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Contact Jim LaVigne at jim@jimlavigne.com

All content on this website copyright 2005 Jim LaVigne

Degradation

by Jim LaVigne

The tone was set on Friday night. We were on Fremont Street, Glitter Gulch, in the grubby heart of downtown Las Vegas. Some years ago, they closed a five-block long section of the street, made it into a pedestrian mall, and covered the whole thing with an enormous canopy of sorts, a curved, porous roof for the street. At night (as if the canyon-walls of neon weren't enough) they project a light show on the canopy to the accompaniment of assorted moldy classic rock numbers and popular tripe. It's big and loud and garish and the tourists eat it up like crows with roadkill. At the end of each light show--they occur like every twenty minutes or something--the music segues into Lee Greenwood's Proud to Be an American and the visual display features a 60-foot tall, 200-foot long American flag waving perfectly in a digital breeze.

The four of us revelers stood, weaving and gawking up at the spectacle along with maybe 300 other tourists and weirdos, drinks in hand, occasionally letting out with a feigned "ooh" or "aah". It was about seven-thirty PM, about an hour after sunset. The song wound up into a thunderous crescendo on the last chorus and my pal Reg threw back his head and sang along. Good pipes on the man, I had to admit, but then it came to the next line of the chorus, "'cause at least I know I'm free..." and Reg belted out instead "'cause at least I know I'm gaaaay!"

The crowd around us stopped watching the light show, stopped listening to the stirring, patriotic melody, and stopped having a good time. Several scruffy, mean-looking guys glared at Reg like they'd really, really like to hit him. Hard. And often.

Reg's wife smacked him and he quit singing.

"What?" he asked, looking around. "I'm proud to be an American! I am!"

"C'mon, guys," I said, pulling Reg away from the area, down the sidewalk towards the Nugget. "Let's go lose some money..."

A block and ten bucks later, we were safely at the bar at Fitzgerald's, dissolutely playing video park at the bar and getting comps on shots of Absolut. I lit a smoke and tried to remember all that had gone on so far...

Vegas is not what it once was, and downtown Vegas especially so. Almost all of the seventies-style hotels and casinos are gone now, replaced with newer yet no less unappealing joints that try for cool but always seem about ten years behind. Downtown is different from the Strip as well. On the Strip the properties are immense, monolithic structures; castles and pyramids and flashy skyscrapers. But downtown the places are more like big hotels with the ground floor devoted to bars and casinos. Throw in a mess of restaurants (the all-you-can-eat buffet is popular) and a few crappy gift shops and there you have Downtown.

But there's a buzz Downtown that's absent on the Strip, a more world-weary, jaded, and yet exciting aura that the Strip lacks because it is too spread out, too big for mere mortals. The Strip is better for frat-boys and high rollers from Taiwan or Spain, people with families or rich couples on honeymoon.

Downtown is all within walking distance (or in our case, stumbling distance) and it is the domain of the average, the abode of the mundane, the home of the bland. People here don't want a fountain and light show, they don't give a rat's ass for the pirate revue or the roller coasters. They want to gamble, drink, and eat, in that order, and they don't want to fuck around doing it. Their desperate faces are reflected in the smeared glass fronts of the slot machines and they hover like pale, determined apparitions at the sports book or cheer joylessly at the craps table, their laughter coarse and manic.

All around them the casino is alive with noise. Mostly it's the Bong Bong Bong, Ding Ding Ding of the slots. This noise is pervasive in any casino and I would bet anything that if you took a lab rat and subjected it to twenty-four hours of it, the rat would claw out it's own ears. Add to that some lame eighties music piped in, the yells from the craps tables, and the cocktail waitresses calling out, and it gets pretty damn overwhelming. But do the Downtown gamblers seem to even notice the din? Hell no! They're here to accomplish their three objectives and they don't have a lot of time to do it, so to hell with the glitz, gimme a beer and a pack of Marlboros and a loose progressive-jackpot machine in the corner..

We were different. We were here to have fun, damn it, and not to piss away our time perched on a stool at some slot that would never pay out no matter how long we kept feeding it quarters. We were on vacation, even if it was just three days, and we didn't care who knew it. We didn't set out with the intention of being obnoxious, it just happened. It was organic, like we were seeds in the soil and the licentiousness of Vegas was the moisture and sunlight that caused us to sprout.

There was me, Jim, and my wife Kat, and my pal Reg and his wife Betty. Kat and I had arrived that morning and checked into our Jacuzzi suite at the Four Queens, a fairly big set of rooms done in a sort of late-eighties, Miami Vice style. Not bad, in a campy kind of way, but you never spend much time in your room in Vegas anyway; there's just too much ambient, frantic energy all round, every minute, for that.

We went and had some food and then started in drinking at about noon, moving from casino to casino, checking things out and getting the feel for the area. Every once in a while we'd head up to the room for a few hits of some A-grade I'd dared to bring. This is, after all, Post-9.11, and carrying weed through today's security is not as worry-free as it used to be. Not that I'd be flying with any serious quantity of the stuff, but it would be pretty rank to get yanked off of a plane or taken into the back for a strip-search. But who knows? Maybe nowadays the powers that be have bigger fish to fry than small-time potheads like me...

Anyway, we were already feeling fairly loose and it was barely four PM. We decided to hunker down somewhere and wait for the others, who were due to arrive at six or so and who were staying at the Fremont. At some point, maybe an hour or two later, an expansive and slightly slurred voice boomed from behind us:

"Jimmy and Kat!" roared Reg, laying an arm over each of our shoulders. "Time to get down on it!"

Kat and I jumped about a foot and then relaxed when we figured out that we weren't being bum-rushed by some wild casino freak or tossed by bouncers. We greeted the newcomers and exchanged some salutations. They were hungry and, earlier, Kat had spotted a sushi bar that she wanted to check out, so off we went for some chow.

