Monday, November 21, 2005

On Wednesday afternoon, Kim and I threw our bags into the back of the Mustang and headed north on I-15.

We clipped the northern tip of the Mojave Desert. I found it to be surprisingly beautiful.

The landscape could be both subtle and dynamic, sometimes simultaneously.

We passed by Whiskey Pete’s in the town of Primm. Companies give marketing groups millions of dollars to research and produce product names. I’m pleasantly surprised to find a casino named Whiskey Pete’s. I would have loved to have been in the room when that name was decided.

Let’s call it Provence.

Oooh – that’s good – but how about
The Florencian?

[Guy in the back] What about
Whiskey Pete’s?

Booze. Gotta like that. Simple. Direct. Pete. A name you can trust. Hey, Pete – what are you up to? You going to the game, Pete? Yeah, yeah – let’s go with that – screw all of those names that scream out class and sophistication. Let’s name it after my drunk neighbor who pisses off his balcony.

After five hours on the road, we reached our destination.

Las Vegas.

I am guided by a tenet that sleeping in Vegas should be done cheaply. It puts you more in touch with the Vegas experience. It also leaves more money for gambling. With that principle established, I booked a room at the San Remo Hotel for thirty-one bucks a night, despite all of the other strip hotels starting at $150. Was I suspicious? Yes. Was it unwarranted? No.

I booked the hotel on San Remo’s crudely constructed website and fortunately printed out the receipt page. Despite having entered my email, I received no email confirmation, and the receipt page said, “Thanks for making your next stay Hooters Hotel and Casino.” I was confused.

I called a day and a half later to confirm my reservation. They had no record of it but said that that wasn’t unusual. Sometimes it took a day to propagate into their database. I said that I could give them my confirmation number to verify, but they replied that their database didn’t accept confirmation numbers. I figured that we’d drive to Vegas and hoped that it worked out when we got there.

Here is the good thing about booking a hotel room for thirty-one dollars. It’s thirty-one dollars.

Here is the bad thing about booking a hotel room for thirty-one dollars. It’s thirty-one dollars. For that price, you’re forbidden to complain about anything. Every response has the same ending… I can’t believe there’s a clan of wolverines living in the bathtub, but then again, I only paid thirty-one dollars. It soon becomes a mantra.

Whenever I travel, I work hard to place myself in a great location, and I was successful with the San Remo. It’s a block from the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Tropicana Avenue – very close to some of my favorite casinos like the Luxor, Monte Carlo, and NYNY.

We pulled into the San Remo parking garage at 6pm, amid scaffolding and wooden planks. We grabbed our stuff out of the trunk and worked our way inside to the front desk. I retrieved the sheet of paper that I printed out from the website booking, and handed it to the desk clerk. Tentatively I asked if they had my reservation. She replied that they did and started typing into the computer, stopping occasionally to write numbers onto a piece of paper. She strayed from the terminal a few times to go talk to a manager in the back room. She also picked up the phone to call housekeeping. It was an elaborate process.

She returned and said that she has a room for us.

“Is it ready?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“Not right now,” she replied, “it will be ready in an hour.” Mind you – it’s 6pm.

Inside my head I repeated the theme: “I can’t believe that our room isn’t ready, but then again, we are only paying thirty-one bucks a night.”

She printed out our room information and had me sign the bottom. Fortunately I read over it because they had us down for only one night. “Excuse me,” I said, “but I made the reservation for two nights and this reads only one.” I pointed to my receipt printout to support my argument. She looked at it and agreed. This spawned more computer typing, phone calls, number writing, and talks to the manager, as the queue behind me grew. Eventually everything got worked out.

I asked the girl why my receipt read “Hooters Hotel and Casino.” She told me that the San Remo was being renovated and would change names. Kim and I discussed the pros and cons about such a transformation. Kim said that if it just involved waitresses walking around in Hooters uniforms that it shouldn’t be a big deal because women expect to see that at any casino.

I understood the marketing allure, but thought it would cause issues – especially if you tried to book it for you and your significant other.

I kept imagining that it would probably spawn a thousand conversations like this:

He’s sitting at the computer, having just booked a hotel room online.
Her: Did you book a hotel yet?
Him: Yep. It’s all taken care of.
Her: So where are we staying?
Him: It’s right next to The Strip.
Her: What’s it called?
Him: I don’t remember. Something Casino. It’s a block from The Strip.
Her: But you just booked it. You don’t remember the name?
Him: (mumbled) Hooters Casino.
Her: What was that? I couldn’t hear you.
Him: (less mumbled) Hooters Casino.
Her: What?
Him: Umm… Hooters Casino.
Her: Are you looking for a divorce?

