I’m broke. Oh my God, am I broke. I’m so broke I’m having flashbacks to the time when I was a student. You know when you can almost even smell the past, faint whiffs of student days waft to me and I compare the prices of soup at Ralph’s. I stopped shopping anywhere else a couple of months ago. I’m doing the, “I already ate,” things when I go out with friends.
So where’s the last place in the world I should be going? Next flight please.
I have been in America 18 months and I have still not been to Vegas. Even Americans, who are not renowned for their traveling prowess, find this weird.
But all that, I can confidently say as I pull out the white cloth of my empty pockets, has been rectified. The best trips to Vegas are never planned and I can say, with my hand on the holy book of your choice, that I didn’t see this one coming at all.
It all started like this. I was having lunch with Jeff the Director and Jeremy Sisto again. We were chatting about Diary of a Superhero, the film that I wrote from the short story that Jeff has the option on.
This goes well, the guys had some great notes that I incorporated into the script. There really is something special about this little story we all worked on together, it’s getting read all over town and with any luck I’ll be writing about a red carpet moment here before too long.
But right now the only walk I’m doing is through the parking lot, back to KITT, my “black car with no aircon in the middle of summer” ride. Then the phone rings and it’s my friend Dennis, who tells me he is currently looking over the desert to the wall of Red Rocks beyond his hotel window, in Vegas. We’d been talking the other day about him going; he’s become something of a blackjack man and had a room and a cabana comped to him for a week for placing in a competition that the hotel was having.
I get just a little jealous. Not being able to leave the country is one thing. Not being able to leave the city because the price of petrol has me worried, is sad.
So just as I’m preparing to do my best Bette Davis, “How nice for you…”, he asks a rather unexpected question.
Dennis: What are you doing right now?
I want to do my usual LA thing where you fall into a vivid, yet vaguely nonchalant description of all the projects that you are currently on and the names of anyone whose assistant my have rested their coffee on a pile of scripts that mine might have been on the bottom of. But I’m having a real, “is this ever going to pay off?” kind of time with La La Land. So I twiddle some coins in my pocket and reply…
Me: Nothing. Standing in the parking lot of the 101 Diner.
Dennis: I had this crazy idea. Do you want to come to Vegas?
Me: Of course.
Dennis: No, I mean like now.
He can get the plane ticket comped, the room is free, and really, how much could a few margaritas cost? But come on Karl, you’re going to go there and not gamble? Of course not, this is a dumb idea.
Me: When’s the next flight?
A little Geography 101 on LA. I am on the diagonally opposite side of the city from where I live. It’s 4pm, when the freeways start to clog up like a smoker’s artery. And there’s the little matter that I still need to pack a bag and get to the airport.
Forget the Virgin Birth. What happens next is nothing short of the Second Coming. The freeways part like the Red Sea, there is a parking spot right outside my building, I get every green to LAX, park in long term parking, get in a shuttle as the door closes and am checked in at the Delta desk. All in 57 minutes. I actually make the earlier flight. If you haven’t lived here, you can’t possibly understand what this means, but I am wiping the teardrops off my keyboard as I type this.
I take this as some kind of sign from the Gods that I am meant to be there in Nevada but then of course Nigel turns up. Fucking Nigel.
Nigel is the name I give to my worrying side who always appears just when I’m having fun to remind me that I have my finances to think about. In Australia, anyone who is a real loser is Nigel No Mates.
Nigel sits in the window seat next to me and by the time he’s done, he has me convinced that I’m going to turn up dead in Vegas after losing my shirt, shoes and pants and then taking a job as a hooker and getting stiffed by my John and ending up in a dumpster only to be discovered by the cast of CSI.
But then I remember a story I heard once about Heath Ledger. Apparently, before he hit it big and was just another actor here doing the rounds, he went to an ATM to withdraw what little money he had and the ATM swallowed his card. The guy had just $50 on him, but went out with his friends and first thing he did was buy a round of drinks. That’s living without fear.
So I open the emergency exit door and kick Nigel out at 50,000 feet as he screams, ”What about your retirement….!!??”. Bon soir Nigel. CSI will find you sometime next season.
And as I touchdown Nigeless in Vegas which lights the sky like Close Encounters, literally three hours after the carpark conversation, the silliness begins.
Vegas is exactly what you hope it’ll be. There’s so much neon, you tan at night. There’s so much cleavage, you could fall down a crack and your body will never be found. And there’s so much gambling, I can only smile like a virgin as I walk forth to what can only be my impending doom.
We hit the Bellagio and check out the fountain, I try on suits that I have no intention of buying, we take in the opulence, the extravagance, the over the topness, the ridiculousness of it all. And amongst the pillars and pagodas and searchlights and glass and steel and illuminance, there are more track suit pants than you will ever see, even at the Olympics.
Vegas is where ugly America comes to play.
You’ve all heard about the gambling, but the number one Vegas pastime in my books is the people watching. The passing parade of mullets, missing teeth, bicycle shorts, regrowth anchored bleached perms, fake handbags and all manner of consonant dropping accents swirl around you in a breathtaking mélange.
How on earth did this place produce Andre Agassi? Well, he did have that mullet in the early days…
The hotel we are at is a new one and it’s brilliant. Off the strip, ten minutes drive into the desert, there is the Red Rock Hotel. The room is just superb, and the next day we hit the pool, we have a roped off cabana comped in as part of the deal, so I get my first taste of what it must be like to be a player.
Poolside, margarita served by the cabana boy, bowl of fresh fruit, desert haze shimmying in the distance. Nothing to do but lie in the sun and drink and swim and roll over in my banana lounge like a seal.
Then Dennis points out that you can actually play Blackjack poolside. Clutching most of the last thousand I have, I walk over and decide that this is a good time to learn how to play.
Honesty is the best policy, especially when spoken with an Australian accent. And within a few minutes, I have the bikini clad, gorgeous little croupiers showing me how to play against them. No don’t bid now, bid now big, double down. The next thing all the other players at the table are helping me as well. I become the crocodile wrestling cause celebre. If I lost it all at this point, they’d organize a poolside telethon to raise me some more cash.
Wisely quitting while I’m ahead, I leave about $500 up. This Blackjack thing is a cinch. Drunk on my gambling mojo, Dennis and I pound more margaritas in the desert.
Then we head out to the big casinos. And this is where Lady luck clocked off for the night. At the Hard Rock, far from the bikinis and the pool, they don’t have the same love for my cute accent. Literally within minutes, we’re down and down and then downer still. Finally with nothing but $120 a piece, we are doing so badly, we decide to go balls to the wall.
All in, king and ace to dealer, and all out.
But we leave laughing arm in arm. If you’re going to go down, do it blaze of glory style.
I had a blast and I fly back to LA, with no rent, no petrol money, no nothing. But the weird part is, I’m not even that worried about it. This actually amazes me. It’s one of those wonderful moments when you realize that you’ve evolved, shaking the grip of something you feared.
Something I’ve realized in my liberation from advertising and letting all money concerns go; if you lost everything tomorrow, the only thing that you would have are your memories. It doesn’t matter what they cost, because they are the only thing worth collecting. Everything else is just stuff.
Be the Heath, not the Nigel.