Lay the Favorite: A Memoir of Gambling
By Beth Raymer
Hardcover, 240 pages
Spiegel & Grau
List price: $25
The thing I liked best about working at Komol was Jowtee, the invisible spirit who controlled the restaurant's destiny. I had never actually seen Jowtee but the kitchen staff swore he existed. They said he was a seven-foot-tall Native American Chief, a ghost from the Indian burial ground beneath the strip mall. If I didn't feed him, pray to him, and bring him presents, something disastrous would befall the restaurant. As the only non-Thai, I had to believe them. So in between seating, waiting, and busing tables I found time to keep Jowtee happy. At the booth that was reserved for him, I'd serve Jowtee imported bottled beer in a frosty mug, whole fish fried in hot sauce, and coconut ice cream for dessert. I'd bring him daily horoscopes and decks of cards from neighboring casinos. After lighting his candle, I'd close my eyes and telepathically beg him to help turn my life around and get me that cocktail waitress job at the Bellagio.
Jowtee heard my plea. At least part of it.
During a particularly slow dinner shift, one of the regulars offered to help get me a better job. Her name was Amy and she was a massage therapist. Every Saturday evening she came in by herself and ordered vegetable green curry, extra spicy, and took her time eating it, her oversized black sunglasses never leaving her face. One night, on her way out, she slid into the front booth next to me and watched as I filled out my Stardust and Four Queens cocktail waitress applications.
"These jobs are shit," she said, flipping through the papers. "I have this one client I give massages to. A professional gambler. Want me to see if he'll hire you?"
I was twenty-four and had moved to Las Vegas to be with a guy I had been dating for a few months. We broke up soon after I arrived. I didn't know a single person in town. But no one else seemed to, either. It was 2001 and Vegas was the fastest-growing metropolitan area in America. Fifteen hundred people were moving into the city each week. Everyone I met was very much like me and had just ended up there.
After the breakup, I rented a room in a motel just north of the Strip in a neighborhood known as Naked City. In the fifties, it had been home to strippers who sunbathed in the nude to avoid tan lines. Now, bail bondsmen, hookers, Vietnam vets, and irritable motel clerks added color to the place. My motel was three blocks from the Little White Wedding Chapel and Johnny Tocco's Boxing Gym and four blocks from the downtown casinos: Binion's Horseshoe, the El Cortez, and the Aztec -- home of the fifty-nine-cent strawberry shortcake. The cigarette burns in the motel's bedspreads were big enough to fit a leg through and the staccato of stilettos across the floor upstairs made it hard to get a good night's sleep. But at seventeen dollars a night, it was affordable, and it allowed dogs. So Otis, my sixty-pound Chow Chow, and I moved in. The wooden nightstand showcased the room's only décor: a Rand McNally road atlas and a Magic 8 Ball.
Before moving to Vegas, I was living in Tallahassee, Florida, and working at a residential home for troubled teenage girls. During one Sunday morning shift, the girls kept asking me if I would let them run away. I could get their shoes out of the locked closet, open the back door, wait fifteen minutes to give them a head start, and then call the cops. I could tell the psychologists that they threatened me. That one of them held a knife to my back -- no; my face -- then stole the keys from my pocket. Come on, they begged, we just want to see our boyfriends and smoke. Please?
All three of them were seventeen-year-old white girls who got into a lot of fistfights, dealt pot, and dated gangbangers. Usually when they asked me to let them run away I'd change the subject. But on that morning, as the girls over-plucked their eyebrows and pleaded with me to set them free, I felt sad for them. The only thing they looked forward to was filling paper cups with mouthwash, shooting it back as though it were bourbon, then pretending they were drunk. They were never allowed outside, and their lunches and dinners consisted of microwavable pasta dishes high in fat. As a result, they had acne and their clothes were too tight. I didn't get their shoes from the closet, which seemed too calculated. But I did let them run away. Standing by the door, I watched them laugh and scream in disbelief, grasping for one another's hands, their bare feet skipping across the parking lot's blacktop. Fifteen minutes later I called the cops. Two days later I was fired.
A cocktail waitress job seemed like a better fit. But with no connections or casino experience my application went straight to the bottom of the heap. After applying to the fancy casinos on the Strip, I moved to the downtown casinos near my motel. Sure, I was welcome to apply for a position at the El Cortez, but I'd have to wait for sixty-five-year-old Rosie from Cheyenne, in her surgical stockings and culinary workers local 226 pin, to die before I could even get an interview. The only reason I had a job at the Thai restaurant was because my ex-boyfriend's parents, who were nice enough to offer me a job upon arrival, owned it. They weren't expecting me to break up with their son, however, and working there had become tense.
I gave Amy twenty percent off her curry and the following day she left a message. Interview at noon with Dink, 1459 North Rainbow.
The office park sat in a patch of desert eight miles off the Strip. Every few steps, Otis stopped to sniff and pee on the benches. Dragging him past the professionally dressed men and women enjoying their smoke break, I pulled the address out of my pocket. I hadn't imagined gamblers doing business alongside divorce lawyers and accountants. In my denim miniskirt and Converse sneakers, and with Otis scruffy and panting at my side, I felt more like a teenage runaway than an interviewee. I pulled my hair out of its ponytail so that it fell over my shoulders and hid my bra straps.
