The next morning I got to do what every child of 5 dreams of doing. No – not go to Disneyland. This was even better: I got to gamble for the very first time when my dad let me pick out the numbers for a game of Keno. My first ever illegal wager in a legal casino was ten cents. Dad let all of his children break the law by allowing each of us to play 1 game over the course of our 69-cent breakfast at the Castaways.
The 13 of us filed in to the coffee shop, animosity thick between the adults. My parents and the Anderson’s smoked and drank coffee silently while we waited on our food in the busy coffee shop. The sound of bells and the clank of change hitting the metal coin trays in the casino beyond came through the large open doors and drowned out the unspoken accusations.
Stubbing out his cigarette, my father reached over and fished a black crayon out of a tray on the table. He handed me the crayon and a small slip of paper that had 2 grids of numbers on it: 1 through 40 on the top, 41 through 80 on the bottom. ‘Win $25,000!’ it promised. He told me to pick 6 numbers, and put an X through them with the crayon. I studied the numbers intently. I began by crossing out the number 4 – because my birthday was on the 4th of December.
Funny thing about that first bet: It turns out that my birthday isn’t actually December 4th, after all, and my folks forgot what day I was born. True story. But that’s a story for another day.
When I had finished picking my numbers and crossing them out with child-like precision, an attractive young woman in a tight mini-dress came into the coffee shop calling, “Keno! Keno!” and Dad had me wave her down. She came over and I handed her the marked up Keno card importantly, using both hands, and then solemnly put a dime in her palm. Using her tray as a desk the young woman with the giant hair scribbled something on the card, and then put my dime in the plastic bank that was strapped firmly to her tray. She repeated the ritual with my father, snapping her bank closed as she moved on shouting, “Keno! Keno!” She was moving quickly through the room, collecting all the cards and bets from the players in the diner, rushing to get them registered with the Keno Writer before the next game was called.
A few minutes later the Keno Runner in the mini-dress with the big hair returned the sheet to me. I saw that a game number was stamped in the upper right corner, and along the right side was scrawled ‘10¢’. Below that the number 6. She handed it to me with a perfunctory, “Good luck,” barely glancing at me. I clutched the flimsy sheet of paper in my tiny hands, impatiently watching the electronic Keno board with rapt attention.
The board cleared itself, and then a game number appeared in the corner that matched the one stamped on my card. It was to be the only thing that matched that morning. The numbers began to light in rapid succession, and soon I was puzzling over 20 blinking lights on the board but not a one of them was mine. I busted flat right out of the gate, and before breakfast at that. Welcome to Las Vegas, Pardner!
All of my brothers were allowed one game each, as well. All of us lost interest after our game was over and we began using the backs of the Keno cards to play Hangman’s Noose and Tic Tac Toe or to draw pictures of drag racers or airplanes. I wanted to draw horses or snowmen, but those suggestions were met with a flat stare from my 5 brothers.
My dad played Keno along with us and then a few more while we ate, which meant that during breakfast he gambled a bit more than what it cost to feed two people. We won nothing.
For the next 15 years my father and I would play Keno whenever we ate our meals in a casino. It was a game my mother cared nothing for, and as I recall neither did my brothers. But, my father and I would pick our numbers and watch the blinking board on the wall as we dined in cheap restaurants across Nevada. We enjoyed playing glorified Bingo and the occasional stroke of good fortune. I won $40 on Easter Sunday the year I was 15; it happened during a breakfast game in the Boomtown casino, just outside of Reno. That was like winning $150 today, and you should have seen the looks on my father’s face and his friend Victor from A.A.. It was priceless. But I digress.
By the end of breakfast the morning after my Dad and Mr. Anderson fell down the rabbit hole, a tenuous, grudging truce had been declared between the 2 couples. In a show of thinking about the children the decision was made to go to that holiest of holies: Circus Circus.
How can I describe it? I can’t do it justice. But, if I may quote the great Hunter S. Thompson from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:
“The Circus – Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This is the Sixth Reich. The ground floor is full of gambling tables, like all the other casinos … but the place is about four stories high, in the style of a circus tent, and all manner of strange County – Fair/Polish Carnival madness is going on up in this space. Right above the gambling tables the Forty Flying Carazito Brothers are doing a high – wire trapeze act, along with four muzzled Wolverines and the Six Nymphet Sisters from San Diego … so you’re down on the main floor playing blackjack, and the stakes are getting high when suddenly you chance to look up, and there, right smack above your head is a half – naked fourteen – year – old girl being chased through the air by a snarling wolverine, which is suddenly locked in a death battle with two silver – painted Polacks who come swinging down from opposite balconies and meet in mid – air on the wolverine’s neck … both Polacks seize the animal as they fall straight down towards the crap tables – but they bounce off the net; they separate and spring back up towards the roof in three different directions, and just as they’re about to fall again they are grabbed out of the air by three Korean Kittens and trapezed off to one of the balconies.”
