In 1978, I attended the New York School of Gambling, (West 32nd Street in Manhattan). Together with a random conglomeration of people, I went through the process of getting in on the ground floor of the
expanding gaming industry.
Instead of getting strong-armed by salesmen and soaked for thousands of tuition dollars, I bucked the school's system (which was immediately changed in my "honor" after I left), by taking only one course, craps dealing. In that class, I gravitated to easy-going guys my age (22-26) who intended to move to Las Vegas. My clique included, Ciro the Hero, (way before he became Ciro the Zero), BB, John Heaverlo and JLUPY.
Another student who sometimes hung-out with us was thirty-year old Al Muñoz. But Al was like a man without a country as he bounced from one group to another. He seemed so likeable but sometimes, he’d get so moody that he made people uncomfortable.
Al’s accent was strictly from the Bronx. He was of Puerto Rican descent but both his parents were born in Yonkers and none of them ever visited their native island. But due to the fact that the gambling school had three other students named Al, most people called him Spanish Al.
Al was also short, so some people called him Little Al. But because he wore a distinctive well-trimmed beard and mustache, the wannabe wiseguys called him Toulouse. Al, a graduate of Lehman College was bright enough to understand the reference. Privately, he hated it but was mature enough to not give his taunters the satisfaction.
HENRI de TOULOUSE LAUTREC (1864-1901) WAS A POST-IMPRESSION PAINTER. HE SUFFERED FROM NUMEROUS PHYSICAL AILMENTS INCLUDING ONE THAT PREVENTED HIS LEGS FROM GROWING AS A YOUNG TEENAGER.
The underlying problem with Al was a lack of consistency in his personality. One moment he’d be funny, articulate or caring about someone and seconds later, he’d be stone cold and ignorant to someone else. There were even times that I witnessed Al helping someone and simultaneously being a jerk to another with the same problem…then in the blink of an eye, he’d turn a cold shoulder on the person he was helping and bend over backwards to the person he was being rude to.
To the untrained eye, most of us thought Al suffered from a Napoleonic complex.
FIVE FOOT SIX, NAPOLEON BONAPARTE (1769-1821) WAS THE EMPORER OF FRANCE. THE INFORMAL PSYCHOLOGY TERM, "NAPOLEONIC COMPLEX," SUGGESTS THAT SOME SHORT MEN OVER-COMPENSATE FOR BEING VERTICALLY CHALLENGED WITH AGGRESSIVE OR DOMINEERING SOCIAL BEHAVIOR.
Nevertheless, Al's most enduring nickname was, Skitzo Al.
Just before one of our 10:00AM, forty-minute breaks, Al was telling BB, JLUPY and me about the discotheques in his neighborhood. He wanted us come up. I thought it would be fun. After all, I already had the official disco uniform in my closet; an off-white, polyester three-piece suit, a selection of qiana shirts by Huckapoo and platform shoes.
DESPITE A BLEAK SCRIPT AND BEING TERRIBLY DATED TODAY, THE 1977 TWO AND A HALF STAR MOVIE, "SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER," LEFT AN IMPACT ON SOCIETY AND POP-CULTURE, IN ITS DAY.
While I was seriously considering taking the trip BB cracked, “I don’t want to go. Even the police are afraid to leave the station house up there.” Al said, “I’m not sending you to the South Bronx, I live in Riverdale.” But when JLUPY said, “I live in Connecticut, would I be able to crash at your place,” Al didn’t even acknowledge the question.
While we were talking, Awilda, a gorgeous blackjack student from the Dominican Republic walked by. Al rattled off the names of a couple of discos and asked her if she wanted to get together Friday. In a heavy accent she enthusiastically agreed. Al went into a full-blown flirtation with her in Spanish. After she left JLUPY said, “I thought you couldn’t speak Spanish?” Dead silence. Al wouldn’t even look at him. JLUPY got pissed off. He got in Al’s face and repeated the question. Al as if nothing strange happened smiled, “I pick my spots. As you can see, it comes in handy for picking up Latina chicks.” JLUPY was confused and insulted...and left.
Al was still encouraging us to come when Awilda breezed by holding a slip of paper with her phone number. But Al concentrated on me and BB. She didn't appreciated being shunted aside. But he wasn’t even phased when the tempestuous beauty exploded into a rant, in Spanish, punctuated with a well pronounced, (in English), “Fuck you!” I guess he thought he was being cool because as she stormed off, he pretended not to notice.
My clique usually went to the coffee shop near Eighth Avenue on our breaks. John Heaverlo and Ciro had already left so I asked Al, “You wanna get something to eat with us?” BB interjected, “Include me out, I’ll be at the Ireland’s Eye, drinking my breakfast.” Al said, “No, I’m gonna play hearts. Do you play?” I said, “No.” He said, “C’mon do something different, it’ll be fun.”
At a round table, in a small room rimmed with vending machines, the card game was full-up with four wannabe wiseguys. In a loud, hyper whisper, Al described the rules and the finer points of hearts. I was fascinated by the fast action and impressed by the way he disregarded the player's shushing and harsh barbs.
I think because of our age difference, Al never developed into friend material. But because of the intelligent, nurturing side of his personality, his mentorship made me feel like I had an older brother. This was especially true when he stressed, “Don’t sit-in with these vultures until you really know what’s, what. They’ll sucker you in for a penny a point…but it adds up." When one of the players said, "Shut up Toulouse!" Al kept talking.
