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It's All About the Abrahams

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

By Bill Walsh

DAY 1 (Tuesday): A $3 Steak, but No Lesbo Action

It was on a flimsy pretext that my fiancee and I built our fifth trip to Las Vegas together: Jacqueline and I are getting married there next spring, and so this would be a "reconnaissance" visit. Now, this is no quickie flying-Elvises deal. No, we're making our relatives, all three of our friends, and scores of surrogate friends whom we've never met (supplied by the mother of the bride) fly in from all over the country and stand there while the hired preacher-man at Bellagio does the deed. (Mills Lane and Michael Buffer, alas, were unavailable.)

Anal-retentive control freaks that we are, we planned this trip well in advance. First, I went to my employer's benefits office and switched my direct deposit to the account of Mr. Steve Wynn.

The hotel part was easy. We prefer to stay downtown, where we've had good lodging experiences at the Golden Nugget, Main Street Station and Fitzgerald's. Two trips ago, through a clerical error of some sort, I landed in the Golden Nugget's Private Arrangement program, and since then we've stayed at the Nugget enough to earn enough credits for two free nights. So on this trip we'd pay $68 a night Tuesday through Thursday and then be able to waive the $119 Friday-Saturday rate. We weren't so lucky in the air-fare department. Prices were so high for flights from Washington, D.C., in fact, that I panicked and went the Priceline.com route. The $280-plus-tax round trips that America West agreed to provide sounded like a good deal, until Southwest began offering $99 each way from Baltimore-Washington International. Too late, and we didn't really want to drive to Baltimore anyway. So we leave Washington Dulles International Airport on a Tuesday afternoon (our car is parked in section Gold 21 -- good omen!), scheduled to arrive at McCarran International around 10 p.m. after a short stop in Phoenix. I lived in Phoenix for 10 years, so I foolishly cherish these stupid little America West stop-overs.

The movie on the long flight to Phoenix is "Wild Wild West," which I'm not about to pay five bucks to watch. I don't think I'd watch it if they paid me $5. So it's with no regrets that I turn to my backpack and pull out a book I've been saving for the trip: "Blackjack Autumn: A True Tale of Life, Death, and Splitting Tens in Winnemucca," by Barry Meadow. The gimmick is that Meadow set out to play blackjack in every casino in Nevada over a two-month period -- and basically succeeded. It's easy reading, and if you're reading this trip report you're probably the type of person who would enjoy it. I recommend it highly for in-flight entertainment on the way to a gambling vacation, although Meadow's writing is about as predictable as a cocktail waitress with a 25-cent tip. I'm not sure what that means, but that's a good illustration of Barry Meadow's prose style. Over and over and over and over he employs that technique, which for lack of a better name I'll call sarcastic simile. Card counters are about as popular with casino personnel as Jerry Falwell at a gay-pride parade. Over the long haul, counters are as likely to lose as Mister Rogers is to be caught in a Watts cocaine bust. Mesquite, Nevada, is growing faster than Warren Buffett's bank account. There are probably 200 more examples. If you can put up with that, it's a decent book. If not, imagine being stuck in an elevator with an unfunny version of Dennis Miller. (There -- are you happy, Barry? Now you've got me doing it!)

Speaking of Dennis Miller (the funny version), his rant about airline travel is never far from my mind when I'm trying to board or exit a plane. There's the "wizard" who tries to "beat the system" by "gaffer-taping a twine handle to a Frigidaire freezer box and calling it carry-on." There's always someone in front of me folding his jacket "like he's in the color guard at Arlington National Cemetery" before gingerly placing it in the overhead compartment. I have profoundly mixed feelings on the overhead-compartment issue. Yes, the airlines can't be trusted not to lose or plunder your luggage. But I want to spend less than 40 percent of my vacation standing behind you in the aisle. Jacqueline has made the excellent suggestion that the overhead bins remain locked until all unencumbered passengers are allowed to make a swift exit. I'd take this one step further. I envision a nationwide series of time trials, sort of like qualifying for the Olympics, in which those with a demonstrated ability to get the hell on/off the plane are allowed to do so first, after which those who love spending 72 hours or more waddling through the aisles are given ample opportunity to do so.

We make it to Las Vegas without incident, and we collect our luggage and board a shuttle bus headed downtown. The 60-something Midwestern couple seated behind us are the kind of people who feel compelled to comment on everything they see. Well, "comment" is a generous description of what they do . . .

Man: "There's Mandalay Bay."

Woman: "There's MGM."

Man: "There's New York-New York."

Later, there's a traffic jam on the freeway.

Woman: "There's a traffic jam on the freeway."

We pass Little Darlings, a club off the freeway whose sign reads "Totally Nude."

Woman, to man: "Would you like to see little darlings, totally nude?"

They apparently went to the top of the Stratosphere tower together on their last visit and loved it, but each seems compelled now to convince the other that it was a good idea, leading to a fascinating five-minute point-counterpoint in which there is no counterpoint.

We finally arrive at the front desk of the Golden Nugget, where we're told they have no non-smoking rooms. They say they'll upgrade us to a smoking room in the North Tower and move us to a non-smoking room tomorrow. Fine with us -- we've never been in the North Tower before, and it would be nice to avoid that long walk to the casino.

We get to the room -- typical Nugget, tasteful and refined if not spectacular. Our last couple of South Tower rooms were actually nicer. The bathroom is smaller than I remember, but we have a decent view, looking toward Binion's Horseshoe and the Fremont. Jacqueline pronounces our view as "due north" and says we therefore won't have to worry about harsh sunlight. Who knows these things? It's like traveling with an Indian guide! (I'm the guy who has a compass on his key chain so I know which way to turn when exiting a downtown subway station.)

The bell guy isn't far behind with our bags. His response to Jacqueline's general inquiry about the spa facilities dwells a little heavily on the same-sex nature of said facilities, and my ears perk up, but he stops short of "Sappho: The Art of Love" and thereby forfeits any claim to more than a $2 tip.

By now it's after 11 and we're hungry. So we stop at the Casino Cash machine (the hundred-dollar bills never fail to amuse me) and it's off to the Horseshoe coffee shop, where I'll try the $3 steak special for the first time. The line isn't as long as I expected (there's almost always a line there), but there is a wait, and it gives us ample opportunity to get reacclimated to the downtown atmosphere. As, uh, interesting as much of the downtown crowd is, our idyllic memories of blackjack victory tend to obscure key features of the surroundings, and so the shock of the humanity is fresh each time.

We're seated about 20 minutes after arriving, and the second our butts hit the Naugahyde, a waiter is upon us cheerfully asking if we both want the steak. I do, and I place my order, but Jacqueline is still looking at the menu. As always, by asking a server to come back in a minute we earn a 15-minute snub. We do see the coffee shop's sommelier equivalent, who will take orders only for coffee, tea, milk or soda. Jacqueline gets her Diet Coke, but I have to wait for the original waiter to request a beer.

While we're waiting, the gentleman at the next table over is kind enough to remove his shoes and socks, lending an extra air of ambience to the coffee shop.

After more fumbling by the wait staff, the orders are placed. The great thing about the variety of a coffee-shop menu is that you can get steak while your companion gets cereal. I order two Budweisers, a practice I've found valuable at understaffed coffee shops.

My salad and rolls arrive before Jacqueline's Raisin Bran. The rolls look like the generic, cold-as-ice hide-your-house-key-inside-this-fake-rock numbers that most run-of-the-mill restaurants serve with hard, cold butter, but in this case both the rolls and the butter are buttery soft. The rolls are excellent, almost on a par with the wonderful, yeasty delights that my junior-high-school cafeteria served up. The salad, not surprisingly, is simply iceberg lettuce with two cherry tomatoes. Nobody comes around with a giant pepper grinder.

The steak? As Vincent Vega might say, "That's a pretty f***ing good $3 steak."

It's not what you'd call a big steak (it's about a bite wide and six inches long), but it has grill marks that put my George Foreman grill to shame, and it tastes darn good, if you eat around the fatty bits. I asked for rare, and by golly it is rare. I get the baked potato, partly on the advice of world-famous gourmand Anthony Curtis but also because the waiter doesn't give me a choice. The baked potato is fine. Potatoes are potatoes.

I've now either done a horrible thing to my body with the steak but a wonderful thing with the potato (Gabe Merkin, Pritikin, T-Factor and all the diets that were popular five years ago) or the exact opposite (CAD, Atkins, Sugar Busters and all the diets that are popular today). We'll call it a push.

Jacqueline finishes her Raisin Bran and has Sugar Smacks for dessert.

We're tired, but we're eager to log our first blackjack session, and it isn't a long walk to our beloved Golden Gate.

I hesitate to say this in a public forum, lest people take it seriously and start showing up there, but I don't understand why the Golden Gate gets brushed off, why guidebooks would lead one to believe the Plaza is a classier joint. The Golden Gate, for my money, is the best casino in Las Vegas. It's a tiny place and the ceilings are too low, but if don't look up and you're at a non-smoky table, you can take in the soft lighting and the live piano music and your seventh free drink (the cocktail service is good, perhaps a little too good) and realize you're in as elegant a setting as you're going to find.

We're used to finding $3 double-deck tables at the Golden Gate, but this time we're pleasantly surprised when the empty $3 table we choose is dealing a single-deck game.

We buy in for our usual $40 each, and Jacqueline quickly starts raising her bets past $3. I feel like the T-shirt-and-jeans guy in the credit-card commercial who buys a tuxedo because he's marrying such a classy chick. But I'm actually not that guy on this trip; we've chosen to go the Dressy Bessy/Dapper Dan route, and so we're both wearing blazers over our T-shirts. (Jacqueline won the coin toss, and so I have to be Dan.) On the bright side, maybe I'll be mistaken for Steve Wynn. Anyway, after 40 minutes or so she has $68 and I have $44, and we leave so as not to deplete the Gate's meager cash reserves. We enjoy the short walk back to our North Tower room at the Nugget, and at 2 a.m. Pacific time (5 a.m. our time), it's bedtime.

NEXT: The Road to Mandalay, and Beyond