He really wasn’t that far off: It wasn’t wolverines – it was bears, and I recall the barely pubescent performers as being from South America, not Poland.
Circus Circus had opened up 5 months before, the first of the casinos that marketed to families. It had no hotel for the first year or so, but something much better: A Midway to squeeze money out the gambler’s children and act as an ersatz babysitter while their parents set money on fire. The Midway ringed around above the adult gaming floor, and high above them both was a trapeze where hourly shows took place and scantily clad women were thrown between men in cod pieces. Above even that was a high-wire.
A giant net kept the performers from falling onto the gaming floor when they inevitably failed to pull off a stunt. At the end of the performance they would do a triple somersault into thin air, and drop breathtakingly into the net below. The net would pull down close to the card tables and then slingshot the acrobat back up into the air. They would keep doing somersaults and bouncing above the players until gravity kicked in.
When we walked in the show was underway. Immediately our heads snapped up. My mother instinctively clutched the enormous Mexican leather purse she bought at the swap meet to her side, distrustful of pick-pockets in large crowds. A man was yelling into a P.A. at top volume about the people twirling above our head. There were flashing and blinking lights everywhere, and a pall of cigarette smoke hung above the gaming area. People pushed and milled. Music came from somewhere.
Eclipsing all that was the noise of the slot machines: The relentless clang of coins dropping into metal cash trays and the endless ringing bells. That sound surrounded us as soon as we entered the building. It is a sound today’s slot machines can only try to replicate: You could actually feel the sound of coins hitting the cash tray.
It was the sound of winning.
My mother grabbed my hand as the group of us walked along the outer ring of the casino until there was a place for us to stop, out of the stream of people. There was a brief discussion among the adults and I craned my neck to look at the inside of the tent, expecting to see the pink and white I had seen outside. Instead of cotton candy stripes my eyes were met with unfinished grey cement. It was just Hollywood magic on the outside, after all – a phenomenon I was all too familiar with.
While the adults were talking the show suddenly ended. Dammit! We’d missed it. I was nearly in tears when, without looking back, my father and Mr. Anderson disappeared into the press of people on the casino floor. It was just too much, watching the crowd swallow them.
It could feel my throat begin to tighten and the sting at the back of my eyes as I held my mother’s hand and adults pushed past and bumped into me on their way to the casino floor. But I knew there were serious consequences for complaining and crying: Keep it up and Mom would give me something to cry about.
Moments later Dad was as forgotten as we’d been the night before, because my mother and Mrs. Anderson were leading us up the ramp to the Midway.
Flashing lights and fluorescent colors met us at the top. The garish patterned carpet made my peripheral vision strobe and it was hard to focus my eyes – I blinked and shook my head. Children were running everywhere, screaming and shouting, pushing each other for a better vantage point at the games that ringed the walls as far as the eye could see. I smelled popcorn and cotton candy. There were ringing bells, slide whistles, popping noises and screeching calliope music: I was slightly dizzy from the absolute deafening sensory overload, and it was glorious.
Everywhere I looked was a something I needed to try: There was Skeeball, bumper cars, and a bb-gun shooting gallery. You could win a stuffed animal at a dozen rigged games like ring toss and dime toss, or you could try to shoot a basket with an over-inflated ball through a too-small hoop, or pop an under-inflated balloon with a blunt dart, or knock over weighted metal milk bottles with a squishy softball, or throw a ping pong ball onto a small fish bowl. There were *endless* ways they could take your money.
We circled around the midway, doing one full lap just looking. There were 9 children, so everyone had a different interest.
We Lambs were all given the princely sum of $1 to spend how we pleased. There were nickel, dime and quarter games, so we began our judicious choices on how to spend our money on our second lap. What to do? What to do? How to spend our dollar – how to stretch it out?
My brothers and the Anderson kids decided on the bumper cars to start with. I wasn’t big enough to go on the original Tooth Chipper by myself, and my mother rightly refused to give herself whiplash. A few years later the bumper cars were yanked out unceremoniously because of the liability and the number of lawsuits. One of the suits involved the 10 year-old daughter of an acquaintance of my mother – the girl lost her front teeth on the metal, unpadded steering wheel one fine Sunday afternoon.
