by John Vorhaus
1: Yours Just For Playing
My name is Jim Rafferty and I surf Las Vegas. Not like you might think of, with waves and wax and boards and that. What I do, I move through this city collecting things that are free. Mostly I surf the Strip, all those casinos, all their giveaways: key chains, hats and mugs, dice and cards, t-shirts. Face it, if you could beat Las Vegas, Vegas wouldn’t be there. The house always has an edge. So no wonder they dangle carrots – “Yours just for playing!” – and when they do, surf’s up.
Just in the sports books alone you’ve got Super Bowl shot glasses, Derby Day souvenir wallets, World Series watches, cheap and digital, but cool and collectible with the baseball face. Or the poker room with high-hand hats and bad-beat crying towels. When it’s free, it’s apt to get left behind. In my long experience, something of everything always gets left behind.
Like slot cards, that earn comp points on slot play, redeemable for discounted show tickets or free meals or yet more key chains and coffee mugs. All the time you see people join the slot clubs, play the pull toys, then forget their pretty plastic cards in the electronic card readers. Then I surf and collect them. I’ve been at it for years.
I collect coin tubs, what you put your quarters in when you win. Some I store, others I use to hold promotional pins and chips that I’ve found. Or slot tokens. If you look, you’ll see: tokens get left in trays. I could play them back into the pull toys, but I’d rather collect them. It’s what I like to do.
There’s this joke they tell on people like me, about a magazine called Obsessive Collector’s Monthly and its special souvenir issue…
But I did Vietnam and it did me; afterwards rain always spooked me. So Margaret brought us to Vegas, the desert, far away from the rain, and then I wasn’t spooked. She made us buy a house, so now I have a house. But I don’t have Margaret, my Meg, who died young and didn’t deserve it, especially the pain which the VA docs said it was against VA regs to kill. And me there thinking, well, I had morphine in Vietnam – ampoules once when I was wounded – and if I’d only collected them then, then Meggy wouldn’t have had to die in pain.
So that’s when I started collecting. I collect sealed ketchup and tabasco mini bottles and mustard and jam jars abandoned on room service trays. They make a nice display in the kitchen. Not a shrine to the wife, nothing so morbid as that. But Meg liked the bright thing, magpie to my pack rat. I think she’d like her kitchen now. But it’s not a shrine, no. Don’t think that.
Trade shows are great to surf, especially tech shows, where it rains CD-ROMs and screwdriver sets, calculators, mouse pads, promotional pens, more than you could use in a lifetime. Easy to get in, just stake out the exits on the last day. People throw their badges away. Then it’s like trick or treat, and you even get a bag to haul away your loot, canvas or nylon, with a company logo printed on the side, so that’s collectible too.
Ever since Vegas went Disney, my collection has taken a turn for the young. Tin dubloons from Treasure Island, Popeye pogs from the MGM Grand. Slammers and spinners. One casino has trading cards. Pretty soon they all will probably. And I’ll have a nice collection.
Remember the Dunes? I’ve got glass ashtrays from there, from before they blew it up; also the Park and the Mint and Castaways, the Silver Slipper, the Thunderbird if you remember back that far. I have something of everything from those places. Poker chips of course. Matchbooks. Sugar packets and swizzle sticks. Once there was a martini glass craze. Olives Up at the Holster Club! and Wally’s No-Weenie Martini. I have many of those.
There’s a Sunday swap meet at the local junior college where I rent a table occasionally when the house starts to get out of control, which it can. Meg, she never would stand for it. For example, I brought home napkins. Perfectly good paper napkins from the Hacienda coffee shop, with a picture of a sleeping amigo and different riddles or jokes. They were pretty, plus free, and what could be better than that? I’ll never understand why Meggy bought napkins. I never bought a napkin in my life.
But you can have too many of them. Or lobby phone scratch pads, or sports book pens, or tiny hotel shampoos and hand lotions and soaps, which people will pay a quarter or a dollar for sometimes, so sometimes I box up the surplus and take it down to sell. I’ll take my old goods too, if I’m deep in a particular area, for example press kits from the World Series of Poker, which every year I find a press pass to.
