In Las Vegas, September 1979, I got hired at the Hotel Fremont as a craps dealer. To celebrate this momentous step in my gaming career, I went shopping for new shoes at the Boulevard Mall. On my way out, I had a chance meeting with heavy-set, thirty-four-year old Hal Spear, who was coming out of the tobacconist with two cartons of Old Gold cigarettes under his arm.
In 1978, he and I attended the New York School of Gambling. We hardly socialized...the ten-year difference in our age shouldn't have mattered but unspectacular Hal, came off like he was seventy. Hal graduated a couple weeks after I started so if I never saw him the rest of my life, I doubt I would've remembered him. But the events over the next few days would forever etch him in my memory as one of the nuttiest characters I ever met.
Our conversation at the mall dried up fast. To rationalize cutting our dull chat short, I told him (honestly) that I needed to make some calls because I was looking for a place to stay. He said, "Good, cause me and wifey are looking for a roommate." We agreed that I'd drop by and take a look the next day.
There were tons of two-floor, cookie-cutter apartments that wrapped around a central courtyard along East Sahara Avenue. Nearly all of them had a cute theme to differentiate them from the others...but not Hal's. I entered the open end of the horseshoe-shaped, ninety-unit complex and immediately recognized that his country club living description was an exaggeration...even after he said, "See those two palm trees, they're real!"
He led me up a rickety stairway. Halfway up at the landing, he paused to mask the fact that he was winded. He flicked the nub of his non-filtered Old Gold over the rail and said, "Nice pool we got there Steve-O. And all the neighbors are great. See those two grills, we use them for parties."
Above us, a man left his apartment and approached the stairs. I was comprehending that the tiny pool was the only plus in the rundown place as the man squeezed by. Then, I detected some tension between them as he and Hal didn't acknowledge each other.
We walked silently to the last apartment, #101. The unit number was set on three different copper-colored, diamond-shaped appliques that were peeling off the faded orange door. The paint was flaking so badly that I could see rusted sections of the raw metal. Before we went in, Hal craned his neck over the railing, scanned the ground floor and groaned, "Friggin' faggots."
Inside, Hal glowed as if he was giving me a tour of Buckingham Palace. But in ten seconds, I saw the entirety of his simple rectangular apartment including the kitchenette in the far right corner, the bathroom opposite it and the one bedroom, midway up the left wall.
Hal said, "We're here nine months." First, I noticed that they had no personal items. Then I noticed that the place reeked from cigarettes and that the only thing that marred the blank, formerly antiseptic white walls, was a thin veneer of nicotine staining.
I was led to the only piece of furniture in the room, a cheap McDonald plaid convertible sofa. Hal said, "This is where you'll sleep." The chain-smoker lit up another Old Gold while demonstrating the simplicity of opening it into a bed. When it failed to open, he tugged at it and nipped his finger on a sharp edge. He was sucking the blood from his cut when he diverted my attention to his TV. "This baby is a Quasar." I winced when he gently patted my shoulder with his wounded hand as he added, "Seventeen inches..."
Hal Spear ended the brief moment of uneasiness with a brimming smile that elongated his prematurely gray mustache by bragging, "And don't let me forget, we get great reception." But the black and white picture was slow to come up. He adjusted the rabbit ear aerial but the image didn't improve. So he pointed at some tacky flower-print aluminum snack tables and explained, "You can eat while watching your favorite program." A sudden coughing spell overcame Hal. I looked away and noticed a thick, snowy band creep up the TV screen. Hal noticed it too and switched off the set. Then the old boy sneezed. He produced a handkerchief from his back pocket and trumpeted his nose without turning away from me.
Hal composed himself, opened a stuffed closet at the front door and said, "You can stow your shit in here." Then he spread his arms wide and proclaimed, "And it's all yours...for fifty-flat a month...plus your long distance." I wanted no part of his vast empire but starting the next night, I was "outdoors." I knew staying there would be temporary so I accepted. We were shaking hands when I heard a key in the door. A bespectacled woman (I assumed her to be his wife), entered. She strode past us carrying two large grocery sacks and wordlessly advanced to the kitchen.
