Thursday, January 22, 2009

CHAPTER 5

Leroy had secured a room at the Gold Spike just off Freemont Street downtown for only 26 dollars a night. Though we knew our pockets would be picked by strippers and slot machines and bartenders and overpriced buffets, this seemed like the best deal in the world, as just down the street rooms were going for 150 dollars a night at the Plaza Hotel. But, as we were about to find out, The Gold Spike wasn’t quite the Taj Majal. After circling around to find the makeshift parking lot we found a spot, jumped out of the car, and stretched out in the unbearable sunshine, almost immediately weltering in this sun-blinded vision of Eden set on fire. The concrete felt like it could cook a pizza. Heat rose as if from hot coals under our feet. We grabbed our bags. Every inch of my skin was instantly sticky with sweat as I cowered and lost my footing a few times, almost spilling over to be roasted on the ground. But I righted myself and regained my composure by chanting many times very loudly in my own head, “Into the breech once more my friends, into the breech once more, once more!” I put on my Huey Lewis sunglasses and began staggering, with my bag slung over my shoulder, towards the lobby.

When you walk into a casino in Las Vegas you expect to be immediately hit with an ice cold wind of air conditioning, to be able to breathe a sigh of relief at being out of the sweltering heat and inside where the slot machines ring and the beer is ice cold and the weather has nothing to do with being out in the middle of the desert. It should be like stepping into a wintry country, an arctic chill should rush at you and console you and make you feel sufficiently better about the world. The air conditioning system at the Gold Spike must have dated from, well, the invention of air conditioning by Willis Haviland Carrier, and it probably hadn’t ever been repaired or upgraded through all the summers of its existence, eventually falling into a fuliginous desuetude. Needless to say, it wasn’t a big difference going from the calescent world outside into the inside of this place, and we began to see some reasons for our big savings on the room. All around were degenerates of myriad kinds, mostly of the senescent and chain smoking variety, anachronisms of some seedier era of Las Vegas history who were shoving nickels into slot machines and staring off at some lost vision of the nothing that had become their lives. Old men with bristly eyebrows and rugose faces filled with bulging bluish veins, slumped over at slot machines, which they were not playing, instead pondering highballs in which the ice had long ago melted. The small bar at the edge of the place was a hodgepodge of young Mexicans drinking dollar Tecates; amphetamine junkies, all bandanas and ripped jeans and sweat crusted T-shirts, with bad teeth, sallow scabrous faces, jumping eyeballs, and disastrous tangles of dirty hair; lepers; escapees from nut houses; older ladies with pot bellies and fake boobs; and the shadowy, half-dead, wan and gaunt, white-haired remnants of what used to be somebody’s grandfathers slithering around and half-watching the three television sets above the bar while they waited for a bar stool to open up.

We carried our bags in and sat down by the checkout desk, oddly exhausted yet filled with some sort of expectant energy that kept us from passing out right there and letting the world do with us what it may. There was a sign over the check-in desk that read, “A ten dollar deposit will be required for any guest wishing to have a remote control for television set in room.” Considering the place didn’t even have cable this seemed like an unnecessary luxury. We signed some forms and made our way upstairs in the ancient, humid, and slow moving elevators that seemed to mechanically grimace under our weight.

Chet had a room at the Tropicana with his brother, who was celebrating his 30th birthday and was our ersatz reason for going on this trip in the first place, as if we needed an excuse to load up on drugs and booze and drive out to this mad place in the desert for a weekend of profligacy. So after we checked in Chet bolted for his better air-conditioned accommodations, leaving us with a bottle of Jameson that was so hot I thought it might start boiling at some point, and a plastic container full of pot cookies. We also had a surprisingly large amount of cocaine left, even after Leroy ’s binge on the trip in. Our room was small and smelled musty. It was clean on the surface, and I didn’t want to contemplate anything beyond that. So we threw our bags on the beds and checked for an ice bucket, as Leroy had proved that the Jameson was way too hot to drink when he’d mistakenly taken a swig from the bottle and burned the hell out of his mouth spitting the hot umber liquid all over the already multifariously stained carpet, and then screaming, “Damn it! We need ice. This shit is on fire.” There were two cups in the room, plastic and wrapped in cellophane, but no ice bucket. Leroy was beginning to freak out a bit.

