Winston Churchill once said, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Much the same can be said of Nick Tucker. His life was so shrouded by mystery that I can not be certain if I was his friend, an acquaintance or an insignificant background person.
This piece was made possible because Nick’s former roommate John Crotty confided a good deal of the information to me. For the first four years I knew Crotty, we had no relationship. During that time, the only intelligent thing I ever heard him say was, “The first thing they should teach a Las Vegas craps dealer is the old adage; don’t shit where you eat.”
That’s why it was such a surprise that Crotty in 1982, went out of his way to speak to me. A year later, we had our only other conversation. During that second chance meeting, the in depth details he shared, helped me understand the inner workings of the bizarre, Nick Tucker.
In the fall of 1978, I met Nick Tucker at the New York School of Gambling. While there, we never connected as friends. Our common ground was studying to be casino dealers and moving to Las Vegas. But we were in opposing social groups within the school. So his jet-setting elitists and my easy-going, “good-people” never hung-out outside the classroom, (the other group were the misfit nerds, we called them “kruds.”)
On a Friday in mid-October, we had our first one-on-one meeting. Our craps dealing class had been dismissed but I decided to practice my latest skill after everyone left. At the casino-like classroom’s entrance, Phyllis one of the receptionists seemed to be guarding the door. When I went past her, she stopped cracking her gum long enough to call out, “Hey Nicky, I gotta run.”
Nick Tucker had a guilty look on his face as he stood next to the wide open seventh floor window. His hands were hidden from my view by a podium as I said, “That's dangerous, you could push a piano out that window.” He was annoyed as he shushed me and waved me closer. At his feet, there were five stacks of mismatched, red practice chips and two burlap bank bags. I saw one bag was full as he took out a giant Baggie stuffed with Styrofoam packing peanuts and crumpled newspaper. He dumped in all the chips and said, “Go lay chickie for me.” I said, “Heh?”
He was binding his bundle with thick rubber bands as he said, “Go to the door and let me know if someone is coming.” I wasn’t smart enough to realize that I was witnessing the craziest, stupidest , most unnecessary theft ever! I was paralyzed by indecision until Nick snapped, “You gonna help or stand there like you’re posing for Animal Crackers?”
My curiosity got the better of me so I retreated to the door. From that short distance, I saw Nick take out a plastic supermarket sack and drop the Baggie of chips in. He added more Styrofoam and newspaper before securing the whole thing with rubber bands. He finished the preparation by putting the whole mess into the empty burlap bank bag. Seconds later, there were two identical bank bags tied at the top by a slender plastic strap with a locking mechanism.
Nick stuck his head out of the window and signaled to someone at street level. I was confused. Ten seconds later, he leaned out again, made a military salute and dropped the two, bag-in-a-bag-in-a-bag packages out the window.
|OUCH ! THOSE BAGS HAD TO WEIGH OVER A POUND EACH. AND I CAN'T IMAGINE THE HUGE UNDERTAKING CROWD CONTROL WOULD BE WITH THE CONSTANT FLOW OF INNOCENT PEOPLE COMING INTO THE TARGET AREA FROM ALL ANGLES.|
Nick was all smiles and said to me, “Mission accomplished, I owe you.” I said, “Owe me for what…what just happened?” He said, “John Crotty and Artie Cisco are downstairs holding everyone back and will retreive the bags.”
Nick brandished a switchblade. If he intended on intimidating me from ratting him out, he succeeded. He saw the blank expression on my face and used the knife to clean under his fingernails as he bragged, “John built a craps table for us to practice on…and we’re almost done filling up the bank with chips.” I said, “But these chips are worthless…you can buy’em for a dime.” Nick sighed, “Yeah genius, but we need a thousand of them…you do the math.” I said, “Aren’t you afraid the school will notice this many missing?” He said, “Hell no! Sif (Phyllis, the whore receptionist was nicknamed Sif-Phyllis) wants to get in Artie’s pants, so he gets her to steal them out of a storage closet. These bastards never use 'em and won’t know they’re gone for years.” I said, “Those bags are like missiles, you might kill someone down there. Besides, wouldn’t it be safer and easier to just stuff the chips in your pockets…and walk out with them?” Nick shook his head, “Who are you, a front man for the friggin' Pope? Besides, but what fun would easier be?”
