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The Unbridled Party:
A Vegas Wedding

Bill and Jacqueline Get Married, Etc., March 29-April 7, 2000

By Bill Walsh

DAY 2 (Thursday, March 30): Families That Stand Together Hit Together

Today is Family Day, with most of the rest of our kin scheduled to arrive. The bride and I planned to go our separate ways, huddling with our respective family members for some final pre-wedding time together. For breakfast, Jamie -- Jacqueline's brother and one of my groomsmen -- and his girlfriend, Emily, join the pack. We stand in line at the spacious and pleasant Monte Carlo coffee shop and wait a not-short period of time for a lovely corner booth -- where we are promptly ignored for upwards of half an hour. No water, no coffee, nothing. Of course, we finally do order and eat (these stories never sound as dramatic in the retelling), and Jacqueline and I learn that Emily's father is becoming a historian of sorts of his former neighborhood, the Upper Manhattan community of Inwood. Coincidentally, this is also the current home of Sandra, Jacqueline's "diva of honor," and her husband, Antonio. Sandra and Antonio got married just last Christmas, and the "matron" part of "matron of honor" just didn't sound right, so Jacqueline coined this new title for her best woman, who happens to be an opera singer.

After breakfast, we wander over to the Holiday Inn Boardwalk for a historic blackjack summit of Jacqueline's entire family. It's early, and the place isn't exactly hopping. We sit down at an empty table and get a dealer eagerly shuffling before I mutter that the next table over is also empty -- but with a $3 minimum instead of $5. So we move -- why play Bellagio stakes at the Boardwalk? We also endure a lot more shuffling. (No, I do *not* spend the time shopping at Toe Rings and Foot Things.) I wish I could tell you what happened next, but all I can remember is a lot of gentle basic-strategy prodding from the bride and me. Oh, and the fact that I won $62.50 and extended my unbeaten streak in blackjack to three sessions.

The chance meetings that have become a staple of this trip continue when we return to the Monte Carlo lobby, and soon my entire family is assembled, with the exception of brother Kenneth, who arrives tonight. So in addition to Terence there are my mother and stepfather, Molly and Gary, and my little sister and her husband, Jennifer and Anthony. Jenn and Anthony got married just six weeks earlier in Phoenix, and so this is the second major family gathering in quick succession. It's also the second huge cross-country trip for Kenneth and me. Terence fell into that category for Jenn's wedding, but he shrewdly worked a job interview into that long weekend and scored a job at the East Valley Tribune, for whom he was once a paper boy. So in the interim he managed to move from Hagerstown, Md., to Chandler, Ariz., the Phoenix suburb where I used to live.

Anyway, we set off with the goal of playing some blackjack and eventually having dinner. Paris hadn't been built the last time Mom and Gary visited, and so we take a detour to walk through the casino. We stop in the Jenn-Anthony suite at the Barbary Coast to look at their wedding pictures (hope our wedding can go as well!) and then begin another of the Bataan Death Marches that I've made famous in Las Vegas. I had heard that Casino Royale was a good place for cheap blackjack, and so we head there. Those little dots on the map don't do justice to the mile-long frontage of Harrah's, but we get to our destination without too much grumbling. There's no cheap blackjack (the minimums are $5, like almost everywhere on the Strip), but there is an empty table, and so my family has its chance to stand, hit, double and split together. Anthony's the only other real blackjack aficionado at the table, but we all have a good time. This is the first table of its kind I've ever seen: It's a standard six-deck shoe, but the cards are dealt face down and the players pick them up as in a single- or double-deck game. Suits me just fine, and my winning streak continues as I turn $40 into $62.50. Gary's the only other winner, ending up about 10 bucks ahead and donating half of that to a generous dealer tip.

I thought the Forum Shops at Caesars would be a good place to narrow down our dinner search, and it proves to be a good choice as Mom's eyes light up at the sight of a Cheesecake Factory ad on the way in. We make our way to the back of the mall, near the Race for Atlantis motion-simulator ride. They tell us the wait will be half an hour, which isn't half bad by Cheesecake Factory standards back home in D.C., and hand us the obligatory pager. We browse a little at the record shop next door (I'm fascinated to find a Steve Wynn section, only to remember that that was the name of the lead singer of Dream Syndicate, one of the Paisley Underground bands of the early '80s). Then we view a fiery but pointless animatronic show that is a shameless ad for the Atlantis ride, then sit around by the huge aquarium outside the restaurant. The fish are beautiful, and the feeding process is fascinating. Either the glass has an amazing capacity for distortion or we're looking at a scuba chick who is the tiniest non-dwarf adult in history (as opposed to the smallest giant ever).

With the elapsed time well past 30 minutes, I make my way to the hostess and ask about the progress of "Gary, party of six." I know darn well she wrote down those very words, but to her this does not compute. "Gary, party of six" means absolutely nothing unless I can produce the pager, and so I summon Gary to show the hostess this magical gadget. Before long, we're seated. The menu is huge and wide-ranging, which is good in the something-for-everyone department but tends to draw the wrath of food critics for being overly ambitious and emphasizing quantity over quality. I'm not a big fan of the idea of the place, but Jacqueline is, and I must admit I've never found the food disappointing. It's also the inspiration for one of my very favorite "Simpsons" lines, a mention of the "Texas Cheesecake Depository."

At some point in the evening, the idea of Terence asking the waitress for a date is put on the table. He quite correctly dismisses the idea as ridiculous, and the waitress innocently but a little too coincidentally pounds the point home by skipping him entirely as she goes around the table taking orders. "What am I, a mirage?" Terence asks. "No, you're at Caesars Palace!" she responds, and as we laugh we're not quite sure whether she's produced a witty comeback or betrayed the fact that the "mirage" remark was completely over her head. The Terence-and-the-waitress thread is silly, but it's a nice diversion that nobody except Terence is eager to drop (Jenn is particularly persistent), and even Terence plays along. Unfortunately, especially considering the world-renowned portions served by this chain, neither Terence nor Jenn is particularly hungry, and so the diversion is especially welcome. A classic "this has gone too far" moment comes when we start to trade silly pickup lines ("Let me check the tag on your shirt -- just as I thought, 'Made in Heaven'!") and Jenn is repulsed by Terence's brilliant contribution of "Hey, that uniform would look great on my hotel-room floor!"

After we finish our huge portions, the waitress comes around (cheesecake time!) and asks if we wanted menus. "Thanks," I say, "but we just ate." (You had to be there.)

For the record, I had the Baja fish tacos, a couple of Gordon Biersch brews (good, but I wish they would have been on draft, not in bottles) and the white-chocolate-lemon-truffle cheesecake. I don't remember what the others had. As they say, It's All About Me.

At the beginning of the evening it looked as though we had lots of time to kill before the first scheduled group event -- an informal 10 p.m. get-together at Houdini's Lounge in the Monte Carlo -- but now we're running a little late. After the Monty Hall-esque task of choosing an exit door from the Caesars casino, we make our way to Bellagio and the tram to Monte Carlo.

A good-sized crowd has already assembled at Houdini's, colonizing an ever-growing cluster of tables in the middle of the lounge. Those long sofas along the walls would have been nice, but they are firmly under the control of some cigar-smoking dudes. The live music makes conversation a tad difficult, but overall it's not a bad spot. We're just happy that people found the place -- our e-mailed invitations called it "the lounge outside Blackstone's Steak House," as we had forgotten the Houdini name. Our wimpy group is unable to do justice to the name, alas, as nobody will volunteer to let me hit them in the stomach as hard as I can.

I immediately rush to the bride, not only because we're getting married and all, but also to rub it in that we went to the Cheesecake Factory. That's one of her faves, the place she lobbies for while I'm suggesting that we swing by the new Moldovan joint in town and try the raw duck brains. (Jacqueline and I have a lot in common, but culinary adventurism is one issue on which we part ways.)

I'm not much of a mingler, but I do a respectable job getting around to most of the guests. It's a casual, fun time. The drink service is about as good as you'd expect from a place not used to large parties, and the waitress runs hot and cold. Best moment: Her reaction to a drink order from JD's longtime friend Brian, a veteran of junkets to Puerto Rico. "RUM and tonic?!?" she retorted, betraying her ignorance of the "customer is always right" principle and lack of exposure to Bacardi advertising.

Brother Kenneth makes his first appearance, along with his friends Brad and Nina. Nina's presence turns the normally taciturn brother Terence into an animated life-of-the-party type, which is nice to see. At least I think Nina did it, but maybe the best man has jumped on the rum-and-tonic bandwagon.

Mercifully, the waitress has chosen a pay-as-you-drink policy, and so the group is able to gradually break up without the specter of a huge check to divvy up.

The invitation had mentioned something about the lounge being just a starting point, something about meeting up and then crusing the Strip, but that happened only in miniature, with Jacqueline's old gang -- Sandra, Brian and Tony -- and me taking a short, leg-weary walk to New York-New York and the MGM Grand and then back to our rooms. There would be plenty of time for unbridled partying later.

NEXT: The Day Before