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His Mission: Blow $1,000

So why was he so stressed out, and other tales of fear, loathing and generosity in Las Vegas

November 05, 2006|Mark Childress | Mark Childress is the author of six novels, including "Crazy in Alabama," which he adapted into a screenplay for Columbia Pictures. His most recent novel is "One Mississippi." He has also written for The Times, among others.

So there I was onstage, dirty dancing with Toni Braxton. At her invitation, I gave her a little spank. "Now it's my turn," she said, and beckoned me to stick out my behind. I did. She slapped it. The audience roared. And that's the moment I decided to try to stop hating Las Vegas.

It had taken more than 24 hours to get to this point. My trip hadn't started out too well. The plane was overbooked, then late. My suitcase missed the flight. Three times the rental-car guy gave me the wrong keys, meaning three round trips across the sun-blasted asphalt plain of the parking lot. Las Vegas was windy and hot, as it tends to be, since someone decided to put it in the middle of the godforsaken desert. My head throbbed. I wished I were anywhere else.

I put down the top on the car and drove, muttering, toward the gigantic golden swoosh of the Wynn. I still couldn't believe some kindly fool of an editor had offered me a plane ticket and a $1,000 bankroll with the idea that I would fly here, gamble it all away and then write about the experience. When I spotted the subject of his e-mail, "vegas on us," the words capitalized themselves and began to dance on the screen of my BlackBerry, glittering, chiming like a shower of coins: VEGA$ ON U$ !!!!

If only it were that easy.

Other times, other cultures have given the world Venice, Paris, the glories of Rome. Only 20th century America would create as its gift to the ages this humongous Fake City, the Las Vegas Strip, a four-mile collection of facsimiles of the world's other, more interesting places. A whole gleaming city of gold dedicated to the worship and voluntary surrender of money. This is Boomtown USA, where major remodeling is done with dynamite. More than 38 million people came here last year to toss their hard-earned cash into Vegas' money-sucking machines and hotels and five-star restaurants.

Why don't we just go ahead and change the city's name to Mammon?

But, hey, who was I to complain? This was Vegas, baby! I had other people's cash in my pocket! The Wynn was a huge wedge of gold, and I had a chance to turn this bankroll into some gold of my own. I could win, and win big!

I called Suzie Chastain, my traveling companion, on the cell. She was already checked into our room at the Wynn. "It's 5125," she told me.

Her excitement cheered me up. "We're on the 51st floor?"

"Forty-first. Apparently there are no floors 40 through 49."

In the rest of the world I can usually navigate fine without a map, but in the vast, elegant roar of the Wynn casino I got lost five times on the way to the room. (I still don't know what happened to floors 40 through 49. Maybe they were taken out in the desert and shot. You want tall? We got tall! You want taller? We'll give you Fake Tall! It's Vegas, baby!)

I opened the door to a welcome hug from Suzie, my blondest and most glamorous friend, who had flown in from San Francisco to help me lose all this cash.

The view from our room was impressive, but all I could think about was how much it cost. See, I come from a long line of poor Southern people. When I was a kid, my grandmother would periodically receive hunks of processed Velveeta-like cheese from the Department of Agriculture to help tide her over until her next Social Security check. She knew how to make that cheese last. The idea of throwing away $1,000 in a casino is wasteful enough to cause the ghost of my grandmother to rise up before me, wagging her finger.

I sipped a glass of champagne. The $435 room, I figured, was running $1 a minute for all the time we'd actually spend there. In Vegas you can go high or low. You can pay $15,000 a night for the Mansion at the MGM Grand, or you can go downtown and get a 99-cent shrimp cocktail. It's high versus low. Red versus black. It's luck versus skill, baby, and in Vegas, luck is the winner every time.

Posed before our floor-to-ceiling window, Suzie looked like Sharon Stone in the early parts of "Casino." The Strip shimmered, the streets paved in pure Nevada gold, more golden than a hunk of government cheese.

I like to play roulette. I like it so much I limit my gambling to one afternoon per year in a casino in Stateline, Nev., where I allow myself to lose exactly $100 on the wheel. (Sometimes I win.) So the idea of giving me $1,000 of FREE MONEY to blow at a casino struck me as risky from the start. Gambling is one of the few addictions I've managed to avoid--so far--but I am sure that I could, in a heartbeat, become one of those old guys plugged into the Multi-Poker machine by his Slot Rewards card, blindly pumping the DEAL/DRAW button. I like the buzz in the back of the scalp. The breathless excitement of the big bet, the spinning wheel. It pushes my pleasure buttons.

Suzie said she'd rather go shopping. She'd just had a $190 Wynn mani/pedi ($4.22 a minute) and had spotted a pair of Manolo Blahniks in a window downstairs.

"You can't buy the shoes," I insisted. "We have to win the money to buy them. We have to win, and win big!"

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