What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. That’s how the saying goes. Unless you’re unlucky enough to catch something, in which case what happens in Vegas ends up with a visit to the STD clinic. Probably wouldn’t look as good in an advert though, would it? Thankfully, the only thing I left with is a story which I’d like to share, so here goes.
I and my friend Rory, who was joining me for eleven days of my trip, caught sight of the glittering expanse of Sin City as we sped along the highway, having crossed the Hoover Dam just after sundown. Las Vegas couldn’t be further removed from the dusty towns of the Wild West, but you still get a sense of what it must have been like to ride into a one horse town having travelled hundreds of miles with nothing around. There’s no gradual transition – you come round a bend and the city appears out of nowhere. It’s bright, gaudy and in-your-face, the self-proclaimed centre of the universe.
We arrived at our hotel, showered, got changed and headed down to the casino for a night on the town. The stereotypical image of Vegas is of crowds around a Roulette table shouting things like ‘papa needs a new pair of shoes.’ The reality is that a great deal of the gamblers are stoney-faced retirees, robotically feeding coins into slot machines from enormous buckets of quarters. You’d be forgiven for thinking they were in the middle of a soul-destroying factory job instead of a holiday.
As we walked around, we passed a blackjack table boasting a five hundred dollar-a-hand minimum bet. There was only one man gambling, as he puffed on a fat cigar, but three others sat watching who appeared to be with him. As Rory and I loitered, he turned to me. ‘You don’t wanna try this table boy, ‘aint no good at all.’ Curious, I asked one of the men with him just how bad the damage was.
‘Oh, he’s down about thirty-five thousand.’
Let that sink in. Thirty-five thousand dollars. It’s over twenty thousand pounds. That’s roughly a nurse’s yearly salary, gone in the space of a few hours. I’d set myself a limit of a hundred dollars I was prepared to lose but that suddenly seemed rather boring compared to watching this mystery high-roller, so Rory and I pulled up seats to the table. He liked our accents and started buying us beers as he told us stories about triumphant past gambling trips, including one to Biloxi where he’d turned three grand into fifty-two thousand.
Curious to find out where all this money was coming from, I asked what line of work he was in. ‘I’m a comedian. Doug Randall’ he announced loudly, shaking my hand. ‘I’m playin’ two weeks here the Grand.’ I should mention now that Doug Randall isn’t his real name; I changed it for reasons which will become clear later and because we learnt afterwards he’s actually pretty famous in America.
As Doug gestured to the floor manager to sign for another ten thousand in chips, one of the men who works for him gently suggested he call it a night. Doug wasn’t having it though and put him in his place. ‘I’m where I am in life and you’re where you are in life cause of one reason: you’re smart and I’m stupid.’ With that, he placed another two thousand dollar bet. Blackjack. He had won three thousand and the dealer slid over a handful of chips. We were well and truly part of the group now, cheering and high-fiving when he won, swearing and booing when he lost.
By about one o’clock in the morning, Doug’s luck had really started to pick up. Riding the wave of his winning streak, he began tipping the dealer a thousand dollars
every so often. After another hour, he’d managed to turn things around completely. He had gone from being thirty-five grand in the hole when we met him to being thirty-thousand up. ‘Alright boys, let’s get a drink to celebrate’ he insisted after cashing in for a stack of hundred dollar bills (or ‘Benjamins’ if you want to feel like a twat)
We made our way to one of the many hotel bars where the drinks started flowing thick and fast. Doug disappeared and his entourage started telling us about his lifestyle; he toured around the country on his private jet and had been given a penthouse suite in the hotel whilst he did his show. After twenty minutes or so, Doug returned with three women who looked young enough to be his daughters. ‘Look at them big ol’ chocolate titties!’ he joked. Having never been confronted with such a phrase before, I said something along the lines of ‘Indeed…’ as I struggled to think of an appropriate response. Famous though he may be, Doug isn’t what I imagine most girls would go for – unless they have daddy issues – and soon enough it emerged that the three of them were in fact prostitutes. ‘Everybody up to my suite, we’re gonna have a party’ Doug declared.
I don’t know what your typical Sunday night looks like, but mine usually involves cooking a nice meal, having a glass of wine or two and watching the Frasier boxset. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy with that ritual fifty-one weeks of the year, but in the spirit of trying new things I went with the flow as we were swept off to an express lift which took us up to the top floors.
