Sometimes, you dig in the trash and you find treasure.
It happened to me some time ago, in Las Vegas.
Over the years, my Vegas vision has turned more toward food and away from gambling. The city offers some of the finest restaurants in the country. Leave the buffets for those in need of mere fuel, wonders await elsewhere.
If you have the money.
Since the town is a splashy veneer stretched taut over a greed machine designed to take all that you own, the option of making a trip to a great eatery is out of the question if you’ve been lured too often to the tables and Lady Luck has left you in the lurch.
This particular visit, I struck the right balance, playing less than usual and playing well when I did. And in a moment of stunning good fortune, I bet the horses right.
My youngest daughter, Ivy, was in from LA. She, I and my friend Marion hit the sports book at Mandalay Bay, drinking far too much for the middle of the day and betting on The Preakness. Ivy was in a jovial mood watching me work. We’d been to Santa Anita several times and she knew my batting average was .000.
For The Preakness, I indulged a favorite strategy, checking the sheet for snazzy names. My theory hinges on a tenet of Cabbalistic mysticism: namely, that letters (and therefore names formed by those letters) are in harmony with eternal verities. Tune to the Absolute embodied in a letter, a sound and name, and you are enlightened. I used this approach for my first pick. Only one name met the criteria — Smarty Jones, the winner of the Kentucky Derby. I took Smarty as the No. 1 horse in a trifecta.
I asked Icy which horses she liked. She closed her eyes and jabbed at the sheet with her pencil. “I figure I’ve got as good a chance doing it this way as you do with your method,” she said, looking around for a cocktail waitress and another free White Russian. I asked Marion what he intended to do; he shrugged his shoulders and headed for the deli in search of a corned beef sandwich.
I needed a horse to place and another to show
For someone with my limited attention span, there was too much information available: previous records, odds, jockeys, head-to-head competition, ability to run a certain distance on a particular surface … blah, blah, blah.
I stuck with intuition and inspiration.
There’s a horse at 5-1 called Rock Hard Ten. Something about the name grabs me; I realized I’d seen it before, on a gay porn site. So it is: Rock Hard Ten, to place.
Then, at 8-1, there’s a horse called Eddington. Egad, Sir Arthur Edward Eddington — my favorite British astronomer and physicist. Could it be a coincidence? I think not. Eddington to show.
Well, darned if my picks don’t hit: Smarty first, the long Hard one second, and Eddington third.
I’d found a new way to make a living.
I dug in the trash, I found a diamond.
And, I had a wad o’ cash to take in search of eats.
The night before, we’d made a trek to Commander’s Palace. Ivita and I each enjoyed a crab cake — nary a crumb of bread product in the mass of lump crab, the sweet flesh surrounded by a light remoulade. Then, a bowl of Commander’s gumbo and, for the topper, a bowl of barbecue fish stew ladled around a cake of spicy Basmati, the dark, spicy sauce transporting oysters (oh no, it’s not an R month!) huge shrimps and chunks of battered and deep fried red fish.
For a finish, the kid and I shared a unique crème brulée — the custard spread in an even, thin layer across a large plate, turbinado glazed crisp by torch
It was mighty fine. Now, how to trump the score?
I pondered the question as I played a bit of blackjack at the Tropicana, doubling and splitting fearlessly. I was thinking we’d go to Picasso at Bellagio. Aureole at Mandalay Bay. Maybe Nob Hill at the MGM Grand.
“I got it,” said Ivy. “Posie’s in town; just talked to her on the phone. She’s on her way from the airport to the Monte Carlo. We’ll meet her for dinner.”
Posie, sadly no longer with us, was unique —the daughter of the former British environmental governor of Hong Kong and his Chinese wife, and schooled in England — a spicy gal with a full-tilt, bugs-on-the-windshield attitude toward life, her tank filled with a pharmacological blend precisely adjusted to meet each new circumstance. I knew we were about to take a turn down Odd Avenue, but I went along, After all, I’d just plucked a gem from the muck. I’m lucky.
My confidence dissipated as Ivy and I headed for the restaurant. She told me where we were going and my mood tumbled like a climber absent a critical piton.
If Las Vegas were a huge bathtub, this place would be the screen over the drain.
We take a cab down The Strip to the casino. Outside, cops wrestle a miscreant to the sidewalk, dose him with pepper spray and pummel him about the head and shoulders as they apply the cuffs and drag him away. We enter. Bedlam. The joint is filled with smoke and deafening racket; people push shoulder to shoulder in the aisles. A guy is on his knees barfing into a trash receptacle; a massive fellow with a bleached blond mohawk and Nazi tattoos on his beefy arms turns and punches a small chap dressed in a cheap, polyester suit. People are shouting, some are squawking like large birds. A cocktail waitress in a skimpy outfit pushes past with a tray of drinks. She is 70 years old if she is a day. It is the casino experience, designed by Hieronymus Bosch.
“Nice place,” I say to Ive. “What have you got us into?”
“Not to worry pops, as soon as Posie gets here, we’re entering another universe.”
