A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story
“It’s more fun if you ride standing,” said Sarno’s Ghost. I didn’t know to call him that when we met. I’m borrowing ahead on my future credibility, a totally Vegas thing to do. “It’s like surfing on the subway in New York. I grew up in Missouri and I can remember the first time I rode those trains. I thought I was going to fall flat on my ass.”
Completely plausible. Sarno’s Ghost is the perfect American meatball, portly-short on small feet, a threat to topple with every step he takes. You might not even see him as a meatball, though, because all you would be likely to see is an old vagrant. He actually had on ratty overalls over a beat-up red flannel shirt, just like a Missouri farmer, which I thought was choice. He was bald like a monk, with untamed tufts of snow white hair over his ears.
And this was all a disguise, so you know. I can smell a bum – who can’t? – but Sarno’s Ghost smelled a lot like fabric softener, soap and mouth-wash. Totally cool. It’s Sin City. You get to be who you want to be. But don’t bullshit a bullshitter.
I said, “I saw you get bounced from Main Street Station earlier tonight.”
“Yeah. I like to take a piss on the Berlin Wall, when they’ll let me.”
“Regular thing, is it?”
He nodded with an immense solemnity. “Every night…”
We were riding on The Deuce, a double-decker city bus devised by the Las Vegas transit mavens to keep the tourists off the real buses. It runs from The Strip to Downtown and back, all day and all night. Take it from Mandalay Bay to Fremont Street on a Saturday night and the trip – seven miles – could take two hours. You could easily outrun the bus on foot – without running. But if you go the other way after midnight, it’s a reasonably quick trip. Sarno’s Ghost and I were riding all the way up front on the upper deck, with an unlimited view of everything Vegas.
He said, “I’m going to Echelon. You want to come with?”
There are sane people who pretend to be crazy to gain some sort of undeserved advantage. And there are crazy people who do their best to convince you that they’re not crazy. And then there are crazy people. Crazy people offer to take you late at night to a vast wasteland of half-built super-casino – the great, tragic unfinished symphony that is Echelon Place.
I said: “That’s crazy.”
“Not crazy. Crazy-stupid, the Vegas way. Echelon is crazy-stupid like CityCenter is crazy-stupid, like everything great in this town is crazy-stupid.”
“But it’s not finished.”
“But it will never be finished.”
“Sooner or later, someone will tear the whole thing down and start over on the site.”
He said, “Yeah” – and I think he brushed a tear from his eye.
“How often do you go there?”
He shrugged. “Every night… I tell people I’m going there to meet up with Sam Boyd’s ghost, but the truth is, I want that site. Eighty-seven uninterrupted acres. That’s the place for The Grandissimo.”
To this I said nothing, although I must admit that a casino-hotel-resort called The Grandissimo would be a wonderfully crazy-stupid expression of Sin City’s uncontainable grandiosity.
“What I really want is that corner.” We were stopped at the light at Sahara, and he was pointing across the way at the huge vacant site of the old El Rancho Vegas. “Hotel burned down in 1960, and it’s been sitting there like that ever since. The premiere site on The North Strip, and nobody can put it to work.”
Crazy, crazy-stupid, or maybe just crazy like a fox.
“The whole North Strip has gone to shit, and there’s no good reason for that. Las Vegas got the idea that it could survive by sucking on the dried-up tits of Chinese whales and nobody else. Take a good look around and who do you see? Nobody else. The Maseratis are for show, dipwads. This is a Buick Regal town, and that’s all it can ever be. You can’t mass-market to outliers, and it’s stupid – and tragic, as you can see – to try.”
He put on a funny goombah voice: “‘Just fawking stoopid.’”
Crazy or not, the man had a point. North of Wynn Encore and the Fashion Show Mall, The Strip has little to show for itself other than the dowdy old Circus Circus and the even-dowdier, even-older Riviera. The Sahara is being remodeled in preparation for its next bankruptcy – likely to precede its next Grand Opening, assuming it ever has another Grand Opening. The Fontainebleau, on the site of the old Wet ’n’ Wild waterpark, is yet another vast unfinished symphony. And everything else is either raw dirt or ugly tourist-trap retail detritus. Much of the most valuable land west of Manhattan sits vacant – undeveloped, untended and, to everyone but Sarno’s Ghost, unmourned.
“Here’s what’s really sad,” he went on. “If you’re not upselling, you’re not selling at all. Las Vegas can’t even upsell me, and I’m the biggest Sucker ever born! It’s a Carney town. It’s always been a Carney town. The Suckers expect to get played, and they’re disappointed when they don’t get a chance to play back. ‘Look how smart I am, honey. I just won us two free twenty dollar cocktails!’ That’s Vegas – but where the hell is it?
“The whole Strip has been taken over by MBAs, and they are much too sophisticated to stoop so low as to actually sell an opportunity. No, their job is delivering a service for a fee. And that attitude infects everyone in the house. If you’re not upselling, you’re not selling at all. Your only job is to upsell the Suckers, to make ’em feel like royalty by giving them every opportunity to pay through the nose like royalty. That’s the product, and if you can’t sell it – the incomparable luxury of carefree spending – and sell it as the most perfect state of human existence – ‘den you got no fawking business in da fawking show, get it?’”
He scowled – and he was good at it. “Forgetting how to sell is how you get outsold. The market isn’t static, and neither is your share of it. If you’re not scratching and clawing to grow your business, expect to feel a faceful of claws at any moment, because you are nothing but a stepping-stone on somebody else’s scramble to the top.”
We were coming up on Circus Circus, the bus driver deftly playing almost-dodge-’em with the cagey cab drivers. He pointed at the huge scary-clown marquee. “That’s me up there, the way I looked in those days in clown make-up. I had a ringmaster’s outfit, too, and I would pretend to direct all the circus action from the floor of the casino.” The man was just beaming, clearly reliving one of the happiest memories of his life.
He nodded toward the stairs leading to the lower deck and to the doors outside. “Echelon’s the next stop. Sure you don’t wanna come?”
I smiled. “I’m headed for Caesars Palace.”
“Hey, great! Look for me there later.”
“And you go there how often?”
“What do you think? I go there every night.”
“Do they let you in?”
“Not lately. But I’ve won and lost fortunes in the Palace Casino, and people don’t forget things like that in this town.”
I’m sure they don’t. They just don’t have much use for you if you don’t have another fortune to lose. Sarno’s Ghost shuffled down the stairs and I watched out the window as he shambled back northward toward the vast vacant site of the old New Frontier, toward Echelon Place, the vast half-vacant site of the old Stardust.
Do that math on all that: We’re talking about at least a hundred-fifty acres of land on the west side of The North Strip that should be worth around four-million dollars an acre, with at least a fifty more lying fallow across the street. What happens when Las Vegas decides it’s too sophisticated to be crazy-stupid for the amusement of the Marks? Just stupid. In vast abundance.
When I got to Caesars Palace I tipped an old bellman at the porte-cochère to give me a minute of his time.
I said, “I met an old guy on The Deuce. He says he comes here every night. Short, stout, bald.”
“Except for clown hair at the ears, right? Congratulations, sir. You met the big-boss.”
“Jay Sarno, the man who built this place.”
“Jay Sarno is dead.”
“That is correct. Died right here, in his favorite suite. With his boots on, as they say. He had already sold the joint by then, but this was always his favorite place to play.”
I blinked. “So who was I talking to?”
He shrugged and smiled, like a man who knows his job is selling. “Sarno’s Ghost? That’s what some of the old-timers say. Or they say it’s really Jay Sarno, that he faked his own death to go into witness protection or to get out from under his gambling debts or whatever.”
“What do you say?”
He smiled, this time just for himself. “I’ve eighty-sixed him at least a thousand times. I say he’s crazy.”
He shook his head, and his smile was replaced by a palpably heartfelt compassion. “Just crazy.” He had to take a moment to compose himself. “But Jay Sarno is always here, either way. This town is nothing without him. If you’re playing in the Palace Casino and you see a server stop and cross herself, you just might feel him, too.” Right back to the upsell, turning the tip, guiding me inside, a consummate professional.
I waited a while to see if Sarno’s Ghost would show up, as promised, but either I missed him or he never came by. I spent a long time watching the play in the Palace Casino, but I saw no spontaneous genuflections – except at the Craps tables, which is right where you would expect Jay Sarno to be. I walked around the huge statue of the The Three Graces enough to know that two of the Grace-models had boob-jobs and the sculptor didn’t know how to correct for the harsh geometry gravity imposes on skin when you stuff it with bags full of Jello. I got to know the name and family background of every bellman in the porte-cochère. But I didn’t catch sight of the old man again.
So what’s my take on all these events?
There are no ghosts, obviously, and just because you’re sure a man is crazy, that doesn’t mean he’s not crazy-stupid, playing you like a prize McGuffin fiddle. But if Sin City is lucky enough to have Sarno’s Ghost looking out for it – that’s a good fortune it is doing nothing to deserve.