle a family of five to get to his garment bag. I watched in amazement as an entire bachelor party of unsuspecting young men was unceremoniously trampled by a stampeding bingo-club. I witnessed a woman, not unlike my own dear mother, use her child as a battering ram to get to the carrousel. The call of “The Strip” is powerful, and it makes animals out of the best of us. Know this, heed this, and for God’s sake, don’t check any bags.

11:45am - Upon escaping the cozy confines of McCarran Airport I always wonder why we are in such a hurry to get outside. Fleeing the choking smoke-tinged misery of the terminal, we plunge headlong into the equally unbearable convection oven that is Las Vegas. The heat in Vegas is an actual physical being that seizes you in its burning grip and squeezes until you can feel your life-force melting from your body like wax from a candle. With the rare and all-too-short exception of a couple days in winter, Vegas is continually, blisteringly, unimaginably hot, and if you are foolish enough to get caught outdoors, pray that you are with someone who knows CPR and has a number of ice-buckets at his disposal.

Fortunately most of what you want to do in Vegas is done comfortably within vast climate-controlled buildings. Unfortunately, it is impossible to get from the airport to any of these places without standing outside in line for a cab in goat-frying agony for twenty minutes. Once outside you get to battle several hundred of your closest friends to get a taxi to the Strip. In reality, the wait for a cab is not considerable, but when you are anxious to get your gamble on, dying to get your hands on some complementary cocktails, and now standing curbside listening to your brain simmer rapidly in the balmy 160-degree environs, twenty minutes becomes more than one can patiently endure.

Noon - Arriving at the hotel/casino, we face the misery of the airport in reverse. To get from the cab to the hotel we have to cross fifty feet of interminably insufferable blow-torching as we unhappily find ourselves once again outside. Panting, laboring to escape the outdoor pressure cooker, relief greets us in the form of yet another smoke-impacted, apparently circulationless building. Far worse than in the airport, the casino smoke-haze hangs heavily in the air like some viscous unbreathable fog from an Arthur Conan Doyle novel.

At the hotel we face an important decision: check-in, or go right to the casino. If staying more than a couple nights, or if we plan to have a relaxing visit—this never happens—we might head to the room, lounge about for a while, perhaps even unpack and get cleaned up. There one can take a moment to reflect upon how despite the fact that we reserved a non-smoking room, the two minutes we spent in the lobby, and the minute and a half it took to cross the casino to reach the elevator were more than sufficient to saturate everything we have on, as well as everything in our suitcases with that sweet, unscourable odor of stale cigarette smoke.

When we are only going to be in Vegas for one or two nights, I traditionally skip check-in, throwing my bag and five dollars at the first bellman I see as I sprint for the tables.

12:30pm - The first day is usually a total blur, as I usually completely fail to rein in my drinking. I forget how easy it is to get disoriented when I start drinking at eight in the morning, and how smooth the transition is from there to total who-am-I-where-am-I-what-happened-to-all-my-money drunk once you hit the casino. There is probably an interesting sociological study in here somewhere, but it astounds me how everyone knows why the casinos serve free drinks, everyone knows that significant quantities of alcohol impairs their judgment, everyone knows better than to gamble when they’re drunk, but no one seems to be able to stop themselves from doing it. Somehow, I am able to rationalize dropping fifty dollars on a blackjack table while waiting for one free drink, and yet I have considerable difficulty going to the casino bar and paying five dollars for the same drink. A caveat to this study would be to investigate the phenomena by which so many of us are incapable of getting up from a table while we’re winning.

Most times it doesn’t matter how much cash I bring to Vegas, for some dumb reason I like to try to blow through it all on the first day. The story is familiar, I start out doing well, sometimes very well, I get up fifty, a hundred, a couple-hundred dollars, and then the dam breaks.

NOTE TO THE INEXPERIENCED: While gambling in Vegas it is important to remember that the odds are not in your favor. The huge hotels, the elaborate casinos, the enclosure with live tigers in it, the tremendous assembly of gaudy flashing lights, all these things are funded via gambling losses; yours and mine.

Eventually, and invariably I start losing. First I give back everything I was up. If I could stop there I would be alright. I have had a few drinks, a few hours of entertainment, did a fair amount of tipping and breaking even after all that is nearly as good as winning. But then “Vegas-Rationale” kicks in, and I start listening to that inflammatory little voice in my brain that I should try harder to ignore. But the voice always seems to get really loud and persuasive whenever alcohol, gambling and scantily-clad women are afoot.