Personally, I can't stand sushi. The way I see it, we have the technology to cook our food and should therefore avail ourselves of it as a species whenever possible. That said, I do like sushi places because they serve sake, a favorite liquid intoxicant of mine. The buzz is similar to wine with a sort of nervousness to it that I find enjoyable. A little like a mix of strong booze and light cocaine. Goofy yet awake...

Anyway, we were sitting at the bar section of this place, watching the chef chop and roll and shape the various fish and crab and seaweed and God-knows-what, when this drunken ugly woman stumbles up and sits down next to Kat, on her right. She was perfect American underclass; unkempt, ill-spoken, and drunk, and we paid her little mind. This is not to say that we weren't well on our way to joining in her inebriation, but we could all handle it a lot more gracefully than her. Or not. Maybe it just seemed that way since we were drunk and stoned... Who knows? OK, so maybe it is a pot (no pun intended) calling the kettle black. So what. She was just awful, really. Trust me.

So the others are digging in to their California rolls and raw eels and stuff when this broad leans right over Kat and grabs my arm. It took three tries on her part for me to make out what the hell she was saying. At first it sounded like:

"Whyahalostersaloryersh?" But I finally deciphered:

"Why do you have lobsters all over your shirt?" This in reference to my highly-stylin' attire, a bright green linen shirt with big red lobsters embroidered all over it. Kat sort of moved/shoved the woman back onto her own stool and gave her a withering glare, but the bar-hag persisted.

"Whyahalostersaloryersh?"

"Why the fuck not?" I yelled at her, louder than I'd wanted. Around us, people stopped and looked, but only in that unique, "well, they're not killing anybody..." way that you see in Vegas. The woman shrugged once and then went back to herself, muttering. A little while later she was trying to light a cigarette and fell backwards off of her stool with a kind of squishy thud and was shown the door by a solicitous if implacable Japanese sushi-chef.

"Damn drunks...:" Reg said. "What's the world coming to?"

After some desultory gambling to get the free booze, we left there and made our way to several casinos, playing this or that here or there, and knocking back vodkas and beers. At one point Reg and I found ourselves alone at a bar at the Lady Luck, the women having wandered off to somewhere. Down at the other end of the bar were six or seven Hispanic guys in do-rags and big puffy coats, slamming tequila and beer and shouting down the bar, which was about sixty feet long, at whoever would listen.

"YO! We are motherfuckin' WINNERS, man! You a fuckin' winner, dude?" I guess I had made inadvertent eye contact with him. He and his boys actually seemed to want a reply.

"Uh, yeah!" I called to him and pumped a fist. "Fuckin' A!"

"YEAH!" he shouted. "Motherfuckin' WINNERS, MAN!" I looked away and tried to concentrate on the video poker game in the bar-top. The bartender didn't seem to mind their display and just kept pouring the Cuervo. Those guys must've been tipping pretty damn well.

Just then a group of about ten Hispanic women come walking up, one of them pushing a kid in a stroller and one about a hundred and twenty years old. Instantly, the chest-thumping young men were transformed from gang-banger bravado to shamed little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Just mellowed ëem right the hell out. Happy and laughing, they all left the noisy, smoky place, a nice happy family.

I was about to point all of this out to Reg when he all of a sudden lets out a yelp and dashes off into the depths of the casino, swiftly vanishing among the slots and people and furniture. Hmm, I thought. Going to the bathroom? Suffering from some sort of alcohol delusions? Ass on fire? I looked around. I was alone in the Lady Luck, a genuine slice of Vegas cheese, all pastels and gold and silver, lots of lights, lots of mirrors. And the noise, always the noise. I decided to just wait. The others had to come back sometime, didn't they? I shoved another five in the bar-top machine and ordered another Stoli tonic. Maybe ten minutes later. Reg reappeared right beside me, waving a flier of some sort.

"Check it out!" he says. "Elvis! Tomorrow night!"

Now normally Reg is a pretty normal guy. He likes a good time, knows how to take care of business, and is a generally good Joe. So it's just weird that he has this thing about Elvis. He owns about a zillion Elvis videos, CDs, LPs, whatever. He's like, fixated on the whole legendary Elvis weirdness, I think. The whole fin-de-siecle thing, maybe. I don't know. But, for whatever reason, the guy can't help it; he just can't get enough Elvis.

"The what now?" I asked, trying to focus on the flier. It was an ad for an Elvis impersonator contest that was tomorrow night in the casino theater.

"Dude!" Reg grabbed my shoulder hard enough to make me yelp. "I'm totally there! I can win this thing!"

"What?" I shrugged off his grip. "Are you fucking crazy? This is Vegas, man! The Elvis impersonator capital of the world! They'll eat you alive!"

"Nuh uh," he said. "I can do it. You've never seen my act, you don't know..."

"I know that you're gonna make an ass of yourself..."

"No way," he kept on. "Sixties comeback version. Black leathers. Sideburns. The whole package. And the song? Gotta be."

"What?" I asked.

"What what?"

"What does it "gotta be"? Which song?"

"Can't tell you."

"Why not?"

"Just can't. Bad luck, man."

"Whatever," I'd had about enough of this. "Where did the girls go?"

We wandered around the casino for a while and finally found them at a blackjack table. It was a standard, five-buck minimum, four-seat, semi-circle table, but their particular game was surrounded by a small throng of gawkers and well-wishers, a phenomenon one typically finds at a table where someone's winning. I looked at Reg and he looked back and we both shrugged. Then Reg, being by far the larger of the two of us, shouldered his way up to the back of Betty's stool with me in his wake, getting us close enough to see the action proper.

