To understand that year’s bonanza, you should understand that the Vegas portion of my craps dealing career included seven casinos. This five-year period spanned the first week of January 1979 until (almost to the exact day) the first week of 1984.
In 1979, I earned my stripes working eight months in three different toilets. On September 10th, I was ready to break my bonds of poverty so I pounced on a rumor that Union Plaza Casino needed craps dealers. I dressed for the occasion, put on my swagger and marched to their craps pit. But after careful scrutiny and much internal debate, the flying fickle finger of fate, diverted me away, (I chickened-out because my color blindness couldn’t differentiate the shade of their red and green chips).
I felt like a loser as I stood frozen, outside the Union Plaza’s front door, (not far from where the 1974 movie, “HARRY AND TONTO” filmed Art Carney getting arrested for peeing in a potted plant).
|EVERY TIME I THINK OF THE UNION PLAZA, I THINK OF ART CARNEY. "HARRY AND TONTO," MAY NOT HAVE BEEN THE GREATEST MOVIE BUT ANYTHING WITH ART CARNEY IN IT, IS WORTHWHILE.|
I was disgusted. My nuisance malady just cost me a chance to get up in the casino world. But I snapped out of my funk and decided that as long as I was already wearing “black and whites” (black slacks and white shirt, the unofficial uniform of a dealer applicants) that I would knock on random casino doors along Glitter Gulch. My goal was to hit the top four jobs on Fremont Street. Destiny smiled down on me that day because I started my quest at Hotel Fremont…and was hired.
|I WISH THE PHOTOGRAPER WOULD HAVE SAID, "SAY CHEESE," BECAUSE I WAS SO AWE-STRUCK BY GOOD FORTUNE, I FORGOT TO SMILE.|
The Fremont paid much better than the Union Plaza…but in a short time, I learned it had an invaluable hidden perk. That extra benefit was, the Fremont was the sister casino of the Stardust on the fabulous Las Vegas strip, (it’s all a matter of prospective but at that time, no downtown casino could touch a strip casino in terms of economics or status). And like a minor leaguer from the Fremont, I was sent up to the “bigs,” when I received my transfer to the Stardust, in March 1980.
For the next two years, I loved the job so much that decades later, it seems impossible that I could ever have been so self-realized at work. When my world crashed in me, I was unemployed for six weeks. In that time, I found out how fortunate I was to reach such lofty heights without much experience, an abundance of talent or knowing the right people, (it is true however, that a fifty-dollar bribe cemented my ascension from the Fremont).
In February 1982, I wound up embittered and back downtown working for peanuts, at the Las Vegas Club. This flea-bitten, saw-dust on the floor, grind joint became a six-month long wake-up call that signaled the end of my impressionable youth. In that time, I frequently tried to free my experienced, casino savvy self by making applications and asking for auditions at the better, storefront properties in the area. Whether it was a weak national economy or bad timing I don’t know…but I was stuck.
A coincidence in August would change my lot in life. My wife Sue’s girlfriend (Rona) flew out from Brooklyn. They came to meet me after my shift, at 4:00AM. We gallivanted through casinos and took advantage of the fifty-cent drinks.
|OUTSIDE THE MINT CASINO, RONA TOOK THIS PHOTO BEFORE WE GOT SEPARATED. YOU CAN TELL FROM MY LIT-UP FACE HOW WASTED I WAS.|
In a blur, I scoured our favorite haunts trying to reconnect with the girls. I was breezing through the near-empty Golden Nugget with a Heineken in my hand when my name was called.
One of my former crewmates (Benito) from the Stardust was the craps floorperson (supervisor). This Italian national was in his forties and resembled French actor Louis Jourdan.
|LOUIS JOURAN (1921-Present) IS BEST KNOWN FOR HIS ROLE IN 1958's FOUR-STAR MOVIE, "GIGI."|
When it was to Benny's benefit, he could exude sophisticated European charm. But generally, especially if he got excited, he sounded like Chico Marx.
Benny politely said, “Where are you working?” I was still wearing my uniform (see photo above) and held back a burp as I peeped, “Vegas Club.” Benny exploded, “Whattsa matta wid you? A guya like you shouda not have to work in a shithouse.” I took a short swallow of beer and shrugged. Benny blasted, “Whya you doan cumma here to work?” I said, “They don’t give auditions without an appointment. I put in five apps in the last six months and they never called…” He cut me off, “Fuhgeddaboudit!” He turned to the drunken pit boss who was holding on to the pit stand to keep himself erect and said, “Heya Scotty, I gotta good man ova here who needsa audition.” Scotty barely looked up, “We ain’t hirin’. Tell him, come back during the day and fill out an application.” Benny said, “No! I’a knowa dis man and we needa guysa like dis.”
