As I drove into Las Vegas on December 27, 2015, I made a mental tally of my prior visits, realizing it was my eighth trip. In retrospect, my visits to Vegas exemplify key stages of my life for the last 30 years.
FIRST TRIP: MINOR ILLEGALITIES
It was the summer before my first year in college, and I was living with an aunt in the Pasadena area before leaving for UC Santa Barbara. I was either 17 or 18 years of age, but either way, too young for Vegas. My aunt’s neighbor, Ed, a middle-aged southern California boy with lots of sports cars and other toys, asked if I would like to accompany him on a 24-hour turnaround to Vegas. He always had his fingers in one pie or another, and he had a contract to repossess cars in a three-state area.
Ed was never creepy toward me, so I said why not; I had no car and thus I had no job. I had no job and thus I had no money. What else better did I have to do?
We drove Ed’s dual cab pick up truck hauling a car trailer to Vegas. The plan was to arrive at about 10 o’clock at night, gamble until breakfast at around 4:00 a.m., then repossess the car at the prior owner’s place of business at 6:00 a.m.
I stepped into the Vegas of 1986. Shrimp cocktails were $.99. Prime rib dinners were $4.99. There was no ceiling over downtown, and no one called it “the Fremont District.” Many of the great casinos like the Sands and the Tropicana still stood, and I would like to tell you that I know visited those places that night, but I don’t recall. I remember that we pulled up in front of casinos in that big truck hauling that long trailer, and the valets threw up their hands and just left the truck parked right where we left it. We were able to cover a lot of ground that night because of this.
I do recall our first stop was Caesar’s Palace, and it was pretty grimy back then. Ed put a dollar in a slot machine and it paid $500. That’s the money we played with all night. By the third casino I was brave enough to go off on my own and play some slots. Remember the old days when you had a big plastic bucket with quarters in it? I must have been quite the sight, smoking cigarettes and playing slot machines at 17 or 18 years old. They even served me free cocktails.
(By the way, the rest of the story is that we had breakfast, repossessed the car, and headed back to LA without incident.)
SECOND TRIP: HE’S POLISH!
Sometime around 1988, I made my second pilgrimage from Santa Barbara, where I attended college, to Vegas with my boyfriend, Brian. We really had no business being in Las Vegas. Neither of us had any money. Well, what money we did have, we could not afford to lose. I believe I was working at Winchell’s Donuts back then. We booked a questionable motel at the north end of the strip. We slept next door to where we planned to gamble: Vegas World.
For a comprehensive and hilarious review of Bob Stupak, original builder of the Stratosphere, and Vegas World, check out this article. I remember Stupak’s face was emblazoned on every surface they could find. Staff members wore ribbon ties, and “He’s Polish!” was written on the ends of the ties. If the casino had a theme, it was space exploration and travel, but it was executed very poorly, with lots of styrofoam planets and black paint. Stupak is now considered one of the founding fathers of Las Vegas. He ran for Las Vegas mayor and for Lieutenant Governor of Nevada. He called himself, “the Polish Maverick.” His properties had a mysterious way of burning down.
Of course, Brian and I knew nothing about Bob Stupak during our 1988 visit. In those days, Vegas World offered promotion after promotion to drum up business. We fell for the $50 of free gaming. There were, of course, several catches; you received $20 of table gaming after the first hour. At the end of the second hour, you received $30 of slots play. I recall we were reluctant to walk to a cheap lunch at McDonald’s, fearing the promotion would be yanked from us for leaving the premises. Upon expiration of the third hour – a complimentary souvenir “photograph” in a “frame.”
Oh, how I wish I still had that “photograph!” It was a black-and-white computer printout, shoved in a cardboard frame. Brian was much taller than me, and he stood looming behind me. My eyes were so wide, it made me look frightened for some reason. Brian dubbed the photo, “Help! I’m being stalked by tall Black man!!”
Suffice it to say, Brian and I did not win any money that weekend, but I feel like a part of Las Vegas history having “done my time” at Vegas World.
THIRD TRIP: HAVE RENTAL CAR, WILL TRAVEL
My third trip to Vegas was also with Brian. For some reason we rented a car in Santa Barbara. After we finished driving the rental car for its intended purpose, whatever that was, we looked at each other and yelled, “Vegas!” We drove over five hours into the wee small hours of the morning, stayed two hours, and drove back just in time to return the rental car before the deadline. I recall I did not want to stop for gas as we were heading out of town, and we almost ran out of fuel on that desolate stretch of I-15 before lucking upon a gas station. I got a speeding ticket somewhere along the way back as well. That is truly all I remember about that trip. Getting old ain’t for sissies, as Bette Davis said.
