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Vegas Vacation

Is this any way to run an empire?

By R.V. Scheide

There'd been thermal bounce coming in; violent, lurid convulsions that knocked our aluminum-skinned projectile a couple of hundred feet off beam with every buffet, causing the bottom to fall out of my stomach and the blood to rush from my knuckles as I tightened my grip on the arms of the seat I was strapped into.

God, I hate flying.

Suicide, or rather my inability to commit it, is about the only thing that can get me on an airplane. I'm either lazy or a coward or both. Tired of living, but too scared to carry out my own execution, I'd rather have someone do it for me. On takeoff, I unscrew bolts from jet turbines with nonexistent telekinetic powers. I wonder what I'll think about on the way down when we lose power at 30,000 feet.

Conversely, I know I will never be lucky enough to die in a plane crash. Just like I'll never be lucky enough to win the lottery. It was up to $32 million before I took off; I saw the billboard on the way to Sacramento International Airport. "Independence Day." How alienating. Too bad there was no place to stop and get a ticket.

Anyway, if I'm on the plane, you're safe. But I'll be scared. I'll be white-knuckling it the whole way, right up until we touch down with a squeal of smoking rubber and the flight attendant announces "the safest part of your journey is now over."

"Welcome to Las Vegas."

"Ain't that the truth," says the black guy in the seat next to me. He is about 50, athletic, handsome, with one amber and one blue eye, like one of those Australian sheep dogs, or a shaman.

"Whaddaya mean?" I ask. I figure the flight attendant is joking about losing your shirt playing roulette, but he has taken her more seriously. He wears the native epaulets of Nevada (gold jewelry, including two knobby class rings and a hefty Rolex watch) with the dignity of an Aztec priest.

"The people here can't drive worth a damn. Turn on the radio, any time of day, you're always hearing about somebody bustin' themselves up on the freeway."

Turns out he came to town from Chicago a dozen years ago. Never get to find out why. I lose him as we deplane into Vegas' cavernous McCarran Airport. McCarran is one of the most convenient facilities in the nation, a monument to the great savior of the American West, the tourist. It might be (indeed it was) 103 degrees outside, but you'd never know it, rolling along conveyor belts in air-conditioned comfort. Trams and mini-buses handle the ground transportation, so there's almost no walking.

Directions are clearly spelled out.

You don't even have to think if you don't want to. But I am going to have to think.

I am on a working vacation. Somehow, I'd have conned them into sending me to Las Vegas with a spiel that is preposterous at best. Something about gambling taking over California, how Las Vegas is the new capital of the West, the shining symbol of everything that's wrong with freedom's dark project. And besides, they sure are making a lot of movies about it lately, aren't they?

I think maybe it is that last one that gets them, since for weeks I've been babbling on and on about how Las Vegas seems to be turning up in almost every film coming out of Hollywood these days.

In some of them--Vegas Vacation, Casino and Leaving Las Vegas--the Sin City setting makes sense. But in countless others, such as Con Air, Mars Attacks! and Beavis and Butt-head Do America, the appearance of Las Vegas, usually in flames at the end of the picture, presents something of a conundrum, or so I suggest.

Why Las Vegas? Why, indeed. Yep. That sure is the question.

"Business or pleasure?" the woman behind the rental car counter smiles.

"Little bit of both, I guess," I tell her, handing her my Visa and my driver's license. She hands me the keys to a '97 Sentra. The car is round and white as an egg; the engine turns right over and the radio is on, tuned to Casino Radio 1140. The voice of Nevada Highway Patrol trooper Steve Harding booms out of the speakers.

"If you're like many Americans, you probably believe criminal activity constitutes the biggest threat to your well-being and safety," trooper Harding thunders.

Rather cheery, I think.

"I'm here to tell you that the risk from death, injury or financial loss is greater on American roadways than from some criminal act."

Cheerier still.