I thought Hal was going to help her when he followed her. Instead, he opened a box of generic Saltines. After he gobbled one up, he took another, extended it towards me and said, "Want?" I shook my head. At that point, I was expecting some sort of introduction...that never came. So to break the awkward silence I said, "Are there more bags in the car?" A puff of Saltine dust became airborne when Hal laughed, "She's legally blind, she can't drive. Besides, it's only a six-block walk to the shopping center." The woman was staring at the ground when she murmured, "I have three more bags."
She left and instinctively I followed. During our walk to the steps she whispered, "Are you going to move in?" I said, "Yes." On our way down she said, "You'll be very, very happy here." We gathered the rest of her packages and left the supermarket cart behind. An unseen voice from above called out, "Don't leave that damned wagon there!" She peered up and meekly answered, "Yesh Mishter Hanrahan, right away shur." The man came into view and roared, "And be quick about it." He was the same guy I had passed with Hal on our way in. I chirped, "Everyone's so friendly here." I could tell she was mortified as she stammered, "Y-y-you'll be very, very happy here."
At the top of the stairs I said, "That Hanrahan doesn't seem gay." The presumed Mrs. Spear said, "He ishn't. Why would you shay such a thing?" I said, "That's what Hal said." She sighed, "I shee." Then she was barely audible as she added, "Shum-times, my Hal calls people names..."
I found her Hal sitting on my "bed" with cracker crumbs all over his lap. The gentle lady continued into the kitchen and was storing her things as the "slug" watched, "The Price Is Right," while examining the supermarket receipt.
In the kitchen, I got my first close-up look at this twenty-nine year old's stale, short-cropped blond hair, mousy face and continuous Stepford-esque half-smile. The whole time, she avoided eye-contact and spoke softly as to hide her speech impediment. I also noticed that her frail arms were disproportionally short for her petite body, (so much so that I was soon to learn that Hal took great joy in referring to them as twigs). However, her oddest physical attribute was her anemic skin tone that resembled the color of frozen chicken.
|NO PHOTO ON THE WEB COULD CAPTURE HER UNHEALTHY TONE BUT THE SKINLESS CHICKEN ABOVE COMES CLOSE.|
At the front door she said, "Gotta bring the cart back to Shafeway." Hal blurted out, "Suzie, why didn't you get the General Mills variety pack? You know Post don't make Cheerios." That was the first time I heard her name. Suzie responded, "Had a coupon." Hal was satisfied and said, "Oh."
Hal bolted to the window and spied on Suzie until she disappeared from sight. He hurried to the closet. Hal pulled out a decrepit, left-handed pitching wedge and began whacking Whiffle golf balls all over the apartment. This manly exhibition empowered him to boast, "The El Cortez promoted me to boxman immediately! I already accumulated $12,000.00 in my profit sharing."
I was hoping that the head of the golf club would fly off and smash his cherished Quasar's screen because this jerk was annoying me. "Another great perk at the 'Tez'," Hal interjected, "on dead games, we can put an ashtray on top of the chip bank and smoke...just like in the wild west."
|IN 1979, THE SOUTHWESTERN-THEMED EL CORTEZ WAS A TOILET THAT CATERED TO LOCALS AND BUDGET-MINDED DAY-TRIPPERS FROM CALIFORNIA. THE FIRST WEEK I HIT TOWN, SOME MORON IN A WHEELCHAIR FIRED SEVERAL SHOTS A CRAPS TABLE. LUCKILY THERE WERE NO INJURIES BUT MANAGEMENT, TO ADD AMBIANCE, INSISTED THAT THE BULLET LODGED IN A SLOT MACHINE, A WALL AND THE CEILING MUST STAY.|
It was bad enough that I looked at supervising a craps game as an old man job but the idea of smoking on duty being a good thing convinced me that this loser had real psychological problems. On the other hand, even though I wasn't sure what profit sharing meant, I was certain who was sleeping on who's couch for fifty dollars a month.