John Crotty was never civil me even when he knew I helped their operation. In the next few weeks, Nick frequently invited me to come to Crotty’s garage in Hoboken to practice dealing to John’s family and friends. But I wasn’t in Crotty’s social strata so he always rolled his eyes or made some gesture that made be feel unwelcome.
Nick remained cordial to me. Occasionally, he invited me to breakfast…but I never went because he, John and Artie Cisco drank their morning meals at the Ireland’s Eye Bar.
Nick and John moved to Vegas together in early November. I graduated a couple of days into 1979 and flew out there on January 7th. By New York standards, Las Vegas was a small town but even with tons of mutual, relocated school mates, it was surprising that I didn’t bump into Nick and John until the following September, at a knockoff San Gennaro feast.
|THE LAS VEGAS ITALIAN-AMERICAN FEAST MIGHT HAVE HAD FOOD THAT LOOKED AUTHENTIC BUT IF YOU KNOW YOUR SCUNGILLI FROM A HOLE IN THE WALL, IT'S JUST NOT THE SAME.|
At the fake San Gennaro feast, like ships passing in the night, Nick and I exchanged silent nods…I got no acknowledgement from John Crotty. However, later that night I overheard Crotty say, “The first thing they should teach Las Vegas craps dealers is the old adage; don’t shit where you eat.”
In 1982, I got hired at the Golden Nugget. What a great coincidence, Nick Tucker was already dealing craps there on my shift. He took me under his wing, introduced me to coworkers and made me feel at home. Nick was quick to mention that the Nugget didn’t have a help’s hall. That meant two things, the casino didn’t provide a meal and it encouraged the staff to leave the building, (most casinos would penalize anyone who went outside during their shift).
On a mutual break, Nick took me all over downtown Vegas and showed me the best places to eat, drink and get in trouble.
Once I got to know him, I considered Nick Tucker to be the nicest person I ever met in the gaming business. Frequently, I introduced him to my friends as, “One of the few gentlemen you’ll ever meet out here.” It took a while but eventually I found out how wrong I was.
Nick showed great compassion for people. He took a personal interest in a fellow Golden Nugget dealer with a gambling problem. He brought this kid literature about Gamblers Anonymous, helped him to enroll in the program and drove him to the first meeting. In appreciation, the kid offered to take Nick out for a steak dinner. Nick politely refused.
Lelani Campbell, a gorgeous Amer-Asian blackjack dealer was as dumb as a stump. But she was smart enough to know that she’d be better off back home in Hawaii than in a dead end job, dealing cards. To encourage her to follow through, Nick tutored her a few days each week for over a month. She passed her GED on the first try. To thank him, she made overt sexual advances…but he turned her down.
A pit boss’s personal life was spiraling out of control. Nick gave him a new direction by suggesting that he follow his passion. Together they searched the classified ads until they found a small fixer-upper cabin cruiser, for fishing Lake Meade. In the stifling heat of Southern Nevada, Nick went to this man’s house, scraped, sanded, cleaned and polished that boat until it was seaworthy. When the boss's dream was realized, he offered Nick money, special scheduling consideration and an outing on the boat. Nick said no thanks, to every offer.
Nick also organized parties for our clique. On Labor Day, he put together a barbeque for us at a park on East Tropicana Avenue.
Later in September, he used up favors to get the Horseshoe Casino’s coffee shop to reserve its backroom (at 2:00AM) and provide free hot hors d’oeuvres (as long as we paid for our drinks), for a boxman’s retirement party.
He also convinced us all to wear Halloween costumes after our shift, at a bash he put together at Mickey’s Appetizer, (a bar).