Kim and I returned to the car, threw our bags in the trunk, and both famished, we drove over to my favorite place to eat in Vegas: the Brew Pub in the Monte Carlo. The wait was short and we got a great table. We each ordered a 23oz glass of the High Roller Red, toasted, and relaxed. After the drive and hotel commotion, we could now enjoy ourselves. We were in Vegas.

After dinner we meandered without agenda through the casinos. Eventually, we found ourselves at the Luxor – a shared fave. Anxious to throw some money down, we sat at an empty blackjack table and each quickly lost forty dollars. We continued on, largely retracing our steps until we returned to the car and drove back to the San Remo.

When gambling, ambience and environment are very important to me. Not aesthetics, but vibe. Despite my initial apprehension, we found a great gambling scene at the San Remo. It wasn’t crowded. The table limits were low. Everyone was friendly. And the capper – there was a live cover band playing. They sounded fantastic. We found welcoming stools at a blackjack table and traded for some plastic red chips. We got an interesting collection of dealers – one of which kept making errors in both directions – sometimes you benefited and other times you didn’t. This is bad in general, but more so for me because I’m horrible at counting my card totals. If there are more than three cards involved I have to ask the dealer how much I have (Kim likes to tease me that I’m the only engineer in the world that can’t add). Sadly, I couldn’t rely on this dealer to determine my total. I think we caught most of her errors that affected us adversely, and kept quiet on those that didn’t.

On Thursday morning we awoke to the very loud sound of construction going on outside. While I have no proof, I feel fairly confident that they were using a jack-hammer next door which spawned my comment, “I can’t believe how ungodly loud they are, although we did only pay thirty-one dollars.”

Kim walked over to the window and pulled apart the curtains to reveal our beautiful view of… well, nothing. Between the previous night and this morning, they had put a thick piece of acetate across the window. While allowing light to pass through, you couldn’t see through it – like a blurry screen that they use for shower curtains.

Thirty-one dollars.

Our morning started with a drive over to the Paris Hotel and Casino – one of my faves. While many of the hotels do the faux street scene inside – Caesars, Venetian, and Aladdin – I think that the Paris pulls it off the best.

One of my very favorite morning rituals in the real Paris was to stroll along the sidewalk and dip inside a bakery to buy a pain aux raisin. It’s like a flattened cinnamon roll with raisins. In the casino version, they have a great bakery that also had authentic and mighty tasty pain aux raisin. I was in faux city heaven. I’m also a journal whore, and I found a shop that had some great ones. I bought three.

We walked north on The Strip, stopping at the brand new Wynn Casino. It’s a beautiful place. They have a miniature mountain out front with a densely populated forest and a waterfall cascading down the side. We entered their main hallway when I spotted an inconspicuous art gallery. The admission price read six dollars. I thought that I had misunderstood because admission at the Bellagio art gallery – which Wynn also founded – was fifteen dollars. I asked the cashier and she confirmed the price. Great deal. I bought two tickets and we went for a browse.

The gallery consisted of two small rooms with about eighteen amazing paintings. A veritable who’s who of painting. Rembrandt. Matisse. Renoir. Warhol. Manet. Monet. And one of Picasso’s most famous paintings, La Reve (upon my return home I did some research and found out that the painting was purchased in 1997 for $47 million). Included in the admission price was an audio tour narrated by Steve Wynn himself. It was a great experience.

Kim found the perfect lunch place located at the Fashion Valley Mall. It was a Spanish restaurant called CafĂ© Ba Ba Reeba! A sign outside advertised its paella and sangria – one of my all time favorite combos. We left feeling both full and slightly drunk.

We walked through casinos on the west side of The Strip when I noticed a disconcerting trend. When I stroll through a casino floor, one of my favorite things is to casually throw loose quarters into random slot machines. Kind of like drive-by gambling. The problem is that quarter slots have stopped taking actual quarters. I find it absurd. The quarter slots holes have all been covered so the machines only take cash currency. Quarter slot machines that take quarters have become extinct.

