Monday, November 24, 2008


This past Friday November 21st, marked the 28th anniversary of the Las Vegas, MGM Grand Casino fire. Such a tragedy is nothing to celebrate or be glib about. However, the reminder of it stirred memories of what I was doing and who I was doing it with.

Oddly, in the five years I lived in Las Vegas (1979-1984), I had more friends, family etc come visit me than my 25 years in Atlantic City. Also out west, I accidentally crossed paths with more acquaintances and people I barely knew from back home than here in Jersey. What makes all this more astounding is that I am, as I hope you know, a New Yorker.

When I had visitors in Vegas, Caesar's Palace was their number one requested destination. However, I always included the original MGM Grand (caddy corner across Flamingo Road) in the tour. Aside from being more sophisticated (less gaudy than Caesar's), it was a more comfortable casino. Other pluses were; free self-parking right out front, movie memorabilia adorned its walls, they had a jai alai fronton and a plush theater that showed classic MGM movies (featuring couches and cocktail service).

Additionally, outside the movie box office, there was a roped off area with "Leo" the live (heavily sedated) MGM mascot lion.  He was injected with enough barbiturates that he could hardly keep his eyes open...therefore roaring was totally out of the question. Although I never took advantage of this gimmick, tourists would line-up down the corridor to have their picture taken with the king of the cinema beasts, (considering what happened to Siegfried's Roy, I can only imagine the liability insurance these days).

The MGM also had more celebrities hobnobbing and gambling there...on one afternoon, I had the good fortune to meet Sylvester Stallone, Richard Dawson and Soupy Sales (although Soupy was the only one who gave me the time of day).

The allure of the MGM  must have included better deals on rooms because a disproportional amount of my visitors stayed there. My closest friend from Brooklyn College, Zev, was dating the daughter of a bread crumb magnate from back home. Her dad was such a high-roller that he included Zev in his travels to Vegas. Then Zev got them to include me in a dinner at the MGM's gourmet French restaurant, (a party of 20+ folks).

Zev's visit was great but what was far more interesting was his next visit...except the second time, he didn't stay at the MGM.

About a year earlier (March 1980), I was hired as a craps dealer at the Stardust Casino. As I have chronicled in my writings, my year and a half at the "Dust" was a tremendous professional experience as well as my vehicle to come of age. Back then I wrote a lot of letters to my friends which were filled with my odd-ball adventures. And Zev was a regular recipient.

Zev was going to med-school in Tampico Mexico at that time. To this day, I have no idea what doubt and/or negativity he was experiencing...but the impact of my letters brought him...without prior notice...with all his knock on my door.

My disenchanted friend was lured by upbeat stories that included; the condo I bought, my "new" used car, a "great" job and a girlfriend.  So based on my skyrocketing outlook on life, the genius quit be a casino dealer!

I felt guilty and tried to talk him down but he was definite. Zev never shared any specifics of why he sabotaged his future (I guessed the schooling was too difficult). He was never really the scholastic type so after a day or two, his being there seemed natural.

Zev was foreign.  His family moved to the USA in the late 60's.  Therefore many things he said and did proved that he lived in a cultural void. Nevertheless, his lack of good old All-American common sense was made-up by his ability to concentrate on a single task (school exams) and do well...even though a week later, it seemed that he could never put that test knowledge to practical use.

Zev became my roommate. His lack of day-to-day brilliance was typified when he took my friend Frank's temperature. When Zev stated the degrees in Celsius, Frank said, "So do I have a fever, or what?" Zev shrugged because he couldn't convert the degrees to Fahrenheit. Then after a long search FOR a textbook and then a longer search IN it, he found the solution.

I was working swing-shift, usually 8:PM till 4:AM. So Zev adjusted his body-clock and we had a lot fun gallivanting around town. Soon, he signed-up for craps dealer school.  When he graduated, he filled-out casino employment applications and took auditions.

At noon on November 21, 1980, I woke up to an empty house. I turned on the TV and there was a special report.  The anchorman started, "A fire during the early morning hours has swept through the Las Vegas MGM Casino..." While I slept, heroic Zev drove to the scene and helped the emergency teams, assisted in the triage and even gave someone mouth-to-mouth resuscitation!

Although the constant behest of his family never re-motivated him, I've always believed that the MGM fire rekindled Zev's desire to return to med-school.

I am happy to report that "DOCTOR ZEV" has now been an anesthesiologist for over twenty years. In 1984, he was the best man at my wedding. Unfortunately, time and miles got in our way and I haven't seen him since before Andrew was born.

Through the miracle of the Internet, I have his new business address and will contact him during the holidays as well as two other long lost school friends (Jay and Mitch), in the hopes of revitalizing old friendships. Wish me luck.

In honor of Zev, one of the most genuine and generous people I ever met HAPPY THANKSGIVING to you all.

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