Thursday, April 11, 2013

No. 420 – Walkin’ on the Sun

Performer: Smash Mouth
Songwriter: Greg Camp
Original Release: Fush You Mang
Year: 1997
Definitive Version: none

Before Jin invited me to attend the annual gathering of the Ratpack in Las Vegas at summer’s end 2001, not only had I never been to Vegas, I also never even WANTED to go to Vegas.

I wasn’t much of a gambler. I liked to play cards at my poker parties, but that was more about the camaraderie than the money. I was into restaurants, and Vegas wasn’t known yet as a restaurant city, and I definitely wasn’t interested in Vegas-style entertainment. Besides, the debauched charms of Sin City was moot as long as I was with Debbie.

Well, that final caveat was gone, so I said, what the heck. It’d be an interesting study of excess, or as Garry of Steve & Garry once said about Vegas: Everything that’s wrong with America in one place.

I flew to Los Angeles, as I mentioned, and then Jin and I drove over to meet up with everyone on Ratpack weekend. I remember when we made the turn out of the mountains on I-515, I saw the city for the first time in the late afternoon. I could see the Christmasy neon glow already lighting up the valley. I instantly felt the excitement: It’s the idea that anything could happen at any moment.

We didn’t tour the Strip, which would have been a nice welcome. Instead, we took the less hectic back-street route to our destination—the Flamingo, or Flaming O, as Jin called it. It was definitely the “backstage” view of Las Vegas. We entered the casino from the parking lot, and it was an assault of color and sound, endless and unforgiving.

We shared a room, so we went upstairs to unpack our stuff. The plan was the Ratpack would meet up at 6 for the ceremonial opening-drink festivities, so Jin and I had a little time to kill, which meant hiking around the Flamingo to get my bearings: OK, there are the elevators, there’s the sports book. We went out to the pool, just so I could see where that was. All around us, slot-machine bells pealed amid the murmur of gamblers.

Then we hiked out to the Strip, and it was a sea of activity—tourists taking pictures, old-timers heading home for the night, young guns coming out.

We hiked up to the bridge that crossed Las Vegas Avenue at the corner of Flamingo Road, and I saw that whatever other charms the Flamingo held, it had a perfect location. There’s Bally’s, and there’s the Bellagio … oh and the water show is going, just like in Ocean’s Eleven! Awesome!

The other direction displayed an imposing array of buildings and signs touting Sigfried & Roy, “The Magicians of the Century,” Treasure Island’s skull and bones and the jaw-dropping (and expanding) size of Caesar’s Palace.

Jin and I were the first ones at the appointed meeting place, but it wasn’t long before one of Jin’s good friends Tim (not to be confused with Timm) showed up a few sheets to the wind and wearing an awesome fur-lined jacket that had Vegas written all over it.

Before long, others filed in, but Jin and I couldn’t hang out for long, because we had to go to the airport and pick up Scott and Shani, who were flying in shortly. So, Jin, Tim and I went to the little diner in the Flamingo for dinner where Tim delivered his treatise on bacon—anything, even ice cream, is better with bacon on it.

When Jin and I split, the plan was to meet up at the Barbary Coast (later Bill’s, now nothing, sniff). We went back to the Flamingo to check them in, and by the time we got to the Barbary Coast, it was about 11. Now it was time to get our gambling—I’m sorry gaming—on. (Scott and I noted with irony how the casinos all referred to it as gaming. “Gambling” is bad and can cause bankruptcy and nothing but trouble; this is “gaming.” It’s just a game; it’s harmless.)

So we gamed at Barbary Coast. Jin and Scott took seats at the roulette wheel and soon other members of the Ratpack descended on the table. Introductions were made, and Scott told me he was feeling a bit sheepish when he was introduced to the pretty, vivacious boa-wearing woman whom he thought might be soliciting him as Timm’s wife. D’OH!

I watched for a while before Tim and I hit the Pai Gow poker table. I had never heard of Pai Gow, and I liked it right away, because it suited my tastes—cards, not a lot of losing unless the dealer gets hot, lots of kibbutzing. It also didn’t hurt that our table was served by an attractive blonde who had perhaps the largest breasts I’d ever seen outside of a strip club. Sure they were fake: What’s your point?

After a while, Tim and I went to see what was going on back at the roulette table, and it appeared Scott had a good run going. Jin had already cashed out ahead, and Scott was looking to leave, too. Shani was ready for bed, and he wanted to wander around a bit. His number came up again. Wait, are you nuts? You never leave a table while you’re winning. And black … a winnah! Finally, he lost twice in a row, so I let him leave. He was $90 up. Welcome to Las Vegas.

We went back to the Flamingo. It was after 1, and Jin and Shani turned in, but I had my second wind. So did Scott. Scott had a mission: He wanted to see an Elvis impersonator. OK, let’s go look for one.

We wandered down to O’Shea’s, then the Imperial Palace, then Harrah’s and Casino Royale—most of which are gone now. Then we crossed the street to check out the Mirage, Caesar’s and the Bellagio. We had no luck on the Elvis spotting, but we did get an impressive stack of hooker cards from the hustlers on the street doing their percussive card-smack. I got two Belles; I’ll trade you for an Andrea.

By now it was 4 in the morning, and we were back at the Flamingo where we came upon Tim, still rollicking, and Kevin. We were the last ones from the Ratpack still standing, so we won the first night. With victory at hand, Scott and I called it a morning. After all, we had to get up in five hours to hit the sports book in time to place our first bets—Scott on college football and me on baseball. Who needed sleep? Vegas, baby!

I was a convert. I LOVED Las Vegas, and that was just the first day. There still were two more to go …

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