"Holy fuck!" exclaimed Reg, slapping his forehead with one hand. I followed his gaze and saw that Kat had something like twelve stacks of chips in front of her, each one about eight inches high. Apparently my wife was doing rather well. I edged over behind her stool and leaned in so she could hear me.

"Hey, what's goin' on?" I asked. She swiveled, saw it was me, and swiveled back.

"Look at this!" she waved at the stacks of chips. "I'm killin' ëem here!"

And she was; over the course of the next hour, I watched her winóand I countedótwenty straight games, lose two, and then win eighteen more. The stack and the crowd around the table just kept growing, attracted in some part, no doubt, by Reg's loud encouragement.

"Hot damn!" he'd shout from time to time, usually causing one or more of the other on-lookers to twist their heads away in apparent discomfort, like someone had just blown an air-horn in their ear. Which, come to think of it, must have been pretty much what it was really like... And the chips kept piling up.

After about an hour, I think Kat must have gotten bored at winning, or maybe she needed to use the bathroom, but, for whatever reason, she finally decided to leave the charmed table. After tipping the dealer (the latest of the third she'd burned through) handsomely and, acknowledging the claps and cheers from the vicariously pleased crowd, she toddled over to the cash windows and collected her winnings. $4,235. Not bad work when you can get it, I guess. Flush with the heady feeling of having actually made money at a Vegas table, Kat treated us to champagne at the Nugget sports book and then bought us each a souvenir from a street vendor.

Finally the flush wore off and there we were, standing under the cavernous awning-thing that covers the mall on Fremont, watching the show and then leaving hastily when Reg started singing loudly about being proud to be gay.

I snapped out of my reverie, slumped at the bar in Fitzgerald's, as Reg slapped me on the back of the neck and yelled.

"C'mon!" his face was sort of mottled and his eyes seemed to be trying to look in two different directions at once. "Let's fucking DO something! This is fucking DULL!"

"All right, all right!" I said, staggering out of the comfy bar chair. "Fine. What you wanna do?" He shrugged.

"Dunno..." he said helplessly. "Whatever..."

"Great suggestion," I scowled and then looked over at the women. "What you guys wanna do?" I queried.

"I don't care," said Kat.

"Whatever," said Betty.

"Yeah!" said Reg.

"OK..." I scratched my head. Where to go, what to do? Then I recalled a cool neon sign I'd noticed earlier, for a casino down the street a ways, the El Coronado. We hadn't been there yet and, for some reason, the name appealed to me at the time.

"I gotta place," I said. "Let's go."

"Cool!" Reg said and slammed his Heineken. The girls likewise finished their cocktails and we hit the bricks again, heading off down towards where I could see the mammoth sign for the Coronado.

The crowds had grown while we'd been in the Fitz, and now there were street performers and musicians as well. We were about to pass a particularly large group that had gathered around something on the sidewalk, where a set of bright flood lights shone down on whatever was going on in the center of a ten-deep circle of people.

Reg stopped and stood on tip-toe, trying to see what everyone was looking at. Betty joined him in looking and then Reg grabbed her hand and pushed their way through the crowd, sliding sideways past the hicks and car salesmen and housewives. The crowd parted and then closed over them like a wave and Kat and I lost sight of them. We looked at each other and then went and sat on a nearby planter to wait.

Abruptly, from the center of the throng gathered around whatever-it-was, there came Betty's voice, loud and clear, even over the amplified sax of the Kenny G. knock-off performer nearby.

"What, this? This is crap! Look at it! Crap! Why are you all standing around, inhaling paint fumes, watching this hack spray-paint a piece of..."

Her voice was suddenly muffled and then the crowd parted again and the two of them came out of the now-disgruntled crowd. They walked over and sat on the planter next to Kat and me.

"What is it?" I asked.

"Some guy spray-painting really bad art," Reg waved dismissively at the crowd.

"CRAP!" Betty said loudly, one more time for good measure. I hopped down off the planter and weaved a few steps. The others followed and we made our way down Glitter Gulch, the lights sort of running together into one giant eye-fuck of phantasmagorical excess.

"Where we goin'?" Kat asked, reasonably enough, taking my arm. She'd gotten a cocktail of some sort from somewhere when I wasn't looking and was swigging it as we walked, so maybe she needed the support...

"The El Coronado," I announced, letting the words roll off my tongue.

"Wha?" the others all said. "Why?"

"Why not?" I asked, invoking what was quickly becoming a theme for this whole weekend. They had no answer to this astounding wisdom and collectively shrugged and we kept walking. After three blocks or so, we came to a wall, a huge wall that stretched from one side of the street to the other and reached all the way to the awning/roof thingy. It was like the wall the natives used in King Kong to keep the big monkey out. A roughly-cut doorway of sorts issued into what was beyond.

And here the lights and the music ended. Beyond there was just regular Vegas, a regular inner city with regular cars and storefronts and office-type buildings. Here and there was a brightly-lit casino, like an oasis of neon among the restaurants and gas stations, but it was patently obvious that Glitter Gulch ended here. Right, exactly here. Proceed at your own risk kind of thing.

I looked at them closely, but the others hadn't really seemed to have taken all this in. Chattering and laughing and smoking, we crossed over, went past the wall, and entered... something else. The sidewalks here were not choked with tourists, but here and there was a youngish black man in dark clothes that hissed as you walked past. There weren't too many car salesmen down this way, but every block had a sports car at the curb with a sleazily-dressed, overly made-up women standing hip-shot on the sidewalk. I tried not to make eye contact with anyone but to look confident at the same time (not an easy trick when you're as drunk as I was) and we kept going. I had very seriously misjudged the distances. It was like six long blocks down to the Coronado.

It finally dawned on the others that we were walking through the de-militarized zone at about the third block. We were standing on a street corner, waiting for the light to change, when a nice lady wearing a see-through raincoat with a bikini underneath asked Reg or me if we wanted a date.

"Wanna date?" The classic. Reg and I looked around. Was she talking to us? We both shook our heads.

"No, thanks."

"Nuh uh, no thanks..." And then the light changed and we left.

The El Coronado was a flat-out creepshow, a low-rent place for people who liked their casino loud, brightly-lit, low-ceilinged, smoky, smelly, and poorly-decorated. I don't know what kind of person that is, but there were a fair number of them in the place that night.

We threaded our way over to a bar and grabbed a couple of stools. An old toothless guy was occupying space at the end, corner stool next to us. We put some dollars into the bar-top machines and the bartender came over. He was a thickly-built Hispanic guy with a severe buzz-cut. We ordered our usuals and poked at the screens till the drinks came. I looked around, but the clientele was so sad and hopeless that I went back to my game.

The drinks came. Reg had gotten his standard Heineken, but the others! Kat got a water-glass full of vodka and ice with a splash of tonic on top, Betty got an oversize tumbler of Jack Daniels and ice with a hint of Coke on top, and I got a fist-sized shot-glass full of vodka with a couple of ice cubes floating on top. We raised them carefully and drank.

"Holy Christ!" Reg exclaimed. "Lookit that!"

"Yeah!" I agreed. "I think I like this place..." This brought grimaces and groans from the others, but hey, with drink service like this, I figured you couldn't go wrong, right? Wrong.

We drank. Reg polished off his beer, struggling to keep up to the rest of us in terms of toxicity, and called for another.

"Barkeep!" he yelled. This seemed to trigger something in the old toothless guy and he shook of his torpor and sat up.

"What'd you call him?" he squinted at Reg. "Porky?"

"No," Reg explained. "I said barkeep..."

"What?" the guy shouted.

"I said BARKEEP!" Reg shouted at the guy's ear. I noticed that the bartender himself couldn't help but hear this loud exclamation and started walking over towards Reg, a scowl on his face.

"Oh," the old guy relapsed into his chair again. The bartender walked up and stuck both hands on the bar.

"What is it pal?" asked the bartender. Reg turned to see the guy about six inches from his own face and sort of lurched back in his chair.

"Oh!" Reg blurted. "Oh, uh, sorry, I was just tellin' this guy that..."

"He called ya Porky," piped up the old toothless guy, leaning over the bar and eyeing Reg ominously.

"He what?" asked the bartender, raising an eyebrow at Reg.

"I did not!" Reg protested. "I said..."

"Did too!" Old toothless asserted. "He called you Porky! Porky!"

"Look pal," said the bartender to Reg, "why don't you take it somewhere else, huh?"

"No, I was just..." Reg tried again. I noticed suddenly that there was a sort of... disturbance in the atmosphere and then there were two rather large men standing behind our chairs. I looked over my shoulder at one of them and smiled.

"Hiya, fellas!" I said with as much cheer as I could muster. They stared back, brick walls in cheap rayon uniforms. I slammed my drink (maybe three normal shots) and then swallowed hard to keep it down. The women were already getting themselves together, getting ready to go, but Reg was still trying to explain. Old toothless just grinned his gummy smile and then one of the big, cheap-uniform guys laid a hand on Reg's shoulder.

"Let's go..." one of them rumbled, and about thirty seconds later we were walking back down Fremont to the bright lights, the civilization, of downtown proper. So much for the El Coronado.

"Jesus, what a fucking dump!" Reg said, looking back. "Fucking old toothless bastard. I'll give him Porky..."

"Good drinks, though."

"Oh, yeah."

The rest of that night is a murky jumble of disconnected memories. Reg noticing the LVPD bike patrol and pointing at them, calling out "Cops on bikes! Cops on bikes!". Playing roulette at some smoky, nasty little casino, struggling to understand the croupier's hand-signals which, by the way, could be understood by a hydrocephalic monkey. Wandering up and down Fremont Street under the seemingly endless light shows. Drinks, cocktails, beers, shots... More singing along to Lee Greenwood. It was ugly, I'm sure, but then again, who can say? Not me, that's for sure....

In my memory, there are about four hours of not much and then the veil lifts and concrete recollections resume. We were all in our suite at the Four Queens, sitting at the small bar, smoking my weed from a pop-can pipe, and talking too loudly. And that's when Kat started talking about cocaine. Wouldn't that be fun? Just a little blow to liven things up? Reg and I agreed that some Peruvian marching powder would somehow be a good thing right then and Betty just rolled her eyes, but what was to be done? It was the age-old dilemma of the illicit drug-user. Money but no drugs... Then it hit me. If a guy could buy soft cocaine on the street anywhere, it was here, the heart of Sin City. Hell, there were probably a dozen guys just down the block right now, just waiting for some nice, well-heeled tourist to come along and buy some of their wares. Basic drunken reasoning.

"I could get us some," I mumbled/slurred.

"Wha?" Reg's elbow slid off the bar and he nearly smashed his face on the bar-top before catching himself. "Bullshit. No way you could get us blow..." Aha, a challenge! I thought to myself.

"Wanna bet?" I stood and wobbled at him. "Betcha ten bucks I can walk out onna street right now and buy cocaine. No shit. Betcha..."

"Yer on," Reg and I shook on it. Kat just gave me a "what the fuck are you thinking?" look. I could see that Betty had a weird look on her face, but I thought at the time that maybe she had gas or something and paid it no mind.

"And you're goin' with," I told him.

"What?" he nearly yelled. "Why?"

"'Cause you..." I slapped him on the shoulder. "Are gonna be the muscle. Make sure no one burns me on the deal." Both women moaned at this.

"Great," said Betty, shaking her head.

"Jim," Kat said, hanging on my arm. "This is no good. Don't do it. I mean, who needs it, right?"

"Nuh uh," I was set on this obsessive, narrow-vision quest now, and once set, I get implacable. "Nothin' to it. Nobody's gonna fuck with us, we're tourists. Besides, Reg looks pretty tough..."

"Reg looks pretty drunk you mean!" Betty protested, but Reg himself seemed to be warming to the idea, nodding thoughtfully and obviously trying to look tough. We went back and forth with our wives for a while and then it was decided that Reg and I would go out, have a look around for any obvious, no-risk dealers and not get into any bad spots that we couldn't get out of. It's hard to explain but it made perfect sense at the time. I think the kicker was when Reg pointed out that nobody could shoot a guy in a shirt like mine...

There's another gap in my memory at that point, and the next thing I remember is walking down the ugly streets of Fremont, out past the King Kong Wall and stopping to talk with some rough-looking young men every so often. It was late, maybe two AM or so, and the streets were dark; only the sin-oriented were still up and about down here...They were dark, almost ghostly young men with non-descript, blank features, wearing the standard baggy uniform of urban youth, hustling hard on a Friday night to make their living. They were alert, quick-moving, and efficient. I would walk up, ask in my best fake Ebonics as to the availability of some blow and Reg would stand weaving, arms crossed, behind me. No blow, plenty o' rock.

After three or four of these wraiths, I tipped to the fact that nobody out here was going to be selling powdered cocaine. It, apparently, just wasn't done anymore. Oh well, I thought, I've never tried crack... Just about everything else, and often to excess, but never crack. Before I knew it, I was the proud owner of five rocks of the stuff at ten bucks a pop. They looked like little whitish pebbles and were handed over by the dealer/runner guy seemingly as is, no vial, no baggie, nothing, just a few hunks of crack in my palm.

Reg and I walked a few dozen steps away and I stopped and put the rocks into a cellophane wrapper from my cigarette pack, not wanting them to melt like M&Ms or something in my hand.

"What is that?" Reg asked. I looked up at him. Was he kidding?

"Crack. Whadya think?"

"Crack? Really?" Reg asked with genuine incredulity.

"Yeah. Crack," I said, resuming our walk/stagger back to the Queens. "I assume you've heard of it?"

"Well sure," he said. "But crack? Really?"

"Yes!" I said testily. "Fucking crack. What's the big deal? Coke is coke."

"I dunno..." he shrugged, almost running into a concrete trash receptacle in the process. "Whatcha do with it?"

"You smoke it," I said confidently. "Duh."

"So, what's it like?" Reg wondered. "Crack, I mean."

"How should I know?"

"You... You've never done it?"

"Nope. But it's just coke in a smokable form. Should be somethin' like that, right?"

"Oh Christ," he said worriedly. "I dunno know about this..."

Back up in the room, we found that Betty had left for their place at the Fremont. Once informed of our purchase, Kat told me to hand it over so that she could flush it down the toilet.

"No!" I said protectively. "It's mine!"

"Jim, it's got like, heroin in it!"

"Does not!" I protested. "That's crazy! It's just cocaine in solid form. They like, soak it in ether or something... But there's no fucking heroin in it!"

"Really?" Kat said dubiously. "Are you sure?"

"Positive," and I was. "It's just that smoking hits ya faster. That's the whole deal with crack..."

"Oh..." she gave up. "Whatever. You can do it if you want, but not me..."

"Yeah," Reg piped up from the bar. "Me neither."

"Fine," I shrugged. "More for me..."

The last thing I remember that night was trying to smoke the rocks, using my pop-can pipe. It didn't seem to want to light and what little smoke I did inhale tasted like shit and didn't do a thing, pharmacologically speaking. Frustrated, tired, and wall-eyed drunk, I finally gave up, saw Reg to the door, and smoked instead some of the A-grade. And that's where the veil falls again.

The morning began painfully when I surfaced from sleep/narcosis and woke up. I was on the couch, fully clothed and shod. For a second I was lost. Where the fuck? Oh yeah. Vegas. Had to be. With a groan I rose and found my smokes and tried to put the previous night's events in order. That didn't work too well so I gave up and got a glass of water. Going over to the bar, I sat down gingerly in one of the tall chairs and found a slew of beer bottles, half-empty glasses and full ashtrays. Blech. I cleared off the bar and, in the process, found the crack pebbles. Only now I could see that they weren't pebbles at all. Very closely wrapped in plastic, each "rock" was actually a tiny packet of little rocks, shrink-wrapped in baggie material and melted closed, neat as can be.

Jesus, I thought, I was fucking loaded last night... I felt bad, physically and psychically. Buying crack? On the street? And then being so shit-faced that you couldn't even figure out how to unwrap it? Man, that's getting pretty low... I tried to shrug it off and had a couple of bangs of weed off the pipe/can to assist in the effort.

Kat groaned and rolled over in bed. I coughed. She coughed. We both groaned some more. Then we remembered the Jacuzzi...

An hour, some sex, and about a hundred gallons of hot, massaging water later, we both felt better and agreed that food was definitely in order. While we were getting dressed the phone rang. It seemed incredibly loud and I dove to get it, more to make the noise stop than anything.

"Hello?"

"Dude, it's me," it was Reg and he sounded... worried. "Listen. Not a word about that goddamn crack, right? I told Betty that we... Uh yeah... So, you guys wanna go get some breakfast?"

"Uh... Yeah," I said. "Meet you at the Starbucks in the Nugget, OK?"

"About half an hour, OK?"

"See ya then," I hung up.

"Kat?" I called to her in the bathroom. "It seems Reginald would prefer that his dear wife not know of our, shall we say, nefarious activities last night. So ix-nay on the ack-cray."

"Gotcha," she agreed. "She'd kill his ass."

"Quite."

The Vegas All You Can Eat Buffet is a phenomenon that no sociologist has ever bothered to explore, and that's a shame. I think that it says something deeply profound about the American consciousness. Think about it. For one low price, you can sit and eat and eat and eat until your belly hurts and you've finally filled that desperately empty place in your soul. Only the promise of unlimited food, in countless varieties, can sate the true American. And it's a deal, like you're getting free food somehow. This combination of frugality and gluttony is a dangerous and bizarre thing in my opinion. There should be some sort of warning sign out front at the very least. Something like a "Eating more than five pounds of food in one sitting can lead to chronic obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and death" kind of thing. Like they have on smokes. But then, the whole thing is wasted on me... I'm small and thin and I always seem to feel full once I've eaten a whole plate of food. Another one would just be... more than I could eat.

Well, as you may have gathered, we went to an All You Can Eat Buffet, at the Lady Luck. It wasn't bad, your average breakfast buffet type stuff, but I was more interested in the other patrons, big people for the most part, dutifully shoveling it in like happy machines, secure in the knowledge that there was another pan of eggs in the steam table, another muffin, another plate on the way.

After we were done and dawdling over coffee and smokes, giddy from being still half-drunk, Reg got up and went to the bathroom. When he came back, somewhat quickly, he was white-faced and grimacing.

"Christ," he muttered. "Let's go." I couldn't help laughing.

"What happened, man?" I asked.

"Let's just say," he threw some ones on the table, "you don't ever want to use the bathroom at the Lady Luck Buffet. OK?"

To this day, I have no clue as to what happened to Reg in the bathroom that morning. He's not talking and, despite all efforts, he refuses to discuss it. It's pretty funny.

It was on the way back to our hotels for some more sleep--real sleep this time, not a booze-coma--that Reg and I came up with the concept of the Public Atonement Booth. This would be a convenient, easy, and very painful way of purging oneself of the psychic guilt and shame of acting up in public. Being the intensely laissez-faire place that it is, Vegas would not stop you on the spot from acting up and causing drunken scenes, but it might cite you for said behavior at the time and then require the extremely wild reveler to report the next morning for Official Punishment. Ranging from a simple pinch on the arm to a full-fledged flogging, according to the infraction committed, the Booth would be both public spectacle and personal contrition, a sort of modern-day stocks to both warn and educate the rest of the populace (not to mention the punished) on the dangers of weird behavior.

"Yeah," Reg posited. "You could have a special police that enforced it. You'd be lying in bed, still drunk from the night before, and they'd come to your door with a copy of the ticket and haul you off to the Booth."

"Yup," I said, warming to the idea. "So maybe for being generally obnoxious, they'd just give you a good hard slap. Maybe a punch in the belly for being rude to the staff. And if you got caught cheating? A righteous bad kicking."

"And afterward," Reg said dreamily, "you'd be a welcome member of the gambling and drinking community again. All forgiven, back you go..."

"You guys," Betty put in, "would be in that damn thing every morning. You'd be dead in a week."

"Hell, yeah," Kat agreed. "They'd beat the living shit out of you two..."

"Yeah..." Reg and I had to agree. I thought about it.

"Maybe," I said, "they could offer it as a free service. Sort of a Porta-Potty for the guilty soul..."

"Jim?" Reg said.

"Wha?"

"You're weird."

"Yup."

We split from Reg and Betty, Reg saying that he'd found a costume place in the Yellow Pages and that he was off to shop for the big show tonight. Oh, shit, I thought, that's right, the Elvis thing. Ugh. We wished them luck and took ourselves back to the Four Queens.

We were talking and laughing as we walked through the casino to get to the elevators, and, at one point I was walking backwards, telling Kat a joke. Suddenly her eyes widened and she stopped and motioned for me to do the same. I turned. What the? And then I noticed the two rather large, uniformed men coming through the casino. One was holding a large canvas bad and a huge silver pistol, the latter in a casual yet ready position against his leg. He seemed focused, moving straight for the exit at a steady but not yet brisk walk. The other chap was also armed, with a huge shotgun. This guy's head looked like his neck had been replaced with a swivel; he looked everywhere at once, all the time. Obviously a money-run of some kind, but man! Drawn weapons. Big fucking guns that could kill you in less time than it takes to blink. We waited and watched them go by.

"Yipe!" Kat said, holding her chest with one hand. "That was weird..."

"Uh huh..." I was dazed, adrenaline-jolted. "Let's get back to the room..."

After some more rest and another soak in the whirlpool, we felt much better and got ourselves ready for going out. The big Elvis show started at six, but I was having my doubts about Reg's chances of even getting into the competition. Aren't there like, rafts of Elvis impersonators in Vegas? Of course there are. He was doomed, I decided, and that was probably for the best. After all, I didn't want to see the guy humiliated...

We met Reg and Betty outside the Lady Luck. The cool desert air had already begun to creep through the city streets and the sun was drawing away behind the red-orange mountains. Reg was dressed normally, I saw, not wearing any kind of white, rhinestoned jump suit or anything, and I inwardly sighed in relief.

"Dude," I said to him, "where's your costume? Can't be Elvis wearing that..."

"I dropped everything off backstage this afternoon," he said as we threaded our way through the casino to the auditorium. "I couldn't get exactly what I wanted for Comeback Elvis, so I went with something else."

"Like what?" Kat asked.

"Oh God..." Betty groaned, shaking her head. "Don't ask..."

"You'll see..." Reg said, grinning cryptically.

