By Lynn Ashby 16 January 2012
LAS VEGAS – Over there sits Duc Luc, the inscrutable Vietnamese poker player. Next is Pampa Slim in his trademark cowboy hat and boots. Minnie Mae McQueen, queen of Minnie Mae, is here. Others around this crowded table are the usual suspects – card sharks from every corner of the globe, betting hundreds of thousands as the crowd applauds and the TV cameras keep grinding for ESPN.
Jeffrey Silas-Silas III, the Harvard math boy wonder, beckons me. No doubt he wants my advice on how to double-down his straight jack o’ hearts. He says, with that broad Boston accent, “I’ll have another gin and tonic, boy.” And that is about as close as I get to the big spenders here in Vegas (we riverboat gamblers just call it Vegas).
Sin City, Disney World for adults, Lost Wages, by many names, there is only one Las Vegas because that’s all our economy can afford and is an indicator of the nation’s finances. We must remember people come here for gaming (they never use the word gamble, gambling or bankrupt) after they have paid all their bills, saved enough for their kids’ college education and their own retirement. Yeah, right. In good times and bad, casinos are good, just maybe not as good as before.
Here are the latest figures from last October. The calculating runs a little late because the Mob has to run down – sometimes literally – the deadbeats and card counters. (I, personally, like the Sleep With the Fishes Collection Agency.) In a nutshell, things are looking up — slightly. About 3.42 million visitors came to Vegas last October, an increase of 2.7 percent. Year to date it’s almost 33 million guests, a 4.5 percent increase.
“What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas” is certainly one of the better city slogans, right up there with the “Big Apple” and “Port Arthur – gateway to Orange.” What stays here is the visitors’ money. Last October, just in that month, Nevada had $960 million in taxable gambling revenue, an increase of 8.1 percent. The casinos on the Strip raked in $$560 million. Baccarat broke all monthly records. Nevada took in $65.4 million in gambling taxes, up 8.6 percent for the month. No wonder they have no income tax.
In the mid-1970s, there were 35,000 hotel rooms in town. By 2007, the last time I was here, the boom was booming. Cranes everywhere, with 151,000 rooms (more than any other city in the country), another 11,000 rooms under construction, as well as more on the drawing boards (35,000).
How things have changed. The boom is bust. The Rat Pack is dead. Vegas tried to land an NBA franchise, but the basketball bosses said only if the casinos wouldn’t handle bets on the games, to which the casino bosses said, “Fugetaboutit.” Economists at the University of Nevada – Las Vegas (which offers bachelors, masters and doctorates in hospitality/hotel administration) have warned that Southern Nevada’s real estate market may improve, but not soon. With the decline in housing prices, 63.3 percent of homeowners in the Las Vegas area “have negative equity” (are underwater).
Unemployment improved slightly from 14.8 percent in 2010 to 13.2 percent in 2011, but that’s still one of the highest in the nation. On the other hand, the Las Vegas population is expected to reach 3.6 million by 2050, which is what the Houston area is today.
No major American city has less of a history than Las Vegas because almost nobody lived here until Bugsy Siegel arrived, and he got shot dead for his efforts. Speaking of such matters, this is Binion’s, a casino with a wonderful steakhouse up on the 24th floor that the locals don’t want the tourists to know about. I heard the maitre d say on the phone, “From 6 to 9 we are solidly booked. As usual.”
The casino belonged to Benny Binion who came here after he was run out of Dallas where, back in the 1940s, he was known as the Mob Boss of Dallas. Benny had five kids, and my father, a pediatrician, would make house calls (there’s a forgotten term) to the Binions. Dad would remark how he’d drive up to the big iron gate and two guys would stop him and peer into his car to make sure he was alone. Dad noted how, even in the Texas summers, these two torpedoes would always wear black overcoats.
Nearby is another Texas connection (this place is full of Texans), the Golden Nugget. It was bought by a Houston restaurateur, Tilman Fertitta (Landry’s, McCormick & Schmick’s, Salt Grass, etc.), who pumped $100 million into the Nugget and helped make downtown Vegas a decent place. It used to be the pits.
I suggest you visit here during the annual Rodeo Super Bowl or officially the National Finals Rodeo. This week the town is full of easy-to-spot cowboys. You can tell they are the genuine thing because none of them wears fancy boots. If you want to look genuine, here’s the wardrobe. Hat is black or pearl gray, no straw and no feather hat bands. Shirt has pearl-snap buttons. Blue jeans are too long so that they crumple at the bottom and the back hem is frayed. Boots are round-toed and rough-hewn. Belt buckles are still the size of a hubcap. The men dress roughly the same way. The rich ranchers wear more pointy-toed boots made of ostrich or leopard or Comanche.
A high school friend became a lounge singer in Vegas. She’d come home about 4 a.m., get up to send her two kids off to school, go back to sleep till noon. One of the toughest jobs in America must be trying to run a P-TA in this town. “We’ll meet at 8 p.m. in the school cafeteria to… OK, 9 o’clock? So 4 a.m. is best?”
Wait. Duc Luc is gesturing for me. He either needs my advice or a light.
Ashby is a real card at firstname.lastname@example.org