There was one seat left at the diner bar next to a white-haired gambler. I sat down as he ordered a soda and bowl of chili. I ordered the $4.95 Binion’s Burger, potato salad and a two-dollar Coke.
The white-haired man didn’t say a word as he waited for his food. When it arrived he took a couple of bites, washed it down with a sip of his drink, then paid for it with two five-dollar casino chips.
“Keep the change,” he said.
A female worker with sunken cheeks and poorly dyed hair stood behind the counter and shrugged after he wandered away. “I sure hope he was finished,” she said.
As she tossed his leftovers in the trash, a soft-spoken black man with a beard walked up on my right. He put a bag on the chair between us. “What kind of beans you got?” he said.
“Pinto,” said a Binion’s diner worker named Mel. I swear he worked the same counter ten years before. He was so matter of fact that I considered ordering some beans too.
“Give me some of that. And some corn bread. And a water,” the black man said. His food arrived almost as fast as he ordered it.
My burger was juicy. There were three tomatoes along with other fixings on the side. I carefully placed the tomatoes on top of the patty, replaced the bun and took a bite.
I looked over at the black man. He’d dismantled his cornbread and mixed it into his beans.
In the morning I saw a woman asleep in the warm Las Vegas light. She sat on a chair and leaned against a pole. Her dirty head was flopped forward and to the right. She leaned slightly against black and blue bags. Both had been silkscreened with the words, “Las Vegas.”
She’d been there all night.
My first night in town I walked from the sardine-packed crowds of Fremont Street to find the Downtown Transit Center. I was going to start taking a city bus to my new job.
The streets were nearly empty along Main Street Station. I rounded a parking garage to find a limping black man talking to his friend about getting in a club. One of them said something like, “We can get in there.” They disappeared into an alley lit by historic neon signs that led back to the tens of thousands partying under the Fremont Street Experience.
Up ahead, glittering blue and pink lights lit the top of the transit center like a slot machine just hit a jackpot. I walked through its doors to find a man sleeping on a chair. The long hallway was empty, silent. If it weren’t for the flashing lights on top of the building I would have thought the bus station slipped into hibernation.
A young hustler slunk past closed cashier windows. A Latino janitor pushed his cart through the station. He didn’t look like he wanted to work. I checked the price of bus fare. Seven dollars a day. Steep. Those are deadly prices. Tourist prices. You have to have a hell of a good job just to afford the stale bus air and a spot on seats that rarely catch a whiff of hand sanitizer.
I walked back out through the same set of doors that I entered.
“What do you mean it’s not open twenty-four hours? What the fuck am I supposed to do after hours?” said a man into a cell phone. The world around him was a big dark mess lit in the distance by neon and schools of light bulbs that swam through the Vegas night. He had a black bag slung over his shoulder and looked to be in his late fifties. Maybe he had grandchildren. He could have been a drifter. Maybe he was like me and just found a job in a big city far from where unemployment still dipped near twenty percent.
I slipped past into the glittering night.
Walking south I could see the closed Lady Luck had spent her nine lives. I remember when it was open. When I worked in Las Vegas ten years before as an artist for the big canopy of lights above Fremont Street. I remember a midget Charlie Chaplan twirling his cane outside the casino like he was some kind of shrunken Alice in Wonderland street performer. I had waved at him.
“Look at all the casinos,” said one of two men in front of me. I couldn’t hear anything else they said. My ears practically deaf from too many factory jobs.
I lost sight of them walking toward the Gold Spike.
Across the street, a gutted room basked in white light. Empty bench stools hung under the weight of ghosts.
I made a left, toward the shadows of shady motels. I passed the old glittering historic Aladdin Hotel lamp and a flickering vertical sign that was nearly burnt out. Only two letters worked at all. They flashed and buzzed “FR-FR-FR…”
Tired, I turned around and headed straight toward Fremont Street.
A man in a wheelchair sat at a corner. His thinned grey hair on his big round head looked like a mess of moonlit grass. Two men leaned against newspaper racks about ten feet away from him. They waited.
“I’m going to hustle her,” one of the men said about a woman across the street. She stood by herself on the corner as if crack was going to flow from a nearby storm drain.
I shuffled across the intersection, past a club, a nearly empty Cuban restaurant, and an Albanian pizza parlor. A 7-11 that once flashed its gaudy convenience store sign had closed since the last time I lived on Fremont Street.
Since the last time I lived in a casino.
Further ahead, tourists stared into the big metallic sky. They waited for more lights to explode. I soon entered the hotel where I was living. I peeked at a tank where two sharks slowly circled with schools of fish. They look like they’d been gambled out. This was it, their last show. Out near the pool someone hit it big. Or maybe they just didn’t bust. Or maybe they were enamored by the lumbering sharks.
I went up the elevator to the 22nd floor. Outside, there were shouts from an alley. The walls shivered with conversation. I shut the blinds, the curtains and the lights and eventually fell asleep.