Scotty nodded. Benny said, “Cumma ova to second base and tap in.” I lifted my beer bottle and whispered, “I’m a little messed up…” “Doan wurry, Benito willa take care uh you.”
The only two players were standing next to each other. One had three white chips bet on the don’t pass line and his friend had three red chips, also on the don’t pass line. The first roll was; three craps. My job was to pay both bets. But in my fog, I paid the white chips with red and the red chips with white…and didn’t notice. I was so “out there” that I didn’t notice that the boxman (immediate supervisor who sits between the dealers) was another friend. Dave Wolf also from the Stardust pointed at my work and said, “Look what you did.” I was embarrassed but quickly grabbed up the two payoffs, crisscrossed my hands and corrected my mistake. Benito roared like I was a conquering hero, “Wow! Tap him out.” He pounded my back and called out to Scotty, “Seea, I tol you, dissa good man or what.” Scotty yawned, “We aren’t hiring.” Benny went over and whispered in his ear. While they chatted, I was tough on myself for doing so poorly in one dice roll and squandering a chance to make a better living.
Benny was all smiles when he rushed over, gave me a playful shove and said, “Calla dis mumba tomorra and to get processed.” Like the bribe I paid to get out of the Fremont, the Vegas system of "juice" is completely unfair…unless of course, it works to your advantage.
The Golden Nugget was one of the top four casinos downtown but it was nothing compared to the Stardust. It catered to budget-minded locals and economy-driven day-trippers from Southern California.
In the early stages of working there, the bad taste of losing my Stardust job was still in my mouth. So my wife and I decided to sell our condo and return east, to be closer to family and friends.
Someone must have been looking down at me from above because after a few months at the Golden Nugget, the owner, Steve Wynn presided over mandatory meetings. At the time, these gatherings seemed like empty rah, rah speeches. He discussed his vision of a better Golden Nugget. But the incredible images he projected in our mind, made the staff snicker. When he declared that everyone was getting a salary raise immediately…we listened more intently. He said he needed our cooperation to complete the casino’s metamorphosis into a global destination…and to put us all on the same page, he made us his partners, (we all soon received stock in the corporation). If that wasn’t enough, he directly addressed the dealers and said, “When the construction is done, your tip income will double within six month."
True to his word, he made that gloomy, claustrophobic dump into a palace. It was a miracle, the ceilings were raised, walls were knocked down, city streets were purchased and the casino expanded in every direction. The guest rooms were remodeled, upscale restaurants and shops were brought in and the clientele improved. We worked around the continuous refurbishing and the casino NEVER closed. In less than six months, we were a high class casino, dealing to astronomical limits and we more than doubled our tip income.
1983 was a gift from the heavens. I made more money than the Stardust and was fulfilled by constant social opportunites and tons of good friends. Sue and I led a high life and it got better every day.
During this time, my condo was put up for sale. So while living it up, I had the added luxury of being indifferent to the fact that nobody was looking at my place. Even crazier, Steve Wynn wanted to parlay his success at the Golden Nugget. He broke ground on the strip with the Treasure Island Casino. So as good as the Nugget was…it was anticipated (correctly) that this new venture would be a bigger and better opportunity for he entire Golden Nugget staff.
It seems impossible but even with that joyride at the Nugget and a clear road to a brighter future…I still had enough. I wanted to sell the condo and go back home.
|THAT'S NOT MY CAR BUT THAT IS MY CONDO COMPLEX.|
One of the things that I did to sweeten the “going home” pot was outlining a thirty-day, cross-county vacation. I wanted to show Sue the west like, Utah’s Zion National Park, Arizona’s Grand Canyon, the Monument Valley, the beauty of Colorado, the enchantment of New Mexico, the Carlsbad Caverns and tour Texas.
By the time December rolled around, I was overcome by the feeling of being trapped. The great, ever-improving Golden Nugget experience had gotten old. I also assumed that hanging in and making the transition to the Treasure Island would only temporarily keep me going. I wanted out and I wanted to show Sue the world.
Two weeks before Christmas, the second prospective buyer (in almost a year) came to look at my condo. So I was shocked that he made an offer. But the shitty price he wanted to pay would have resulted in a loss, (back then taking a loss in real estate was unfathomable). I compromised with a counter proposal. This gentleman raised his bid but also demanded ridiculous terms. I accepted.
