"How about coming to Vegas with me?"
It was about the unlikeliest offer imaginable. We had met and fallen in love only a few weeks earlier, in Santa Barbara, California--a place as spiritually removed from Las Vegas as the outer moons of Jupiter. And, as a source of recreational diversion, neither of us would have ranked Vegas all that far above root canal.
Sandra was a child of the late 1960s, not an ashram-dwelling, crystal-waving New Age acolyte, but someone for whom a walk on the beach or along a mountain trail held far more appeal than the casinos and spectacles of the Strip. As for me, my appetite for gambling is more than sated by an occasional stab at the lottery. I have yet to grasp the rules of the craps table, and while I once fantasized about a turn at the blackjack tables, as smooth and suave as Sean Connery playing James Bond, reality was a different story. The sheer speed with which the cards were dealt and my chips vanished turned me into a sweat-drenched Don Knotts.
So why was I going to Las Vegas? For the only reason I ever go to Las Vegas: someone was paying me to speak there. I had long ago made my peace with the town: every time I went there, I would leave a tiny portion of my speaking fee in the slots--the one form of gambling I understood. I had come to think of it as something between a transaction fee and an offering to the gods of the desert. "Here," I might have been murmuring. "Take this small gift, and exempt me from Wayne Newton and David Brenner."
The trip to Las Vegas, I hastily explained to Sandra, was not my way of providing her with a glimpse into our future together. Think of it, I suggested, as something in the way of an anthropological field trip, a concentrated Salute to Wretched Excess. "OK," Sandra said, "as long as we don't have to spend a lot of time in the casino."
"You're on," I said.
So it came to pass that a few weeks later, we were walking through the lobby of one of the high-rise palaces on the Strip. The scene was familiar: the low-intensity clamor of the casino, the lights, the bells, the occasional orgasmic eruption of joy at a winning hand, the furrowed brows and baleful stares aimed by one spouse at the other, who has just placed the rent money at high risk, the endless lines snaking back from the buffet restaurants and reservations desks. We quickly decided we did not wish to book the floor show, a low-key spectacle that featured either the sinking of the Titanic or the bombing of Nagasaki, and set out instead to check out New YorkNew York. The just-opened hotel was Las Vegas at its...best?...worst? ...well, most.
To enter, you walked over an East River, across a Brooklyn Bridge, hard by a Statue of Liberty. The huge hotel offered side-by-side facades of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings. The casino was dominated by a classic Greco-Roman entrance that proclaimed, in a prescient parody of the famous Wall Street landmark: New York Slot Exchange. I started to lead Sandra inside, ready to make my traditional high two-figure offering in the form of several hundred quarters.
"No, not yet," Sandra said.
"You have to get in touch with your positive karma," she said. All those years of living in Santa Barbara had given Sandra a keen ear for the loonier aspects of the South Coast--so keen an ear, in fact, that it took me some time to understand that these sorts of comments were uttered tongue-in-cheek. "What you have to do, " she said, "is look around the room and then visualize the winning machine."
"Right," I said. I lowered my eyelids and began intoning a barely audible "ommmnnn" as I glanced into the casino. Then I stopped, and pointed at a machine a few rows back. "That one," I said.
"Now, you're sure," Sandra said.
"Oh, yeah; I'm positive. That's the one."
As we walked toward the machine, I tried to calculate how quickly I could lose the $50 I had budgeted for this wild fling. We hadn't eaten for a while, and the hotel's version of an "authentic" New York deli was just a short distance away. Visions of novy, eggs, and onions danced in my head (or maybe ham and eggs--it wasn't that authentic a New York deli).
We reached the machine, pulled over two stools, and sat down. I began stroking the machine while whispering "hare Krishna." Then I dropped in two quarters (it was the maximum bet allowed--they don't call me Diamond Jeff for nothing). The whirring stopped, and I looked at the pay line: two identical symbols with a different symbol alongside; the same symbol that adorned the front of the machine.
"I think we won something," I said--a shrewd judgment confirmed by the sudden explosion of sound and light. It sounded a lot like one of those ambulances you hear racing through the streets of a Central European capital. I felt dozens of pairs of eyes rotate directly toward me, as I tried to calculate how we'd done.
"I think we won...let's see it's 80 times 8--that's 640 quarters; all right, that's $160!"
"No," said Sandra, who managed the finances of a major nonprofit institution in Santa Barbara. "It's 80 times 80; 6,400 quarters. Sixteen hundred dollars."
Several moments later, a very large man came over, jotted down some notes, asked for my driver's license, and handed me a tax form to fill out. (Note: it takes a lot longer to collect your winnings at the slots than it does to lose your money; I think the casinos have figured out how to work the float at any hour of the day or night.)
He went away, and came back a few minutes later clutching a handful of bills in his hand.
As he slowly but surely placed 16 one-hundred-dollar bills in my hand, I looked over at Sandra, flashed her the peace sign, and said to her: "I think I have found the love of my life."
We are now together; but to make sure we have not overburdened the karma, we have not been inside a casino since.
Jeff Greenfield is a senior analyst at CNN and author of the forthcoming novel, Jackpot.