Doug’s suite was unlike any hotel room I’d stayed in before. You can’t really call it a room – it was a penthouse loft, split over two levels and complete with a pool table, three living rooms and two bedrooms. Looking out across the city, I had to pinch my leg to remind myself this was really happening. We were greeted by a butler and Doug told him to bring up anything we asked for. ‘Jack, you having a beer?’ Before I could answer, he ordered for ‘twenty beers on ice’ and minutes later a bucket of Coronas were set down before me. Sensing this was somewhat of a gravy train, the three girls suggested they call for their friends. The night was beginning to feel like an adult version of a childrens’ TV show: If you have three prostitutes in a hotel room and three more join you, how many do you have in total? Doug gathered them in a huddle and I heard him say ‘I want everyone to feel taken care of’ as he handed out cash.
There were twelve of us in the suite now, split into three groups. Doug sat in one of the living rooms smoking a joint, whilst a couple of girls perched on his lap competing for his attention. He’d shown me his stash of weed earlier and told me it was his duty to smoke it. ‘I couldn’t leave it at my house where the kids might find it. I gotta take it with me and smoke it up, s’called responsible parenting.’ Two more girls chatted and laughed with Doug’s right hand man in the kitchen, whilst the rest of us took turns at playing pool.
I don’t know if you, dear reader, have ever found yourself in the company of six paid-up prostitutes but it’s a peculiar feeling. Or it is if you’re not going to sample their services, because if you take away the sex all you’re left with is conversation which began to feel strangely like a first date. I sipped my beer and chatted with with a girl, lets call her Maria, the kind of person who puts you immediately at ease. I guess that serves her well in that particular line of work. We shared our interests and what it was like where we were from. She was warm, funny, engaging and laughed a lot; if it really had been a date I’d have definitely seen her again.
Occasionally we were interrupted by one of Doug’s entourage, a big burly bloke who acted as a kind of roadie, and he’d take Maria into the corner to talk with her but she kept gravitating back to me. Someone asked me since if I thought about sleeping with her – after all, she was expecting to go to bed with a stranger that night, she was attractive and she had already been paid. Aside from wanting to avoid membership of the gonorrhea club, it was really as simple as not wanting to force her into something she didn’t want to do, even if she was smiling and flirting, even if she claimed to be okay with it. I can’t imagine anyone starts selling their body because they want to – it must be because every other option hasn’t worked out. If in a few years time she’s managed to turn her life around, and I really hope she does, I didn’t want to be the guy she associates with her darkest hour when she thinks back.
I asked her why she’d moved to Vegas and she gave a vague answer about needing a change from her hometown. She glanced away but not quite soon enough and I caught the briefest flash of vulnerability in her eyes. It was only for a second and then she was back to smiling, but it was enough. Enough to cut through the past hour of joking and flirting. It was instantly sobering. I dreaded to think what she might have gone through, what might have pushed her to leave home and make this her life. Maybe I was reading too much into it. Maybe it was nothing, but my gut told me I was touching on something painful, so I changed the subject.
I’m not deluded enough to think she had any true affection for me, but Maria continued to flirt and bat her eyelashes, whilst Big Burly Bloke tried to get her to himself in the corner. Despite his best attempt to be civil towards me, I could sense he was getting frustrated with every coy smile or touch of my arm she gave me. Eventually he snapped, pointed across the room at me and shouted ‘Harry Potter’s fucking up my game!’ I wasn’t sure if he was joking or deadly serious but decided it was wise to tread carefully around him. Not long after, we were interrupted by Doug’s right-hand man who told us, with a sense of urgency, Doug wanted everybody to leave. I assumed it was because he wanted some privacy with one or two of the girls, but to my surprise all six of them left with us as we made our way out. Perhaps he’d smoked a little too much – that’s what responsible parenting will do to you.
We headed back to our room in a boozey fog and collapsed into our beds at about five o’clock in the morning. At first, as I drifted off, I smiled at the fact we’d had such an extravagant night without it costing us a penny. But then, in that half- conscious state before you fall asleep, I saw the look in Maria’s eyes. The look she she’d tried to hide from me when she had let her guard down. The look of someone who was afraid, or broken-hearted, or alone, or a mixture of all three. I’m fully aware I don’t have any hard facts, it’s all speculation on my part but that look seared itself into my brain.
Last week I passed an advert for Las Vegas on the underground. For all the glitz and glamour I’d seen that night, all of the things we’re told dreams are made of, it was a nightmare which took shape in my mind. Maria’s nightmare. I pictured her being ordered up to someone’s room, like food off a menu, pretending to laugh at their jokes like she did with so many of mine and ending up in bed with a stranger three times her age, all so she could pay her rent… What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas? Give me a break. That look will be with me the rest of my life.