By Tenzin McGrupp © 2003
Every time I go to Las Vegas a different aspect of the gambling culture intrigues me. On this past trip, I would cogitate on the lives of some of the people whom I interacted with the most: card dealers, cabbies, and cocktail waitresses.
Nobody is from Las Vegas, so I hear. And after I ask, I realized that only on a rare occasion would you find someone who was born, bred, and still living in Vegas. The cab drivers were some of the more interesting people I have ever met. Most of the cabbies in New York are immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and West Africa that barely speak English. In Vegas, cabbies appear from all over the planet.
In 1998, on a trip to see Phish’s epic Halloween show, a group of friends asked the cabbie, a young guy with an earring and a beard, if we could light up a joint.
"Sure," he said.
After a few moments he sniffed the air, then asked, "Are you guys from Seattle?"
At the time I was living there and flew down to Vegas with two of my friends from Seattle to link up with Senor and his brother.
"How the fuck did you know that?" I surprisingly responded.
"The smell of your kind buds. I used to live in the Northwest. Best pot on the planet."
We offered up some and he puffed with us as he slowly drove to the Phish show. Since then I knew Vegas cabbies were a different breed, and I also hijacked and stole his line about Seattle marijuana.
One night at 4:30 A.M., on our way to $1 Bowling at the Orleans, our cabbie was shocked when I gave him a 20% tip. I thought he was irked at me, so I gave him another dollar to make it a 30% tip. That’s when he said, "Wow, you guys are from New York!"
Derek told me about our Russian cab driver (I didn’t see his name but Derek did.) Checker Vacalav was his name and he was telling us about the strip bars on our way to Fremont Street and the old casinos.
"Strip bars and boobies are also great after you gamble. If you win, you have money to burn. If you lose, you have a place to be consoled," he explained to us like we were hick tourists from Cincinnati.
Another time our cabbie was a Connecticut transplant, who rapped with Senor for most of the ride about the changes in their home state.
And my favorite cabbie, was the guy who picked us up from the Orleans one lazy day after we bowled three quick games.
"Hey are you in the movies or something? You look familiar."
"I get that all the time," I answered, "I got one of those faces."
"You sure?" he insisted, turning around to get a good look, "But I know I’ve seen you before."
"I guess I’m famous. You might remember me from an episode of Law and Order from last year. I was Crackhead #2 that got busted by Briscoe," I coldly lied, then smiled.
"That’s it. I remember that one. It was a great episode. So what’s he like?"
"Jerry Orbach, the actor who plays Briscoe."
"I guess he’s cool. He had bad breath though."
After that story, I barely talked for the entire ride as he drove through the blazing noon time sun, over to the Aladdin Casino. Our cabbie, a dorky guy with glasses and shaggy hair started telling us these wild stories. I couldn’t figure out if this guy lived an amazing life or if he was just pulling our leg. At one point during our ten minute ride he told us that he was a stockbroker that got out of the market before the dotcom bubble burst and that he was a millionaire who lived in Alaska during the off season, where he finally docked his sailboat after sailing around the world for fourteen years. Then the kicker of them all, he told us that his father was Fat Man, one of the scientists and engineers that orchestrated the atomic bombs for the Manhattan Project during World War II.
"They named the bomb after him. Fat Man," he proudly stated.
As we got out and paid I thought to myself, "Geez. I’m the former stockbroker who lied and said I was an actor. And this guy’s an actor who said he’s a stock broker millionaire and the son of Fat Man."
The card dealers are an interesting bunch. Some of them barely speak English. But they can count. A lot faster than me. I read that MGM Grand, the largest hotel and property owner in Las Vegas start out their dealers at $5.35 an hour (these are 2000 figures, so they are outdated). And in that year the average dealer made $63,000 a year. Which goes to show that after a few years, as a dealer, you make half your salary in tips. The more you win, the more that the dealers get tipped.
Senor was enamored by the Asian female dealers. He kept playing Caribbean Stud Poker at one table, only because of the woman, Mei, who was dealing. And of course some of the dealers were checking out the female guests. Not only did I show up in Vegas during March Madness, it was also Spring Break and many scantly clad co-eds wandered through the casino floor on their way to the bar or back to their rooms. One evening, at the Excalibur, I caught our Black Jack dealer’s eyes wander off the table. He stopped speaking in mid-sentence, as he ogled a couple of ladies walking by the table. It would have been a perfect opportunity for me to scam the casino, that is if I was bold enough to cheat them, as the dealer’s eyes stalked the ladies as they walked away, with X-rated thoughts racing though his mind, not paying attention to the money and cards on the table.
At the poker room in the Excalibur we had a jerk off for a dealer. His name was Frosty, and that summed up his demeanor. "He was tight as a fuck wad," Senor admitted to me a couple of hours after we left.
Frosty yelled at a kid from L.A., a guy that was rip roaring drunk and had been bluffing all night. He was playfully talking shit to his friend who sat on the other side of the table. He let a curse fly out, something like "fucker" or "mutha fucker" or something similar. Well Frosty didn’t hesitate to take action. He pointed his long finger at the L.A. kid and warned, "Watch your language or I’ll ask you to leave."
It was no fun playing when Frosty dealt. He was that random dealer that you never wanted to get. He was the pissed off, condescending, tourist hating, robotic dealer. Plus he was giving me shitty cards all night. I almost fell asleep at one point, exhausted from no sleep, and drinking during the all day long sessions at the sports book, followed by all night poker games. He made a not so nice comment to me after I lost a hand and got bluffed by a tourist from Bumblefuck, West Virginia. Annoyed, I racked up my chips and left the table. Fuck that guy.
Why do women become cocktail waitress in Las Vegas? It’s either to meet rich guys, or they have a serious compulsive gambling problem. That’s what I categorized the waitresses I met. The younger ones work at the nicer, elegant, newer casinos like the Bellagio, Mandalay Bay or at Hard Rock. If you aren’t young, it’s tough to find work and you usually get shitty shifts working odd hours or in casinos way off the Strip.
The last day we went to the sports book in the Mandalay Bay, we had an excellent server named Yvonne. She was giving us special attention because as soon as we sat down (it was 11:00 A.M. on Saturday) Derek started tipping her $1 for bringing him ice water. When we started drinking and when the place got crowded she was always right there ready to get us drinks.
The day before, our server at first glance looked absolutely stunning. I’m sure she was the best looking girl in her high school, and ten years earlier, guys were brawling with each other in the streets of her small Midwestern hometown just to date her. She was a tall thin blonde with a boob job, but after trying to figure out what she looked like in regular clothes, and not one of those foolish, skimpy, ice skating outfits that the casinos made them wear, and after you uncaked the layers of make up off her face, I realized by her subdued expressions and her shallow eyes that she was just a regular woman, scared and pissed off at the plastic and fictitious world that she must gut though everyday, while constantly bringing tray after tray, after tray of drinks to obnoxious drunken gamblers. She thought she’d move to Las Vegas, meet Mr. Big Bucks, and ride off into the sunset, but she’s stuck in a rut in the middle of a fucking desert, getting groped, hit on and bossed around by slimy degenerates losers. That’s an awful life. And to do it forty or fifty hours a week without a future has got to suck.
Tenzin McGrupp is a writer from New York City.