"If you think otherwise, then you're wrong. Maybe even dead wrong. Don't fool yourself. Speed kills [echo effect] KILLS KILLS KILLS!"

Geez.

Casino Radio turns out to be a gaming industry tape loop broadcast 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, providing tourists with fun facts about Las Vegas --like the length of Howard Hughes' fingernails (7 inches) and directions to the best buffets in town. Plus, about every 20 minutes or so, trooper Harding cuts in with his dire warning.

I leave the radio tuned to 1140 to breed familiarity and head for The Strip. Arriving in Las Vegas in the daytime is like waking up in the morning with a particularly unattractive date you picked up on a drunken binge the night before. Let's be honest. A particularly ugly date picked up during a total blackout. What looks so good in the dark is suddenly cause for queasiness, maybe even alarm.

There is the familiar "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign in the middle of the roadway, flanked on either side by the largest assortment of oddball architecture in the world. To the right, the Luxor, where I'd be staying, with its 10-story high Sphinx and its 30-story high mirrored black pyramid hotel tower looking right at home in the stark Mojave Desert.

Down a long city block is the MGM Grand, its famed lion facade under reconstruction. Across the street, the new kid in town: New York, New York, "the biggest city in Las Vegas," with its loop-the-loop roller coaster, nearly life-size copy of the Statue of Liberty and authentic Big Apple skyline.

Further down, at the end of the strip, where Las Vegas Boulevard splits off into Main street, is Bob Stupak's phallic nightmare--the 1,149 feet tall Stratosphere Tower, the fourth tallest structure in the United States.

All this times 100. No. Times 1,000.

Everything in Las Vegas is big, the biggest in the world--from the showrooms to the gift shops to the silicone breasts that jutted from the chests of every third women I see. The fountains at Caesars Palace, where Evel Kneivel once broke nearly every bone in his body. Steve Wynn's Treasure Island, with its staged hourly sea battles, or his Mirage, with Las Vegas' biggest draw, the white tigers of Siegfried and Roy. David Cassidy. Jackie Mason. The Imperial Palace. The Rio. The Sands. The Sahara.

Big. Really big.

But really ugly in the daytime--white and gray on white and gray, bristling with construction cranes, crawling with hard hats, in a perpetual process of growth and decay, service workers desperately struggling to repair the facade for one more show that night.

I hang a left at Sahara Avenue, catch the upside-down copper Jell-O mold of Circus Circus out of the corner of my eye crossing the railroad overpass, and head back to the Luxor via the Interstate, nearly piling the Sentra up on the poorly marked Tropicana Avenue overpass, and then again on the 90-degree turn head back to The Strip.

Trooper Harding isn't kidding. Speed does kill. Especially in a town full of tourists driving rental cars.

I turn into the Excalibur's parking entrance and drove behind the back lots to get to the Luxor's parking garage. Excalibur's castle and Luxor's Sphinx and pyramid, so impressive when viewed from The Strip, has lost some of their luster in back, where the stench of garbage hung over acres of hot asphalt like a bad toupee. I pull into the Luxor's expansive two-story parking lot and finally found a spot in the very back. I parked and begin hiking into the hotel, gingerly stepping over long, thin trickles of piss left by vacationers too impatient to wait for the restroom a half-mile away in the casino.

The facade of luxury is restored as I mount the walkway crossing the Luxor's swimming pool area. The pools on either side of the walkway sparkle like polished turquoise in the 100-degree sun. Hundreds of imported palm trees shimmer in a Club Med mirage. Mostly naked guests of all shapes and sizes sprawl on lounge chairs scattered about the sizzling patio. Acrid chlorine fumes simmer in the hot air.

I begin to sweat from the heat and the weight of the bags I am shouldering.