In a row of offices with signs like Nevada Insurance and Coldwell Banker, stood a suite with no sign and white plastic blinds covering its windows. Next to the door was a square address plaque and scrawled in its center, in Wite-Out correction pen, was "Dink Inc." From inside, a television blared. The sound of a bugle summoned horses to the starting gate at a racetrack. I knocked.
The door opened, revealing a guy about six-foot-four, two hundred and eighty pounds. His hair was a heap of shiny, springy brown curls, the kind you see in ads for home perms. Tucked into his armpit was a Daily Racing Form, and in his hand was a puffy white bagel overstuffed with lox. He introduced himself as Dink, then took a bite of his sandwich. With mouth full, he asked if my dog had an opinion on the Yankees game.
Dink was in his late forties, but his bashful smile and distracting habit of twisting his curls around his pointer finger made him appear much younger. He dressed like the mentally retarded adults I had met while volunteering at a group home. His Chicago Cubs T-shirt was two sizes too small for his expansive frame. Royal blue elasticized cotton shorts were pulled high above his belly button. White tube socks were stretched to the middle of his pale, hairless shins.
Inside the suite, a long banquet table was cluttered: hockey digests; baseball encyclopedias; a baseball prospectus; sports pages from USA Today, the New York Post, the Las Vegas Review-Journal; dozens of calculators; telephones; mechanical pencils; computer monitors; and several copies of Fuzzy Creatures Quarterly, a magazine that offered tips on how to better love and care for one's hamster. At the front of the office, a tower of six forty-inch televisions balanced on a flimsy metal stand, each tuned to a different sport. Dink took his seat at the head of the table. In front of him, stacks of cash were piled as high as his bottle of Yoo-Hoo. I stared at the money, mesmerized.
He nodded to one of the TVs and in a heavy Queens accent he said, "We need Minnesoter and undah, for a decent amount."
Having no idea what he was talking about, I said, "Okay," and took a seat.
In the long silence that followed, Dink twirled and twirled his curls, engrossed in the basketball games and horse races. The action on TV reflected off his eyeglasses, which were as thick as hockey pucks and cloudy with thumbprints. Rising from the floor were stacks of books, all of which appeared to be on the subjects of hockey and New York punk bands except for one on the very bottom: Hide Your A$$et$ and Disappear: A Step-by-Step Guide to Vanishing Without a Trace.
On the TV, a player for Minnesota made two free throws. Unsure of whether or not this was a good thing for Dink, I stayed quiet and massaged Otis's back with the bottom of my sneaker. Dink clicked the eraser of his mechanical pencil, then scribbled something down in his raggedy five-subject notebook. He asked me how well I knew Amy.
"Very well," I lied. I smiled.
He took a swig of his Yoo-Hoo and asked me what I knew about gambling.
The day the Fort Lauderdale airport started offering casino junkets that flew nonstop to the Bahamas was the day my family started taking vacations. My dad, a car salesman, found out about the offer from the guys at the dealership. Basically, he guaranteed that he would spend a certain amount of time at the Paradise Island Casino blackjack tables, and in return, we got free airfare. The next thing I knew there were four airline tickets on the kitchen counter and Dad was coming home from work carrying books. Dad never came home from work carrying anything but Miller Lite tallboys. The only book in our entire house was the Lee Iacocca autobiography Dad won for selling the most cars at the Fourth of July tent sale.
The books were small and glossy and bore titles like A Winner's Guide to Blackjack and Beat the Casino. They had lots of pictures and were only about sixty pages long. Perfect for an eleven-year-old like me. The week before the trip, after my mom and fourteen-year-old sister went to bed, I sat at the kitchen table and practiced dealing hands of 21 to my dad and my three Cabbage Patch Kids.
On the afternoon my family arrived at Paradise Island, Dad handed my mom, my sister, and me each a crisp one-hundred-dollar bill. He recited our family vacation motto -- Money is no object! -- then bolted for the casino the moment the airport shuttle's door slid open. Mom caught the trolley to the outdoor market, my sister went off to buy pot, and I went in search of my dad, eager to sit beside him at the tables and watch him play.
It was my first time in a casino but certainly not my father's. In the early years of my parents' marriage, he and Mom flew out to Vegas a couple of times a year and stayed at the Tropicana. In 1976, a nun from the orphanage called my parents and told them there was a two-week-old baby girl available. My parents had married young and had been trying to have kids for twelve years. They had adopted my sister three years earlier. Now there was a new baby, from a different family. Were they interested? Mom cried "Yes!" but as soon as she hung up, Dad reminded her of the tickets they had, to see Elvis in Vegas that weekend. The next morning they picked me up from Catholic Social Services, named me after the Kiss song "Beth," which was playing on the radio, left me with Aunt Bonnie, and took off to Vegas. On the evening of the show, Dad found himself at the blackjack table, in the middle of a "hot streak." Despite my mother's pleading, Dad refused to quit playing, and they missed Elvis. Twenty-two years later, during their divorce, Mom repeated this story in front of the judge as proof that my father was a problem gambler.
Excerpted from Lay the Favorite by Beth Raymer. Copyright 2010 by Beth Raymer. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved.