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Dean Martin and the land of the movable buffet

INSIDE/OUT

I spent a weekend in Las Vegas recently, for the first time in

more than a decade. I don’t gamble, as a rule, but I had heard so

much about all the new sights that I had to see them. My itinerary

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wasn’t too ambitious -- I planned to check out some of the

spectacular new casinos on The Strip, catch a couple of shows and

visit my friend Bob, who recently bought a home there.

My friend Mark and I rolled into town about 2:30 a.m. and started

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looking for the rest of the crew. Two of our buddies, Robert and

Greg, had flown in earlier that day, Robert from Seattle and Greg

from L.A. The plan was for all of us to meet up when Mark and I got

in, then proceed to have as much as fun as five American friends can

have without getting arrested.

We called Robert on his cell phone and met him in the lobby of The

Aladdin. It turned out he had gotten separated from the others and an

hour earlier had been 86’d from the Casino Royale -- or from gambling

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in it, anyway. The problem, Robert explained with slurry indignation,

was that he kept upsetting a blackjack dealer by putting both hands

on his cards. The dealer warned him against it no less than six

times, but what finally got Robert kicked out was when he began

ordering drinks from the pit boss.

“It was probably a good thing, though,” Robert said wistfully.

“That dealer was showing me no love.”

I took “showing me no love” to mean Robert was losing his shirt at

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the table. A strange truism about Las Vegas is you can be an

accountant, trash collector or journalist, but five minutes on The

Strip and you’re talking like Dean Martin.

I explained to Robert my theory about having a good time in Las

Vegas, which is that if you want to have one, you shouldn’t gamble.

Take in the shows and the sights. Drink and frolic in the largest

collection of nightclubs in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world.

But if you gamble, you lose. Vegas might be America’s Playground, but

the other half of that metaphor is that the people who play in it are

children -- wide-eyed, unsophisticated children in a land run by very

serious, very sophisticated adults. Every game in this town, I told

Robert, has been finely calibrated to separate the children from

their lunch money.

Robert strongly disagreed, saying gambling and losing money were

all part of the ambience, and played an integral role in having fun.

But I insisted that no matter how much we might argue otherwise,

losing money is always the least fun part of any Vegas vacation.

Not that my little speech made a difference. I might have come to

Vegas to take in the sights, but my buddies came to gamble, and

that’s what we did. Or rather, what they did, with me watching and

sighing and occasionally feeding a quarter into a slot machine just

to justify my presence. The machine would swallow my money and ask

for more, and I would shake my head in bewilderment. I don’t get

Vegas, but I count that among my blessings.

We wound up inside the bar of The Algiers about 6 a.m. The last

time I found myself in a bar so early was probably in the 1980s, and

I kept remarking on the novelty of it all. Time has no meaning in

Vegas, where almost every establishment is free of clocks and

windows. Having left my watch in the hotel, I marked the passage of

time by the number of ATM receipts in my wallet, figuring one slip

for every two hours of elapsed time.

A short, squinty-eyed man walked into the bar, sat next to us and

in the purest Southern drawl told the bartender, “It’s too early to

drink. Gimme a Bloody Mary!”

Robert and I struck up a conversation with him, and he turned out

to be a gun collector from Mobile, Ala., in town for the big gun

show.

“So how many guns do you own?” I asked him.

“Oh, about four hunnert,” he replied.

“Does that make you feel safer somehow?” Robert asked. The fact

the man owned so many guns rubbed Robert the wrong way.

“Do you do much hunting?” I asked Mr. Mobile, trying to keep

things civil.

“Not as much as Ah’d like,” he said. “Ah’ll tell you whut, though,

Ah love to shoot me prairie dogs. If you own proputee in Alabama, the

guv’ment requires you do so.”

“Do you ever, like, have the prairie dogs’ heads stuffed and

mounted on your wall?” Robert asked.

Mr. Mobile stared at Robert for a second. “No, sir,” he replied

matter-of-factly. “Ah do not mount the animals Ah hunt.”

Such is Las Vegas -- a land peopled with odd yet oddly familiar

characters. A movable buffet of the strange and maladjusted. I kept

telling myself I wasn’t one of them.

And so the weekend flew by in a blur of diminishing funds. Sunday

found us in the sports bar of The Venetian, where we came to watch

the Tampa Bay-Philly game. The room was dominated by IMAX-sized

screens in almost every direction, each displaying sports games in

progress and column after column of odds and statistics -- the NORAD

war room of the gaming world. And with so many gamblers in town to

catch the conference championships, conditions were at Def Con 4.

One of the screens was showing the races at Santa Anita. Having

lost at blackjack and roulette and the slots, Robert decided to try

his luck with the ponies.

“This one looks good,” he said, pointing at “Ms. Louisa,” who was

No. 4 in the race. Ever the killjoy, I pointed out that Ms. Louisa

was a 40-1 longshot. Robert explained he didn’t like it when the odds

were too good.

“The lower the odds, the smaller the payout,” he said, perfectly

articulating the philosophy that made Vegas what it is today.

We watched as the horses were led up to the gate. Robert’s horse

looked like it wanted to sit down and have a smoke. “Don’t worry,

she’s just saving her energy,” he insisted.

The gates flung open and Ms. Louisa came stumbling out like a man

falling into a swimming pool. She reared, seemed to recoil at the

sight of the horses around her, and then ...

“Where’s my horse?” Robert shouted. We looked around from screen

to screen. The rest of the pack raced determinedly down the track,

but Ms. Louisa was nowhere to be seen.

“Maybe she stopped to catch her breath,” I said, laughing.

“This isn’t funny, man!”

Five minutes after the race, we were still looking for Robert’s

horse. We finally gave up when the next race began.

Driving back across the desert, it occurred to me that of all the

fun activities I planned for my long weekend, I managed only to visit

Bob and check out The Venetian. Everything else fell by the wayside

as I followed my friends on their tireless mission to lose money.

That’s the thing about life: You make plans, and then you go to

Vegas.

* DAVID SILVA is the city editor of the Leader’s sister paper,

the News-Press. His column runs Saturdays. Reach him at 637-3231, or

by e-mail at david.silva@latimes.com.


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