Big Lake in the Sky

The Wild Game Feast

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  • Cal Neva Lodge, 1938

     

    by John Michael Gorrindo

     

    The chef was frenzied; a man acutely on the edge of apoplectic seizure.  In his stiffly starched whites he lumbered through Cal Neva’s frenetic kitchen hurling insults and gesticulating wildly.  At six feet four and packing two hundred fifty pounds, his beet colored face was spitting with nervous rage and his neck had dangerously dilated with an influx of roiling blood.  He had become more bull than man.

    “Where’s the shrimp- the shrimp?!  Isn’t the god damned shrimp boiled yet? The pantry man has got to finish with the hor doeurves! .  You fucking idiots!  We’ve got to get this ship moving- and fast!”

    Just that moment Jack Holt, head of casino security stepped up into the kitchen having climbed the stairway from housekeeping which was located in the basement. His cowboy boots had a spit shine and his good ole boy smile was as frightful as it was fraudulent.

    “Now Gerhard, you damn fool Kraut, what you so upset about?   Anything I should know about?”

    “Keep to your own business, Mr. Jack.  This is my kitchen.  You have your work- I have mine!” the chef sputtered.

    Jack Holt smiled wryly and responded with a rehearsed laugh that perched precariously atop the shoulders of a menacing growl. His face suddenly turned from one of feigned jocularity to that of Gestapo coldness.

    “You just calm down, soldier- ya hear?  People can hear you all the way out in the pit when you bellow like a bull.  Our VIP’s are already startin’ to arrive. Now I gotta mind to come back around to check in with you.  You’all better settle down in the mean time.”

    The shrimp had indeed been cooked, but set to soak in a fifteen gallon aluminum pot on a counter space back in the dish washing area.  Every available work space had been cluttered over with pots, pans, utensils, cutlery, and every other cooking accessory known to a large, institutional kitchen.  Hidden from view and placed in an unlikely spot, one of the cooks had set the huge vessel in the back where there was still a little counter space available.

    Having just grabbed a handful of super-sized prawns from the pot in question, I gulped them down greedily as I listened to the chef and Jack Holt vent their spleens.  Fifteen feet in front of me stood Jeb washing dishes, his back facing me.

    He suddenly turned around from his stainless steel sink and froze in his stance, hands dripping with water at his sides while he curmudgeonly glowered.  

    “You better get the hell outta here, Bubba,” said Jeb.  His words were liked blessed rain in Death Valley on the fourth of July.  This was Jeb’s natural form of  paternal affection.

    “That Jack Holt would as soon skin you alive as take a shit if he caught you back here filchin’ food for the banquet.  And the chef?  Hell- he’d skewer you on a spit and do some exhibition cooking for them VIP’s as entertainment tonight!  Just how many times have you come back here to put yur dirty hands in that pot?  Six?  Seven?  Hey- don’t look so surprised!  I know when someone’s sneakin’ behind my back!  You’all think I was born yesterday, dontchya?

    “Oh, man that’s good!”  I said smacking my lips.  “Yeah, Jeb- as always- you’re right.  I’ll get my ass back out to the dining room.”

    I knew and liked a lot of the alcoholics working in the casino, but Jeb was my favorite.  He was the kind of old school alkie that nipped at a flask he carried in his pants that hung like a loose sack fitted with two leggings on his pickled, emaciated body.  Even though Jeb had long since lost all his teeth and didn’t have the money to buy dentures, he spoke with a clear Tennessee twang whose diction was remarkably intelligible. 

    The shriveled up old man didn’t appear to have a lot of days left on God’s green earth.  His face was withered up like that of a dried apple doll and his skin clammy gray and semitransparent like a squid’s.  Their cellular walls collapsing at an ever increasing rate, his protoplasm was breaking down in visible clusters.  The skin of his arms sagged sorrowfully and looked ready to slough off the bone at a moment’s notice.  Jeb was walking death dressed up as a dishwasher. 

    But he still had a goodly amount of piss left in him.  He dramatically threw away the goose-necked power spray nozzle he’d been holding.  It started to bouncing like a mad puppet while he wiped his hands on a white apron which was soiled and splattered with every conceivable kind of restaurant refuge.  Passing his water-logged hands through his wet and greasy hair, he reached inside his shirt pocket for his pack of cigarettes.  After one drag off his filterless Lucky Strike he suffered a short and brutal coughing attack that culminated with a huge wad of phlegm depositing itself in his mouth.  Jeb promptly spit it out into the waste disposal hole at the bottom of the pot washing sink.

    Standing feeble and slightly hunch-backed, Jeb’s breathing labored as he wheezed audibly between each puff.

