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Mesquite, Nevada

I’m a roulette junkie. It’s about the only thing I’ve done all day, roulette. And now, after 9 p.m., I’m still planning on playing some more before I hit the sack.

My day started with an unsatisfying (but extremely filling) breakfast at the Circus Circus Brunch Buffet. It was okay, I guess, but not worth eight bucks. I could have wasted eight bucks in the casino and saved myself lots of grams of fat. But I did learn one important lesson that should remain with me for a long time: never put waffles with strawberry syrup on the same plate as mashed potatoes and catfish. Even better: never have them in the same meal. And best of all: never eat at a place that serves them at the same time.

I took the long walk down the Strip, retracing the first mile from last night, much less pretty in the daytime. A long, long, hot walk away I finally reached the impressive hotel casinos of Caesar’s Palace, Treasure Island, The Mirage, The Venetia, and most importantly, the Bellagio. I wanted to go to the Bellagio for many reasons, the main one being that their art gallery was having an exposition on Andy Warhol’s celebrity portraits and he’s like my third favorite artist ever (behind Magritte and Rothko). I also wanted to explore the area because of the intrigue built up by the movie Ocean’s Eleven.

I arrived to the Bellagio by way of the Georgio Armani, etc. entrance, an entire mall of elite and priceless boutiques. I think “bellagio” means “Bel Aire on vacation.” I would not leave the hotel until after 6 p.m.

I was dying to play roulette, to get the hang of it, but I didn’t want to spoil the art expo by losing money first. So I started with Warhol, getting in on a student price of twelve bucks. It was fabulous. They had 35 original pieces ranging from the famous Marilyn Monroes and Mick Jagger to the Georgio Armani and Alfred Hitchcock prints. A fantastic audio tour by Liza Minneli helped explain some of the social context and little anecdotes about Andy and his life. Very cool. The gift shop afterwards was nice too, but mostly cost-prohibitive. I wanted a little music box — just the innards, the gears bit — that plays “Hey Jude” to put on my apartment door as a doorbell, but it was ten dollars, so I passed.

I want to learn silk-screening. Now.

But then it was to the roulette tables. I cashed in a $20 bill for dollar chips and quickly worked myself up over a hundred dollars when I hit a zero/double-zero split. I played five or ten dollars on 2:1 odds, red and black, even and odd, and picked them nearly perfectly about ten times in a row. I don’t think it takes a good mathematician to figure out the odds, but some people play ridiculous bets and then leave after three spins wondering what happened to their money. But my pot just kept growing.

After a few hours I was up to $250, a gain of $230 or 1150%. I had to take a break because it’s a stressful business, gambling. My legs were sore, my hands and arms tense, palms sweaty. I needed a walk. So I wandered the hotel, the little bits I had access to anyway. The ceiling at the entrance is done in huge glass flowers, hundreds of them (See pictures). The bathrooms, even the inaccessible ones in the depths of hallways, were immaculate in marble and gold. The business center, which I purposely scoped out, charged $15 for 15 minutes of internet, the highest rate I’ve ever heard of. (I paid $2.79 for a gallon of gasoline last night, though.)

Eventually I made it back to the roulette tables, but this time I didn’t sit. I watched the tickers that mark the last 20 spins or so and I placed my bets where the odds were at multiple tables. I won about half the time, which makes sense I guess. But inevitably I started losing. I got tired and along with getting tired, I got sloppy. I made bad bets and lost my sense of reason and constraint.

When one goes into these kinds of establishments, they often make rules for themselves. If I win a hundred dollars, I’ll pocket that and will only play with my original bet. I’ll stop when I have a certain amount left. And so on. I make those rules too, but I must not define them well enough or I forget them or something because soon I’m betting that fifty dollars I swore I’d walk out with. Part of me wants to think of those chips as money, as real cash capable of buying things, as currency, and cash out when it’s at a maximum. That’s the most logical and truthful way to think of it (and safest) . But another part of me just wants to have a good time, to press my luck, take the risks — to think of the chips as worthless and to bet it all, just come out even in the end or way ahead. But that way leads to disappointment. Always.

