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It's All About the Abrahams

Bill and Jacqueline in Las Vegas, Oct. 19-24, 1999

By Bill Walsh

DAY 4 (Friday): Our Love + 35 Bucks

We rise from our luxurious bed at Bellagio sorta early (9:30) to try to make it to the Paris buffet in time for breakfast. It appears at first that we've succeeded, but then we're not so sure. First, it's not easy to find the buffet, which turns out to be well away from the casino area on Rue de l'Execrable. I'm dying to corner a casino employee to ask "Ou est le -- how you say -- buffet?" but they sense this and wisely scurry away in a brilliant re-enactment of World War II. Then there's the little matter of the wait. I've already referred to Paris-Las Vegas as Disneyesque, and that characterization proves especially apt when I see the place's crowd-control genius. Instead of slugging you in the gut with the sight of one long, long line -- whereupon you just might walk away -- Paris nicks and cuts you into submission by breaking the wait up into 17 or 18 shorter (though still not short) lines. To inject a little extra "joie de vivre" into the process, at the end of the first line you're shooed away and told exactly when to return. You might think this "reservation" means your waiting-in-line days are over, but you'd be a complete chump.

We sign up for the slot club to pass the time, turning vital personal information over to the execrable Bally's. I still think the theme folks did a wonderful job of re-creating the City of Light, but I notice a chink (or chinois, as the French say) or two in the armor. First -- and I never thought I'd say this about a casino -- there isn't enough cigarette smoke. And second, in a more glaring failure, I see virtually no dog poop.

We return to the buffet at our appointed time. "Bonjour! Where are you staying?" the hostess asks cheerily. When the answer isn't "But of course, gay Paree!" the accent disappears and a more Kaye Ballard-like voice tells us to go stand in another very long line. This is actually an admirable thing they're doing -- hotel guests should get some preferential treatment -- but I just wish they'd change the interrogation process and come out and say "Are you staying at Paris?" A woman ahead of us in line doesn't think this is such an admirable thing, and although the hotel-guest explanation seems to satisfy her when she first complains of the legions "taking cuts," she screws up enough ardor to re-anger herself so she can heap abuse on every casino employee she sees from that point on. At first I dismiss her as yet another a-hole, but as the wait stretches on I'm a tiny bit grateful that somebody is fighting back.

When the smoking-vs.-non question comes up we're more than happy to answer "First available." We don't want dog poop in our buffet, but a little authentic Parisian smoke couldn't hurt. We're finally ushered into a very Disney-like fake village-courtyard setting and seated. There are plenty of employees around (some speaking Spanish to each other, in a flagrant theme-police violation), but none seems especially interested in starting our buffet experience with a lovely beverage. Jacqueline finally flags down someone who says she'll tell our server, and so we set off to find food. At first I think this buffet is a joke. Ordinary breakfast items are given stupid French descriptions, making all this seem less international than the IHOP. The "mini French country baguette" is a roll. It's a perfectly acceptable little roll, but it's nowhere near being a baguette. Heck, they could have called it a brioche (also a French word!) and gotten away with it. So then it comes as a surprise when I hear Jacqueline praise the spread, but slowly it starts to appear she might have a point. I had scoffed at the "Alsatian sausage," which looks authentic but tastes like a hot dog. But then it occurs to me that the sausage you get with authentic chocroute garnie (the Alsatian staple of sauerkraut with assorted meats) does taste like hot dogs. I return with my first plate to find coffee waiting, and it's the best coffee of the trip. Wonderful coffee. There are probably union thugs who break the kneecaps of buffet managers who defy buffet convention and serve coffee this good. On a subsequent plate-loading trip I discover the crepe station. I wouldn't want the job of preparing crepes for a never-ending line of people, but the result is creperrific. They didn't exactly have me at "bonjour," but I'll have to give the Paris buffet a thumbs-up, although I can't say it's necessarily worth the wait.