The Luxor's glistening obsidian pyramid grows closer. Someone opens the hotel door before me, and a blast of cool, compressed wind struck me in the face. I am inside. Entering one of Las Vegas' mega casino/resorts is like beginning a Journey to the Center of the Earth. The Luxor's interior walls slope inward and upward to the pyramid's apex 30 stories up, making the effect even more pronounced. The terraced levels of the pyramid tower become the sky, lit by an unseen fluorescent sun. A miniature village squats under the pyramid at the top of an escalator that is as long as a football field. A totally artificial environment, one in which the never-ending bing-bong-binging of slot machines is as necessary as air conditioning.

Traditional directions such as north, east, south and west no longer applied; you are at the whimsy of architects who have constructed a crowd-control machine in which the overriding priority is to force patrons into gaming areas, to make them spend money gambling. If you end up at the registration desk, as I eventually do, it is usually by luck or by accident.

I hand the slim, blond clerk behind the desk my Visa and my license, and as soon as she see that I am from Sacramento, her hometown, she breaks down into a litany of complaints about Las Vegas.

"People here don't care about things," she sobs.

"I used to live in Reno, so I sorta know what you mean," I sooth her.

"It's too fast."

"I think it's a little better up there," I add.

"It's a horrible place to live, especially if you have kids."

"I'm sorry."

It is not the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce's finest moment.

As splendid as the Luxor's interior is, the room isn't much. A hard, double bed. One wall slants with the pyramid. A teak armoire is decorated with hieroglyphics. Not that I care. I don't plan on spending much time there anyway. I pretty much scoped the Luxor out last time I was in Vegas; my plan is to get something to eat and make my way to New York, New York and the Stratosphere Tower, both of which are new additions since my last visit a year ago.

Nothing stays new for long in Las Vegas. Indeed, "new" has been completely redefined. Nearly every major hotel/casino on the strip is in a continual mode of remodeling.

For instance, as if navigating its confusing corridors isn't bad enough already, the Luxor, first opened in 1993, is currently in the middle of a massive makeover. Sheetrock mazes leading nowhere have been added to its labyrinth of passageways.

The MGM Grand, also opened in 1993, is undergoing a complete remodel as well. Same goes for just about every major hotel/casino on The Strip that's more than three years old. The numbers keep jumping, from nine out of the 10 largest hotels in the world to 11 out of 12.

Bigger is better; biggest is best.

The question is, how much is enough? The answer is, it's never enough. The powers that be in Las Vegas have created a monster that must eventually cave in on its own asshole. Economists and drug addicts call it the law of diminishing returns. As casino owners spend more and more money trying to one-up each other, the returns--to owners in terms of revenue and to patrons in terms of entertainment value--shrink, eventually to less than zero.

Every good crack fiend knows that not even a rock the size of Gibraltar will evoke the desired euphoria at the end of a three-day run. Las Vegas has been flirting with double-digit growth for more than a decade, but that's a relatively short time span in economic terms. It's not clear whether it can sustain this growth in the long run--recent reductions in gaming stocks already have some investors nervous--but as the famous economist John Maynard Keynes noted, "In the long run, we are all dead."

In the short run, I am hungry, and during the time I check in, find my room, and prepare to go out, night has fallen.

And Las Vegas at night is a completely different city. The Strip becomes a tangled network of engorged veins and arteries, swollen with fat corpuscles of glowing halogen and red incandescence, throbbing with liquid rainbows of malignant neon tumors, subliminal skulls, horseshoes and four-leaf clovers embedded in ice cubes bobbing in an ocean of black bourbon. The city has caught its breath in raspy heaves of white noise, and always, arising from somewhere out of the static, the steady bing-bong-binging of the gambling machines.

New York, New York is a long Las Vegas block down from the Luxor. I snap my fingers to its theme song, but as I come to a stop beneath the Statue of Liberty, I feel more like Charlton Heston at the end of Planet of the Apes than Frank Sinatra. If you can make it here, you haven't made it anywhere, I muse.