On a related note, I have another favorite thing to do which is quickly becoming more difficult to do. It probably doesn’t make sense to anyone but me, but when I sit at a machine, I like to cash-out after every win. I’ll put quarters in the slot every round, and if I win, I hit the cash out button. I just like the sound of the quarters hitting the metal tray. It’s an affirmation of a small victory. But now, not only are the quarter slots disappearing, but you can no longer receive actual cash when you cash out. Instead you are issued a receipt by the machine for the amount you cash-out for.

Now, I don’t mind being subtlety manipulated when I’m in a casino. Pump all the oxygen into the place that you want. You’re more than welcome to load me with gallons of free alcohol. Make it difficult to find the entrances. Remove all clocks and anything indicating time of day. But there is a point when you stop being modestly manipulative, and you’re just an asshole. The casinos are starting to make it painfully difficult to get your money. What’s next? I have to walk across hot coals in order to reach the cashier? I have to swing on a vine across a piranha filled swamp? Something involving an enema? Please stop it. Now.

Later in the evening we returned to our hotel room to rest our weary feet. You don’t realize how much you walk in Vegas until you start desperately searching for a saw to cut off your feet.

Our evening schedule was simple. We’d watch Survivor on TV and then return to the San Remo casino floor to resume our gambling. After winning our millions, we would buy an isolated beachfront cabana where we could run around topless and never fear the paparazzi.

We turned on our TV and discovered that the satellite was down for all the rooms so we couldn’t get any of the normal channels. Shocking. I know, I know – we only paid thirty-one dollars.

However, later that night, amid sawdust and hardhats, I found paradise at a blackjack table.

It can be difficult to obtain because so many variables have to line up perfectly. But when all variables coordinate, gambling at a blackjack table can be a Zen-like experience. It is what I search for. It is what I hope for.

I sat at the blackjack table and placed a twenty-dollar bill on the table. The dollar gave me four red chips. Wait – let my qualify that – the dealer gave me four magical red chips.

A cool, laid-back guy from Los Angeles sat on my right. A low-key guy sat on my left. We were all supportive of each other on every hand and wished each other good luck when we needed to take a risky hit. The make-up of the table is essential to achieving the perfect vibe. Some people get so caught up with losing money that they are unpleasant to be around. Others are just annoying. It all has to line up.

The cover band launched into their set. Every song was golden. Every song was fun. The whole casino was moving to the music, occasionally singing along.

And then came the cards. All three of us were on fire. There was one time when all three players were dealt 14’s. We all hit and all won. Another round and we were all dealt 15’s. The dealer busted and we all won.

I was making perfect decisions. I hit when I should have hit and stayed when I should have stayed – each decision resulting in a win.

At one point in time, a guy who stood behind us watching, came up and asked if we all knew each other. “Nope,” said the guy on my right, “ why do you ask?” The bystander said that he had never seen a group of people play blackjack so flawlessly. “You guys haven’t made one mistake since I’ve been watching,” he added.

I fluctuated my bet a lot during the night. Sometimes I simply bet five dollars. When you get a blackjack they give you time and a half. This results in getting fifty-cent pieces when you hit a blackjack. When I walked away from the table I had fourteen fifty-cent pieces. This means that I was dealt at least fourteen blackjacks. It was an unreal night.

I was in pure bliss. Pure heaven. I’m sorry U2, but I did find what I was looking for. Who knew it was covered in felt? It was a perfect zone. It was perfect Zen.

One thing that I’ve always been curious about is how dealers feel when they pool their tips. We got one dealer who was great. She was friendly and cool and made us a lot of money. I tipped her and asked about pooling the tips. Pooling tips means that all of the tips earned that night are placed in a bucket and then divvied equally.

You get some dealers that are amazing and you want to share your newfound wealth with them. They are outgoing, funny, and supportive. You get others that are absolutely horrible. Zombies have more personality and a crying baby on a plane is better company. If I were a dealer, I would loathe the fact that I get a lot of tips because people enjoy what I do and I work hard at being affable, and then there are miserable dealers who get no tips, yet we all still get paid the same.

I asked her how she felt about this topic and she said that she really liked pooling tips because it takes the randomness out of the equation and provided consistent results, more or less. She said that you could get stuck at a high roller table with huge tips or sit at an empty table all night. You just never know how it could work out. Pooling tips provided a balanced solution.

Friday morning Kim and I left our beloved San Remo and its paint fume filled hallways, and searched for a breakfast place. We found one while driving west on Tropicana Avenue. We ate breakfast with the beautiful and engaging Vegas hills in the background.

We then got on I-15 and headed south.

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