Sharing a Dark Secret


The Vegas Strip can be exciting with a view from the right hotel.

I’m finally able to talk about it. More than a decade has passed, and even though I can still recall every minute of the trauma, I can finally admit the truth. There is still a great deal of shame attached, but I have an obligation to share my story even if only one person learns from my misfortune and avoids the same consequences. Yes, I once spent Thanksgiving in Las Vegas.

You can read about past trips to one of my least favorite cities on earth, but I’ve never been able to describe the weekend that was the furthest thing from a Norman Rockwell painting. Gary had gone to Vegas countless times before I knew him, and he received a notice in the mail that a venerable old casino hotel had just undergone a multi-million-dollar renovation. For special customers, enjoy a two-night stay for a ridiculously reduced rate and dinner for two in one of the hotel’s fine eating establishments. Let me be clear; they described the restaurants as “fine.” I didn’t. Come to think of it, they also used “restaurants” but this was a broad definition of the word.

We arrived on the Strip about noon and valet parked at the hotel. We walked from the covered driveway into a lobby enshrouded by cigarette smoke. Some group had decided to hold a convention during Thanksgiving weekend. Either bad planning or a need to take advantage of the special renovation rates had caused them to convene during a national holiday, but we pushed our way through this frontline of nicotine fanatics.

We hadn’t even reached check-in before noticing the limitations of a multi-million-dollar renovation. One should ask how many millions have been multiplied. Two? Three? If one divides $2 million across 1,000 rooms, that’s $2,000. Even at bulk rates and corporate contractor discounts, the budget is quickly eaten up by new televisions, bedding, and a few coats of paint. There is absolutely no money left to professionally repair the damage to bathroom doors where I can only imagine the scene that left such an impression in ours. $2,000 also doesn’t buy new plumbing.

This renovated room was on the 16th floor. We stepped into the elevator for our long ride, which took all of eight seconds between the closing of the doors to their re-opening. That elevator was so fast we felt like we’d barely moved. In fact, we had. Barely moved. I wanted to meet the genius who thought it would make more sense to call the fourth floor of the north tower Floor 16 rather than call it North Tower Fourth Floor. It’s an unpleasant surprise to realize your view is of the HVAC system when you had your heart set on a skyline.

I was already beginning to shut down emotionally and decided that I could take advantage of the hotel’s spa since the room was discounted. I’d driven for five hours and had a terrible shock. A massage might be nice. There were a few staff on duty, but the spa had the vibe of a hospital ward. Very little privacy, a few curtains, and a lot of people moving about. “We also have mineral baths.” Would I like to see? Yes. I’m glad I did before pulling out the credit card. Two gray porcelain/cast iron tubs from 1970 sat side-by-side with shell-shaped inflatable pillows suction-cupped for headrests. There were no privacy curtains, and I couldn’t believe that a pair of vessels filled with 40 years of unwashed gambler bodies could ever be made clean enough to suit me. The bath would be anything but soothing.

I worried about dinner reservations, but there was no difficulty getting a table. We got right in at the time we requested, and a retired showgirl in peach chiffon showed us our seats. Thanksgiving dinner was the only option, and it tasted as though it had all been poured from a series of cans.

I should have learned from The Rocky Horror Picture Show that it’s better to keep driving than to spend the night, but a pair of tickets to one of the hotel’s shows came with the weekend so we stayed over. We saw a commercial for the famous drag show. It had been years since they’d made a new one. I could tell because the performer who used to impersonate Liza was now playing Judy, and Cher looked like what Cher would actually look like if she hadn’t gone in for cosmetic surgery.

We opted for the other show, which was an international tour of Russian ice skaters and acrobats. As special guests of the hotel, we were placed in the center section before they lowered a barrier behind us. The barrier was covered in ice, and our four rows were basically being held hostage for the next 90 minutes. Our heads appeared to bob in the center of an ice fisherman’s large hole.