Overhead, beyond the statue's crown, the roller coaster careens around its 360-degree loop. No one screams. Water sprays from a fake tug boat. The tourists circles around the base of the statue are continually replaced, electrons flow through a circuit board. A Panasonic billboard behind the statue flashes, "A glimpse of yesterday, the vision of tomorrow."

I have no choice but to go with the flow into the casino.

Inside New York, New York, it is that same Journey to the Center of the Earth feeling. From above, I look out over a gaming area that was a huge crater filled with thousands of slot machines. The bing-bong-binging is tremendous.

A flat, steel gray ceiling serves as the sky. The tourist attractions--the restaurants, the theaters, the hotel towers, the models of Greenwich Village, Central Park, Manhattan, etc., the manhole covers pouring out steam, the Big Apple iconography that will draw millions upon millions to this resort in 1997 alone--are on the far side of the crater.

The only way to reach them is by wading through the slot machines, perhaps losing your change along the way. It is textbook casino design. The architecture of crowd control. As often happens to me under such circumstances, I become overwhelmed. What to eat? New York pizza? A sandwich from a genuine Jewish deli? A Coney Island hot dog?

Too many choices.

Eventually I am herded into a restaurant called America. An enormous 3-D relief map of the United States covered the ceiling. It is curved the wrong way, concave instead of convex. The borders of the states are painted in, and each state has a little scene depicting something that it is famous for. California has models of the Golden Gate Bridge and Hollywood. I look up at Idaho, where I lived as a boy, and up in the panhandle was a small man decked out in coveralls and a flannel shirt, waving an M-16 in the air.

"Is that Randy Weaver?!!" I say incredulously to the waiter.

"Why, I dunno," he answer politely.

"I'll have the Reuben," I said to the waiter, who was still looking up.

A couple sitting at a table across from me stare at me like I am nuts. He has brown curly hair, thinning at the crown, a perfect little computer-programming geek moustache; she has a massive plastic rack and a short, tight miniskirt she keeps trying to jerk down over her butt.

Suddenly I remember that certain unlicensed plastic surgeons in Las Vegas had pioneered the use of injecting straight silicone into the breasts during the 1950s. They'd stolen the idea from Japanese hookers. She is much too young for that, however. Straight silicone injections, I mean.

"Let's go out and do the town!" she says to her date.

"But we already did the town," he whines.

"But, but" she stammers. It looked like there is going to be an argument, but she simmers down. "Yeah, you're right."

My Reuben sandwich arrives. It's OK.

If New York, New York is the epitome of a well-designed casino, Stratosphere Tower is its opposite. Its owner and creator, Bob Stupak, is from the old school, the last of a line of self-made men who grabbed Las Vegas by the balls and never let go. Like Las Vegas itself, Stupak does everything big, and the Stratosphere Tower, long, thick, looming over the city like an obscene tribute to John Holmes, is his crowning glory.

At 1,149 feet, it is the fourth tallest structure in the United States, and the tallest west of the Mississippi. Like other such structures, the impulse is to head straight to the top--and therein lies the problem. The conch-like path leading customers from the casino at the Tower's base to the Tower itself has somehow bypassed the slot machines. Locals are quietly snickering behind Stupak's back, calling the tower a monstrosity that ignores the No. 1 rule of casino construction: The design must force customers into the gaming area.

The Stratosphere may have its faults, but you can't beat it for shopping. There are dozens of upscale shops lining the spiral path that leads up to the Tower's elevators. If one-armed bandits haven't depleted your bankroll, these the glitzy stores most certainly will. Like the kid at the Swatch store, barely out of his teens, trying to hard-sell me a Michael Johnson sports watch.

"It's gonna be worth some money some day!" he pitches.

"How much is it worth today?" I hate it when they don't put the price on things.

"Eighty bucks."

I guess the kid hasn't seen Donovan Bailey kick Michael Johnson's butt in the million dollar dash earlier in the summer.

"Better hold on to it," I tell him.