Later when Suzie returned, she found a golf ball in the sink and chastised Hal for, "playing ball" in the house. He whined, "Why must you embarrass me in front of our new roommate?" He then whispered loud enough for her to hear, "And this, coming from someone who pees in the middle of the night so loud, it wakes up the whole house." Suzie was perturbed but wouldn't give him the satisfaction of seeing her lose her temper. So Hal winked at me and added, "Now that we have a guest, Sooz, you can show some common courtesy and aim for the porcelain."
She gritted her teeth, ignored him and invited me to sit with her. Hal clumsily plopped between us and engrossed himself in a rerun of, "Gilligan's Island." She and I started a conversation that forced us to speak through Hal. I asked basic relationship questions like where they met and she answered with enthusiasm but the consistency of her plastic grin made all her answers seem phony.
Unfortunately her smile vanished when I asked, "Are you planning a family?" Hal's eyes never left the screen as he carelessly flicked an ash onto the snack table and said, "Suzie can't make babies. She don't get no periods." She was humiliated and looked away. I stood up and excused myself, "I'm gonna leave. I'll be back and move in after work tomorrow."
Hal remained seated and blew smoke rings as Suzie stood up to escort me to the door. He snapped his fingers, extended his left hand without looking away from the TV and hissed, "How about that fifty." I gave him twenty and promised to pay the balance at the end of the week.
At the door Suzie said, "You'll be very happy here." When I nodded she added, "You're welcome to shtay for dinner." I said, "I'm meeting a friend." She said with disappointment, "Oh." I asked, "What am I missing?" Hal chimed in, "It's Tuesday, it's variety pack cereal night. Except we got no Cheerios...do we Suzie."
The next morning, I was approached by a blackjack dealer in the Fremont help's hall. He said, "I heard you were looking for a place?" I said, "I already put down a deposit." He pointed to a notice on the wall and said, "Read my ad, you might change your mind. But you're in luck. One of my neighbor's is having a party Thursday night...let me give you my number...this way you can stop by for a burger and a beer...and see my place too."
I came back to the Spear's apartment after work and found them sitting on the sofa eating thickly sliced salami sandwiches on Wonder bread and potato chips. I noticed that residue from Hal's over-flowing tartan bean bag ashtray was strewn all over his paper plate, the snack table and the floor.
|DON'T BE MISLEAD, HAL'S ASHTRAY WAS FROM THE 50's..AND LOOKED LIKE IT BELONGED IN THE TRASH BECAUSE IT WAS INDELIBLY STAINED, BURNT AND DENTED.|
Rather than join America's number-one couple on the claustrophobic sofa, I pulled a chair in from the kitchen. Suzie, in her typical forced smile peered over the TV GUIDE she was reading and asked, "How wasch your day?" I said, "It was okay. I met some new people but a guy from my crew got fired." It was obvious she wasn't listening when she said, "I'm glad you like your new job." But she snapped to attention when Hal roared, "Suzie, napkin!" When she scampered away, Hal scraped a dollop of store-brand yellow mustard off his shirt with his pinkie. Suzie handed him a napkin and said, "I shaw that the, "Shound of Mushic" is coming on channel shix at eight o'clock." "Forget it," Hal bellowed as he sucked mustard off his finger. "We ain't watching no girlie crap...right Steve-O." Suzie wouldn't let it go. After some incessant droning, he begrudgingly gave in.
|THE "SOUND OF MUSIC," WAS A SMASH HIT ON BROADWAY IN 1959. THE 1965 MOVIE STARRING JULIE ANDREWS WAS EQUALLY GREAT.|
At eight, as soon as the opening credits came up Hal ordered, "Suzie, make me toast." She scurried to the refrigerator got the margarine and removed bread from the freezer. Suzie watched the screen from the distance and when the bread popped up, she smeared on some oleo and hustled back to the couch. Hal took one bite and groaned as if he he were stabbed in the stomach, "You call this enough butter? Get me more..." Like Edith Bunker, she pitifully ran to obey him. I whispered, "I thought you didn't want to watch this?" Hal put his index finger to his lips, slyly smiled and said, "Shush, I'm watching the movie."