The performers opened the show with enthusiasm, but their zeal couldn’t have been because theirs was the greatest show on earth. To be filled with such joy while whizzing around the stage on ice skates while a man in the center climbed a stack of chairs and boxes to balance precariously without a net was a strong indicator that life in Putin’s Russia is bleaker than we realize. I could only imagine the families held under duress while their loved ones were forced to travel abroad and perform in this chaotic exhibition.

Whether real or fake, there was one performer that seemed to gain great pleasure from his portion of the show. He was the lead acrobat wearing only a pair of white pants with silver threads to catch the light. He descended the rope and performed some tricks, and then he ascended to take a bow. He descended over and over, performed more tricks, and took more bows. I didn’t realize it until the woman seated in front of me gasped and whispered to her husband. He leaned over and whispered to the man next to him, and everyone began taking notice of the only moment of the show that we could understand.

Gary and I looked at each other, and then in the direction where the people in front of us were pointing. Apparently the acrobat got a lot of pleasure descending and swinging from his rope. The result of his stunts seemed to arouse something within him, and his costume changed shape. With each ascension, he and his costume returned to a more relaxed posture.

The audience couldn’t get out of the theatre fast enough when the show ended. We were caught in a stampede, and I was nearly trampled after tripping over some loose carpet on an uneven section of the lobby floor. Apparently you need billions if you want to renovate an entire hotel.

A few years later we learned that we’d missed out on a major event at that hotel. I would never have spent another night under its many roofs, but I would love to have been there when they set off the dynamite.

© 2019 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, especially the three featuring Maggie Lyon, visit my author page at:


The Karmic Gods of Vegas

So the karmic gods of Vegas have a sick sense of humor and decided to get me back from an earlier blog posting. I’d made fun of their city and their guests, and they saw fit to direct my return route to California right to them. Then I got bumped off of flights repeatedly leaving me weak and at their mercy.

My flight originated from a fairly quiet airport where I arrived early for convenience, but waited five hours to board. Traveling later in the day, I knew I was running the risk of not making my intended connection, but I was maintaining a naïve optimism in hopes of being home by 3:00. On the first leg of the journey, I was seated next to a fun young couple that was visiting San Diego for the first time. I used to live there, and I was excited about sharing places to eat and things to see such as Viva Pops, which my good friends Jack and Lisa created and still own. The couple asked me a few more questions and then we settled into the flight; I into my book, and they into their electronic gadgets.

I should’ve known something was up as we made our decent. We bucked and weaved on the wind; turbulence that I haven’t felt in a number of years. I stayed focused on my reading because the one time I glanced out the window, I thought I’d do better not to watch what was happening outside. Finally we touched down with a thud, but I didn’t realize it because touching down had less of an impact on the plane than the jerking we’d experienced in the sky.

Contrary to the facts laid before me, I was still expecting a fifty-minute layover, which is reasonable. You have time to calmly reach the next gate and get yourself situated. However, there is nothing calm about the Vegas airport!

It was a nightmare come true. If I had dreamt it, I think it would’ve gone something like this: I’m on an airplane flying over the desert southwest. I feel a few bumps that cause me to worry, and suddenly I step off the plane and straight into the lobby of a casino. All those ding-ding-ding/dong-dong sounds that I’ve previously made fun of surround me, and I see slot machines cluttering an otherwise nicely laid out concourse. People’s brains have started to melt, and my fellow passengers clog the walkway as they decide to stop and try their luck before moving on. My path is so crowded that I can never seem to reach my gate in the allotted time.

What a stressful dream, but it wasn’t a dream!

The crowded concourse in the Las Vegas airport overflows with slot machines.

The crowded concourse in the Las Vegas airport overflows with slot machines.

I walked the entire length of the terminal at a snail’s pace to find my next gate, and I arrived just as they were boarding. I found one ticket agent servicing two gates, and the entire place was overrun with people in suits. One man looked like an English butler type sent over from Central Casting. This is not what I expect when you consider that most passengers travel in comfortable clothes these days—and in Vegas of all places. People who are flying out of Vegas normally appear much different from those who are just arriving. It’s easy to tell the difference by the looks on their faces, but with professional types in suits, I was trying to figure out what was going on.

