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Lost in Las Vegas | Excerpt Down and Out Downtown
Down and Out Downtown
The two security guards have lost patience and escort John and Ludo out to the street, more flotsam and jetsam to float in the stream of life outside. A few dollars’ worth of patronage will buy time and a leisurely chat in the Golden Gate’s deli, but with these two thin bones sucked dry and clean, a few hours of stirring empty ninety-nine-cent shrimp cocktail glasses with little wooden sticks was pushing it. There are places for vagrants to congregate downtown; the Golden Gate is happy to help out for a while, but it is not a venue for the homeless to pass their time, especially when the particular dead-enders start arguing loudly about their empty shrimp cocktails—for the third time.

The air outside is stifling, as if someone has choked the oxygen out of the night and left John and Ludo gasping for the leftover scraps. They are weary from the last few couple of long and hard days and nights, the psychic weight of their energies a ball and chain manacled to their souls. They trudge down this street of neon lights and bright façades, seeing little but the despair around them and the even deeper despair within. Faced with the stark reality that they are penniless and have no place to go, outcasts to a society that used to welcome them, they move slowly, their tired legs feeling like they carry extra ballast on a portage that is already far too long and way too arduous. They move aimlessly past the small casinos and gift stores that line both sides of Fremont Street, impervious to the dazzling casino marquees flickering and shimmering in the night. They pause in front of the legendary Horseshoe Casino, birthplace of the venerable World Series of Poker. Here is where all-time great champions such as Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, Johnny Moss, Amarillo Slim, and Stu Ungar—who died miserably in a rent-by-the-hour motel room in a seedy section of Las Vegas—duked it out at the no-limit hold’em poker tables and played their way into poker history.

The tourists left milling about at this early-morning hour are lighthearted and laughing, or drunk and rowdy. The booze and the excitement of the gamble make them feel bigger while the cash is in play, like blow-up dolls pumped overfull with extra air. But when the last chip has been taken off the felt, it is like the air has leaked its way back out again, and the dolls shrink and shrivel until they are spent piles of old plastic, something that has been used up and no longer exhibits any recognizable form. With less money than they started with or all of it gone, flushed down the toilet of false hope, the gamblers’ brief thrill at the gaming tables and machines is replaced by a quiet and soul-lonely desperation.

For gamblers, while the chips and coins are in play, the drudgeries of everyday life go away. It’s about the gamble, a trigger of an atavistic urge that kick-starts the adrenaline juices when the bones are thrown, the cards are dealt, or the wheel of life’s fantasy is spun. Action is the operative word. Action. Players pay the admission price, enter into the house of fun, and take their chances. And when they’re done, they go back to where they’re from, hungover perhaps, poorer for the excursion perhaps-or richer, with more acorns gathered into their pile-but satiated. Maybe over-satiated, filled, gorged, flagellated, and self-flagellated.

For locals making this a ritual, it is dead-end alley—stop and don’t pass go—a game that ends when their paper money runs dry, the casino has all the green houses and red hotels, and their wallet is nothing but leather on leather, or more precisely, a dried out rubber band with no elasticity, though there is nothing left for it to hold anyway. They sleep with that harsh reality and wake up to it too, the new day bringing only more hours with the same nothing. Tourists out to have fun can take their drunken and happy bodies back to their lodgings at the end of the night and lay their heads on feather pillows in beds made and prepared for them, leaving the reality behind and taking the fantasy to their dreams. When they awaken, the morning sunshine brings the promise of a new day.

But this forlorn pair, John and Ludo, colored like clowns in blue jacket and red dress, no longer are a part of the feathered and made-bed world. They have been relegated to the side streets and dark alleys the tourists don’t see, where the less fortunate congregate. This is a different part of Vegas, where the other half lives—the twenty-five-dollar-a-night flophouses filled with floozies, hustlers, pickpockets, petty thieves, whores, winos, weirdos, people down on their luck, deadbeats, misfits, vagrants, migrants, junkies, crackheads, tweakers, dealers, desperados, and degenerates. It’s the side of the city where a dentist finds fewer teeth per mouth, lawns are weeds poking out from concrete slabs, and an evening’s repast is likely to be cheap and fast—Big Macs, oversized hot dogs, greasy Chinese takeout, sixty-nine-cent tacos, and perhaps stale popcorn to accompany bottom-of-the-barrel beer in a cup.

And on this side of town where fewer teeth chew on cheaper food, Ludo and John can’t even afford a flophouse. And desperation, in a town used to seeing so much of it, won’t buy them special sympathy. Downtown is a place that sees them and their type day after day, an endless army of ants that, after a while, look like an endless army of ants. Move out a thousand, another thousand come in to replace them. One down-and-outer is the same as another, one sad tale may as well be another-the stories have all been heard over and over.

And no one wants to hear them again.