February 1999

Las Vegas

    In early February, 1999, three weeks after we started dating, Steve and I took a trip to Las Vegas. We had such a good time that we returned twice: for our one-year anniversary, and in October, 2000, just before our big backpacking trip. Here are some highlights from our first trip.

    ~ * ~

    Despite the distinct outer architecture of each casino, inside they are virtually identical. You can travel up and down most of the Strip without stepping outside. Using tunnels, trams, and moving sidewalks, you can navigate from one casino to the next until they become a blur of carpets and card tables and clanging slot machines. Signs point the way to other casinos as well as common destinations. Cashier. Restrooms. Arcade. ATM. Buffet.

    I never seemed to get a good sense of direction inside the casinos, and always had to look to the signs for guidance. Steve, on the other hand, always seemed to know what direction to turn. I joked that he must have some mole in his blood to be able to navigate underground, and he responded, “no, just a Y chromosome.” Now, I wasn’t going to simply take at face value the stereotype that males have a better innate sense of direction, so I began to think about it, and realized something interesting. I hadn’t been paying attention. I had subconsciously given Steve the job of navigation and had instead followed him and focused on the sights we were passing. He had a better sense of direction because he was deciding which way to go. If I had been there alone, I’m sure I would have gained the same spatial instincts. After that, I made a point to pay more attention to the layout of things.

    ~ * ~

    I bought our Penn and Teller tickets over the phone, emailed Steve the show information, then promptly forgot it all. On Monday night, we picked up our tickets from Will Call, had dinner, then went into the show. We were shown our seats in the center of the house, and a cocktail waitress took our drink order. Then, someone arrived with the same seat number as me, and it was only then that we (and the usher) noticed that our tickets were for the previous night - I had remembered the wrong date! But we had a loophole: the ticket counter had printed out the tickets for us that day, tickets with Sunday’s date, and neither the computer nor the ticket agents had noticed. So we put on our baffled faces and walked back out of the theater to the ticket counter.

    “We were given these tickets today, but they’re for yesterday’s show.” It worked. The ticket agent who had previously given us the tickets wasn’t working anymore, and the man we talked to had no way of knowing when we had bought them. He apologized sincerely for the mix-up, and found us some second-row seats to the far stage-right side -- better seats than we had before.

    The show began, the usual assortment of classic Penn & Teller tricks and schtick. Sitting so far in the front, we were in visual range of Penn, and it wasn’t too long before his eyes landed on Steve when looking for an audience member to help with a trick. “You sir, the man in the shirt.”

    On stage, Teller was floating in a phone-booth-sized tank of water (wearing a grey suit as always). The top of the tank was open, but there were underwater metal bars preventing his mouth or nose from reaching air. Only his hands could fit through, and in his upstretched hands, Teller held a key clearly labeled “TELLER” above the water. A hose ran from a scuba tank on the stage into Teller’s mouth.

    Penn explained that Teller would hold his breath until Penn completed a card trick. To add tension, a female audience member was recruited to hold a stopwatch and microphone and announce the passing of every thirty-second interval. Penn instructed Steve to pull the scuba regulator from Teller’s mouth to begin the trick, then to drag the scuba tank to the far side of the stage. A stagehand stepped out and had a muted conversation with Steve, looking like they had all the time in the world. The audience laughed nervously.

    When Steve returned to Penn’s side, Penn went through the standard motions and had Steve open a new deck of cards, select one, sign the face, and show it to the audience. Penn then went on to fail to find Steve’s card in a miserable and time-consuming way. When he had looked through the entire deck without finding the card, he ran to the tank to let Teller out, but Teller pulled the key underwater and gestured that they had promised to complete the trick first.

    Penn ran back to the front of the stage, which was now littered with playing cards. He and Steve began looking through the fallen cards desperately. Teller began to struggle. Penn directed Steve to let Teller out; Steve walked to the back of the stage and tried the key. It didn’t turn. He jiggled the key, jiggled the lock. No success. Teller was trapped. He began to splash, spraying the stage with water, then fell still and sank down in the tank.

    With a sigh, Penn realized his partner was dead. “Don’t worry, Steve. I’m sure nobody could blame you for this. I mean, even though everyone saw you rip the regulator from Teller’s mouth… after all, it is a performer’s responsibility to check his own props, so obviously it is Teller’s fault for not making sure this was the right key. I’m sure no court would convict you, despite all these witnesses.”

    Penn walked up to the front of the stage and motioned for Steve to follow. They bowed their heads and clasped their hands together. Penn began to eulogize Teller. Steve stood, head bowed, looking sideways at Penn with a half-smile on his face, eyes full of mirth. When Penn finished a few minutes later, he walked to the tank to turn it around, since Teller had died with his back to the audience. As the tank rotated, the audience saw something inside Teller’s facemask. Steve recognized his signature.

    “Is this your card?”

    ~ * ~

    As the most popular form of gambling in Vegas, slot machines are everywhere. From the moment you step into the airport, you notice the persistent clanging of the slots. Very seldom do you actually hear the ching-ching-ching of coins spewing from a machine; most people simply amass credits from their winnings instead of coins. So instead, the noise is a cacophony of computer-generated sounds, wholly irrelevant to the actual operation of the machines and designed, I assume, to provoke excitement about feeding quarters into a hole.