I saw enough and left to visit my friend Frank. Later, I told Frank, "Hal is an incredibly big ass-hole and his wife is killing me with kindness." Frank said, "Obviously you should check out the Fremont dude's apartment tomorrow...I'll even go with you." I waffled on that issue the whole night. I still hadn't commited when I got back to my new home after 1:00AM.
I tiptoed into Casa Spear. In the dark, I discovered my bed was turned down and made with a note from Suzie, "I'm so glad you're staying with us...you'll be very, very happy here." In seconds, I was pissed off. The mattress was thin and I was jabbed by the creaking springs with every move I made. My discomfort pre-occupied me so badly that there was no way I was ever going to fall asleep. A half hour of twisting and turning later, I made a desperate move and reconfigured the bed back into a couch. In so doing, I too nipped my finger.
I finally started to doze when Hal's thunderous snoring started. Instantly, I was wired. While staring at the ceiling, I decided to definitely see the other apartment. Then to entertain myself during breaks in the snoring, I imagined what it would sound like when the two of them had sex. Then it dawned on me that a guy like Hal, wouldn't be spearing anyone! I guess that notion soothed me enough...I fell asleep.
Hal's sunrise serenade started promptly at 7:00AM. The performance opened with a prolonged overture of sneezing, wheezing and guttural phlegm spitting. I wrapped the pillow around my head and cursed Hal and anyone who looked like him. The concert had a brief intermission when virtuoso came out of the bedroom and went into the bathroom. The second act of his recital, aided by the fine acoustics of a more intimate venue, continued with a chorus of nose honks, some intense baritone coughing and concluded with a crescendo of flatulence. Somehow when he turned on the shower, rather than give him the standing ovation he richly deserved, I seized the opportunity to nod-off for a few more minutes. My bliss ended abruptly when he yelled out to Suzie, "Did you find my green clip-on?" I closed my eyes and curled into a fetal position. When he shouted, "You find it or what...?" I thought; if I had a gun, Hal would be dead.
A tap on my shoulder startled me as Suzie whispered, "Are you up?" I emphasized my sarcasm and said, "Are you serious?" She opened the curtains, returned to my side and said, "C'mon shleepyhead, it's twenty to eight." I looked directly into the pinkish eyes on her frozen chicken-colored face and said, "I'm buying a gun." She ignored me and started butchering the lyrics to, "Oh What A Beautiful Morning." I muttered, "Oh boy, show tunes." She said, "Oops, I get it." Then she sang, whistled and hummed a "Sound Of Music," medley which included; "Maria," "My Favorite Things, "Do-Re-Mi," "Sixteen Going On Seventeen" and "Climb Ev'ry Mountain."as she started rattling pots. Finally Hal ripped the phony smile off her face by demanding, "Stop singing goddamn it, have you no respect for the dead!"
A few minutes later muted Suzie returned to my bed in her Wendy's uniform, "Please join ush for shum oatmeal." I snapped, "I don't eat breakfast!" Her fake smile was in full bloom when she said, "Don't be bashful. There ish plenty and look, I'm shlicing up a banana." As if my senses weren't battered enough, I now had to hold my nose because the smell of my least favorite things were nauseating me.