Further up the spiral, the shops end. There is a ticket booth where you had to pay to go up in the Tower. Five bucks. And another five bucks for either of the rides at the top, the roller coaster or the Big Shot, a sort of reverse bungee jumping device that sends you hurtling up the top of the Stratosphere. I buy a ticket for the Big Shot and waited in a short line for the elevator.

When it arrives, the elevator, considering it is supposed to haul us up 108 stories, isn't too impressive. Kind of like the freight elevator they take the garbage out with at your local hospital. The overweight buzzer goes off after about 15 people climb in, but the operator says it's, "all right, keep 'em coming." Shakily, like an old mule, the elevator pulls us up to the top.

I can say this. I've been up in the Space Needle in Seattle. I've been up in the Sears Tower in Chicago. But with the possible exception of the Empire State Building in New York City, I've never been greeted with a more spectacular view than the one at the top of the Stratosphere.

The veins and arteries of The Strip seem to pulse even more from 1,000 feet up. At the far end of The Strip, a bright white light shoots straight up out of the Luxor's pyramid like a beacon to another planet. The Stardust twinkles in parallel rows of pink and blue neon. The MGM Grand is a smooth-cut emerald.

The windows of the Stratosphere's observation deck slant outward 45 degrees, so that if you lean against the Plexiglas, you can almost see under your feet. To look down is to invite a sudden rush of nausea. People press against the windows, even though the signs say not to. There are more shops in the top of the Tower, and it takes a while to find my way outside, where the rides are. It is almost midnight, but a hot breeze still blows across the deck. One look at the Big Shot is enough to make me wonder if I've lost my mind.

The top of the Tower is a square-shaped framework maybe 20 feet wide and 150 feet high; the Big Shot is a smaller square frame that slips over the top of the framework on rails. Attached to the Big Shot are 16 chairs, four on each side. Sixteen human beings are strapped in to them. A series of belts and pulleys are hooked to the Big Shot's frame like a slingshot.

I am taking all this in when I hear the countdown.

"Ten-nine-eight-seven-six-five-four-three-two-one!"

With a giant WHOOSH! the Big Shot accelerates upward to a speed of 45 mph. It looks as if it will never stop in time, like it will just keep going, right off the top and then down.

But within seconds, the giant rubber bands hauls it to a stop and jerks it back down, almost as fast as it had gone up. It bounces a little at the bottom, goes up again (but not as high), then settles back down to rest to the sound of Elvis Presley singing "Viva, Las Vegas."

Then it is my turn.

The worst moment on rides like these is that last second when you still have a chance to bail out. It's like in a dream where you need to scream but can't. And then it is too late and you are hurtling through space at light speed and the top of your head feels like it's about to come off and you look out to the horizon and see the sparkling suburbs of Las Vegas against an empty black background and the sky is dark jade green like a dusty television picture tube with no stars because the lights of Las Vegas have siphoned all the stars out of the sky and you're thinking about how silly the idea of infinity is because everything seems so finite like the lonely black edge at the end of town. "Viva! Las Vegas! Viva! Las Vegas! Viii-va! Viii-va! Laaaas Veegaas!!!"

And you're back down again thinking that damned Bob Stupak is a freakin' genius!

The ride back down in the Stratosphere elevator is more interesting than going up, in part because after the Big Shot, you are happy to be heading back down, but mainly thanks to the elevator operator, who has a trace of the vaudevillian showman that used to be commonplace in Las Vegas, but has become rare these days.

"Anyone feel like gambling, remember the Stratosphere has the best odds in town," he asks enthusiastically. He is in his mid-40s, sandy hair, slight paunch, gold chains, snakeskin cowboy boots, grizzled face with a black patch over one eye. "Wish I was out there, but I'm stuck in this box."

He pauses to see if we are listening.

"By the way, they call me Jack."

Pauses again.

"Jack-in-the-box."

He got a big laugh.