I finally reached the frazzled ticket agent with hair falling around her face. This was not a style choice, but due to having been on the job for most of the day dealing with a lot of anxious people. She’d begun to fall apart, which was a sign of things to come. She smiled and said to hold on, as the standby passengers would be called soon. I asked her to tell me the truth. “What are my chances?” She smiled wanly, “Not good.”

At the beginning of my travel day, when I learned that getting out of Vegas was heavier than normal, I’d been advised to see if the ticket agent in Vegas would switch me to another flight and re-route me through Oakland. That would add another leg to the journey, but there was more availability. The bottom line was that I’d surely make it home, and at about the same time as I would if I ended up making that last flight of the night going directly.

I didn’t even get a chance to make the request. The karmic gods of Vegas wanted me to stay a little longer. It started when they announced a gate change, and the entire lounge area moved in a long procession twenty gates away. We must have seemed like the Children of Israel headed for the Promised Land. And like that story, if I may compare myself to Moses, everyone made it in except for me. I was staying in Vegas.

I was automatically rolled over to the next flight home. Even at the new gate with two ticket agents, no one had the time to type in a few codes and switch me to a flight that I could actually take. The best they could do was provide the gate number for the next flight. This time I migrated alone back to my original gate. In more ways than one, I was back to where I started. The lounge area was overflowing with people in suits. I had four hours to wait, and the people headed to Denver were fighting for seats. There wasn’t even anyplace to sit at the slot machines along the concourse, as the non-gamblers had managed to shove many of the diehard gaming junkies out of the way and take over the swivel chairs.

My phone battery was dying after 10 hours of almost constant use. I decided to get out my laptop and occupy my time. I had read over 140 pages of my book since the day began, and I was getting the feeling that I was going to have to pace myself for the final 60 if I intended to have something to do if I ever managed to get on a plane again.

Seating was at a premium, but I finally squeezed into a seat at the next gate over. A short while later, a woman came to the lounge area and took a seat with a brand new iPhone. She pulled it out of the box and started setting it up. This left me with lots of questions that I was not about to ask her: Why now? Why at this particular moment did you decide that you needed to purchase and use an iPhone? Did your other one break and you needed something fast? Is this a burner phone because you have illicit business to conduct at the airport before leaving Sin City? Perhaps this was the particular moment in time when your internal voice said, “Today is the day I’m finally going to give up my flip phone!”

A kiosk in the Las Vegas terminal where you can purchase items to fit all your electronic needs.

A kiosk in the Las Vegas terminal where you can purchase items to fit all your electronic needs.

All of these thoughts were swirling around my very tired brain as she unfastened the little plastic thing around the charger. The cord cascaded down her ample bosom, and she was typing on it furiously with the skill of someone who works at an Apple Genius Bar. Maybe she had been so successful as a drug dealer, a madam or a meth cook that she could finally afford expensive burner phones. I could hear her yelling at her shady accountant who launders her money: “I’ve worked my butt off all these years to become a successful drug manufacturer, and my stable of fillies has served me well with my clients and as a team top-notch drug mules! I make a million dollars a day, and I like nice things! If I have to buy a new, disposable phone every day to stay ahead of the Feds, I’m going to do it with a smartphone!!!”

Her flight left before she could use the phone, so I’ll never know. My flight was eventually called, and it proved to be the waste of time I thought it would be. The karmic gods of Vegas were laughing, but I was still not giving in. I would wait two more hours in hopes of being freed from this eternal layover.