While the big kids stood in line to tempt fate, and Mrs. Anderson found a seat from whence to watch them, my mother and I went in search of something for a child my size. I settled on a game that involved shooting a water gun into a clown’s mouth to make a balloon inflate and be the first to make it pop. I stood and watched the game in process, and soon a smiling child was leaving with a small stuffed animal. The barker running the game shouted, “There’s a winna every game!!” I liked the odds of that a lot better than Keno.
I came forward and handed the man my money. It was the second time that day I was playing a game of chance with a dime, but only the first time legally.
Incredibly, in that packed place, I managed to get a game with just 3 people playing. (I suspect a soft-hearted carnie), and I was able to shoot the most water into the clown’s mouth fastest (I suspect a rigged game), and my balloon popped first.
“Winna!!” shouted the carnie ecstatically as I squealed, jumping up and down. He placed a blue stuffed bear into my hands. I clutched it in my left hand while he raised my right in Victory, shouting, “There’s a WINNA every time!!! Winna, winna, winna!!!” A crowd began to gather around the Carnie and the beaming child – a child fit for Hollywood holding a stuffed animal not a one of them would win if they spent $5. Money began to come out of pockets, and my benefactor patted me on the head, sending me on my way.
‘Now you’re talking’ I thought in the euphoria of winning. Lady Luck had finally found me after running late at breakfast. I clutched that bear like it was 5 black chips at the tables. I was on top of the world.
My brothers and the Anderson kids came back, boisterously replaying the hits and misses of the bumper cars, admiring my bear – we were all flushed and excited.
The whole time this riotous carnival is going on upstairs on the Midway there is music and the clanging slot machines down in the grown-up Midway below, with nary a glance upwards.
Then, above the sound of all the games and shrieking children and clanging slots starts the blaring of Entry of the Gladiators, that most famous of circus music. A distorted voice crackled over the cheap overhead speakers, shouting unintelligibly. Suddenly, people are flying through the air, spinning, twirling, defying death.
We all run to the rail so that we can watch the circus show that is going on over our heads. Utterly thrilled, I hug my bear and I am rapt at the soaring people doing somersaults and barely catching one another.
It is a circus family of some exotic name, whose skin and hair are darker than mine. The men throw the women, the women whirl and flip. A man walks on the high wire. We stand, transfixed. No one the casino floor looks up.
I am envious of the 2 children on the trapeze and the adoring, gasping crowds below.
For the finale a man rides a bike across the high wire with two women balanced on either end of a pole. The announcer shouts for more applause as the performers swan dive into the net, bouncing, bouncing, bouncing, and then grabbing the edge to flip off of the side and be caught by a spotter on the floor. The people crowding the railing clap madly for a few moments and the applause dribbles off as they begin to focus on the flashing lights of the midway, and drift back towards the games. The people on the floor have still not looked up.
When our dollars were spent and we had exchanged our Skeeball tickets for cheap rings, wax teeth and plastic kazoos we rejoined the men near the teeming front door.
The adults decided to drive on to another casino. The unanimous decision was Caesar’s Palace. I didn’t want to leave Valhalla, but I was dying to see the inside of a real castle, so I followed willingly.
Besides, there was the promise of one more surprise: A ride on the carved wooden carousel out front. We made our way to the street, but the Merry-Go-Round wasn’t running. In fact, I can’t ever remember seeing it run, although I was told it was supposed to work. I chalked it up to more show business fakery.
As we stared dejectedly at the carved, brightly painted animals on the carousel a howling wind kicked up and blew the spray from the fountains on us. I remember our eyes widening at the surprising sting of water and our lack of coats. And somehow that moment was hilarious… We all shrieked and laughed and ran from the impromptu ice-cold shower, the mist wetting our shirts. My hands were ice cold, my brothers hooted in laughter. We were all in on the joke as we made our retreat, wiping our eyes.
Out of the push of the crowd a woman with bright red lipstick, turquoise eye shadow and too much rouge approached my father and put a hand on his arm. She was dressed in a cheap evening dress and stiletto heels. “You looking for a date?” she asked with a heavy New Jersey accent, her grip tightening on his arm.
“Excuse me!!” my mother choked out an objection after half a beat of stunned amazement. “He is with his wife and 6 children!!”
“I wasn’t talkin’ to you, bitch” this most genteel Lady of the Evening shot back, eyes narrowing.
Thus endeth the Entertainment Portion of my first trip to Las Vegas.
Coming up: A study in 6 children openly playing slots – Learning Poker at the kitchen table: A How-To guide for Minors –And Never chase the numbers: A fool proof strategy for a game of chance
Viva Las Vegas!