Wishing the fool good luck, the women and I found a good table in the back of the auditorium and ordered drinks. Soon we were slurping weak vodka tonics and they felt good; restorative and calming. The place was fairly nice, a small theater with a runway-equipped stage and about fifty big tables, festooned with streamers and decorations. The audience was a pretty homogenous group; middle-aged to older ladies, mostly fat, gray-haired, and badly dressed, all excited as can be. There was also a fair contingent of folks that looked like they'd seen a line forming and had waited and come in just because they'd just stood in line for an hour and wouldn't want to miss anything. Finally the show started and an emcee guy came out, a stocky, lisping fellow in a very ugly suit who introduced the first performer. And thus began a long parade of Elvises (Elvi?). There were fat ones, thin ones, tall ones, short ones, good ones, and bad ones, all of varying degree of skill and verisimilitude in their singing and movements. Ten of these came and went and they were, to a man, cheered on like crazy by the crowd. Some were actually pretty good and, if you kind of fuzzed your eyes, they actually looked just like Elvis. Especially beloved was the Elvis who flirted with the ladies; a hip-shot in their face was a prize indeed, and a personal serenade was pure bliss.

We tried to pump Betty about Reg's plans for his performance, but she wouldn't give, saying Reg had sworn her to absolute secrecy. After the tenth Elvis I was getting pretty sick of it. I mean, I don't even like Elvis, OK? And to sit through ten of ëem, even with free drinks, was like waiting in line at the bank or something.

The emcee was about to introduce another one when we was interrupted by a guy in a headset who handed him a card. He read it over and made some sort of complaining gesture to someone off-stage. Then he shrugged and switched on his mike. Behind him the stage was pitch-black.

"All right!" he enthused unctuously. "We have one more Elvis for you tonight! He's a new-comer to the stage and I want you all to give him a big hand... Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis Forever!"

The beginning strains of Amazing Grace came from the sound system and the stage lights blared to full. At first everyone was blinded but then we could see what was on the stage. It was Elvis, but it wasn't pretty. A toilet, complete with tank, stood on stage and Reg was sitting on it, his head between his knees, his arms lying limp at his sides, hands on the ground. He was dressed in a silver lame bathrobe and nothing else, unless you counted the underwear around his ankles. A newspaper lay rumpled on the stage before the inert figure. Dead Elvis. As the music for the old chestnut hymn came from the speakers, a general gasp and sort of shiver ran through the whole crowd, as if every one of the ladies had made that noise that your mom used to make when you spilled your milk. Sort of a whooshing, inhaling noise. Then came other noises. Shouts, actually.

"Holy shit!" I said, grinning ear to ear.

"Wow!" Kat said, setting down her drink.

"We're dead," Betty said, grabbing her purse.

I thought it was brilliant. Dead Elvis! Perfect! But the crowd? Oh, they didn't like it a bit. No, they were not happy. They'd been mocked. They'd been belittled. They were pissed. One old lady all of a sudden jumped up and, shaking her wizened fist, rushed the stage. A couple of bouncers appeared from back stage and held her off, but the insurrection was becoming general, even the line-waiters, the rest of the crowd, joined in, sensing some horrible injustice being committed.

The stage abruptly went dark and the music stopped in the middle of Elvis' big wind-up. Now all you could hear was the angry grumbling of the ladies and the excited speculation from the others. Should we go nuts here? They were waiting for a spark, for someone to throw a bottle or smash something. Potential energy, looking to become kinetic.

"Come on," Betty pulled Kat out of her chair and I got up to follow. "Reg has a plan."

"A plan?" I said. "Excellent."

"That was cool..." said Kat.

We made a rendezvous with Reg at their room at the Fremont. He was still laughing.

"That was fucking GREAT!" I gave him a bear-hug.

"Thank you, thank you..." he bowed. He'd beat us back to the place and was drinking a beer when we walked in. Now he passed out glasses and flutes and produced a bottle of champagne. Pop!

"To Dead Elvis!" Reg toasted.

"To Dead Elvis!" we all cheered and clinked glasses.

"Who's ready for dinner?" Reg asked. "I'm starved..."

 

Dinner was very good, a steak joint that Kat had read about. They had a sommelier, a crumbier, all the amenities. Reg ordered the prime rib and, given the option, asked for the large serving. This turned about to be a mistake on his part, for the piece of meat that eventually hit the table (and I do mean hit) was, frankly, obscene. The rest of us had ordered conventional meals, not bloody sides of beef, and laughed at him sitting there with a hunk of flesh the size of his own head.

"Look at this fucking thing!" he said when the waiter had bustled off. "This is crazy! Who could eat this?"

"Elvis," I said, enjoying my filet mignon. "Elvis could've eaten that bastard. Probably could've tackled two..."

"Nuh uh," Reg started cutting. It was like sawing through a juicy, tenderized catcher's mitt. "Not even the king coulda eaten all this..." Then he was busy cutting, forking, and chewing.

Kat polished off her scallops, Betty finished her langostinos, I ate up all of my filet, but, while the rest of us were sipping coffee and ordering desert, Reg was still sawing away, grimly working away at the thing. A sort of glazed look had come over him and he ate emotionlessly, no longer enjoying the food but determined to see an end to the heinous piece of beef. The three others of us looked at each other. This didn't look good.

"Reg?" Betty lay a hand on her husband's arm. He didn't respond and just kept vacantly chewing, cutting, and forking.

"Reg!" she said, much more insistently.

"Wha?" he started, snapping out of whatever bizarre beef-coma he'd slipped into. "What?" He looked around like he'd just woken up and then down at his plate. About half of the meat remained, a gruesomely mauled slab of red in a congealing pool of pink juices.

"Gaaa!" Reg recoiled and dropped both knife and fork onto the plate. "Jesus, that was a lot of fucking meat!" He wiped his chin and pushed the plate aside. "Ugh, I don't feel so good. I think I got Mad Cow Disease..."

"Naw, you're OK," I told him. "It's probably just some kinda protein overdose."

"Or too many Heinekens..." opined Kat.

"Or maybe," Betty said pointedly. "It's the like, five pounds of beef that he just ate... Just a thought."