To prevent deep vein thrombosis, and to investigate my food choices, I walked the length of the terminal for a third time. I frequently voice my dislike for fast food. Again, it’s not that I’m totally against the food even though much of the taste doesn’t appeal to me. The real issue I have is that I don’t go often enough to know what they offer, and I do not like reading the menu off a lit marquee while surly employees shout “Sir! Whaddleyahave?!?” I never know at the point they ask, and regular customers sigh and seethe waiting for me to make it through the ordering process. No, I do not want to super-size. I do not want a drink big enough for me to soak my tired, traveling feet in, and I do not need a side dish. Whatever you’ve slathered onto the bread will fill me up nicely, thank you.

When I finished gobbling my sandwich, I moseyed over to the next ticket counter to inquire about the likelihood of making that final flight of the night. I’d already cancelled an important lunch and another meeting for the next morning. Even if I did get home, I wouldn’t get to bed until midnight, and I knew I wouldn’t be in any shape to go after having been up for almost 24 hours.

And who knew where my check-in luggage had gotten to? I was reassured that it was in a locked room at the airport so that I could claim it when I finally arrived, but I couldn’t shake an uneasy feeling based on the numerous news reports after 9-11 where they showed the TSA blowing up unclaimed bags all the time. Everyone has seen me in all the clothes in that bag, but I did get some new books on the trip, which I’d like to read, and I’m actually fond of that piece of luggage. It’s the perfect size, and always comes in under the weight limit unless I over pack. How I hated the thought that some pyromaniac was going to take it out to the tarmac and surround it with explosives.

I looked around to see the weary faces surrounding me. I recognized about eight people who’d been trying to get on all the same flights as I had that day. I was told that one more flight had been oversold because there had been a housing convention in town. That explained why travelers were in suits and why I’d been hearing random conversations about interest rates and the secondary mortgage market throughout the evening.

Someone should say something to the convention organizers because every registrant had decided to go home early. I heard one man say, “I live in Orange County. There were no seats left to go there, but I had to get out! Sure, I could wait until tomorrow, but I couldn’t wait to leave. I’ll have to pick up my car tomorrow, but I want out of this place.”

Now I understood why there were suddenly 82 available seats for the first flight out the next morning. The outlook of flying that night was grim. I started thinking of backup plans. Gary phoned to say that he had checked lodging rates and that the Hooter’s Hotel was offering a special for $45. Karmic gods of Vegas! They were not taunting me. They were terrorizing me!

I was ready to get on my knees and bow down to the pantheon of gaming deities. I would admit to the karmic gods that I was wrong, and I shouldn’t have been so uncharitable to the people who love Vegas. I’d even give them an offering by sticking $20 in a slot machine and losing it right away. Whatever it took to keep me from staying in the Hooter’s Hotel. Then I heard my name called. “Passenger Patrick Brown.” I shouted, got my boarding pass and hurried onto the plane before the vengeful gods could notice. I was going home.

What Happened in Vegas

I’m recovering from a bit of overstimulation, which always happens after a trip to Las Vegas. After my last trip, I declared it to be my last trip to that place, but when good friends invite you to go, and you want to be part of their celebration, you go. This trip meant staying in a nice condo, a meal at the Mandarin Oriental, a good show and almost no crowds. Since this cocktail of activities was unlike anything I’d experienced in Vegas, I accepted the invitation.

For a few hours on the drive from Los Angeles, you see nothing but desert and mountain ranges, then suddenly you see the top of a building, then another, and finally all of Las Vegas lies before you. I am the only one in the car whose heart doesn’t flutter, and I am not screaming, “Vegas, baby! Yeah!” However, I admit that approaching Las Vegas is a unique experience. One moment you think you’ll never get out of the desert, and then the next you are suddenly entering a city that has seemingly risen from the sand at that particular moment. You can buy Prada and Louis Vuitton, which is bizarre when you consider how useless these luxury items would be in the wilderness just a few miles away.

Within that city the vast majority of people are transient. They’re either coming or going, or they’re living in the moment between arrival and departure. Toss the bags in your room, grab your money and get out the door. I don’t think any trip to Vegas has allowed me more than 10 minutes in the room before running out for the next few hours. Even when some of my traveling companions are big-time couch potatoes at home, when they get to the Strip, they’re not in their rooms long enough to turn on a television.