FOURTH TRIP: EMPLOYEE APPRECIATION
On my fourth trip to Las Vegas I was in a bus full of busboys, cooks, bartenders, and cocktail waitresses from Santa Barbara (well, Goleta, actually) thanks to my employer, Spike’s Place. I was a cocktail waitress there. Once a year, Spike’s closed the restaurant on a Sunday for employee appreciation. In other years we took field trips to Disneyland and went wine tasting. On this particular year in 1989, it was a 24-hour excursion to Las Vegas from Santa Barbara.
A few of us pooled our money and rented a hotel room as a central meetup location, place to rest, and spot to have cheap drinks that we brought ourselves. That tells you how much gambling we must have been doing, as you drank for free at all the casinos back then, as long as you were gambling. Many of us went to the Vegas showgirl show, “Jubilee,” at Bally’s. The show had been running for eight years at that point, with costumes designed by Bob Mackie. We were all a bit shocked by the topless dancers!
Today, I am really glad I went to that show. On this most recent trip to Las Vegas I learned the showgirl shows are being phased out – another symbol of the old Las Vegas which will soon fade away.
FIFTH TRIP: A PROPER VACATION, A NEW VEGAS
In 1997 I was a baby lawyer in Seattle. I wanted to take a “real” vacation, and my boyfriend Andy and I decided on Las Vegas. We stayed at the Luxor, the Egyptian-themed hotel and casino at the south end of the Strip which opened only four years before. We played blackjack at the then brand new New York New York casino, winning over $800 at a $10 table until we sat there and lost it all.
There was something different about this trip; Vegas and I had both changed. We were both focused on being more than we had been before. Neither of us felt as desperate as we used to. Vegas had nothing to lose, and I gambled money that, for the first time, I could afford to lose.
SIXTH TRIP: VIVA LAS VEGAS
In 2000, enmeshed in the Rockabilly scene in Seattle, I traveled with friends to the Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender at the Gold Coast Casino. It’s hard to believe that I was at the third Viva Las Vegas, and there have been 16 of them now. One of my favorite memories was seeing Ray Condo and the Ricochets (RIP, Ray).
SEVENTH TRIP: A BUSINESS TRIP, AND WAYNE NEWTON
In 2004, I was no longer a baby lawyer – I had hit my stride in my profession. I was in Las Vegas for a business trip, because a key witness in a construction accident case in Seattle relocated to Las Vegas to be a manager of the Las Vegas monorail project.
I stayed at the Bellagio. This was a business trip, after all. In the morning I tuned to the Frank Sinatra channel on satellite radio, wearing an oversized plush white robe, and ordered the $25 room service breakfast. Then, it was time for a massage before meeting with the witness at the Monorail job shack. We proceeded to his deposition at a law office somewhere downtown. It was too late to fly home after the deposition, so I ventured to the Wayne Newton Theater at the Stardust Casino to see if I could get a ticket.
“You’re in luck,” the ticket guy said. “Since you are a single ticket, there is a seat in the middle of the theater, on the rail. Wayne comes out and hugs and kisses all the women sitting on the rail during the performance.”
They don’t call Wayne Newton “Mr. Las Vegas” for nothing. That man worked his ass off during the show. He played 13 instruments, all self-taught. In the middle of the performance, the band began to play a tune on a loop. My heart was full of love and respect as Wayne approached, sweaty from performing. I held my hands to my heart. He did the same, then hugged me. I bear-hugged him back, crisscrossing my arms behind his head.
As Wayne moved to his next adoring victim, I looked down at my right arm. Black hair dye was smudged from my wrist all the way to my elbow.
EIGHTH TRIP: NEW YEAR’S EVE 2015/16 – RETIREMENT
In the words of Frank Sinatra, “I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king.” Vegas has seen me at every stage of my life. This trip? This trip was the best of all. There was no timetable – no rush back to the office after a harried three- or four-day break. I stayed for nine days. I walked the Strip, closed to motor vehicle traffic, on New Year’s Eve.
I visited Hoover Dam.
I saw Cirque du Soleil’s “Beatles Love,” and toured Wayne Newton’s home, Casa De Shenendoah.
I played blackjack and roulette and came out ahead. I ate fine dining and fast food and meals in the rig.
I communed with good friends.
In 2004 I went to the Stardust Casino for a show; in 2015, I visited the Stardust’s iconic signage in the neon graveyard.
The only constant is change. Even with all the evolution of the last 30 years, Vegas and I both have a lot more to go. Here’s hoping our continuing metamorphoses are for the better. As Roger Miller said, “Some people bad, some people good. Too bad the bad can’t be like the good. But everything changes a little, and it should. Good ain’t forever and bad ain’t for good.”