We return to Bellagio to check out [ :-( ] before heading back to the Bally's-Paris metroplex, where we have scheduled a meeting with a Bally's catering official to discuss our Paris wedding reception. Jacqueline had found this woman extremely disagreeable when she phoned to set up this appointment, and so we approach it with some apprehension. We arrive at the aforementioned execrable place with time to spare, and, because we are equipped with flame-retardant clothing, I agree to play some blackjack. We sit down at a $5 shoe table manned by a Ving Rhames look-alike dealer who isn't quite ready to get started, and so we watch the laborious process of opening, checking and shuffling the 72 decks of cards that the shoe holds. We courteously place our buy-in money in front of the betting area, having been taught that to do otherwise would technically mean "Money plays," and Ving rudely shoves the money back. I'll show him and his execrable employer, I idly muse, and in fact I do. This would be my best session of the trip. When I get way ahead at a $5 table but am ready to leave, I have a little system whereby I will pocket a red chip from each payoff and then raise my next bet by $1 as long as the streak continues, going back to $5 once I lose a hand. By the time this system dries up my bankroll I'm $68 ahead. Jacqueline loses a little but is still ahead of me for the trip.

I've timed my exit perfectly, and we head to the Bally's catering office for our meeting, which turns out to be frustrating but educational. Ms. Evil Catering Lady tells us a few dozen times that Paris is "a convention hotel," the implication being that we're not planning a convention and should be ashamed of that fact. We had assumed that the reason many places wouldn't book events more than a few months in advance was pure stupidity -- "Duh, this here DayPlanner only goes to December!" -- but in fact the reason is greed. If the Association of Pro-Active Information Resource Consultants wants to commandeer 12 ballrooms and Paris has only 11 left, having promised one to slugs like us, that's A Bad Thing for A Convention Hotel. So we couldn't book a reception at Paris till the end of January, but Ms. ECL deigns to check her books anyway. "I have nothing," she says. Oh, I think, that's a relief -- nothing booked yet! Jacqueline is a more astute listener, and she correctly interprets "nothing" as meaning "nothing available." We say a hurried "Thanks anyway" and scurry out while Ms. ECL tries to steer us to a more execrable venue.

On the sidewalk outside Bally's, under a gloriously sunny sky, Jacqueline pulls out her cellular phone and calls her mom back in Chevy Chase, Md., to fill her in. The next move is obvious: Monte Carlo will let us book a ballroom for our reception now, and that is what we should do. It won't be as elegant as the Versailles-themed Hall of Mirrors at Paris, but it's plenty nice and it's connected by monorail to the wedding site. Think of the fun in-transit pictures!

We cross the Strip back to Bellagio and take the monorail to Monte Carlo, partly to look around some more and partly to check out the Smith & Wollensky steakhouse. S&W, across the street from Monte Carlo, was our first choice for a rehearsal dinner, but it got pushed aside as we mulled other options. Monte Carlo had been our first reception choice, likewise, and it appears as though this process is coming full circle.

Although we've spent plenty of time at Monte Carlo, we'd never explored the registration or pool areas, so we head back there. The registration desk is beautiful, but the pool is a little disappointing. By now we're spoiled by our tour of the Mandalay Bay pool area and our little swim at Bellagio. At Mandalay, you'd never know you were on the Strip; at the Monte Carlo, the perfectly pleasant pool is spoiled by a view of the parking garage.

We stop and join Monte Carlo's slot club (Lord knows why) before crossing the street and visiting Smith & Wollensky. We are steak people, although we've had mixed experiences with S&W since it opened its D.C. location a few months back. Still, a rehearsal dinner is about atmosphere as much as food, and we like the atmosphere. We're also impressed with how much the restaurant and Stephanie, its assistant catering chief, have their act together when it comes to such events. The price -- $80 per person plus booze or $95 per person with unlimited booze -- seems high, but our experience at Paris leaves us less fazed by this than we otherwise might have been. My stepfather has generously volunteered to foot a bill of $2,000 or so and we have 18 to 20 people on our guest list, so it appears this might work.

We return to Monte Carlo and take the monorail to Bellagio yet again. We had been pleased to learn that Clark County marriage licenses are good for a year, and so our coordinator had volunteered to let us use the complimentary limousine service to the courthouse now rather than next spring. Great idea! The car is to pick us up at 3 p.m., and so we have an hour or so to kill at Bellagio. Fortunately, we find a $5 blackjack table. This session is less successful than the previous one. Jacqueline gives Bellagio back the $80 she won last time, and I manage to walk away just $2 down.