And even today, when I cashed out my last $100 chip, still a good day, $80 ahead for the day, $50 for my span in Vegas (almost enough to cover my hotel room), I still had that predictable disappointment of having bet too much, waited too long. I could have left at my peak, when I had a handful of chips totally $250, but I didn’t because you never know if that’s just the beginning of your $750 handful, or whatever.

I won’t linger on the details of my gambling. I want to get to some of the others, the “high-rollers” that I witnessed today. One man in particular, what you might call “a few eggs short of a dozen,” comes to mind. I had heard him earlier, at another table, yelling “come on zero, zero, come on zero” like they did on that game show when they’d yell “no whammies, big money, no whammies.” When things apparently didn’t pan out for him over there, he came to our table, unloaded five hundred dollar bills into dollar chips. He spread them all, all five hundred, over the table. It was a mess of yellow chips (he specifically requested the yellow chips). The first spin he did okay, losing almost all of his bets, but making it all back and then some on one bet. He proceeded to spread them all out again, all five hundred and some (which he called his “smallest bet today”), and he lost it all, every last one. Five hundred dollars, gone. But he opened his wallet, pulled five more Ben Franklins out and did it all over again. Rinse and Repeat. I was laughing. Hard. I couldn’t help it. I had no will to make my measly five dollar bets any more. The place had become a zoo. I took some definite glee and satisfaction when he lost all of his second $500 and finally left our table, off to a better one no doubt. And to think: with my help, he could be totally cleaning up.

There were many others, people who would randomly come by and bet $400 on black and win (that’s a smarter bet, of course) and I was happy for them, except when I would have my ten bucks on red. I also overheard that someone had just pulled a $300,000 jackpot on some slot machine. I tried to think how I would divide my three hundred grand, how much to wire to my bank account, how much in cash, what denominations, how many DVDs I could buy.

But eventually I got sick of the place. People were coming in, ritzy people, the Beverly Hills type — the type I purposely avoided in L.A. yesterday because I knew they’d drive me insane. And they started to today, and so I definitely had to get out, out before I got too comfortable with chips in my hand.

I found the Las Vegas public library on the complete opposite side of town, very friendly and helpful and I finally got my site updated for the day. In my 18 hours or so in Vegas I had been isolated to the main part of the Strip, just a couple miles of mostly posh development. But to drive across town you realize how big and dirty and grungy and poor the rest of the city is (the metropolis has been doubling in recent years, over 2 million residents now). It’s terrible, really. And so my tip for anyone visiting Las Vegas, those who have never been and want a pleasant memory, an image of a small, centralized amazing Las Vegas, is to stay on the Strip, isolate yourself to the touristy parts and don’t bother driving anything but Hwy 15.

I finally got around to Leaving Las Vegas at about 7 p.m., just as the sun was again setting over the desert mountains and the sprawl of Las Vegas lights flooded the valley behind me. I didn’t really know where I was headed, where I would stay the night. I knew the next thing on my agenda was to tour the National Parks of southern Utah, but I had no idea about where to camp, and to be honest I wasn’t even looking forward to it. Even tonight as I parked the car, at nine o’clock, it was still 105° out (when I checked again at midnight it was till 101°). That’s just miserable camping weather. And so when I started seeing billboards advertising $20 hotel rooms in Mesquite, one of the cities that borders Arizona whose only purpose is to accommodate first- or last-chance gambling, I had a perfect solution. I’d have an air-conditioned room, I’d be in Nevada (so I could roulette a bit more) and I’d be very close to Utah for tomorrow.

And indeed, it is perfect. My room at the CasaBlanca Resort for just $24 even has a kitchen and dining table — a full refrigerator, four-range oven, sink, and coffee machine. Not that I’ll use any of it, but I was shocked. There’s coin-laundry, too, but it closes at 10 p.m., so I’m going to do that first thing in the morning. I desperately need clean clothes (I almost bought a six-dollar shirt at GAP today because of my dirty laundry problems). Once I’m done with laundry, though, it’s on to Utah for a couple days in the National Parks.

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