“You can’t quit now, you were just up. Win it back,” urges the voice; the smooth, persistent, rather convincing voice.

But I don’t win it back, of course not. Monetary loss and intoxication seem to follow a similarly steep and well-oiled slope. The next hundred dollars goes much quicker than the first, and on particularly bad outings, the next hundred goes even faster. If I could quit now, I would still be alright; pissed but alright. I bring a certain amount of money with which to gamble, and though I will be annoyed with myself for losing it all in the first few hours, as long as I walk away now the world won’t end.

“You can’t quit now.”

The voice has grown louder, and more insistent. The voice assures me that no one looses all the time and that I am on the verge of a tremendous comeback. More compellingly the voice insists that despite the fact that I am drunk, obnoxious and now broke, I can’t leave because the cocktail waitress is in love with me.

But I have to quit, it’s getting late, I’m tired, I’m can’t even see straight for all the “complementary” Heineken running through my brain, and I’ve lost every dollar I had on me.

“Go to the ATM.”

Damn that little voice!

Whether you have been to Vegas once or a thousand times, whether you are an amateur or a seasoned gambler, whether you have any brain at all, everyone knows better than to go to the casino-ATM. Never mind the ridiculous transaction fee, if you are using the casino-ATM it means that you are losing and you need to stop. There simply is no justifiable reason to use the casino-ATM: You’re out of money—too bad, using this ATM is just going to make things worse. You owe money to a friend—too bad, make arrangements to pay them later. Paying a debt in Vegas can only have one of two bad outcomes: (1)your intoxicated friend will not remember that you paid up, and this can destroy friendships, or (2) your intoxicated friend will blow it all that night on the Roulette table and will be pissed that you gave him cash. You need money to bail a friend out of jail—too bad, do not use the casino-ATM. You are likely to blow whatever cash you withdraw before you can find your way out of the building, besides if you were a real friend you’d be in jail with him.

Really Late - The best way to conclude the first night in Las Vegas is to pleasantly excuse myself from the table—blackjack, Pai-Gao, Roulette, whichever—tip the dealer on the way out, stop by the change-cage and cash in all my chips, and then head directly to the room to enjoy a welcome night’s sleep. Since that never happens, the more traditional method is to wake up in pain the next day around noon, hopefully someplace safe, and start trying to piece together the events of the previous twenty-four hours.

From the time I start to lose track of events until the time I ultimately lose consciousness there are a number of likely occurrences:

Losing money is invariably involved. Unfortunately the powers-that-be in Vegas do not view brain-debilitating drunkenness as grounds for removal from the casinos. I suspect this is because the powers-that-be in Vegas are well aware of what a poor gambler the brain-debilitated drunk truly is. I personally consider it a victory when I wake up in the morning and find chips rather than credit-card or ATM receipts spread about my person.

A late-night meal is likely involved. The powers-that-be in Vegas also understand what tremendous eater the debilitated-drunk truly is and have chosen to cater to this with a tremendous number of 24-hour diners, burger stands and pizza shops.

Meeting the woman of my dreams is not terribly likely. This is not to say that I don’t try, but I know, or rather I suspect that the woman of my dreams is not going to be overly receptive toward any insolvent and obnoxious bar-rag that presents himself in the wee-small hours on the tail end of a Vegas bender.

8:00am Saturday - I am neither crazy nor motivated enough to get up at this ridiculous hour after the night I just had. However, this is the danger-hour; that perilous stretch between eight and nine in the morning when one or a couple of my friends, the ones who knocked off early the night before, begin to stir. For one horrendous reason or another—one of my friends is hungry, one is too excited or still has too much Red Bull coursing through his system, one needs to get down to the Sports Book to place a bet before some game starts in Newfoundland—my hotel roommates always get up too early. And once one person in the room is up everyone has to get up.

9:00am - I doubt if I am hungry again by now, but the day invariably starts at the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet. In Vegas food is very reasonable, even cheap. And if you are going to eat breakfast at all, you might as well go for all-you-can-eat. Nothing compliments the steak and eggs I had at three this morning quite like several hundred steaming trays of pancakes, sausage, hash browns, biscuits, bacon, huevos and French toast.

The popularity of a typical Vegas buffet is staggering. I have not been to a buffet in the past five years that did not have a tremendous line in front of it. I have not stood in one of these lines, at nine in the morning, in the past five years without suffering from the tremendous temptation to go back to bed. Not unintentionally, the restaurants are located close enough to the casino so that one can still hear the hypnotic rhythm of the gambling floor. Commanding are the chiming, humming, spinning, ringing machines, the clinking silver coins, the drumming clay chips, the shuffling cards, the calling cocktail waitresses—especially the calling cocktail waitresses—the general festive din that brings me back to life, and I know there is no sleep in my future.

