In a different life my husband and I were in the dank center of a rock band who had hit it big.
Screwy and the Pin-ups* was at the height of its draw. And we, our friends and us, were all tied to it, either because of professional necessity or friendship, or, in my case, plain old-fashioned matrimony. In this, there were problems. I liked everyone in the band, including the support crew and their spousal so-and-so’s. I knew some better than others. But we were all stuck together by the devil’s pact, and it was a good thing that we liked each other: we were together a lot.
The problem lay in the Svengali who was, for all intents and purposes, running the show. Nominally a band of equals, Sven was the true fulcrum. Unfortunately, he was nuts. But all of us were beholden to Sven because the only way anyone was going to get paid was to stay in his good graces. He was fickle, two-faced, mercurial, paranoid. Dastardly in his willingness to demean his fellow bandmates and employees, sometimes overtly, sometimes not. His underlings were abused mercilessly.
Sven and I had an unusual relationship. He loved my husband with true, heartfelt affection, and my husband dodged the rain of wrath that fell on everyone else. He was often placed in the unenviable position of being the de facto defense attorney for hapless employees as it fell to him to keep the sword of Damocles from falling on heads which didn’t deserve it. He had the golden ticket: while everyone else suffered horribly at the hands of Sven, my husband had a ring-side seat to watch the blood flow onto the mat. He intervened when he could, but he wasn’t abused in the same way.
Sven did not like the wives. None of us womenfolk were particularly welcome, unless we embraced some part of the stereotype: dumb, stacked or young. Preferably all three. I was none of these, nor were most of the other wives. A remarkably savvy, smart, sassy collection of women were married to the male cavalry that filled the ranks of the band’s day-to-day operations, and almost none of them were impressed by Sven.
Sven had complete control over the Screwy operation, except for those dastardly women: he couldn’t control the lives of his cohorts beyond the studio door or band tours. Once everyone went home, they had the nerve to have relationships away from him, honest-to-god conversations, probably about him. They had lives. This was a problem, and Sven went out of his way to drive wedges between his bandmates, employees and their partners. Rumors about spousal untrustworthiness abounded; questioning the integrity of wives and girlfriends was raised to the level of high art. It was so insidious that one band member and his wife moved out of town to get away from Sven.
I was a thorn to Sven because Sven loved my husband. They had been friends for many years before he found himself famous, and Sven appreciated the longevity and consistency of this one relationship that straddled both worlds. But my husband left him no doubt that he would hit the door if Sven cast aspersions upon me. He didn’t need to spell it out for him; it was obvious. So Sven didn’t meddle in our lives the same way he did with everyone else, but it didn’t mean we were chummy.
The problems began when we met. Screwy had just hit the big time, and Sven and his wife took my husband and I out to dinner, to an extremely frufru place I’m pretty sure was choreographed to make us uneasy. He was successful. I felt like I was walking into a special club with potential hazing rituals; will he make me take off my pants, draw “W * W” on my ass, and then drive me by bull whip through the fountain downtown? But before long, one realizes that fame adds nothing new to the table other than weird stares from the table next to you. His wife put me at my ease. Conversation flowed casually after a certain point. Sven invited us to his house, recently purchased with the largesse of the Screwy enormo-hit which had flooded the airwaves.
“I love this rug. I just bought it for ten grand. Look at this piano. A baby grand! I picked it up for thirty. We had these curtains custom made; I don’t remember how much they cost.”
He was drunk with the fact that he had arrived, with his own success. He dragged out every stick of furniture they had bought to fill their new house in a tony neighborhood and attached a price tag. My husband and I took the tour increasingly dazed by Sven’s desire to impress. But in the end, it was just a house.
“It’s six thousand square feet,” Sven boasted.
“Really?” I asked, looking around their living room. “It just doesn’t seem that big.”
He flashed at me with incredulity tinged with outright hostility. He tucked the look away quickly, but we all felt the air pressure in the room drop.