“Pops.” That’s what Posie calls me when she arrives, the swarm of maniac drones in the casino parting to let the Queen Bee pass.
Posie is dressed appropriately: a skimpy black dress, a feather boa, knee-high retro Go Go boots, half white and half black, a pair of gigantic dark glasses, the lenses shaped like hearts.
I think: We’re not going to eat — we’re going to be eaten.
But, my luck holds. We board a private elevator at the front corner of the carnival and, as my precious Ivester promised, the door opens on another universe — one of Vegas’ high rated restaurants.
We are greeted by the hostess, who hugs and kisses Posie and Ivy. Then, like a vision from a B-grade Yves Montand movie, the manager appears.
More kisses (delivered to the air next to cheeks) and the flicking of ash from the tip of an unfiltered cigarette. “Oh, finally, you return. Life is bleak, no? Ze noise, ze lights, nuhzing. Eet eez sheet.”
We go to the VIP room, all plush couches and heavy, low tables. The room is reminiscent of a library, the shelves containing all manner of artifacts. We sit.
Not 30 seconds later, Posie is outta there, with Andre in tow. A waiter, meanwhile, delivers the first of three bottles of a Chambertin Clos de Beze, 1999, from Pierre Darnoy. When pinot noir is done right …
Posie and Andre are back.
Oops, no they’re not. They’re up and gone again.
Turns out the restaurant is owned by a former movie producer. Turns out Ivy and Posie know the guy from Hollywood. Turns out photos of Ivy and Posie sit on the shelf in the VIP room. Hmmm.
Andre and Posie are back. He snaps his fingers and a waiter appears with menus. A moment later, Andre takes out a teensy pad of yellow paper and asks us what we desire. We tell him, he writes it down. Snap, snap. The piece of paper is dispatched.
Posie and Andre are off again.
“Cigarettes, cocaine and Xanax,” says Icy, by way of explanation.
Another bottle of the pinot is delivered to home base. We drink, then we’re escorted to a booth at the far end of the dining room. Our starters are waiting for us.
For Icy, a tuna tartare, perfectly fresh, minced raw fish compacted into a huge disc in a ring mold, a moat of mysterious sauce (olive oil, cumin, lemon, mustard seed, what else?) surrounding it.
For Posie: A Hummer of a slab of duck foie gras.
Pour moi: Four custom-crafted lobster ravioli in lobster sauce, the sauce a deep brownish red in color, ramified in flavor.
Posie is up and outta there.
“Purging,” says Ive, as she ties into the tartare. “And, maybe another Xanax and a Marlboro Light. She’s tense, you know. Hollywood makes you tense. She comes to Vegas to relax.”
I eat most of Posie’s foie gras.
Then, serious food.
For Ivy: a filet as large as I’ve ever seen, medium rare, with a wild mushroom sauce, and lobster mashed potatoes.
For Posie: A major league serving of the lobster ravioli.
Pour moi: A piece of perfectly cooked maple and soy glazed sea bass the size of a catcher’s mitt, with pureed yam and crisp green beans.
Andre slides into the booth as we eat. It’s like having dinner with Jean Paul Sartre. “Life is sheet, eh? Zees pipple, zey are blind, no? I make $300,000 a year. What does it mean? Nuhzing, eh?”
Posie is up and outta there.
The third bottle of the pinot is drained. We are satiated, bleary, too far gone for desserts.
And I am scared … of the bill. This is a great restaurant and great restaurants involve great prices.
Where is it? And how much? How much room do I have left on my card?
The waiters are standing around watching Ivy imitate nearby diners. Posie is bouncing around on the seat of the booth like a bobble-head doll. Andre is slumped back, cigarette drooping from his lip, his eyes invisible behind dark glasses, a small espresso stain on the lapel of his rumpled, linen suit.
“Let’s go to the Ghost Bar,” shouts Posie.
“I hate ze Ghost Bar and everyone there,” mutters Andre. “But, I will go.”
Ivy is now imitating Andre. “Zees pipple, zey are, — how do you say? — sheet. I detest them. We must go.”
Not me. I’m finished. I’ve had a big day. Horse racing king, world-class meal, three bottles of primo pinot. Plus, I’m old. I beg off.
“What about the tab?” I ask. (Fear and trembling).
“Just leave half the tip,” says Posie. “Match this, Pops.” She throws seventy-five bucks on the table. I do the same.
Yep, we’re in another universe. Let’s see: one hundred-fifty is twenty-five percent of …?
If I want to return, I better come heavy with cash. In other words, this is never going to happen again.
So, bottom line: The gem in the dung heap magic continued. I was golden, hotter’n a pistol.
I ‘m happy to share the secret of my success with you, dear reader. Here’s a tip on playing the horses: make sure all the letters, all the sounds, all the words are perfect.
When you have a firm grip on the system, take out a second mortgage if you have to. That’s what I plan to do.
Andre agreed: He said, “Eet eez a seench.”
Or did he say, “eet is sheet?”