I was laying there in a catatonic trance when Suzie humming, "Edelweiss," tapped me on her way out to super-size the world. She cooed, "I left you a nisch hot cup of Poasch-tum...have a great day."
|POSTUM, A POWDERED, COFFEE SUBSTITUTE, ORIGINATED IN 1895. IT WAS DISCONTINUED IN 2007, BUT WAS REVIVED WITH INTERNET SALES ONLY, IN 2012. BECAUSE IT'S CAFFEINE-FREE, IT APPEALS TO MORMON CULTURE. SO IN JANUARY 2013, IT RETURNED TO A LIMITED AMOUNT OF STORES IN UTAH AND OTHER MOUNTAIN STATES.|
I sat up and focused on Hal. He was wearing a white dress shirt and his suit pants were supported by both a belt and suspenders. After he adjusted his stained green tie instead of a suit jacket, he put on a black satin smoking jacket complete with a moth hole at the lapel and a frayed hem at the bottom. He misread my gaping and said, "Pretty snazzy, huh? But don't be jealous, I got it from the Salvation Army for three bucks." I said, "Yeah, nice." Hal said, "Listen, don't tell Suzie but I got an hour to kill. Wanna run over to Foxy's (Foxy's Firehouse Casino) and play ten-cent craps?" Politely I turned him down and added, "Me playing craps on my off time is like a Greyhound driver going by bus on vacation."
When I left for work, I brought a change of clothes so I wouldn't have to see the Spears before going to the other apartment.
My potential new roommates rolled out the red carpet and I loved the whole set-up. Later at the party, Frank and I were having such a great time that he said, "If you don't move in, I'll break my fucking lease and I'll take it." Later, I accepted the room...and without money changing hands, I slept the festivities off in my new, huge, private bedroom.
|(PHOTO MARCH 1980) MY MOVE TO THE CASA ROYALE APARTMENTS PROVED TO BE A GREAT DECISION. TODAY, I HAVE A WEALTH OF MEMORIES TO SHARE FROM THERE...SO IF MY TORTUROUS TIME WITH THE SPEARS WAS NECESSARY TO ALIGN MY STARS AND SET IT ALL IN MOTION, IT WAS WORTH IT.|
Before work, I went back to the Spears apartment and luckily they weren't home. I gathered my stuff, showered, (I sang a few bars of "Climb Ev'ry Mountain)," got ready for work and happily left that dump for the last time. On my first break, I ran the four blocks from the Fremont to the El Cortez. I wanted to tell Hal what's what and get my twenty dollars back.
Hal's craps table was open with no players. He was slunk low in his boxman's stool and his body language suggested he was depressed. The way his dealers were chatting among themselves, I got the impression that they disliked Hal. This was the perfect scenario to say my peace and get back to work.
Hal was in deep thought and intensely sucking on a cigarette. His face brightened to see me as he said, "Where were you last night? Why didn't you call? I was worried." I owed him no explanation and said, "Oops." He perked up more and said, "Who's the lucky girl?" I cut to the point, "I have bad news." He interrupted, "Oh...she told you?" Before I could speak he lamented, "Then you already know, Suzie loves me fifth best." His dealers were smirking as he added, "I'm number friggin' five...she loves her mother, father, weaselly brother and even Arbuckle their ratty chihuahua better than me." I impatiently looked at my watch as he cowed, "She left me. After nine years of bliss, my little sweet Suzie flew back to New York this morning."
I was thinking; she wasn't as dense as I thought. She just waited for some schmuck like me to come around so dickhead wouldn't be alone. But I said, "She's probably just homesick." In a clear upbeat tone Hal said, "Forget about that now. 'Cause I hate to do this but...I'm going to have to jack-up your rent to $135.00, plus half the utilities."
Hal was living in a fantasy world. Had he not been at work, I would have told him where he could shove his apartment, the two real palm trees and the grill "they" use for parties. He took my hesitation as a bargaining ploy. He squinted as he took a long drag from his Old Gold and said, "Pal, I know you're short on dough. How's about I make it an even buck and a quarter...and throw in the first two months electricity...FREE!" In emphasizing the word; free, his hand toppled the ashtray that was on top of the chip bank. Hal's head was down as he attended to his mess. To avoid further confrontation, I was willing to sacrifice the twenty dollars I had coming to me just so I could get back to work. I threw my key across the table and left.
The Spears dominated the first eight pages of my twenty-four page short story, "PETER PARTY." If you think, "WHY SHE WAS KILLING ME WITH KINDNESS..." was interesting, contact me and I'll let you read the whole shebang.