The limousine gives us this trip's only real driving tour of the Strip and the seedy area between the Strip and downtown, as cabbies have been using the freeway for the trip to and from downtown. Traffic gets pretty bad in the Sahara-Stratosphere area, but, hey, we're in a limousine! The radio is set to some sort of all-love-song station, and after we pass the Stratosphere we are thrilled to hear our wedding theme song -- "Wedding Bell Blues," by the Fifth Dimension ("Kisses and love won't carry me till you marry me, Bi-ill!"). Very good omen.

We knew the courthouse was close to the Fremont Street hotels, but we didn't know just how close. It's barely more than a block from the Golden Nugget, and so when our driver tells us where he'll be waiting to drive us back to Bellagio, we tell him we can walk to the Nugget and magnanimously give him some time off. He seems genuinely happy for us as well as happy for that respite, and he doesn't linger long enough for me to offer a tip. Darn.

PHOTO BY JACQUELINE
Ball-and-chain fitting area.

The marriage-license office is quite a scene. All segments of society seem to be represented, with the possible exception of "big money." There's only one couple in full wedding regalia. The bailiff is a talkative and fun guy, and he points out the difference in atmosphere between the marriage line and the divorce line. We wait about half an hour before making it to a window, filling out forms with a complimentary golf pencil on the way. At the window, a nice lady armed with an IBM Selectric copies stuff from your forms and then asks you to proofread the result very carefully. Being a professional editor, I immediately spot a misspelling of "Michigan." The good-natured kidding abounds. When we're asked if we're ready, Jacqueline says, "I don't know if we're ready, but we are next" -- a line we hear repeated by another couple a few minutes later. When I pay our $35, I ask if we can double down. The lady chuckles politely and asks, "So, you're playing the slots, huh?" Uh, right.

We return to our room at the Golden Nugget, and I lie down, a tad tired, while calling my parents' house in Carlsbad, Calif., where I gently break the news about our preferred spot for the rehearsal dinner. After a little sticker shock, Mom takes it pretty well. Later, we'll get a voice-mail message from stepdad Gary assuring us that he's happy to make that contribution.

We pull ourselves together and make our way to the Main Street Station brewpub, which is surprisingly crowded with what appear to be happy-hour locals. This is a pilgrimage of sorts for Jacqueline, who has been craving the Hawaiian pizza (which includes Canadian bacon, pineapples and barbecue sauce). I should be taking advantage of the raw bar and having oysters or something, but I'm too hungry. I get one of the specialty burgers, with Canadian bacon and two kinds of cheese.

Our microbrews in go-cups, we head over to the Las Vegas Club, where we sit down at a $5 shoe table to play that casino's signature "most liberal blackjack." We discover we're both out of $20 bills, and so we buy each buy in for a Benjamin and pocket $50. Those four green chips make a command appearance soon enough. Now, I've tolerated my share of losing streaks with reasonably good humor, but for the first time I'm convinced that we're playing against a stacked deck. The rather dour dealer keeps baiting us to split or double down. She'll show a five or a six against our 10s and 11s, and we'll double down, and she'll draw to 21. Over and over and over. But we stick around long enough to assuage our paranoia, and I actually turn this into one of my better sessions. Jacqueline loses $75, but I win $44.

We head back to the Golden Gate (we always end up back at the Golden Gate), and my winning streak ends. This will also go down in history as the session in which Jacqueline positively Lost It and ordered our fellow players to stop rattling their chips this instant! One vacant young man seemed to take particular offense at her remark about "Ritalin withdrawal," which appeared to hit a little too close to home. But the clinking does stop, even if my losing doesn't, and I lose $40, then $50, in relatively short order. I decide to stay as a spectator as Jacqueline, who also lost that first $40, struggles to get back to even. She never does, but it's a long and lively session with a group of loud slacker guys straight out of a Mountain Dew commercial. The pit boss tolerates a lot, but he puts a quick end to the ringleader's attempt to get his female companion to feed him a 99-cent shrimp cocktail while he plays.

Again, like big wussies, we retire pretty early. It's been a long day.

NEXT: Living It Jgp