This was the hallmark of our relationship: he bragged, I said whatever came to the top of my head, completely inadvertently offending him. He talked about his specialization in fields both basic and arcane, and in the spirit of debate I would question him about it, putting him on the spot and making him uncomfortable. It turns out, for instance, that he did not actually know much about literature or art. And had he not dragged out his empty closet for me to look in, I wouldn’t have looked. We, none of us, gave one tiny shake of a gnat’s penis if he was an intellectual superhuman masquerading as a pop star or just a normal person. But he was incapable of being at ease with the windfall he had stumbled upon; he needed everyone to be impressed with everything he did all the time.
Like a sore spot in his heel that rubbed wrong no matter what, I was one wife he couldn’t talk smack about without reaping costs too high to bear: the loss of his best friend. I drove him completely crazy.
I was strangely comfortable in that position.
And at some point, he was engaged anew, his marriage to wife #2 having fizzled in completely predictable ways, rife with infidelities and accusations and lies.
He decided to throw a party for his fiancee in Vegas for her 21st birthday.
Let me be clear: none of us were in our early twenties. Many of us had seen the back of our mid-thirties by this point. Sven had crossed the forty-yard line. But he wanted to throw a party for his child-bride, and he arranged to have the entire expense paid for with his impressive collection of air miles. Which is great, if there wasn’t such a forced, bizarre feeling to the whole thing. We liked his fiancee, but didn’t know her at all. And she was from, literally, a different generation. So stacking a hotel in Vegas with all his friends and cronies and calling it a celebration for her was a bit disingenuous. She had only one friend with her, another youngster who was as fresh-faced and bright-eyed as a fawn; we looked like wizened, grumpy ogres circling the sacrificial innocents.
We flew in on Friday night. The Master of Ceremonies and his fiancee went upstairs to change their clothes and left us in the Hard Rock casino to fend for ourselves. Half of us hit the bar, half of us hit the blackjack tables. The couple who moved out of state to avoid Sven hit the jackpot, won a couple hundred bucks on a slot machine and went to bed. Sven and his fiancee never surfaced, and while waiting for them we got drunk and eventually made our way to our rooms to pass out.
Sven liked to make people wait. If you asked me then what fame was about, I might have answered, “Making people wait,” because most of what my husband and everyone else in his operation did was wait for Sven. An entire eighteen-month period in our lives was spent waiting for Sven: to show up to record his album, to show up at the airport, to show up in the casino for a party ostensibly for his fiancee. If people weren’t waiting for Sven, they were rushing because they were late. It was just a little extra perk that came with being a part of “the inner circle.”
God only knows what happened Saturday afternoon. I have a photo of myself that speaks to the volume of my pounding head, so I’m pretty sure that I endured a hangover. But the plan for the evening was for everyone to meet at Nobu for sushi, and then catch one of the multiple Cirque du Soleil shows that have become entrenched in Vegas. Later, because my husband and I had been to Vegas multiple times to visit family, we were to be the tour guides to the seedier side of Vegas, or “True Vegas.”
We aren’t a Vegas Strip couple. The showy entertainment value of the Strip seems like marshmallow fluff covering the true heart of the matter: gambling and getting loaded. Why not just cut to the chase and get down to business? And we were thrilled to know which casino was arguably the worst casino in Vegas and our favorite place to wind up in all the glittering waste: The El Cortez.
So, after embarrassing ourselves by showing up in Nobu dressed the way we always dressed, which is poorly, and being wowed by Chinese contortionists in the Cirque, it was our time to shine. Much of Sven’s party opted to stay on the Strip, mostly to shake him. But a small band of intrepid explorers mounted up: two young girls dressed in miniskirts and halter tops in the chilly desert night, one Svengali dressed in a far-too expensive suit, our friend Uncle Nuthatch, who was one of Sven’s employees and had an even more complicated relationship with him than I did, my husband and myself. Six people in search of the divine seed of seediness.
We started outside The Plaza where things went south immediately. The girls were under-dressed and covered in goose bumps. Unlike the Strip, where women dress like hookers just for the fun of it as they hop from one insulated nightclub experience to the next, here the only people dressed like hookers were hookers and Sven’s two sweet doe-like companions. It was an uncomfortable juxtaposition: girls of radiant youth dressed like hookers walking down the street next to hookers desperately wearing the paint of radiant youth.