"Actually, they call me one-eyed Jack-in-the-box."

A roar of laughter.

I finally find the car in the Stratosphere's parking garage and catch the Interstate back to Tropicana, being careful to watch my speed on the exit this time. Pull in the back way again and just as I park, remember the sex magazines these homeless guys had handed me outside Excalibur on my way to New York, New York.

Las Vegas is littered with these things: pulp newsprint magazines the same size as the TV guide that comes in the Sunday paper, but with pictures of raunchy, big-breasted women wearing nothing at all, the naughty bits--the nipples, the vaginas, you name it--just barely covered with twinkling cartoon stars. The magazines are priced as high as five bucks on their covers, but the winos who distribute them give them away free to tourists who generally throw them down as soon as they get a look at the contents.

I had picked up as many of them as I could find and stashed them in the Sentra's trunk.

Back in my room, I spread the magazines out on the table and wonder how many married men were in the same position as me. Alone in Las Vegas, with a fistful of phone numbers to women promising they would do anything and could be in the room in 20 minutes. Blondes, blacks, redheads, Asians, transsexuals, dudes. I suppose there was a time in my life when it would have been more tempting. But not now. Not in the least.

Besides, I'm not a very good liar.

I climb into bed alone and fall asleep to the TV set and the bing-bong-binging of the Luxor's slot machines.

I wake up with One-eyed Jack shaking me. "You know your trip to Vegas will not be complete without the sweat and violence of just one girl," he says excitedly. "And there are no ugly showgirls!"

He is talking in garbled text culled straight out of the sex pulps. Strangely, I can understand him. We are in some sort of future Las Vegas, which looks a lot like Amsterdam. One-eyed Jack continues:

"You enter nude with bated breath, dancing to rock music; you stop for a second; you can't believe this is true. Erotica lies. You stumble inside AND THE WOMEN! The admission is reasonable when compared to the coin slot. Your cheerleader quality girl, grinding her womanhood!"

Again, I ascend the spiral stairway of the Stratosphere Tower, but instead of Swatches and Nikes, it is lined with voluptuous, naked women gyrating on pedestals behind display windows, pressing and smashing their bodies against the glass.

"I'll do anything you want!" a woman moaned.

"In your room in 20 minutes!"

Jack shook me by the shoulder.

"I'll do anything you want!"

"Come over next Saturday and paint the house!" Jack cackles.

"Butt boy the best for you," a skinny Asian kid taunts. "I can be a discreet gentleman."

"Do you play roulette?" a transvestite asks. "Always bet on black, busty and hung. What more could you need?"

"I'll do anything you want!"

"Just hold still!" Jack says lewdly.

"I don't like to feel alone," an auburn-haired Irish cutie said. "It's against the law."

"Ya gotta have a place like Vegas, eh?" Jack agrees with himself. "Total decadence. Some place you can let go. Ya gotta have it. Anything you want! In your room in 20 minutes! 10 minutes! In your room!"

I wake up at 10 a.m. I have fallen asleep with the TV on CNN. The Nevada Athletic Commission's hearing on whether to suspend Mike Tyson's boxing license for biting Evander Holyfield's ears is just coming on.

"Nevada represents independence, strength, fortitude and doing the right thing," Tyson attorney Oscar Goodman is saying. "Nevadans do the right thing, no matter what other people say."

I suppose now might be a good time to explain that I was once kicked out of Nevada on morals charges.

The charges were that I have any. Morals, that is. Mostly, the charges are unfounded, but what legitimacy they had stemmed from my gambling problem. My problem wasn't that I gambled too much; my problem was that I lived in a state dominated by gambling interests, where, at least once a month (a conservative estimate!), someone jumps off a parking garage after losing their life's savings in a casino, where the connection between gambling and a host of social ills couldn't be clearer. But you have respected state leaders such as Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, when asked if the suicide rate in Nevada is related to gambling, responding boldly, "No, it is not." (Las Vegas Review-Journal, 4/14/97).