A month later, Lelani decided to make an afternoon Thanksgiving for our group. On the Sunday before, Nick brought her some extra folding chairs. When he pulled up, she was outside barefoot, in a giant, white tee-shirt that she wore like a dress.
Nick had trouble untying the strap that secured his car's trunk. Rather than get frustrated, he whipped out his switchblade and sliced the cord. Lelani joked, “Besides knives, you got any other surprises in your pants?” Nick avoided the innuendo and changed the subject by saying, “Growing up, my neighborhood was so bad even the Monsignor was good with a knife…” Lelani said, “Wait, I thought you were an army brat?” Nick ignored her prying and brought in the chairs.
Inside Nick said, “I gotta go but I want to tell you something.” She climbed up a three-rung step ladder and said, “Okay. You can tell me as I put up these turkey day decorations.” Nick spotted for her in case she fell. He pretended to be pre-occupied as to protect her modesty, he looked away. At the same time, Lelani kept glancing down hoping that he would sneak a peek up her dress.
She was losing patience with Nick as she tried to figure out if he was a saint or if he liked girls at all. Lelani went up and down the ladder several times and each time she finished hanging a strand of crepe paper or attached a pilgrim placard to the wall she asked, “How does it look?” Nick always grunted, “It looks great.”
For the last decoration, (a HAPPY THANKSGIVING banner across the living room), Lelani uncharacteristically went up the step ladder backwards as to be face-to-face with Nick. While he looked away, she hiked-up her shirt and said, “How does it look?” When turned, her clean-shaven vagina was exposed, inches from his face.
Nick smiled with interest and said, "It looks great." Then he stepped back and turned her down. He added, “Also, I wanted to tell you, I won’t be coming here Thursday.” A girl as good-looking as Lelani wasn’t used to having her sexual advances refused. She was hurt, embarrassed and confused as tears rolled down her face. Nick consoled her, lightly pecked her cheek and whispered, “Please believe me, I really like you but I can’t complicate my life right now…” She interrupted, “Yeah but…” He cut her off and reminded her that he never shows up for group functions.
Nick broke the brief awkward silence that followed and said, “I gotta go now but take this.” He handed her an airport locker key. Lelani stared at the innocuous key and read the number aloud in a murmured stammer, “N-n-number 2577.” Nick firmly held her upper arms, looked deeply into her misty eyes and said, “If you don’t hear from me in a week, everything inside is yours.” She cried, “I don’t want…” “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll be back for you…but…well…if not, we can say I helped you get back home.” Lelani sobbed, "You should come back to Maui with me. You're so smart, you made my GED easy. I bet you can go to school and do whatever you have to do to be a real teacher." Nick was nodding as he muttered, "Maybe...a man could lose himself out there..."
At work, Nick had requested the night before off, as well as that night. He also didn’t tell anyone that his vacation was starting the following day. I never saw or heard from Nick again.
A couple of days later, before anyone realized that Nick vanished, I ran into John Crotty. I tried to duck him but shockingly, he called out my name and hustled over to me. We exchanged our Vegas histories until I said I was dealing at the Nugget. He said, “Nick works there, you ever see him?” I said, “Yeah. All the time. What a great guy.” Crotty said, “Great guy, eh?” I shrugged, “Yeah, of course. Why?” “You his friend?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Where does your friend live?” I said, “Don’t know.” “What’s his phone number?” “Well, he leads a hermit’s life. You know, private…I can respect that...besides, no one at work knows.”
I knew John Crotty only as a narcissistic, unemotional, too cool for his own good, zero. So I was caught off-guard when his voice cracked, “I-I-I thought Nick would be the best friend I ever had. But somethin' ain't right about him. The first thing he did out here was dump Trish from school. Remember her, you couldn’t get anything better than that. But Nick kept getting weirder...like every few days, he wouldn't come back to the apartment. I asked him but never got a straight answer. Geez, we weren’t out here more than a month and he disappeared the whole week of Thanksgiving.” I said, “That’s funny, a girl from work is throwing a big Thanksgiving party and she told me that Nick isn’t coming.”
