Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Viva Las Vegas with Captain Marbles

This is a chronicle of my recent trip to Las Vegas with my brother and his wife. (For those of you who don’t know where the moniker “Captain Marbles” came from, it goes back to when my brother and I were growing up in San Diego. We used to visit Dad’s Navy buddy in L.A., and the Viotti’s younger kids couldn’t pronounce “Marvin,” my older brother’s name. I told them it sounded like Captain Marvel, the T.V. hero at that time….only it came out “Captain Marbles” in their young mouths. Thus, Marvin’s nickname was born.)

It was to be a vacation of only four days, of visiting with Marvin and his wife, Hide. Only this time, it was on Marvin’s turf. “It won’t be at the fancy hotels you usually stay at in Vegas,” he told me a few months ago. It was the Westward Ho. I had never been there, but knew it by reputation some 30 years old.

When I arrived on Monday afternoon, I checked my luggage with the staff, awaiting a 3 pm check-in, and saw Marvin sitting by the Betty Boop slot machines just inside the door, just as he had told me. He took me over to the courtesy desk, and told me to ask for my package. When I did so, the man looked at me, puzzled. “You don’t seem to have one, Ma’am.” Of course I didn’t have one! My brother has played in this casino for 20+ years. I only played for 5 minutes, a year ago, when I was looking for him during one visit. Marvin sheepishly told me to buy the Wednesday night dinner package so that I could join them. “Mine was free,” he said. “It’s too bad you have to pay for yours.”

When we checked into the rooms, I couldn’t believe it. All the rooms of the Westward Ho are outside. Like a motel. Mine was basically down the block and up the stairs, so I had to schlep my luggage up one flight. The rooms are early ‘50’s. It’s like turning on the T.V. and finding Lucy on every channel. It was Spartan, very small, unappealing. Why would I stay in this room (which is perhaps the point)?

Shortly after we checked in, Brother Marvin gave me a tour of the Westward Ho. This was his place. The hotel/motel is a small place, not like the big casinos, so it was an easy tour. He showed me all of the dollar slots, all the progressive machines, that were his favorite to play. He introduced me to the slot pit managers. “See that guy over there? That’s John. He got a promotion. He now runs the slot tournament.” These guys are king here.

And, speaking of “kings,” he then brought me over to meet “Elvis.” The Westward Ho has a regular Elvis impersonator whose real name is Michael Kennedy. The guy who checked me in told me, “He’s pretty good with the physical resemblance.” Yeah, but what about the voice? Kennedy had the white jumpsuit, the black hair that was stuccoed onto his head, the sunglasses. He also had a little bit of a paunch, and trouble hitting that high note. At an Elvis early afternoon performance, Marvin went up to him and asked to sing with him. Elvis suggested he come back during the later performance. Marvin looked at me later with a smug smile: “He doesn’t want me to sing with him,” he confided in me. “I might show him up.” Thankyouverymuch.

The Westward Ho has some features for its VIPs that keep them comin’ back, year after year. Free comp’d rooms. Free ice cream at noon every day. A dinner show every Wednesday and Saturday, free to the guests who keep their level of play up to the standard. “Was the light on your telephone on this morning?” Marvin asked me Tuesday morning. I thought this was secret code for….well, something. No, I answered. He looked at me like I violated the unwritten rule. “You didn’t keep your level of play up,” he chided. “You’re going to have to play more.” Apparently the light guarantees you a free buffet breakfast or salad/pasta evening buffet. I had to settle for donuts and tea.

We ventured out two nights in a row. We went to the Las Vegas Hilton the first night to pay our respects to the Star Trek Experience (both agreeing not to take the ride, as it made us nauseous). We ate at Benihana’s, which was a great treat. We visited the new Palms casino. We spent some time at the Stardust and Riviera hotels, spinning wheels for free gifts and taking in the p.a. chatter. But the time spent away from homebase worried the Captain: he had to get back “home” to keep his level of play up, or he’d never see that dinner theatre again.

Wednesday night, they started lining up in the small casino area an hour before showtime. We were among the first. Marvin found John again, and spoke to him quietly, and John showed us really nice seats at a table built for 8. 2,000 people funneled into the room to enjoy the Inkspots on stage and a buffet dinner comprised of pot roast and fish I whose origins I didn’t recognize. Two drinks in plastic cups were included. Joining us at our table were couples from really cold states, all of whom smoked. I thought I was being slowly tortured in a cloud of poison. I made up excuses to go to the bathroom to get away from it. An hour and a half later, people were still going through the buffet line, but the show started anyway. I was surprised that I really enjoyed the show, as they had really pleasant voices and performed songs I knew from the ‘80’s. I did not, however, like the female singer that was part of the quartet. “She’s new,” Marvin offered me as a reason for her lack of talent.

After the show, he told me, “Wasn’t that a great show? You’d have to pay $1,000 for seats like that! And it was almost free for you!”

I must admit that there are slot machines I became rather fond of. I used to be a good gambler. I could play blackjack in my sleep. I knew the odds on craps, and which are the dumb plays and how to tip the “boys.” However, all I’m interested in now is some machine that takes my nickels and talks to me or plays really catchy tunes that I end up whistling later. Reel ‘Em In is my favorite, although they’re getting hard to find. Monopoly is a childhood favorite turned into perverse pleasure. Any slot taking television shows I used to watch and converting them into games that vacuum my nickels from me, that’s the one I’m headed for. I Love Lucy, The Addams Family, I Dream of Jeannie. Step aside, I hear the sirens call. And the Westward Ho had them all.

I began to feel no real need to step outside this little world. I spent most of my time playing the machines, checking in with Marvin and his wife, eating that strawberry shortcake with the mountain of whipped cream every afternoon, free ice cream at noon in the lounge, a foot-high margarita for 99 cents in the late afternoon, and then back to those favorite games.

And the next morning, the light was on in my room. I had arrived.

I’m back home now, in normal life. Not living a life that takes a lot of money to support a gambling habit. However, I’m just removed from it so I still yearn for it. I still hear Jeannie’s voice off in the distance, calling to me. “Hello, Master.” I’ll be back. And when I do come back, maybe I’ll get that free dinner show.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Shawn and I went to dinner tonight (Saturday, 3/13) at Emil's, the rib place on Pleasant Valley Road in Oakland (aka The Temple of Gustatory Delights, or "TGD") only to find a hastily written note on the door that they were closing tomorrow.  "And we're out of ribs and sauce," another note said.

But they were still open tonight, trying to serve an almost packed house.  We waited 10 minutes to be seated, in fact.  We talked to several of the older waitresses, our favorites, about the situation.  They learned of the closing 5 days ago, and were apparently still in shock.  The owner, they said, was faced with back taxes, rising costs, and a huge fee to renovate a leaky roof (among other things).  I asked one waitress if she had found another job.  No, but a bunch of them would be looking, starting tomorrow.

How sad.  No more grabbing a table in the back, knowing you wouldn't be disturbed for hours if you chose to stay that long.  No more staring out at the reservoir, watching the mosquitoes swarm for a hit on a passing duck.  Another cornerstone of my daily routine is gone.

I asked our waitress about a couple of things on the menu as we ordered.  "Out of rib-eye steaks.  No French Fries."  And at the end of our meal, I asked for lemon meringue pie.  She brought me a humongous piece o' pie, and another one, apparently for free.  "What are they gonna do, fire me?"  she laughed.