One Sunday on display I had some logo shoe horns and sewing kits from downtown hotels, and a whole big bunch of green bow ties that O’Shea’s gave away one St. Patrick’s Day. Plus the usual chuffa: souvenir lighters; UNLV booster cups; jacket patches from the Alan King Tennis Classic. And these wooden chip racks from the El Rancho Vegas Casino, all varnished and embossed, virtually mint.
You may remember that particular week. It was the week of the big earthquake, the one that bounced the casinos all around. I remember it for when my chip racks caught a young lady’s eye, and so I met Megan, the second Meg in my life.
She wore Guess jeans and Oakley sunglasses and a billowy shirt with a huge Nike swoosh. Plus Reebok socks and Converse All-Star sneakers. She was a billboard. Many billboards. Blonde hair poked in a pony tail through the hole in the back of her No Fear hat. She had long, slender hands with ringless fingers, and a smooth, peach-fuzzy face, which split with a smile when she saw my chip racks and, “These,” she said, “I’ll take every last one of these.”
Then it came out about this theme restaurant she worked for, Gangster’s, just now going up on the Strip, how they wanted to deck it with old cards and postcards, show posters, counter checks, coin wrappers, and blackjack shoes, stools and tables. Like the Hard Rock Café or Planet Hollywood, only not for music or movies, but the Golden Age of Vegas. Megan’s job was to buy props to trick the place out.
“But the stuff is just not out there,” said Megan. “Matchbooks you find, ashtrays.” She shot me this smile, this charm the old guy smile. “I’ll bet you’ve got ashtrays up the yin-yang.” Then back to the chip racks. “But these things? You can’t find these. They’re gold.” She became coyly self-conscious. “Probably shouldn’t have said that, huh? Probably the price just went up. That’s my problem. I’m too enthusiastic. I always get out ahead of my hand.” Which she told me was poker talk for going too far too fast with cards that don’t hold up.
“So okay,” she said, and took a theatrical deep breath. “How much for the chip racks? Be nice, my job’s on the line. By the way, I’m Megan.” She stuck out a hand. “Meg.” But Meg was my wife’s name, the departed Margaret, and it didn’t wear well on this glib young thing, not to me, not at all.
“They’re not for sale,” I said.
“Oh, you’re good,” she snarled jokily. “I never should’ve said I was desperate. Now seriously, how much?”
I said it again, “They’re not for sale.” I don’t know why. She just irked me.
“Then what did you bring them out for? Show and tell?”
“I like to let them breathe,” I said, which was true, but it made her testy, which made me testy too.
“Sell them to me. They’ll breathe every night on the Strip.”
“Smoke’s not good for the wood,” I said.
“We’ll put ’em under glass!”
“No, I need these.”
“How can you possibly need twenty chip racks from a dead casino?”
“I can’t get any more. Do you have any idea how rare these are?”
“Of course I do. Why do you think I want them? Just sell me a few, huh? I’ve got to have something to show Jack.”
“Is he your boyfriend?”
“You don’t usually call a boss Jack is all.”
“Maybe not in your day, Gramps.”
“Gramps?” I really almost shouted this, so that some people looked. Then it was awkward. We had ticked each other off and embarrassed each other in public. So I said at last, “I’ll sell you two.”
“Ten,” she said. “Look, you have twenty.”
“Five. And don’t ask what else I have. We’re done doing business.”
She made a big production of choosing the choicest racks, then stuffed them angrily into a bag and snatched the receipt from my hand. “I would have been a good customer,” she growled.
“I don’t need customers,” I growled back. As she walked away, she gave me the finger. I gave it right back, for she was rude and she had my wife’s name.
Like that should matter. It’s only a name. But she came on so strong, and tried to run me over with pure youth. So I drove her off, and regretted it almost at once. After that I packed up and went home, a remorseful bad taste lingering in my mouth. I was certain that I’d never see her again.
Of course I was wrong within days.
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