John said, “See. I told you. I thought I knew him…” He sighed before continuing, “But once we left Jersey, he became a stranger…one hell of a nice guy but a lost soul…if you know what I mean.”
In the days that followed Nick’s vacation, John’s description of the lost soul came true. Nick was a no-call, no-show and was soon fired for job abandonment.
I ran into Crotty a year later. He filled me in on several details that he hadn’t felt right about telling me the first time. Primarily, after they went their separate ways, Nick owed him a small amount of money and an explanation about his peculiar behavior.
He saw Nick driving up Ogden Street and followed him to a crumby apartment in North Las Vegas. When Nick opened the door, John forced his way into the tiny efficiency. Crotty said, “It was so messed-up, every inch of the walls, cabinets and refrigerator were filled with bent-up, yellowed, faded candid pictures of his ex-wife.” I said, “I didn’t know Nick was ever married.” John said, “I didn’t know either. And a lot of the photos included guys...new boyfriends I guess...but they were cut out of the shot or had their faces blacked-out by magic marker.”
John then said in a serious tone, “A few months ago, I got one long letter from him.” I perked-up, "What happened? Where is he?" He said, "I dunno." “What did he say?” “Crotty said, “Nick said his real name is Lonny Orlando and that he had been a typing teacher at a vocational high school in Newark. Soon after his elderly parents both died in 1977, his wife demanded a divorce in the middle of Thanksgiving dessert. A few months later, he quit his job.”
John’s voice tailed off as he said, “Before starting dealer school, Nick said that he wanted to ‘harm’ his ex.” I said, “What?” Crotty said, “The wacko didn’t explain. But he did say, he went to the dealer under a false name and moved to Vegas under that new identity, to help get off the grid…” I said, “What’s off the grid?” “Hey, I thought it was screwy too. But our golden boy wanted to go ‘underground’ like the fuckin’ Unabomber, so his demented plans could be set in motion without looking over his shoulder."
John continued, "On the bright side, in Nick's case, enough time went by so he eased up on the extreme craziness. But every November, because he couldn’t get his ex out of his mind, he went back to New Jersey under another alias, Terry Something-or-other, to 'just' harass her. But this last time, the house he had grown up in had been bull-dozed and far worse; his ex-wife was remarried.”
“Nick said he stalked her the whole day before Thanksgiving and followed her back to her new house. Like a stake-out, he watched the place for hours until a Mercedes with “IDOC2” personalized plates drove up. The driver honked his horn and she came out. They were doing some heavy-duty necking in the car before they drove off. Nick followed them to Pathmark. While they were shopping, he punctured their tire with his switchblade. Then he drove back to the house and broke in. Nick proudly said he purposely walked through mud and dragged footprints all over before smashing fancy framed pictures from their wedding and then pissed on them.”
“The next morning he hid in the woods outside his ex-in-laws. When they left for church, he broke in. Nick bragged about crapping on the kitchen floor and vandalizing their place. Only that time, the cops were hiding in the basement, attic and closets.” I said, “That’s crazy.” John said, “Hell yeah it sounded crazy but even though I have no idea where that letter came from, I got the impression it was from a loony bin.” My mouth was gaping as he finished by saying, “Nick closed the letter by saying, remember when you told me, 'you should never shit where you eat,’ well get this, that’s exactly what the cop said to me after he cuffed me and led me out.”
Thirty-one years later, whether John Crotty was right about Nick being institutionalized or not, I'll never know. But the possibility does add another variable to the incredible puzzle now known as, Nick Tucker.
Winston Churchill grasped that the Russians were a riddle, in a mystery, wrapped in an enigma. But I'm not certain he could appreciate stolen dealer school chips, inside a Baggie, in a grocery store sack and stuffed in a bank bag. And nobody on the face of the earth ...even Sigmund Freud...could ever understand why Lonny Orlando needed to be Nick Tucker, in order to be Terry Something-or-other.