Waiting in a Vegas-buffet line carries with it a familiar ballet within my circle of friends. Commonly, first we notice that we have once again lost John, and we begin to wonder when we parted ways, wonder what he could possibly be doing and speculate on whether we will ever see him again. Then we notice that we have once again lost Scott, though we know exactly when we lost him, and know that he is now in the capable hands of an early-morning gambling-jones and will be joining us shortly after he either wins or loses a hundred dollars playing blackjack. Next, one of the Kevins departs for the Sports Book to get the latest point spreads, and depending upon which Kevin, he will either return quickly with the line-sheets, or he will return slightly later with Scott in tow after they have both won or lost a hundred dollars playing blackjack. If I can be convinced to stay in line it is only because I have started playing Keno with my remaining friends, which you can conveniently see from anywhere in or near the restaurant.

10:00am Completely full, absolutely drained, and wholly unmotivated to gamble, I typically choose this time to make my way to the pool. While ten in the morning may seem a tad early to lay out, if you are staying at one of those hotels that has the resort-style swimming complex, you had better get out there early, or you risk not getting a chaise.

Sunning in Vegas also fits a familiar pattern. I can lay in the sun for upwards of thirty seconds at a time, until my brain starts to melt out through my ears, whereby I am forced to run as best I can across the cement patio, through a virtually impassable labyrinth of deck chairs and sun bathers, loosing several layers of skin off the bottom of my feet in a desperate quest to reach the pool before I pass out. Sounds like fun, hey? It is when you understand that one of the most enjoyable activities on this planet is sitting out in the sun and drinking tropical drinks while people watching. Unfortunately on this particular part of the planet the sun shines down with sadistic intensity, and the tropical drinks cost about eight-fifty a piece.

The expense is a necessary one, especially when you consider you are being served by a waitress that is every bit as beautiful as the ones inside the casino, except that now she is wearing some manner of swimwear that you are pretty sure is not street-legal.

The drinks become even more reasonable when one of my friends who has been in the casino for the last hour finally makes his way out to the pool, and admits that his two “free” beers cost him sixty dollars in gambling losses.

1:00pm Las Vegas offers the best people watching east of Disneyland, and the cross-section of humanity to be observed at any sizable hotel pool is exemplary. Among the standouts are the sun-worshipping supermodels from Brazil, whose native-cut swimsuits make the cocktail waitresses look like they are wearing nun’s habits. Then, happily, there always seem to be a number of bachelorette-party attendees out enjoying the sun. And yes ladies, groups of bachelors are also present, except they are less interested in the sun than they are the bachelorettes and Brazilians. People watching by the pool is as close as you will come to enjoying a relaxing activity in Vegas, and is a far less expensive way to spend the day than watching your life savings evaporate inside the casino. I do try to be cautious against risking overexposure, and since I usually come to the pool fairly early, I try not to stay out much past noon.

3:30pm Still at the pool.

Health risks aside, you can hardly blame me when my alternatives are to stay outside enjoying a beautiful, though scorching, sun-filled day, surrounded by the beautiful people and waitresses, or go inside to have twenty dollar bills sucked unsympathetically out of my wallet.

I have found that I can spend a good portion of the day at the pool, without overly endangering my health, but it takes some planning. Most important are regular plunges into the pool itself. While a dip into ninety-five degree water may not seem overly refreshing, when you consider the outside temperature is somewhere in the 130’s, even a coffee bath brings some relief. While in the pool, be wary of two things: (1) try not to submerge yourself while holding your drink. Nothing puts a downer on an otherwise beautiful day quite like dumping nine dollars worth of Mai Tai down the drain, and (2) try not to walk under the waterfall while holding your drink. As inviting as it seems, nothing renders a nine-dollar Mai Tai undrinkable quite like a fifteen-hundred gallon falling wall of chlorinated water.

Semi-occasional trips into the hotel/casino are also a good way to escape the elements, though they can be dangerous if not well orchestrated. It is vital that I remember not to gamble at this point. Passing from the stifling blast furnace outdoors, into the cryogenic chamber of the casino can be, in a word, disorienting. Throw in the number of hours I have spent in the oven sautéing my brain, and the number of Long Islands that have gone towards basting same, and what you have is an individual totally ill-suited for gambling. I like to visit the hotel/casino at intervals to check scores at the Sports Book, to check on my friends at the various tables, to check back at the room to see if John has resurfaced, and to check the make-shift coolers we created in the trash cans and bath tub to see if we have any beer left.

4:00pm By now I have had my fill of the Las Vegas sunshine. More likely by now I have spent every soggy dollar I brought out with me, I have determined that the pool-side waitress is not going to marry me, and everyone in my vicinity now find me categorically insufferable. It’s time to go inside.

5:00pm My friends and I find this a fitting time to rally back at the room. It is here that the key cosmetic and logistical issues are tackled. Do I take a nap? Am I going to shower today? Am I going to eat tonight? Do I own any clothing that doesn’t smell like a well-used ashtray? Where are those five-dollar chips that I so cleverly hid from myself last night? Do we call John’s girlfriend and give her the bad news?

6:00pm I try to do my serious gambling on the second night as I am usually a lot less inebriated than I was the night before. Correction, I am forced to do a fair amount of chasing on the second night as I pissed away so much money while in a state of extreme inebriation the night before. I play poker when I am disposed to do any sort of winning. I rarely come close to covering earlier losses, but at a poker table I can tread water with the best of them and eventually manage to garner some spending money for the evening.

I need to start winning early on this second evening or the chasing impulse becomes compulsive. Losing begets losing, and if I am smart, I will walk away before I get desperate, before I get too drunk, before I get too mad, before I get too far in the hole. If I am lucky, I may break even or even win a little, freeing me to enjoy the rest of my night.

11:00pm If I am with a group that is so inclined, the second night in Vegas is the night reserved for clubbing. As a unit, traditionally we do sufficiently less drinking on the second day, and are much better suited to enjoying an evening of spending too much to get into clubs, spending too much on drinks at the clubs, spending too much on drinks for women who are just using us to get free drinks at the club, dancing, and general carrying on.

The frivolities that occur at the clubs in Vegas can fill volumes. Heck, the chaos we encounter just trying to get to the clubs as one cohesive group can fill volumes. However, in this arena I am bound by an unbreakable oath, and clever advertising campaign, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” To be completely honest, I would have no problem shouting out the exploits of my friends from on high-mountain if I thought I could get a laugh out of it, but the phrase I am truly bound by is this; “What happens in Vegas when I am too drunk to remember it, stays in Vegas.”

5:00am Yes, the nightclubs close long before this, but the other clubs…those other clubs…the clubs where you pay even more to get in, pay much more for a drink, the music is louder, the lighting is worse, the women are tragically, if not artificially, beautiful, and despite what my addled and poorly working brain tells me, the centerfold swinging on the shinny brass pole is not in love with me either…those clubs are open much later. And while what happens here could fill a modest sized library, these stories are staying in Vegas.

Sunday My head hurts, I have slept right through the hotel’s “recommended” check-out time, and a considerable quantity of my money is missing. If I have spent the last two nights in Vegas, right now I am wishing it was one. If I was crazy and foolish enough to spend more than two nights in Vegas, right now I am swearing to never do it again. I am also swearing off drinking, gambling and cities that never sleep.

Sunday is good for little else than getting home. I’m usually too nauseous to eat, too broke to gamble, and too tired to do anything of significance. Throw in a brain-detonating headache and billion degree temperatures, and it becomes obvious why I have no interest spending the next six hours stuck in traffic.

Catching my flight, then, becomes the order of the day. Getting to the airport is really no problem, as long as I remember that on Sunday approximately 85-percent of Las Vegas’ two-million visitors are attempting to leave town, and half of them need a cab, just like I do, while the others are in their own cars clogging up the one road that runs through Vegas. So between cabs, cars, shuttles, limos, busses and general mayhem, it is wise to leave an extra day or two to catch your flight.

The mood at McCarran and on the return flight is now much more subdued. Everyone is lost in their own world, mulling over how they are going to explain to their husband/wife/significant other/parents/priest/landlord about all the money they lost, about where the hickies and tattoos came from, about the complete stranger they married, about the jewelry they pawned, and about how to get to come back in six months.

When leaving Las Vegas I am reliably bludgeoned and doubtlessly need a vacation far more than I did before I left home. I would never admit this to myself, but it follows that staying at home and going to work is profoundly more relaxing than a trip to Vegas. It takes about twenty-four hours for the Vegas hangover to pass, and traditionally a little less than a week to get the next trip planned.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me every three months, shame on Vegas.

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