    “I’ll tell you one thing, Bubba.  That Jack Holt is the one serious contender.  He plays for keeps.  Don’t you go forgettin’ that my young friend.  You heard about the houseman they caught stealin’ prescription medication out of one of the hotel rooms, didn’t ya?”

    I had, but I lied straight faced.  “No, tell me about it Jeb.”

    Shiiiit,” he drawled. “They took him into the security room down in the basement and gave him one helluva workin’ over.  Ole Jack thought fer sure those houseman had a pill ring goin.’  He was hell bound to beat it outta ‘im, ya know?  Listen- I hear say ole Jack Holt done learned how to torture prisoners of war back in Korea.  That’s what they say.  You know he carries brass knuckles, right?  You can damn well see ‘um bulgin’ in his jacket pocket!  Always carries it in the left pocket, ya know.  He’s a southpaw.  I notice these things my friend.  Hell no I weren’t born yesterday!   Take a look sometime.  Like I say- it’s the left pocket.  And of course he has that service revolver with the white ivory stock.  Shiiiiiiiiit.  He got drunk last night at the lounge and started showin’ it off!  Lucky he didn’t shot somebody.  What with them hippies in the lounge band and all, they were god damned fortunate he didn’t pick one of ‘em off for a little target practice!”

    “Jeb- I’ll have to catch up to you later, buddy.  I promise to watch myself, OK?  Thanks for the heads-up. Gotta get back to work.”

    “Yeah- you do that now.  Ole fire hydrant will have yur ass it you don’t.”

    I slipped around the corner and silently passed along side the Filipino pantry man, who was attentively sharpening his knife on an oiled whetstone. His whites were perfectly unsoiled and his tall cook’s hat stood proudly upright, fixed securely to his head.  Serenely detached from the chaos that surrounded him, he set the knife’s edge at just the right bevel before sliding it across the length of stone, starting slowly into a grinding slide with finger tips as guides placed just so across the length of the knife’s dull edge, and then accelerating until reaching the stone’s far edge.  He repeated the action again, and again; precisely as the time before.

    Before exiting through the swinging double doors into the casino dining room, I glanced back just in time to see the head chef launch into a fresh tirade with one of the cooks who cowered while seeking refuge behind the grill.

    Somehow, I couldn’t really blame the surly German.  He was one of the few in Cal Neva’s shoddy operation that was a true professional.  Getting the job done right was terribly important to him, no matter who was being fed.  How a European-trained chef could survive in the sub-standard mendacity that was Cal Neva was beyond reckoning. How did such a man find his way to such a place? In my own softhearted way I kind of liked this brute that nearly everyone else loved to hate.  They hated him not only because of his caustic temper- but because he deemed most everyone surrounding him to be incompetent.  They hated him especially because he was right.

    There had been a whirl wind build up to this day.  No less than the Governor of Nevada along with a lot of other politicos, influential businessmen, and assorted criminal dignitaries from all over the Silver State were converging on Cal Neva Lodge for a night of conspicuous consumption.  A dinner was being held in the main showroom in honor of the Governor and his entourage.  Dubbed the Wild Game Feast, more than fifty game dishes were to be served, banquet style.  Along with roasted leg of bison and bear stew the menu consisted of more exotic fare like bobcat a la burgundy, turtle soup, and crocodile pie.  The Cal Neva kitchen was in a blitz to prepare an array and volume of cuisine that would have challenged the culinary versatility of Buckingham Palace’s kitchens.

    The door swung back violently on its springs and closed behind me as I reentered the dining room.  From behind the cash register located at the far end of the long traditional lunch counter stood Ole Fire Hydrant- the dining room supervisor.  Her hair was a ghastly swab of dyed red matter piled high atop her head.  It gave her the appearance of always being set aflame. Glaring at me with contempt through her heavy black mascara and fake eyelashes, she was unable to rush over and chide my unexcused absence as she was making change for some customers huddled together around her.  I had been taking license all morning as the cashier hadn’t showed and the dining room supervisor had been forced to cover her shift.

    I quickly broke free of her murderous eye contact and stepped into the small employees dining area that was annex to the larger dining room.  The bus boys were scheduled to different sections of the dining room complex on a rotating basis, and the employee’s lounge was my station assignment for the day. 

    It was an assignment that could be easily abused as outside of the lunch hour, the employees didn’t ask for much other than tea or coffee, and there was a waitress stationed there as well.  The tips were lousy, making the employee’s lounge the waitresses’ and bus boys’ least favorite work duty.  I did my best to escape back into the kitchen to talk with Jeb or Hawaiian Sam, the two day shift dishwashers.

