We were out of money and out of options, standing in the lobby of the Golden Nugget ready to head home after our weekend of budget-minded debauchery, when we remembered that 30 hours earlier, we’d pulled into the casino parking lot on fumes. We pooled our remaining money together for an immediate gas stop, but all we had was a buck seventy-five. That was not going to get us home, even at 1992 prices.
My best friend since High School, Cathy Lopez, and I were used to flying by the seat of our pants and somehow things working out. We’d run out of gas countless times over the years, but generally we were close enough to walk home or to a phone booth where we could call for help.
After college graduation, Cathy had moved to Berlin and I’d come to California with just $200 and a suitcase full of dreams. A dream that I’d land a job, find a place to live and a car within that first week and all within my ludicrously meager budget. I eventually pulled off all of those things, but for years I lived on happy hour taquitos and all-you-can eat Carl’s Jr. salad bar buffets, swiped toilet paper from my temp jobs and stored my clothes in the kitchen cabinets of my Hollywood studio apartment for lack of both furniture and kitchen supplies. Once, when I was down to my last dollar and wondering how I might eat until my next paycheck, I bought my first lottery scratcher. Like Charlie Bucket desperately hoping for a Golden Ticket in that last Wonka Bar, I leaned up against the graffiti-covered wall outside the Pink Elephant liquor store at Franklin and Western and scratched at the silver polymer with my house key. Could it be? The scratcher said I’d won $100! I walked into the store and handed my ticket to the cashier who promptly handed me five $20s. Closest thing to the lottery that we had back in North Carolina was BINGO night in the church hall. California was clearly a most magical place to live! I was walking on air as I strolled to the nearby Gelsen’s and bought myself two whole bags of food.
When Cathy came to visit about three years into my California adventure, I was still broke and took her to my favorite happy hours, free entertainment at Venice Beach, and to the Comedy Store’s Belly Room where my friend, Larry, was performing in an open mic. He promised to cover our two-drink minimum if we came to support him. When the emcee introduced Larry, she said, “This young man may well be the next Barry Manilow,” and Cathy and I, already well beyond that two-drink minimum, heckled the host, “Booo! Not Barry Manilow!” We were on Sunset Blvd hoping to see Axl Rose not a has-been crooner from our parents’ record collections. As Larry took the stage and was greeting the audience, the emcee squatted down next to us and said “Ladies, you need to be careful what you say in this town because you never know who is in the audience.” She signaled behind her with a cock of her head and sure enough, three rows back, there was Barry Manilow.
Clearly, Cathy and I needed to get out of town. We needed to go to Las Vegas, where we’d heard the Golden Nugget had rooms for just $29.99 a night, there were $4.99 All-you-can-eat buffets and, as long as you’re gambling, they bring you FREE cosmopolitans and pretzels all night long.
We poured quarters into adjacent video poker machines and the drinks kept coming as we racked up three-of-a-kind and full-house victories. We lounged poolside with cocktails and nachos paid for in quarter winnings. We soaked in the lights on the strip and window shopped at the extravagant new Caesars Palace Forum. We squeezed every moment of joy out of our $60 budget, so much so that we forgot we’d arrived on fumes. So, there we were in the Golden Nugget lobby, knowing full-well video poker wouldn’t convert our handful of quarters into enough gas to make the 275-mile drive back to Hollywood. Both of our credit cards were maxed out. We didn’t know anyone in Vegas. Prostitution was out of the question. We needed to get back before dark and we didn’t think 10am on a Sunday was a good time to launch such a career.
As we walked through the casino, we debated the best use of the $1.75 in my pocket. We opted for the Massive Glacier Gold slot machine by the door. It promised big payouts. No less than $20. At about $1.15 a gallon, that should get us home. We dropped in four quarters and pulled the lever. Lights flashed, music jangled, and the reels of crowns and cherries rolled. We held our breaths. Time stood still. Over the casino speakers En Vogue reminded us “Ooh You’re Never Gonna Get It” as the jackpot symbols fell into place. Without a match. En Vogue was right. Our hearts sunk. We now had 75 cents and little hope. As we turned toward the door, a shady-looking man in a tuxedo called out to us, “Last chance to enter for the whirlwind of money! Throw your names in for your chance to win!” Everything in Vegas is a gimmick we figured as we dejectedly walked past him and his carny-calibre pitch, pushing open the golden doors to the rush of hot air and light. “Come on ladies! Don’t go! Take a chance! You could be winners!”
And that was true. We weren’t losers. Not my best friend and me. No! We’d traveled through East Germany to Vienna in a box car and made it there alive! We’d sailed around the Florida Keys with a Jamaican drug dealer and survived to tell the tale. Surely there was still a chance that we could leave Las Vegas as winners. We turned back. “The drawing is about to take place! Throw your names in the mix!” he said with a mischievous smile like Mr. Dark from Something Wicked This Way Comes. A crowd of people gathered around a phone-booth-size box. “Just write your names on these two pieces of paper.” And within moments, names were fluttering inside a Bingo cage. Mr. Dark reached in with a flourish and pulled out a folded paper. “Cathy Lopez!” he called out.
He ushered my best friend toward the chamber, gave her goggles, and told her to grab all the money she could grab and stuff it anywhere she could stuff it. Suddenly air blew through the booth and Cathy was barely visible in the whirl of $1s and $5s and $10s and $20s as she frantically grabbed hands full, stuffing cash in her bra and her now fortuitously chosen MC Hammer pants. Her dark wavy hair flew wildly as the crowd cheered and an occasional $100 bill came into sight.
When the cash ceased swirling, Cathy emerged flushed with bills coming out of every pocket and sleeve. Holy crap! Could it be true? Will they actually let us keep all this money? “Congratulations!” shouted Mr. Dark into his mic as he thanked sponsors and the crowd dispersed. He quickly segued to recruiting people for the 2pm drawing.
We rushed to the car stunned by our good fortune. We counted our winnings on the backseat of my CRX. Sweaty, bunched up ones and fives mostly, but all together over $600. We subtracted the cost of Cathy’s airplane ticket, our hotel stay and meals, set aside the money we’d need for gas AND snacks on the way home, and then we extended our trip a little longer. We headed out to the sparking Forum Shops where we bought ourselves matching Caesar’s Palace white and gold glitter sweatshirts. We passed the cheap buffets and sat down for a meal in a real restaurant. And when we got in my car for the drive home, Barry Manilow came on the radio crooning “Looks Like We Made It.” We turned that shit off and popped in a more appropriate cassette for our drive back to LA. “Welcome to the Jungle” screamed Axl Rose, “You can taste the bright lights, but you won’t get there for free”…that is unless, of course, you win a spot in the Whirlwind of money.
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As shared at Story Salon's virtual show on January 25, 2021 and seen at 39 mins into the video below: