July 11, 2013
The old man looked at the other end of the bench where I was sitting, then at me. “You mind?”
That’s the kind of question I ask, but this is Las Vegas, where the sheep come to the shearers. I said, “To. The. Contrary.” I said it just that way, each word surrounded by a roomy pause.
He was old, and I mean really old, and I have just come from Sun City, the land of near-infinite geriatricism. But unlike too many older folks, he was vital like a cowboy. He looked like a cowboy, too, his body long and lean, his face swarthy and gnarled from a lifetime’s concerns. He had a good claim to a full head of hair, though, and his teeth looked like a billion bucks. He was wearing a blindingly white linen shirt, collar open, well-worn blue jeans and those incredibly slipper-like men’s loafers that look thinner, top to bottom, than any foot could ever possibly be. In short, he looked like a California Whale.
We were sitting in one of the vast atria of the Aria Resort and Casino in CityCenter Las Vegas, a wannabe virtual town in the biggest wannabe town ever dreamed up, the town you think of as Sin City but whose actual name, if the men who built it had ever let it have a name, is… wait for it… Paradise.
No kidding. You may have been Downtown a time or two, and the locals casinos are always a hoot — with the hoot being that the people leaving their money behind are locals, when in fact they are simply Georges — regular, reliable donors to any Carney cause. But the Las Vegas you think of as “Vegas, Baby!” is a county island south of the city limits of Las Vegas. No one is Mayor, there is no City Council, and not-coincidentally, Paradise can lay a plausible claim to being… wait for it… paradise…
Yes, it’s a perverse little Eden, but while nothing said in Vegas is ever quite the truth, no one, local or tourist, ever doubts that he’s being lied to quite a bit more than he actually is. Gambling is the very most peaceful form of mutual hostility, and it is the ravenous hunger for the undeserved boon that vomits up, again and again, the entirely warranted inevitable bust.
You can see all of that, if you watch for it, out on The Strip, Downtown, and all over the Vegas Valley at street corners and bus stops: Shirtless, shoeless, toothless people looking to cadge a quarter so they can dump it immediately into a Deuces Wild video poker machine. Gambling is fun like drinking is fun, like elaborate sex or phreelance pharmaceuticals can be fun — ‘fun in moderation’ as they say at the joints across The Strip. If you got no moderation, you’ll be one of the sheep who sticks around — or comes back often — for future shearings.
But if you can come to take control of your obsessions, and if you learn what all the great men who built Las Vegas knew — that the real money is on the Carney side of the bet — then you won’t be a Mook or a Mark or a George any longer. Everybody’s got a fish story from a storied Vegas vacation, but how many of those storytellers were prepared to quit while they were ahead? How many of them have built billion-dollar businesses from their winnings?
But weighty matters like those just don’t seem to matter at the Aria, which may be the most beautiful casino every built. For one thing, you can see outdoors from all over the place — and it’s almost impossible even to find the outdoors from any other big casino. The hotel has a priceless art collection, but each little bit of simple decor in CityCenter is exquisitely elegant, perfect where it is as nothing else could be. CityCenter is the perfection of Paradise, and the Aria is the perfection of perfection, everything that any casino hotel resort could be if it were conceived by a genius and built to his exacting demands — price no object.
And that’s why I was sitting there: I was simply agog. The beauty of the place is almost too much to take in, and yet it’s all so perfectly comical, at the same time, because its ‘Vegas, Baby!’ and the folks all around me were so grimly determined to dutifully dump their ducats and then scurry home that they seemed to me to miss out on everything that makes Paradise paradise.
Ah, well. Each man to his own’s saints, as my sainted mother used to say. To the California Whale I said, “It’s really something.” He was looking at the place like I was, his eyes enraptured, and who could blame him?
But then he said, “I thought I’d be in a better place by now…”
And now it’s a Willie story.
“People call me a cobra behind my back. Can you believe that? ‘The Smiling Cobra.’ I don’t even always hate it. Nobody tries to screw with me in business. But who takes ‘The Smiling Cobra’ on a fishing trip? ‘Is he really the right fourth for golf?’ Joke of it is, I never would have made the time, even if they’d asked.”
“So you paid a lot in your life. Everyone does. But you got a lot more than most folks in return.”
“You know so much, do you?”
I shrugged. “It’s Vegas. Mooks and Marks and Georges, Minnows and Whales and Sharks. And if you’re not sure which you are, please, please, please come sit at my table.”
He chuckled at that. But then he was earnest again, like throwing a switch. “I didn’t make time for people, but I didn’t have much trust in them, either. No, that’s not right. I trusted a few people with everything, and that faith was never betrayed. But there were so many other people — business partners and could-have-been friends and even a wife or two — who lost my trust and never won it back.”
“And there was no chance whatever that any sort of reconciliation could ever happen. You cut ’em off completely, forever.” These were statements, not questions.
He chuckled again. “There’s some justice in that. I would argue that I never wanted to make the time to volunteer to be lied to. But sure as hell, I’m the one common denominator in every wrecked relationship in my life.”
Who can’t say that? But then, who ever really does say that?He said, “I expect it’s obvious to anyone with the sense to look that I own a lot of stuff. But the thing I own that means most to me is my pride. I want to be proud of the things I do, and, ultimately, I don’t want anything more than that, anything other than that — anything else. If you come between me and something of mine that could be even more perfect with you out of the picture — ‘Goodbye!’ A man’s got to know who he is. This is how I’ve lived, and this is how I’ll die.”
And that was that. He got up and sauntered away, his rapt eyes taking in everything.
I can think of a dozen men who really built this town, maybe fewer. Guys like Jay Sarno and Steve Wynn, Moe Dalitz and Howard Hughes. But the man who has mattered most to Las Vegas until now, and who will matter most enduringly, until Sin City redeems itself in the dust from which it sprung, is that California Whale, my quiet confidante for a little while.
And how can you know for sure that he is the one man who really mattered in Vegas, the man who built the businesses that can actually deliver on all of Sin City’s bullshit promises, the man who put the paradise in Paradise? Because in the city built on hoke, smoke and jive, in the city where the Carneys stay put and the Marks move on for a change, in the city where every dick is bigger than yours — especially mine — in the great storied city of Las Vegas, nobody ever wants to talk about him…