The One Armed Bandit

I went to Las Vegas, Nevada for the first time. Being a sucker for kitsch, I wanted the full experience. In downtown Las Vegas I watched the five-block long television screen with its 12.5 million LED modules, the one that flashed an alien invasion movie four stories above your head while you stood transfixed underneath wondering how they did that.

I watched gondoliers pole the cobalt blue lagoon of the Venetian singing arias from Puccini under an indoor sky of pink and white clouds. They wore black and white striped shirts and boaters, black pants and thick, red sashes. The only inauthentic thing about them—if you could overlook their being inside a shopping center that was itself inside one of the world’s largest casinos—was that some of them were women. I never saw a single woman gondolier in Venice.

It is no wonder these casinos are packed with people. An outside thermometer registered 116ยบ. Whoever had the idea of putting a casino in the middle of the desert deserves a prize for visionary thinking.

For the complete Las Vegas experience, I needed to plunk down some cash. I don’t play black jack or mini-baccarat or Spanish 21 or Pai Gow poker or even roulette. There was no way I was going to belly up to the craps table and say “What do I do now?”

I saw a heavy set woman with blond hair and a cleavage that would make the fashionista press tremble like a dowsing rod over water.

“May I watch?” I asked her.

“Sure,” she replied.

“How much are you playing for?”

She pointed above the machine. Like a sign outside all night diner, a two and a five in chocolate brown against a yellow background blinked on and off.

“Where do you put in the quarter?”

She laughed. I felt as if I had just gotten off the boat.

She took a twenty-dollar bill out of her red faux leather wallet and slipped it into one of those slits that say Insert bill with picture side up.

She pushed a button. The numbers began to tumble. When they stopped, a row of five sevens appeared. The machine made a noise like a hook and ladder truck coming out of a firehouse.

“Wow. You must have won a fortune,” I said admiringly.

“Twelve dollars,” she said.

She printed out a voucher for her winnings and mechanically slipped it back into the machine. Twelve dollars of credit flashed across the screen.

In that same instant a memory flashed across my mind. When I was a kid, my mother used to play the numbers. Every day the neighborhood bookie—he lived just across the street—would come by the house with a pad and pencil. He only had one arm. I marveled at his dexterity in writing down my mother’s 25-cent wager by balancing the pad on his knee and writing 347 in a box with his good right arm. I called him the one-armed bandit, though never to his face.

Remembering Mom and the one armed bandit, I took a dollar out of my wallet and eased it into a waiting slot. The bill went in like a fly to a frog. In the next moment the machine made so much noise I had to cover my ears. Clearly, the fire truck had left the firehouse. I waited to see how far it had gone. When the noise subsided, I had won $2.50. I pressed the button that said something like take the money and run.

It felt good leaving Las Vegas ahead of the game.

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