“Ahh. I can’t handle this. That fucking damn air conditioner, is that what that is? Ahh. It’s so fucking loud! Can we shut that thing off? Uhhh. It’s so damn hot. My face is peeling off.”

I decided to take charge. “Don’t worry man. I will get ice. I will find something to put it in. I will bring cold beer from the bar and ice for the whiskey.”

“Okay. Okay, I just need to shower and just relax and just lie here for now. God this room is almost as hot as it is outside. Hurry with that damn ice.”

“Just relax. Wash yourself in cold water. I will return with beverages.”

I made my way back to the bar downstairs, hoping that I could at least find somebody that would know how to get ice back to our room, as I’d already scoured the floor for an ice machine and only found an ancient stentorian air-conditioning unit that seemed to bellow at me to get away quickly, which I did. The first thing I did downstairs was to go to the bar and grab some beers. I was damn thirsty. It turns out the Tecates at the bar were only a dollar, and they were ice cold. I pushed my way threw the throng of ne’r do wells and smoking septuagenarians to the bar where a curly haired, walleyed woman— who looked like she was born during The Hoover administration—tried her best to ignore my little hand signals for service. Finally she came around to me, after playing with the computerized screen of the cash register for what seemed like hours, and informed me that I’d better have exact change because the register wouldn’t open. All I had was a twenty. Could I really get a dozen or so beers and carry them up to the room? I was in a state of total muddled confusion. I tried to talk but all that came out was, “Um. Oh, I can, whaa…change? Could I may...be…um. Two beers?” So she walked away and I cursed my damn luck. Shit. Where the hell could I get change around this damn place? All I wanted was some beer. I considered buying a whole bottle of whiskey, but that didn’t seem possible at the bar. Then I thought about getting a few really fancy drinks or a bunch of souvenir shot-glasses maybe, but I’d have to carry them back up to the room, and I needed ice too damn it! But then, like the parting of the red sea, the cash register banged open and the bar tender let out a little whoop of what I thought to be joy or maybe just relief or surprise, or a mild orgasm. The next thing I knew I was walking away with two Tecates and shoving 17 dollars into my pocket. I left her a dollar tip for her trouble.

Now for the ice. I stacked the beers on top of each other, carrying them in my left hand, and wandered around looking for somebody who looked like he might work at the hotel. There were some older gentlemen walking purposefully around the lobby all dressed in the same way, a kind of dusty croupier style with suspenders and what I think might have been money belts filled with change tied around their waists. I asked what I took to be one of these attendants—or maybe he was a retired attendant who still hung around the hotel because he had nowhere else to go, nothing else to wear, and had gotten so used to being at the hotel every day of his life that he just couldn’t leave—where I could find some ice for my room. He told me to go into the diner, ask the server for an ice bucket, and then go to the soft drink serving machine and fill the bucket up with ice. It seemed like a reasonable idea so I headed over to the diner.

It felt like the whole place had been lifted out of 1972 and then set back down with all the same people and things still inside of it upon my arrival there 35 years later. On the wall there were pictures of the food. Almost all the pictures showed a bag of chips with a sandwich on a paper plate and had a generic Styrofoam cup with a straw poked in the lid to the side. The sandwiches were all on white bread and the chips were mostly Lays or Fritos. There was a small Filipino guy behind the counter. I tried to get his attention, but to no avail. He seemed to be taking the order of a bald man seated at the counter who was about the size of a sumo wrestler. But the chunky fellow wasn’t speaking. Maybe he was grunting or something. The Filipino guy was starting to get pissed for some reason, and soon the big dude threw some bills and change on the counter and there was some hissing and general vituperation. Big bald boy just sat at the counter staring and the other guy started walking my way. I made some kind of strange semaphore with my arms, as I was balancing the two beers in one hand, like I was signaling him without really trying to seem like I was signaling him, and he cussed and called the other guy an asshole or something, and I think I said something about ice for my room, though it didn’t seem like he was paying me any mind. But then, like a miracle, Lazarus rose from the dead, and the short Filipino server filled a small bucket with ice while he continued to curse Bald Fat Boy, who sat steely eyed and staring ahead at the counter. He gave me the ice-filled bucket without even looking at me and walked away again. I took the bucket and kept balancing the beers and was on my way.