Sunday, April 17, 2011

Vegas Baby! Part I

As a proud American, I must confess I still have not visited many of my nation's treasures. I have been slow to hike the Grand Canyon or gaze upon Mount Rushmore. I have not yet traversed the Rocky Mountains or canoed on the mighty Mississippi. There is much of the world I want to see but I feel obligated to first see more of my own great country. This is what brought me to Las Vegas.

I heard no lukewarm reviews of Las Vegas. Friends either told me it was a fun, incredible place that everyone should experience or a disgusting wasteland with nothing to offer the non-degenerate gambler. But inspiration and opportunity finally met with the help of my most excellent girlfriend, who had visited Vegas before. We booked our trip after scouring the Internet for deals and thought we did pretty well.

People had mentioned that there were slot machines at the airport and I did not doubt it, but I thought there would be a few token slot machines stuck in a corner someplace or used for show here and there. But there are lots of slot machines at the airport. And I would discover that every business gets in on the act. The small gas station and convenience store behind our hotel had a row of video slot machines and advertises a lucrative prize. No matter where you turn, a video slot machine is waiting to take your money.

After slogging through the near empty airport and waiting for the shuttle train to take us to the exit, we waited around for a shuttle bus to our hotel. We finally arrived at The Riviera hotel and casino in the early morning hours of Saturday. Even though it was two in the morning, there was a half-hour wait to register for our room. But we wound up lucking out: because regular rooms were booked up, we were upgraded to a suite at no extra charge.

The Riviera has seen better days. It was one of the most famous casinos in Las Vegas in its earlier days, but the company that owns it declared bankruptcy last year. It's a nice enough place, but looks run down and just can't compare to the larger, newer casinos. It is still living in its past glories and features a Rat Pack impersonators show and a topless review. Video screens play endless commercials for these shows endlessly while you wait in line to register. Somehow we didn't mind. In Las Vegas, you're just happy to be there, even if there is a run-down hotel at 2:30 in the morning.

Even though it was nearly 3 a.m. by the time we got to our room, I wanted to go out and see some of Vegas. The Riviera is on the Vegas strip (actual name: Las Vegas Boulevard), and on the ride to our hotel parts of it were bustling with people, some of them carrying very large drinking yards slung around their necks with lanyards. We went down to the strip but passed through the Riviera's casino first.

The slot machines in the casinos are vast seas of eye-melting light and constant sound. Every casino will have at least one or two cars sitting atop a platform and surrounded by a bank of video slot machines that one could theoretically use to buy the car.

Waitresses in Las Vegas are almost always dressed in the most threadbare outfits. No cocktail waitress in Vegas is dressed modestly, the only possible exception to this being Circus Circus, which is deemed the more family friendly casino and hotel. It is crawling with children and has waitresses who don't dress as slutty, but otherwise looks like most other casinos.

At 3 a.m., even a less popular casino like The Riviera is humming with activity. The slot machines ring out with beeps spinning sounds, a blackjack dealer with a low-slung shirt and a strong push-up bra works a table while a slim waitress, dressed audaciously and looking tired and haggard from the neck up, passes by as she ferries drinks to thirsty gamblers.

We did not journey far on the Strip our first night; it was raining and we were tired, so we turned in for the night, closing the curtain on the alluring bright lights of Las Vegas.

The next morning, we set out for casino exploring after breakfast. We walked north along the Strip in the direction of the Stratosphere and The Sahara.

Things are out of proportion in Vegas because buildings are so large. The Stratosphere and The Sahara did not look very far away, but it was a long walk, even for two city dwellers accustomed to walking long distances to get places. Also, there's a lot of construction going on in Las Vegas. You will not travel far before you pass by a large, empty, fenced-off space occupied by construction equipment or office trailers.

It was at The Sahara that I had my most luck gambling in Las Vegas. The $5 Blackjack tables called to me. I came across one table that was occupied by a very heavy couple in cowboy hats and a biker from the Choir Boys Motorcycle Club.

Casinos in Las Vegas are impressive and grandiose, but after a while they can all begin to blur together. The casino that was most impressive was the MGM Grand. It was ornate without being overwrought and tacky and exuded an element of class. It has a lion habitat where you can view two very lazy female lions and the largest sports betting area I think I've ever seen. It has the same dizzying array of fancy shops, restaurants and a seemingly endless casino, but its design is somehow better and it seems a more inviting place. Caesar's Palace was impressive for its ostentatiously-executed Roman theme.

Perhaps the only real disappointment in Las Vegas was that slot machines are not the slot machines of old that take quarters or chips and require you to pull on a handle. Most slot machines take only bills or scan-able tickets and have no levers to pull, only buttons to push. A torrent of coins does not descend to a tray if you win, but when you push a button to cash out, these new slot machines will play the sound of coins cascading. You'll put your dollars into the machine, but will only get a paper ticket out. You have to go to a cashier or to one of the ticket redemption/bill breaker machines that populate the slot machine areas to cash in your ticket.

There are so many varieties of slot machines that the odd one will grab your attention. The Gold Nugget got two of my dollars because they had a Harry Houdini-themed slot machine, and I thought the great escape artist might bring me some good luck. But I did not escape the Golden Nugget any richer. Despite being disappointed with the lack of traditional slot machines and remaining pretty disciplined when it came to gambling, the video slot machines manage to lure you to them. If you're standing in a casino, waiting for someone to come out of the bathroom or waiting for a table in a restaurant, the slot machines will seem like an appealing option. You can sit at a slot machine and be entertained for a few minutes for the cost of a dollar. There are things you need to figure out also: how many lines do I play and how many bets should I make per line? And figuring this out takes your mind off of your money.

The night we booked our trip to Vegas, I made sure to buy tickets to see Penn & Teller. I've been a die-hard Penn & Teller fan for a long time, but they rarely play New York because they've had a regular nightly show in Las Vegas for about 20 years now. They play at the Rio, which is off the Strip a little ways. We walked there from Caesar's Palace, and it's one of those Las Vegas walks that looked a lot shorter than it is. We got there plenty early and got to explore the casino. Chippendale's has a location in the Rio, and as it got later more and more groups of women in tight black evening dresses arrived for an evening of fun at Chippendale's. But soon it was time to head to the Penn & Teller Theater to see Penn & Teller.

Before the show, the theater opened early and as people found their seats, a small jazz band played on the side of the stage as audience members were invited to visit the stage for a “box inspection and envelope signing event.” If you happen to look over at the jazz band while you're on stage, you would notice that Penn is playing bass while wearing some ridiculous fake sideburns and street clothes; it's difficult to discern this from the audience. The show itself was excellent and I did not go away disappointed. There were some new and funny tricks they did and at least one cringing moment when I thought Penn was going to shoot himself in the groin with a hydraulic nail gun.

When I saw them in New York in 2000, the city's ridiculously strict gun laws prohibited them from doing their famous version of the bullet catching trick (they use real .357 Magnums). They ended the show with that trick, and I can't figure out how it's done.

After Penn & Teller finish their show, they run out to the lobby and meet whoever wants to meet them. I waited patiently to get my photo taken with both Penn and Teller—when I saw them last in New York I had a great photo with both of them on my cell phone but lost it. I thanked Penn for supporting Al Goldstein.

The girlfriend and I took a free shuttle bus from the Rio to Harrah's, where we caught the monorail back toward the Riviera to end our first full day together in Vegas.

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