So when I hear someone talking about how Nevada represents independence, strength, fortitude and doing the right thing, especially when that someone happens to be a lawyer for some ear-biting prize fighter, well, I start wondering why I'm being lied to.

Not that Oscar Goodman is the first person who tried this line out on me. You hear it all the time in Nevada, about how legalizing gambling and prostitution was somehow doing the right thing. You hear it in California, too; all this nonsense about how much the lottery has helped the schools, or how Indian bingo has saved California's Native Americans, as if it was somehow taking place in a vacuum without any ill effects.

The truth is, gambling is not that different from taking drugs. Hit three sevens on a slot machine, and whether you're playing nickels, quarters or dollars, your heart rate is going to skip a few beats, then shoot up like a rocket, pumping pure adrenaline into the spinal cord and up into the brain, where it flowers like time-lapse photography of prickly pears blooming.

In Nevada, locals learn to stay away from The Strip, where the odds are set to rake as much cash in from tourists as possible. Instead, they go to offbeat places such as Plantation Station, where the slots are loose and no one complains about egg rolls, pancakes and biscuits and gravy being on the same menu.

It is where I go to gamble after I showering and shaving and watching Mike Tyson have his license revoked.

You don't need much to gamble at a place like Plantation Station. I start with a nickel. I win on the first try. Soon, I have the counter up to 30. Then 60. I have a loose machine, and even though I am only in the nickel section, I am attracting attention.

All winners do in Las Vegas. Because they're rare.

"Yes!" I squeal after another score.

A women next to me who looks like the Michelin Man in a denim pant suit glances over to see what the commotion is about. Skin hung from her underarm like a hammock. She is chewing the filter off a Benson & Hedges menthol. Her bucket of nickels is near-empty.

"Just enough to keep me in the game," she scowls.

I keep scoring. Once I get over 100 on the counter--five bucks, whoa!--I start worrying whether I should stop, quit a winner.

I keep going.

Soon, the counter is up to 200. Ten bucks. I quit.

A winner!

It's not a bad rush, and it's relatively harmless for most people who understand that the odds are irrevocably fixed against them and have the common sense to quit before they get too far behind. But as with alcohol, cocaine, sex and other substances and activities that bring us pleasure, there seems to be a certain percentage of people who, to borrow Budweiser's phrase, never know "when to say when."

In Reno, I had a friend who was a compulsive gambler. He could never leave the tables (blackjack was his game) with money in his pocket. That monster rush was always just one bet away.

He had been busted for embezzling $50,000 from his employer to pay gambling debts. It's a common crime in Nevada, and he received a relative slap on the wrist: pay restitution and attend Gamblers Anonymous meetings, which use the same 12-step program as AA.

Last time I saw him, he was still attending meetings, staying away from the tables, raising a family, insisting that despite how good everything looked, he would always be one bet away from disaster.

After you've been there a couple of times, it doesn't take long to wear Las Vegas out.

Two days, tops.

I have seen New York, New York. I have gone up in the Stratosphere Tower. I have seen everything new. Casino Radio 1140, the best deal on the dial, blares out of the rental car speakers on the way back to the airport.

"The city's status as the entertainment capital of the world can be traced back to the 1940s, when increased competition between resorts caused Las Vegas hotel casino owners to bring in big-name entertainers to lure patrons and provide more reasons for them to stay!"

Here we are now; entertain us, as Kurt Cobain once wailed.

The gambling, the Big Shot, the sex, the constant striving toward that ultimate rush. I have friends who call this sort of behavior a disease. But how many empires are based on the disease model? Virtually all of them, when you think about it.

The thermal bounce stops once we are over California. Not that I felt any more safe, or any less suicidal. It's coming, I thought.

No. It is already here, spelled out in red capital letters on the tin roof of the Santa Anita clubhouse on the way into LAX. C-A-S-I-N-O.

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