The Las Vegas Strip at sunset

The Las Vegas Strip at sunset

On this trip, the current season of Downton Abbey was winding down, so I had to ask myself what would someone like the dowager countess think about the throngs of people walking along the Strip, entering and exiting the many casinos along the way? The DC couldn’t imagine the smoky darkness that is illuminated by the flashing lights bouncing off the many shiny surfaces. She couldn’t say, “I’ve had quite enough” and expect to be heard over the din of machines making their rhythmically asymmetric ding-ding-ding/dong-dong noises.

These vast spaces contain dissonant choruses of staccato bells and beeps warring against the sustained arias of sirens, shouts and ringing as they announce occasional winners. There is no way to make a hasty departure through the islands of blackjack, roulette and craps tables. Even before you reach the exit, you find yourself distracted by the restaurants and chain coffee shops sending messages to your subconscious that the casino has everything you need. Food and beverage are needs to be met, but we can do without sleep. There are no windows or clocks anywhere to give you a sense that time has passed. If you catch yourself yawning, just head to the coffee shop for a double caramel macchiato.

There were four of us on this particular trip, and most were lucky. One guy won a thousand dollars within a spin or two on one of the games. I’m not much of a gambler. I quickly get bleary-eyed from the slot machines, and I hate the smoke. I’m notoriously thrifty (some have said cheap), so I never play more than I can afford to lose, if that. However, the people-watching in Vegas cannot be beaten.

For some people, this trip is a once-in-a-lifetime dream vacation. They have built this city up in their minds, have saved all year for it, and blow into town with dreams of wild times and winnings. If you haven’t been and you decide to go, you may be disappointed to discover that you’ve missed out on the days when men played blackjack and roulette dressed in sleek suits while their women stood next to them in elaborate dresses that were shaped by restrictive undergarments.

Our blackjack table was infiltrated by a drunken ass wearing a Duck Dynasty t-shirt, and his wife was some frowsy bleached blond who looked much older than her years thanks to the steady stream of smoke wafting around her. He was one of those small-town people who don’t get out very much. My grandmother was like this when we took her on trips. She was proud of her state and of her little town, and she would declare where she was from with the confidence that you had heard of it and would be impressed.

Our interloper looked like an escaped cast member from Duck Dynasty. He is an example of the modern tourist: comfort first. He would never dress like the Rat Pack because he cannot imagine them in his world. If reality television has taught him that the modern man of means wears long beards and wallows in the ignorance of his fellow countrymen’s behavior, then two months of missed shaves and clothes for cleaning out the garage are de rigueur.

There was no mystery to our interloper. We could hear him declaring his Oklahoma origins three tables away. His confidence had been bolstered by booze and a few winning hands. We had not realized that his wife was seated amongst us. I’m not sure if the sight of four males sitting around her roused him from his stupor, but he hastily made his way to our table like a beast that senses a rival’s challenge in the wild. He was so drunk that he didn’t realize we couldn’t be less interested in this Angie Dickinson that time had forgotten.

“Here now! Scooch on over so I can get my big fat ass in here!” He was trying to slide into the raised chair, but he knocked it over. He had chips in one hand and a stale bloody mary in the other. He was at the horns of a dilemma while trying to decide what to set down and where. I watched our friend Mark whose expression was complete disgust. I could tell he wanted to have some fun at my expense, so he asked Mr. Oklahoma where he was from. I held my breath. All I needed was to discover common acquaintances or worse—common relatives!

Thankfully, Mr. Oklahoma hailed from a small town that I have never visited, and I breathed a sigh of relief when I knew that we had no “people” in common. Mark seemed uninterested in pursuing a line of questioning that would reveal my connection to Oklahoma, as our interloper was now situated at the end of the table. On the first deal, he was dealt the 21 that would’ve been Mark’s. In unison, we got up and left the Oklahomans to the dealer.