    Even though my mind eventually adjusted to the constant presence of this discord, the people who play the slots never stopped seeming a bit alien. I simply don't understand the appeal of an activity that is as repetitious as an assembly line and requires no skill whatsoever. I always looked in puzzlement at the crowds sitting at the slot machines, pressing buttons and pulling levers with the passionless, robotic faces of people who watch too much TV. Walking through the acres of slot machines on my way to other parts of a casino, I always felt like I was passing through a foreign country. Not the exciting, learning-and-growing, making-new-friends kind of experience, but the nobody-speaks-your-language, nothing-familiar, I-wanna-go-home sort. My condescension toward slot players notwithstanding, I felt almost intimidated by something that foreign.

    One day, while Steve was taking in a craps lesson, the casino floor became too much for me, so I headed for somewhere a little more familiar: the arcade. As I stepped off the escalator and into the arcade, I looked around and saw video games bedecked in colorful lights....heard computer-generated dings and beeps... observed people feeding quarters into the machines in the hopes of winning... and had one of those epiphanies about how even though I remain better than those slot players, that I was susceptible to the same damn triggers as everyone else.

    But, ugh. At least video games take some skill.

    ~ * ~

    Blackjack is my game. I’d be perfectly happy to spend hours in a casino and never even look at a slot machine, craps table, or roulette wheel.

    I have decent luck at blackjack, but not stupendous winnings -- I’m a low-roller who often bets the minimum all night. Money is not the reason I am so drawn to the crisp gestures and green felt of the blackjack table. I like to win of course, and the fact that I walk away a little richer more often than I walk away a little poorer keeps me coming back. But that’s not it either. What is most attractive about blackjack is that it requires some skill and preparation. Most people know the object of the game – to get closer to 21 than the dealer without going over – and maybe some of the easy strategies, like doubling down on eleven. But to really be serious about blackjack, there are many more rules to memorize.

    I refill my head with these details before sitting down at the table, then begin to play. At first even simple addition takes a few seconds, but soon I can feel my mind accelerating like well-greased machinery. The litany of numbers and rules resolves into a pattern that I can easily access. Soft eighteen? Stand if the dealer has a 7, 8, or ace showing. Otherwise, hit. Always split a pair of eights, but never a pair of fours. Rules that give me the confidence of knowing that I am playing the right way, that I have done all I can to stack the odds in my favor, that now I am staring luck directly in the face.

    Then there are the emotional hands, where I know what I’m doing is statistically right, but still I hesitate. Having to hit on a sixteen… being forced to stay with only a twelve. Times where you have to stare coldly down the barrel of the gun and do what is right; maintain the aloofness that is the mark of the expert player. Beginners play with their emotions, letting hopes and fears dictate their game. Not I -- I navigate through the sea of numbers to the truly thrilling heart of the game: the element of chance.

    Chance is featured in every casino game, of course, but in blackjack only a select few experience it unadulterated. Everyone else’s game is affected not only by chance, but by their own mistakes. Following the rules eliminates all but luck, and allows me to observe luck’s behavior, and play with it like a kitten.

    For me, luck always comes in streaks. So, if I’m doing well I’ll start betting a little more. Conversely, I play around to see what might change a losing streak - pull out for a few hands, maybe until the dealer changes or the cards are shuffled. Sometimes I try changing tables. These tricks often remedy small-scale streaks, but luck also exhibits larger trends: I’ve noticed that I will tend to either win or lose all day. If I lose in the morning, I had better not play at night because it’ll only get worse. The hardest-won blackjack skill is being able to walk away.

    This terrain is where emotions must enter into blackjack, where your gut feeling may be your most accurate guide. Knowing the minutiae of the rules frees me to play in this mysterious plane where nobody in the world is any better equipped than I to see the way. A place where luck and I play hide-and-seek. It’s transcendent.

    ~ * ~

    I love heights, so it’s no surprise that the Big Shot was on top of my list of must-see attractions in Vegas. The ride begins over eight hundred feet above ground, atop the Stratosphere Tower. Sixteen riders are strapped in, accelerated upward along a tall post, then allowed to slowly bounce back down. In a handful of seconds, the ride delivers four Gs of gravity, zero gravity, and negative four Gs. From that height, nothing is blocking the view of Vegas and the surrounding landscape, so it feels like being catapulted into the sky.

    Believe me or not, but I wasn’t nervous as I was being strapped in. I was enjoying the panorama of desert, mountains, and buildings dwarfed by distance. The odd thing was that when the ride was launched and I was being flung skyward, my field of vision narrowed to a single point in the landscape. For the two (very long) seconds of acceleration, all my eyes took in was a single patch of scrubby bush surrounded by reddish ground. Then, we reached the apex of the tower, and as I floated weightlessly for a moment, the countryside opened up below me as if curtains had been parted. It was breathtaking. I spent the rest of the ride, the wind-down, in a mild euphoria. As soon as the restraints were released, I barely remembered to say something to Steve before rushing to buy my reduced-rate repeat ride ticket.

    ~ * ~

    I don’t want to say much about The Beach. It’s your typical meat-market white straight bar, with wet t-shirt contests and hardbody shows on alternating nights. It was filled with trashy-looking locals and tourists who, like us, had discovered that nothing else was open on Sunday nights in the quintessential all-night city.

    What interested me was that the club had no pretensions of class. The stage was gleefully populated with scantily-clad dancing women, and the bar with shirtless male bartenders. The wet t-shirt contestants were encouraged to act as trashy as possible. And then the club embraced trashiness in the most literal sense: by regularly deluging those on the dance floor with napkins, toilet paper, and crude confetti. By the end of the evening, dancing was hazardous because of more than an inch of accumulated paper waste that had become slippery from spilled drinks, wet t-shirt spillover, sweat, and who knows what else. We couldn’t help but notice how the club had filled itself, landfill-like, with trash. White trash.


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