Reg and I decided to pop out to the lounge to have a smoke and so made our way out to the dimly-lit entryway where they had a small bar and a few tables for people waiting for tables to sit. Reg and I sat down at one and were about half done with our smokes when we noticed the old man sitting at the table next to us. It was dark and the guy was small, but we should have seen him walk up and sit down, shouldn't we? We looked at each other and back to him. Clad in a vintage leisure suit, he was sitting there, looking back, and smiling. He looked to be about 125, with that almost luminous, paper-thin aspect that very old people have.

"Bum a smoke?" he asked. I shook one out for him and lit it for him. "Thanks, young fella."

"No problem," I said and turned back to Reg. But the old guy wasn't through.

"You know, in the old days," he began, "there wasn't none of these video slot machines. Nope. They was all the kind with the real levers and the real wheels. Back then, the only noise you heard in a casino was the ka-chunk of the slots, not this god-damn music and electronic crap. Bong, bong, bong, ding, ding, ding... Who needs it?" Warming to the subject, he poked his cigarette at us by way of gesticulation.

"Back then, they didn't just have complimentary drinks, neither. They had free everything, from soup to nuts. You could get a half-chicken right there at your favorite slot. I remember this one place, the Mermaid, long gone now, they used to have a prime-rib waitress. You'd ask for one and she'd come out with it, bring it to ya, but there wasn't none of this fancy plates and namby-pamby cutlery. Hell no! Half the time, she'd just fling the thing at your head! And they didn't have these hootchie-cootchie girls walkin' around with their asses hanging out, neither. They'd have big, tough guys with leather aprons, they'd pour you a pint of whiskey, toss in a couple of cubes, you were set."

"Uh, hey, look..." I tried to say.

"Back then, they'd have good cheap rooms you could stay in. None of this pansy bathrooms and frilly beds and coffee tables, no sir. You'd get a cot in a big room fulla guys and a shot at the outhouse if you were lucky, all for a nickel!"

Gingerly, nodding at Reg, I rose from the table. The old guy didn't seem to notice when Reg and I slowly backed out of the lounge. He was still there, still espousing the virtues of "back then" when the four of us left, twenty minutes later. Maybe the bartender was listening.

The rest of that night was much like the one before. We wandered around and drank and gambled. But the drinks were blunted by the previous nights' binge, the gambling seemed wasteful and pointless, and, after a while, we'd had enough of the noise, lights, and crowds and retired to the suite. After some more drinks and listless conversation, Reg and Betty took off, she with a headache and he suffering from an impending beef-over. Kat yawned and stretched, changed into her jammies and flipped on the TV. I was going to join her when I noticed the crack. Hmm, I thought, can't take that on the plane home, now can I? Soon I had all of the little bags unwrapped and was inhaling a mighty hit of sweet, medicinal-smelling smoke. Kat started to ask what I was doing and saw for herself. I offered the pop-can pipe to her.

"No way," she was iron. "It's two AM! You'll never get to sleep and we have to be up at seven. No way in hell..."

I exhaled the hit. Whoa. It was like a decent bang of powder, only with the head-rush of a hit of good weed. Ears ringing, I shrugged at Kat.

"Can't take it home..." I said. "Be a shame to waste it..."

"Whatever," she shook her head, disgusted, and turned out the light next to the bed. "Just be quiet and, if it feels like you're going to have a heart attack, don't smoke any more, OK? Just to be on the safe side?"

"You got it..." I torqued up another rock. Whoa again. But what they say about crack is true; the buzz doesn't last. After like ten, fifteen minutes, it's worn off and you want another. Helluva buzz it is, though...

The last thing I remember about that night is slamming a big old vodka in a vain attempt to get some sleep. The crack was gone, the weed was gone, now the booze was gone, and I went over and flopped onto the couch, thinking that there was no way I'd sleep, even with the booze to counteract the cocaine.

I didn't regain consciousness; it regained me. Ouch. Someone had evidently scooped out my brain during the night and replaced it with ground glass and rusty razorblades. Groaning, I drank some water and felt better. I looked around the room, lighting a smoke. Seven-fifteen, according to the ubiquitous bedside clock-radio. Kat wasn't there, but her suitcase was all packed and by the door. I went over and opened the drapes, blinking in the harsh desert sunlight. Down on the street, another day was beginning. The big people would be piling into the All-You-Can-Eats. The die-hard slot jock would be getting his first roll of quarters. The alarmingly armed men would be walking through the casino with bags of cash. The crack salesmen would be just getting to bed. I turned away from the window.

"Morning!" called Kat merrily as she came in with coffee. "We need to leave in like, twenty minutes..."

"Ugh," I said, lurching for the shower and the coffee. "Bleh."

I had begun to think that we'd escape Vegas with no further degradation, but the airport had some surprises left. It seems that there'd been a major concert, a heavy-weight title fight, and a huge convention all in Vegas that weekend. Now, on Sunday, they all wanted to leave.

The first line was long. Very long. Interminably, hundred-deep, shuffling, standing, shuffling, standing... Long. It sucked; my back hurt and just sitting down seemed like it would be a luxury. I felt like I'd been beaten, in whatever sense of the word you'd care to imply. But finally we gained the magic counter and were given seats and our bags were checked. Highly relieved, even to just be walking instead of standing and shuffling, we made our way up to the gate areas. And about shit our pants. There was another line, the security check, that was so long that you couldn't see from end to end. It was insane, like some kind of Kafka story or a bad dream. I swore bitterly, but there was nothing to be done about it. Back in line we went. The rest is a blur, too painful to willingly remember.

Maybe the next time we go to Vegas we'll do it differently. Maybe we could stay at a nice place on the Strip and relax, lay by the pool, get a massage. It's not a bad idea; they have world-class everything at some of these places. Take our time about having fun and just spend a day or two doing nothing.

Aw, who am I trying to kid?

 

 

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