We closed on the property, in the first week of January. I worked a couple of shifts into 1984 and without much fanfare, said my good-byes. To lighten our load, I gave away Sue’s car, some furniture and other essentials to a friend.
One thing that made leaving town easier was our impending cross-country jaunt. But after the year-long build-up to go on such a wonderful trip, it was disappointing to be leaving in the heart of winter. My dream of a leisurely, thirty-day, once in a lifetime excursion wasn't feasible due to the threat of cold weather and unsafe conditions.
So Plan-B was a southern route with few tourist stops. From Las Vegas we would drive to Interstate-10 (in Tempe Arizona). We would stay on that one roadway, all the way into Mobile Alabama.
The omen of what was to come, happened on the morning we were leaving. The U-Haul had already been packed but we had left our bicycles in the exterior storage closet. Unfortunately, I stupidly had surrendered the keys. It took a while to track down the buyer by phone. To get the key, we had to drive to the farthest corner of town, come home, pack the bikes and return the key.
Once we blasted off, we dragged that trailer all day, on a dusty two-lane road, through the Arizona desert. It was after dinner that we got on the interstate. We were in the car nineteen hours (and lost another hour due to the time zone change) when we found a motel in El Paso Texas.
In the morning, we paid the two-cent toll and crossed the pedestrian bridge over the Rio Grande River. We were comfortable in our thin, Vegas-worthy winter coats. So despite being only 28 ºF, it was a glorious and beautiful day for a walking tour of Juarez Mexico.
|IN JUAREZ, SUE AND THE SHOP OWNER WERE MILLIONS OF PESOS APART. BUT AFTER A STRONG HAGGLING SESSION, SHE GOT THAT DRESS FOR HER PRICE.|
We got back in the car and projected our next stop to be San Antonio, (so we could visit the Alamo). Going east from El Paso, Interstate-10 is cut through the Davis Mountains. Soon the warm sun vanished and the wind kicked up. On some mountain passes, the highway was cut out just enough to fit a sliver of roadway through the rocks. When the wind was especially nasty, it felt like being in a hurricane.
I stopped for gas atop one of the mountain passes. It was around noon and the skies had darkened to the weird color that makes you expect snow. Just opening my car door in that rippling wind was a challenge. I pumped my gas and must have looked like mime as I struggled to walk against the howling gale. Inside the office, I asked the attendant how the roads were going east. He said, “We’re getting snow here tonight but it’ll miss you…you’ll be okay as long as you don’t have a trailer.” We were at an angle that he could see my 1980 Chevy Monte Carlo but not my U-Haul. I said, “But I do have a trailer…” He said, “Oh…”
|YES INDEEDY, I'M WEARING TWO-TONE, SHARK-SKIN COWBOY BOOTS, (STILL GOT'M SOMEWHERE) BUT THIS IS THE ONLY DECENT PHOTO OF MY CHEVY AND THE TRAILER.|
The skies brightened after we left that pass but it was still cloudy. Soon the mountainous landscape was covered in a queer, gray-colored snow. I took a picture of it as Sue drove.
|NEARING THE PECOS TEXAS EXIT, BETWEEN MOUNTAIN PASSES, THE SNOW IS COVERED BY GRAY SOOT FROM NEARBY MINES.|
Sue zoomed through the almost empty highway as we appreciated the stony crags and cool rock formations that can come up as close as a few feet of the road’s shoulder. Suddenly, our trailer started to fish-tail. It was still attached but it’s never a good thing when your possessions are overtaking you.
At 1:00PM, we lost control and went into a skid. The car left the road. I thought our lives were over as we barreled toward a conveniently located, jagged mountain wall. Luckily, we got traction on the unnaturally-colored snow and stopped a few feet from an awesome-looking rock formation.
We hugged each other for ten minutes. I got out and checked the U-Haul’s connection and was satisfied that it was okay. Appropriately, I was wearing cowboy boots as I walked up, onto the highway. Like being on skates, I slipped and slided until I realized that black ice covered the whole surface. I was numb all over when I got back behind the wheel. I drove about 20 miles per hour into the town of Fort Stockton until I had feeling in my extremities again.
January 2014 marks the thirtieth anniversary of me leaving Las Vegas. It's true I occasionally wonder how my life would have turned out if I stuck around the Golden Nugget long enough to take the Treasure Island job. But no matter how great the scenario I imagine...there's NO WAY, I'd ever trade considering how great my life has turned out.
Even crazier, it seems Las Vegas is the early leader to where Sue and I retire...I'll keep you posted.