Saturday, August 9, 2008

Surviving the Las Vegas Strip

It's a little before 8:00 in the morning. I can already smell the hot sun on the pavement of Las Vegas. My wife and I are creeping across the street from our rented condo at Granville. We are going to play a little on the Wizard of Oz slot machine. We figure if we go early, we'll get there before the problem gamblers arrive. (You just shush.)

The South Point casino has four of these machines, one right next to the other and last night they were choked with happy, laughing people who were cleaning up with jackpot after jackpot.

My wife is a huge Wizard of Oz fan and she loves slot machines. I love the fact that this is a penny slot it takes marginally longer to eat your money.

We cross the casino...all senses tingling, fingers teasing the allocated but no-doubt doomed dollars in our pockets. At first I am surprised at how many people are here at such an hour. (You can never tell what time it is in the casino. It could be mid morning. It could be midnight.)

"Boy...there sure are a lot of problem gamblers here this morning," I comment to my wife.

She gets the joke -- but is ignoring me.

"You'd have to be half crazy to be in a casino before breakfast," I add cleverly.

She ignores me some more.

"Holy smokes! You'd have to be--"

She turns to me and fixes me with blue eyes just on the edge of saying something really nasty. I grin and make a lock-box motion with my finger at the edge of my lips, waggling my eyebrows in my very most innocent manner. After fixing me with a "Shut up and I mean it" look, my wife takes my hand and we walk together to the back of the casino where the Wizard of Oz slot machines are.

There are two people sitting there. One is an enormous woman, who barley fits on the stool. Her clothes are sweat-stained and a cigarette smoulders in an ashtray beside her. She is mechanically pushing the "Bet Maximum" button and I realize that this particular penny slot machine is taking her for about three bucks a roll.

Beside her is a man. His chin is on his chest and he is breathing heavily, showing every sign of a someone who is either sleeping deeply or has passed away unnoticed at some point during the night. He wears sweat pants (more to make a fashion statement, than as actual workout gear) and a sweat shirt that may have fit well about fifty pounds ago.

The woman hits a jackpot. The machine has a small siezure. Her expression doesn't change. Not a bit. She keeps pressing the Bet Max button again and again. For reasons I do not fully understand, the whole tableau is starting to depress me.

My wife and I hate the smell of smoke and she wanders off to another game. I, however, am transfixed. It's not unlike watching the same train wreck over and over again.

This woman bets again and again and again and within the space of just a few minutes, she's lost a couple of hundred dollars. All her money has fallen victim to that most reliable staple of Vegas magic: POOOF! It's gone. She pokes the man and wordlessly they rise and shamble off.

I am left thinking of "Undead Casino Zombies" because the way they move makes me remember George Romero's creatures. I start to wonder if the entire purpose of the exercise was to give her money to the slot machine in the first place and now she can finally relax because it's gone.

A girl in a costume that can't be comfortable comes around with a tray full of beer and highballs.

"Cocktails?" she asks no one in particular. "Cocktails?"

It's not even nine o'clock in the morning, I wonder out loud.

This isn't Las Vegas. It's the Island of Lost Boys. It's "para-dice." It's the rabbit hole.

For just a second I feel like an alien dropped into a strange world. All around me slot machines purr and hum and spin. People smoke with a strange meditative manner that tells you they are far, far away and their world has contracted to the few inches of dancing light in front of their eyes. It's still relatively early so there aren't loud hardware salesmen types thumping each other on the back in male bonding rituals at the craps table.

Nope. At this hour it's quiet. It's intense and resigned all at the same time. It's very strange.

Here are some tips for surviving the Strip:

1) Don't go.

2) If Point 1 isn't an option, then ensure you take picture ID with you. On the very off chance you hit a jackpot, you will need ID to get your money. It's actually a Nevada law that you must have ID in casinos. This way, also, if you have a heart attack they will know where to send the body.

3) Try to limit what you are going to bet. My father once told me to take twenty dollars, put it into one pocket and when it's gone -- to walk away. It sounds basic, right? But just think about it for a second. People put more money into the machines because they are expecting a payoff. They expect to get their money back. I remember a college psych class where the prof said "that to do the same thing over and over in the expectation of a different outcome is the purest definition of insanity." You do the math.

4) Yes. The drinks are free. But tip the girl a buck, okay? Maybe you'd like to be trapped in those shoes eight hours a day? And remember: the more you drink, the dumber you get. Do you think it's possible the casinos want it that way? Nah.

5) Taking pictures inside casinos will get you a great deal of immediate attention. I don't know what the issue is -- but security people appear out of nowhere when you start pointing a camera around. This can be highly entertaining if you do it four times in a row at the same casino -- pretending you don't speak english each time. (Okay...maybe I find it entertaining.)

The pictures here were taken at Treasure Island, by the way, on the only day we spent on the Strip. I would have included some of the shots I took of slot machines...but I am pretty sure that I'll get the chair if I actually admit I have them.