Sven wrapped his over-determined jacket around his fiancee’s shoulders; her friend was out of luck. The rest of us slobs didn’t have jackets to share. And the girls looked uneasy; this wasn’t exactly what they had bargained for. This was actually seedy. Downtown was actually full of people who looked like they had been gambling and smoking and drinking for their entire lives. This was not a movie full of quaint, slightly cheesy buffoons who whiled away the hours playing poker and patting the butts of cocktail waitresses, these were real people who had spent their lives in front of one-armed bandits hoping against their last quarter that they were finally, FINALLY going to hit it.
They were a little surprised. And Sven was offended.
The temperature Downtown was not nearly as chilly as the temperature rolling off of Sven. He was turning blue he was so arctic. It was as though we were personally shitting on him, what with all the grittiness and strippers and cigarette butts and stained walls and drunk middle-aged assholes and 99 cent shrimp & botulism cocktails. He seemed to blame us personally for placing this dingy reality there in front of him.
We were stumped. Do we continue this charade of a tour downtown when the tourists themselves were so obviously uninterested, even chagrined? How do we politely suggest that we decamp somewhere else? We needn’t have worried, because I was about to rise to my own personal best in offending Sven.
“Let’s go uptown to hang out with a better class of people,” Sven said, not a whiff of irony in the frigid air.
“They’re not better class, just better dressed,” I noted.
He glowered, “I’m sure the amount of gingivitis is much worse here.”
“Nice paternalistic attitude,” I shot.
“What are you talking about?” He was seething now.
“These people are exactly like the people on the Strip, just poorer.”
He growled, “We’re going back.”
My husband, charmingly and unrealistically trying to salvage the tone of the evening, asked Sven, “Are you sure you don’t want to go to the El Cortez?”
The two lovely girls and the grumpy paternalistic snob piled into the first taxi they could hail, leaving us three bums standing in the middle of downtown.
“Thank god,” said Uncle Nuthatch.
“Now what?” I wondered.
“Go to El Cortez, of course!”
The mighty hand of our oppressor had been lifted, and like children we ran headlong into the face of that which he hated.
We passed through meth dealers and pawn shops, bail bonds, and shady souvenir stands across the small downtown to its dingy entrance, the neon sign on the hotel tower reading “El ‘ortez,” the ‘C’ having blinked out months or years earlier. The smell preceded the casino by several feet, damp tarry smoke greeting us through the sliding doors on our way to partake in the sleaziest gambling options Vegas had to offer.
The El Cortez is the best place to gamble in all of Vegas for a number of reasons. It is where dealers get trained, first and foremost, so the tables are manned by charming novices who can hardly tie their shoes, much less run a poker table. And for this reason, it offers the cheapest buy-in of any casino in town. There are even penny-slot machines which sit on the perimeter of the casino and don’t bother to give you money if you hit. Instead they spit out a receipt which you take to the ancient money changer behind the metal cage and she’ll hand you your fifty-cent winnings while coughing up tubercular germs on your quarters. Which you’ll promptly go spend on the roulette wheel.
Ah, roulette! Nowhere in Vegas could you have such a luxurious night at the wheel for as little as you spent at the El Cortez. Ten dollars kept you in chips all night long if you sat at the dime roulette wheel, which we did, right next to the lifers who only gambled there because their pension checks wouldn’t allow for higher stakes. We loved it! Hit red or black, bet on both. Play ten different numbers at the same time, one dime chip on each. Lose big? You’re down a huge pile of chips but make up for it in the fact that you spent three whole dollars! You’re a high roller if you buy in more than once; tip your waitress a five, you are guaranteed the best service in all of Nevada.
Uncle Nuthatch was in heaven. He sprung for twenty bucks worth of chips and sat at the roulette wheel all night like a king. He didn’t know how to play, and who cares? Pick some numbers, slide some chips here or there, bet against yourself fifty-fifty. When the stakes are that low you can play until you lose or win, and you’ll probably do a lot of both.
He walked to the bar where he was sucking down Seven & Seven’s, set up beforehand by the bartender who had served him enough to anticipate him. They were dinky and watery but only a buck. “Are you playing tonight, sir?” the earnest bartender asked Uncle Nuthatch.
“I’m at the roulette wheel,” he said.
“Drinks are on the house then,” he told him.
Uncle Nuthatch came back to his seat, glowing with his extreme good fortune. “If I lose all this,” he waved his hands over his pile of ten-cent chips, “I’m still ahead!” He had the woozy look of one imbibing ambrosia from Eleusis. “It’s like they’re paying me to drink!”
Around Uncle Nuthatch’s seventeenth cocktail the waitress thought the bartender should consider cutting him off. The bartender sized him up. “No, I think he’s a pro,” he said. Victorious, Uncle Nuthatch ordered another Seven & Seven. Hell, another round for everyone! Have a TWO DOLLAR TIP! I’m feeling benevolent!
In such a heady atmosphere, despite the acrid smell of smoke and disinfectant and the baleful glares of committed but impoverished gamblers, weak cocktails and the dubious skills of the dealers, time slips by as though life is eternal and unchanging. We were pashas and queens in a magical, albeit marginal, palace, all our wants and desires anticipated and surpassed. When your expectations are low and the quality demanded sub-par, you can have the best night of your life with very little effort.
But eventually the dream dissolves. The oasis fades away into the desert heat and your headache begins in earnest. As the sun began to rise, and our devoted bartender got off shift and I lost half of my lung capacity from the smoke of six beautiful hours in the El Cortez, we called our yellow chariot to take us back to the Strip, land of a better class of people.
We lone uptown jerks stood patiently outside, save for one casino biddy, a tiny grizzled harpy who had spent her last nickel and needed a lift back from whence she came. She asked me if we had called a taxi. “Yes,” I told her. “The kiosk is inside,” and she scuttled sideways toward the lobby.
The sky was rosy when our taxi pulled up. We had wandered away from the curb and were just turning back to grab it when the biddy took one side-long glance at me and jumped in like a cat burglar.
“She’s stealing our taxi!” I shouted. I flung myself toward the door which was slowly closing around the crafty casino wench. “Hey, that’s our taxi!” I yelled at her.
She glared at me. “I got here first!” she croaked.
“I called them myself!” I barked as we squared off, toe to toe, one tiny crusty old lady and one woefully hungover tiny tourist ready to throw down over the only taxi on Fremont Street. Who of the two blisteringly loaded men intervened to prevent me from bodily pulling an ancient old woman out of our taxi at six a.m? I’m not sure, but in some divine compromise carved out of our perfect Vegas experience, we shared the cab with the mean wretch of a woman to her unbelievably depressing apartment complex set perfectly on the wrong side of the tracks.
We went back to our rooms in the Hard Rock, sun already bruising the side of the building. My husband fell into our shower to disinfect. I fell toward bed. The phone rang.
“Lookit,” Uncle Nuthatch slurred on the other end. “Lookit the sunrise. I swear, it’s fucking perfect,” he said. “This was the best night of my life.”
“Go to sleep,” I said.
“Okay,” he replied. “But lookit the sunrise, it’s fucking perfect.”
We curled up in our beds and slept like the dead.
Sven was never happy with the way things were, only the way they were supposed to be. Downtown Vegas didn’t meet his approval because it reminded him of the things he fled: himself, his normality, his humanity. No-one catered to Sven the Rock Star in true Vegas. Truthfully, no-one knew who he was, and therefore he found it wanting.
“I must have been a huge disappointment to him in many ways,” my husband said after I read this to him. It’s true. Sven wanted more than anything to elevate us, to make us a better class of people. He took us to restaurants not because he liked to eat there but because that’s where people like him ate. He bought his entire party of groomsmen custom Armani tuxes for his wedding to the child-bride. None of them wanted tuxes, everyone wanted Sven to save the money and just rent something. But he insisted. Six Armani tuxes still hang in closets, worn once after all these years.
“He didn’t realize that an asshole in a nice suit is still just an asshole,” I said. Sven surrounded himself with the kindest, most genuine people I’ve ever met; many of us are still great friends after all these years, including the now-ex-wife child-bride, no longer a child, and with a child of her own. And Sven knew he was lucky, but it wasn’t enough to make him appreciate it, or us.
He was smart enough to pick a great crew, but too stupid to follow them where they led, even if it was to the El Cortez.
*Obviously not their real name. Though it should be.