I moved to Las Vegas in January 1979. Ciro got there two months earlier so I looked him up. He was living downtown with BB in a cheap, rundown two-bedroom apartment. JLUPY was already occupying the sofa so I got to sleep on the floor until I got situated.
When I arrived, it was the filthiest dump I ever saw. The thought of sleeping on the floor was nauseating. But it became a moot point because the day before, BB was rushed to the hospital with acute alcohol poisoning. The situation was so dire that his mom and sister flew out because BB could've died.
So JLUPY was upgraded to BB’s bed and I got the couch. It was good timing because John Heaverlo drove in from Poughkeepsie (NY) the next day and took my spot on the floor.
At fifty cents a drink in casino bars, I could see how someone with a liquor dependency like BB could get caught in Vegas’ web of vice. I understand this because my first five days in town are a drunken kaleidoscope of broken images and partial memories. During a lucid moment Ciro took me aside, “I want you to know that you can stay here forever…no charge. But for your own good, don’t you think it’s time to go to work.”
He was right. I had gotten wet feet from watching live games and felt that I could never make it as a craps dealer. But Ciro’s little chat straightened me out. I was determined to go to the audition that the school arranged at the Slots-A-Fun Casino.
The next morning, it was bright, sunny and 80°. I was standing in a white dress shirt and black slacks at the bus stop, shivering from nerves. Across the street, a billboard advertising a heating and refrigeration school caught my eye. Their two slogans were; YOUR CORE OF $UCCE$$ and TAKE CHARGE OF YOUR FUTURE.
While transfixed on the sign, I heard Ciro’s voice in my head saying, “It’s time to shit or get off the pot” as I admired how the word “charge” had two bolts of lightning running through it. Suddenly, my daydream was shattered by an annoying, squeaky, beep, beep. It was someone on a Vespa scooter. When the driver pulled to the curb and took off his goggles, I realized it was a clean-shaven Al Muñoz.
VESPA, THE ITALIAN WORD FOR WASP, IS A MOTOR SCOOTER PRODUCED IN ITALY SINCE 1946.
I told Al my situation and he congratulated me for taking the plunge. Then he changed the subject, “I’m dealing craps at the Lady Luck. It sucks but I’m ready to apply for a better job. I live in a shack on Ogden. If you can avoid it, you don’t want to live downtown.” I pointed beyond Las Vegas High School and said, "I'm staying on South Tenth with Ciro." He said, “It’s just as bad there too…like the wild friggin’ west…especially at night if you stray from Fremont Street.” He surprised me by adding, “Forget all that negativity, first, let’s get you working. Screw the bus. Hop on. I’ll take you up there before you change your mind or shit yourself.”
Al and I wouldn't cross paths for four months. By that time, I had left Slots-A-Fun and got hired at a slightly better job, the Western Casino. Al came in to take an audition and passed. Later during my break, he told me he was fired from the Lady Luck. I told him, “One of our craps dealers, Debbie Dotson used to work there.”
When I added that the Western fired her after one shift Al shook his head, “Debbie, Debbie, Debbie. She couldn’t get out of Oregon fast enough. But she had no plan...” He became philosophical about life in Las Vegas. During his ensuing sermon about the transients, petty criminals, runaways, lowlifes and the deadbeats that he has met, I was distracted about Al's appearance. I knew his facial hair was missing but I couldn’t figure out the difference.
Al was right. Misguided people visit Vegas and perceive that dealers lead luxurious lives in the top casinos. Far worse, some wrongly think they too can live a rich, vacation lifestyle every day. Then each day, new dreamers reflexively drop what they are doing and rush out there.
I saw it immediately when BB nearly drank himself to death. And the town might have chewed me up too and spit me out if Ciro didn’t give me my reality check. Before Al was processed as a new employee he added, “Remember this, Vegas is like the French Foreign Legion. Most people up root themselves here out of a romantic fantasy that it’s shangra-fuckin’-la. A lot of the other morons are just desperate. So always watch yourself and be weary of the *Debbie Dotsons of the world...because Vegas is a sanctuary for the lunatic fringe.
*Debbie Dotson was a main character in my short story, "SANCTUARY FOR THE LUNATIC FRINGE."
Al started at the Western the next day. At no point did he give-off that Skitzo Al vibe. He got off to a great start with our coworkers but I was still having trouble putting my finger on the difference in him so I gave up and asked. Al in an appropriate conversational tone and pace said, “Getting fired from the Lady Luck changed my life!” He took off his glasses with great exaggeration and cleaned off the lenses. I said, “That’s it, you’re wearing glasses!” He smiled, “But I don’t wear glasses.” I was perplexed. He said, “Listen. They fired me because they thought I was a prick because on second base, I could hear the boxman’s instructions. But on third base, he were speaking into my deaf ear.” “You’re deaf in one ear?” Al said, “Yeah. You knew that...everyone at school knew.” I said, “Trust me, nobody knew.” “Anyway," Al continued, “So when I get the ax, I tell the dude about my ear. He suddenly becomes human and tells me that Beltone has an office around the corner. And if they hook me up with a hearing aid, he’ll give me my job back. I tell him, I was born this way and I was told there’s nothing that can be done. He said you should still go…you never know.”
Al said, “These non-prescription glasses are the latest technology. They have a tiny microphone in the frame and wires carry the sounds from the bad side to my good ear. I’m a new man!” As excited as he was to show me, his quieter, slower pace never faltered as he showed me a photo of Jing, his girlfriend.
Two days later, I got hired at a better job the Holiday International Casino. I never saw Al again. But down through the years when I asked mutual acquaintances who saw him more recently, nobody called him anything but Al.