    However, if one was interested in a parade of fascinating fauna, the employee’s lounge held a distinct fascination.

    The employees who most frequented the lounge were dealers from the pit.  Some dealt twenty-one, and others were croupiers from the craps or roulette tables. Most striking were the two attributes they all possessed in direct proportion to each other.  The steely nerve which allowed them to survive the unrelenting scrutiny they received from both the pit bosses and gamblers was commensurate to their cool and calculative minds.  There were many people who drank or took drugs while on shift in the casino, but the dealers were as sober as corporate accountants.

    They all looked the part- loners lean as cheetah with inscrutable eyes that unerringly shunted away the sight of anything or anybody they had no desire to behold. Their fierce self-discipline nullified the proximity of anything they wished be non-existent  Whether male or female, they all possessed long, sharply pointed noses which came to the fore creating the ax blade’s edge of their drawn, expressionless faces. 

    The intensity of their job necessitated a fifteen minute break every hour. It was not unusual to see each of them six times during an eight hour shift.  No matter how often they dropped in, they were sure to absolutely ignore you and your service each and every time.  Often they would not respond to a hello or how are you.  Their dragged their bodies about as if they were moribund remnants whose only purpose was to house a machinating mind silently functioning as hidden behind a frozen set of facial musculature. 

    They were the casino’s cyborgs, and maintaining their homeostasis of mental acuity required them to lock into an absolute zero level of emotional involvement.  Instinctively one knew it was due to their job’s rigorous death grip on mind and soul.  They could not afford to break their concentration.  One misdeal, error in payback, or inappropriately spoken word uttered to the wrong person meant the loss of their job.  During their breaks they simply sat alone and silently drank a hot cup of Lipton tea or coffee, staring unblinkingly as if in a coma.  Theirs was a blankness of being.  While on the job they had the uncanny ability to cancel their aura and with it any expressive shred of recognizable humanity.  They were walking brains in jars.

    And they were terrible tippers.  But given they visited half a dozen times daily it was forgivable.  And as a motley dope crazed collective, we busboys were greedy for money, and harbored harsh regard for those who slighted the dining room crew with a paltry tip.  We were paid just $2.00 per hour, and it was rare to come away from an eight hour shift with more than $10.00 in tips as given us by the waitresses.

    The busboys were a good natured, scurrilous lot of vigorous if not wasted humanity.  I was the odd man out, as I had actually grown up at Lake Tahoe.  The rest were mainly from places like New York, Ohio, Louisiana, and Texas.  Lord knows the trouble most of them had seen in their young lives.

    One thing was perfectly clear- all of them had self-jettisoned from some compromising circumstance that had made their past life untenable.  That much could be sensed simply by being in their presence. But just what had prompted a swift departure from points sometimes unknown was initially a question left to the imagination.  To the last man they were exceedingly chummy and great to pal around with being I was only nineteen years old, but unless you evolved into a trusted friend, most were careful not to reveal the story of their sordid and sometimes terrifying and violent pasts. Only overtime did sketchy profiles leak through and began to emerge.

    Cal Neva’s employees were no different than those of any other club located at Stateline Nevada on North Shore Lake Tahoe. For countless numbers of these great unwashed, the casino life was the last stop on their road to perdition, hell, or what have you.  To say it was an asylum would be a thoughtless and cruel attempt at irony. Refugee camp was more like it.  It was the nature of the casino beast and its demographic.  If Dante were to drop in on the year 1970 he need go no further that a place like Cal Neva Lodge to do the necessary research for an updated version of The Divine Comedy. The soul-slighted working poor that filled the revolving door positions of this as well as any casino I had ever visited since the age of seven had already lived out their purgatory; now they were full-fledged citizens of hell.

    During that era, a steady stream of young dispossessed white men and women- many of them still in their twenties and already on their last leg of ability to survive American life- showed up at casino personnel offices who routinely hired anybody who walked through the door.  Their tenure might be a week or ten years.  If they lost a job at one club, there was always another one up the street.

    My Cal Neva bussing stint lasted ten months. Amongst my fellow dirty plate handlers, many were heroin users; all heavy pot smokers and drinkers.  The panoply of drugs available to all of us was nothing short of breathtaking.  Nevada casinos at the Lake were incendiary beds for drug sales and use.  What had started in the 1950’s with mundane substances such as alcohol and prescription pep pills had quickly graduated to the full doctor’s bag of illegal street drugs by 1970.  Pipelines originating from an array of sources ranging from hippy chemistry labs in San Francisco to smuggled Mexican weed to crystal methedrine manufactured by the Hells Angels in trailers sitting out in the Northern California desert pumped into the casinos every kind of mind numbing substance known to man outside of those ritual substances privy only to shaman held inaccessible in the Amazon rainforest. 