To contrast those whose Vegas visits are few and far between, are those who live within driving distance. They may go several times a year, and have been going since they started organizing their own transportation. They’ve no doubt had wild times and winnings, or perhaps only wild times, but I get a clear sense that they want to recapture a certain feeling. Pinpointing that feeling is hard for me because “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” was true before the ad campaign.

Two of my friends have been known to say, “I remember when eight of us came here one time and got a room. We must’ve been twenty-one because I remember Mary could drink. We didn’t get much sleep that weekend, but we had the best time.” What did you do? That seems like a normal question. “I don’t remember. I know that we went over to the Golden Nugget and gambled for a few hours. I don’t remember what all else we did, but we drove home on Sunday, and the traffic on the fifteen was backed up for miles.” Unless everyone is a blackout drinker, my guess is they’re not telling the whole story.

You don’t have to be 21 to have a wild time. Walk through any number of casinos to see hundreds of people spending their kids’ inheritance to know that debauchery is not wasted on the young. LouWanda Bowers used to teach children’s Sunday school back in her prime. She spent Saturday nights fashioning biblically themed games out of construction paper for her students. She told bible stories with such verve that she could captivate a classroom of eight year-olds that had binged on cookies and juice. Then she retired.

Her son was living in Riverside with his family. He convinced her to move out west and be near them. The assisted living facility offered all sorts of activities and day trips, which enabled her to see and experience the area’s historical sites. Once she had exhausted the local color, she was bored until the opportunity arose to go to Las Vegas.

“I’d love to see one of those wonderful shows!” she exclaimed. Agreeing to board the big white charter bus was the first step on a slippery slope. One toe was in the water when she deposited a roll of nickels in a slot machine “just for fun.” Lady Luck smiled on her innocence, and she ended up taking home a hundred dollars. She dined out on that story for months, telling it to anyone who would listen. She made fifty on the second trip, but she lost money when her son took her one weekend. That’s when she began chasing the dragon.

Then the cigarettes came out of hiding. LouWanda had secretly smoked all those years back in her hometown. No one had ever seen her with a “cancer stick” to her lips. She masked the smell with Jean Naté and Certs. She liked teaching the kids because in those days they didn’t know enough about cigarettes to associate Miss Bowers’s odd smell with smoking.

By her tenth year in assisted living, LouWanda had to bring her portable oxygen tank to the casinos. She had long ago enrolled for a points card, which provides special perks and loyalty benefits if you have the thing plugged into one of the slot machines while you sit hypnotized for hours and spin and spin and spin. LouWanda’s son had been transferred to Denver a few years earlier, so she moved to Nevada since there was nothing keeping her in California.

People-watching gives me something to do in Vegas, and I like to make up back stories for people I imagine are named LouWanda Bowers. To walk through a casino and find gamblers like her affixed for hours to mauve chairs with cracked vinyl seats makes me happy since there are no Rat Pack dressers with their ladies. One particular LouWanda held a succession of burning cigarettes in her lips with her oxygen tubing coming out of her nose. Left hand was on a series of buttons, and her right hand hit “maximum bet” over and over. Because her points card was inside the slot machine and attached to her blouse by a retractable cord so that she wouldn’t forget it, she appeared to be sustaining her life while hooked up to some crazy psychedelic life-support system.

The prize on this trip goes to the woman who appeared to have recently had a tracheotomy. She was about 80 and was walking woozily with three men who appeared to be in their late fifties. She bobbed between them with her bandaged neck and its unmistakable hole. She was so obviously out of it that I thought she was drunk in the middle of the day. Then it struck me that her tracheotomy could’ve taken place that very morning. She had probably put the procedure off for a long time until one of her sons finally said, “Mama, if you do real good with your surgery today, we’ll take you over to Circus Circus, and you can play the slots while me and Bud play some craps.”

© 2014 Patrick Brown