By Clay Champlin © 2007
People head to Las Vegas for two reasons: salvation or condemnation. Those looking to be saved from their mundane Midwestern lives bask in the perpetual glow of the strip or gawk skyward at downtown's Freemont street experience. Those who've seen or done horrible things are attracted to the glow of the mega-casinos, but soon realize they are more suited for the city's shadows instead of its neon. These doomed people have nowhere else to go, and, in a town where anything is possible, it's the only place where they feel they still have a chance.
The Western is unlike any other Vegas casino. A half mile away from the sanctity of Freemont street, the neighborhood looks more like Compton than a resort town. Once inside you'll notice the lighting is more suited for a supermarket than a gambling hall. Billion watt fluorescent lights illuminate a gaming floor that consists of 20 or so table games and a hundred slot machines. The hardwood floor is thick with lacquer making clean up of puke or blood a breeze. The dealers look like extras from a zombie movie, and the air is thick with cigarette smoke and despair. Just off the gaming floor, and out of the blinding lights, is a surprisingly large u-shaped bar. The wooden structure is filled with those so far down on their luck they can barely scrape up $1 for a draft beer. Sitting at the end of this bar, just about every night, is Johnny. Buy him drink and he'll give you the unofficial tour of the Western.
First, he'll point out all of the $25 whores. Your first thought is whomever is serviced by these women is getting ripped off. Johnny's favorite working girl is Lisa. She'll tell you she's 27, but looks 40, and, depending on how much junk she's just smoked, she's affable and surprisingly charming. When she leaves Johnny will explain that Lisa only gets $10 out of the $25. Her pimp gets the rest.
At some point Johnny will excuse himself to go to the bathroom, and, like the majority of the transient patrons at the bar, he'll take his wheeled luggage with him. Before he goes he mentions that if you want any drugs the toilet is the place to go, but this part of the tour you can figure out for yourself. In one of the two stalls you'll always see two pair of feet and someone saying, "Fuck that. I ain't paying you for this shit, motherfucker." It's best to do your business as quickly as possible and get out.
Johnny resumes the tour by waving his hand towards different parts of the casino while telling small anecdotes: "Over there I saw some guy get knifed. I think it was over drugs. Over there three guys jumped another guy because he didn't pay his hooker. They broke his back with a chair. And over there I saw a pregnant lady shit out a kid." You'll ask Johnny how he knows so much about such a dismal place. He'll then spin a tale that's as surreal as the building you're in, and makes less sense.
Fifteen years ago Johnny was small time crook in Texas. He liked stealing cars, and a Mark VIII was his vehicle of choice. Eventually he gets busted. He goes to jail, and gets ass raped. ("Only once!" he'll insist. You don't believe him.) Upon his release he somehow strikes a deal with a prison official. When prisoners get out they're given all of their stuff back and $87 for a bus ticket. Johnny gets contracted to meet the ex-convicts outside the jail, and, for $87, he'll take them wherever they want to go in his new Mark VIII.
His passengers, all of whom are black (or, as he racistly refers to them, "rug-heads"), are then driven a few counties away and "dumped in a fucking ditch." Johnny says the prison had been getting shit from the local community because the newly released colored prisoners started taking up residence in their happy little town.
Johnny had a good deal: drop a car load of freshly freed jail birds off in the middle of nowhere, "and what were they going to do? A bunch of fucking rug-heads in stolen car. They got busted as soon as I left. I didn't fucking care. I was getting paid. Paid good, too." But all good things must come to an end.
When some newly elected, do-gooder politician saw misappropriated funds in the prison system, Johnny was fired. On his last run of "dumping rug-heads in a ditch" he was busted. Charged with a few counts of grand theft and aiding and abetting. His options were jail time or getting out of Texas. He's been sitting at the end of the bar at the Western ever since.
To believe every word that came out of Johnny's mouth would be foolish, but truth prevails when you ask him why he decided to expatriate to Las Vegas. "I can eat, sleep and get drunk for twelve bucks a day. Another ten and I can get Lisa to blow me." He'll stop, look at the rest of the crowd at the bar and take a drink of the beer you just bought him. "Just ask anybody in here. They'll tell you the same thing. Where else are we supposed to go?"
Clay Champlin is from Chicago and shoots dice behind the Aldi at 49th and Kedzie to pay for his cot rental at the South Side YMCA. He also has a blog called theclayshow.com.