    One of the sweeter, more good-hearted busboys who worked alongside me was Paul.  His cheap wig looked particularly seedy on this auspicious day of the Wild Game Feast.  It hadn’t been washed for months, and its netting was showing through the mop of mold-ridden synthetic hair fibers he was required to stretch over the top of his outrageously long, curly hair. He had bought the wig at the same salon a few others of us had for the usual $18.95.  Both Paul and I were charter members of the exclusive group known affectionately as the Wigmen.  Our proud cadre would as soon die as sheer off our manes, and the casino brass had begrudgingly allowed us to keep said Samson locks if and only if we tucked them up into hair pieces.  These cheap wigs invariably left our asphyxiated hair limp and lifeless with scalps chronically ailing from a low grade kind of mange as their synthetic materials were suffocating.

    Paul and I had been chosen along with a few others to bus for that evening’s banquet.  Momentarily abandoning his bus station in the spacious dining room section whose picture windows offered a magnificent view of Crystal Bay Point and much of Lake Tahoe, he approached me while I was making coffee in the dark, lifeless confines of the employee’s lounge. 

    “Hey John, do you know how Gilbert is going to divvy up the tips tonight?  I asked him yesterday, and he just kind of  mumbled and walked away.  I’m beginning to think he’s going to rip us off.  He’s a squirrelly little motherfucker.”

    Like I said, Paul was a sweet as they come.

    “Ron Gilbert?  Hell no, I don’t trust him either.  We can only hope he’s having a good day and decides to show a little generosity,” I replied.  It was hard to muster any thing positive when on the subject of Ron Gilbert.

    “Shit man, I could really use the money.  You think we’ll make thirty-five tonight?  My candy man’s back in town.  He gave me a free taste last night.” Paul’s eyes lit up with a memory-induced rush of endorphins.  “God, it’s so fuckin’ sweet.  He’ll sell me a couple of bags at a friendly discount.  But I got to hustle-up the cash pronto.  He’s not going to stand by and wait.  He’s looking to sell everything and leave town as soon as possible.”

    Paul was a great guy with a penchant for narcotics.  Monkey paws had a firm grip on his hide.  Heroin was something he had toyed with back in Brooklyn.  Maybe he had come out to Nevada and California and the Sierra Nevada mountains to distance himself from the Crazy Horse.  If he had, landing work in one of Lake Tahoe’s casinos was the one place most non-conducive to exercising a regime of abstinence.

    Paul had already graduated from snorting and smoking to needles.  “Dabbling,” he said.  “I’m an expert at dabbling.”

    This simply meant he was well on his way, and I loathed seeing it.  There was something so nonchalant and childlike in how he spoke to me about his love of heroin.  It was like listening to an aging, sentimental English Gentleman or Lady from the waning days of the Empire speak with childlike, unabashed affection for his or her rose garden.  “So sweet the smell; so sweet the taste.”

    I knew what narcotics was all about, as my mother was presently back at home where I still lived languishing in bed addicted to the prescription variety.   As a boy of ten I had seen her tearfully beg my beleaguered father on her knees to go fill a prescription for Demerol at the Stateline drug store during a violent snow storm that made driving treacherous.  No one in their right mind would send a loved one out in such weather.  The poor guy didn’t have the money either.  His protestations were to no avail.  Who could blame him? In both public and private, my mother affected Puritan-like behavior, showing great emotional reserve.  As her son, bearing witness to the power narcotics had in bringing such a woman to her knees in an unashamed display of utter dependency and desperation taught me the book on downers.  I had become an unwilling expert on the subject.

    Paul trusted me and freely spoke about his experiences with heroin.  In main his stories focused on his ability to maintain control; that he knew where the line was drawn and how not to cross it; how he could monitor his usage and not take the drug everyday past the point of becoming addicted; that his body could faithfully tell him how far he could go and how long he could take the drug at a given stretch before he had crossed over to the other side.

    I was a perceptive and curious, if naïve and forgiving youth.  Enthusiasm always accompanied my probing of people while questioning them about their lives.  I selfishly thought the human interest I brought to bear in my conversations with friends such as Paul to be an endearing personal attribute, but it only served to broadcast mixed messages, both to myself and to others. My mind told me Paul was in real trouble while my heart wanted to embrace and support him no matter what he said.  In the throes of intimate conversation, I gave Paul the impression of only hearing the friendly, soothing tone of his every word at the expense of the stark reality that he was becoming a heroin addict.   He wanted my unconditional support for the lies he told himself, and the friendly interest and attention I lavished on him only nurtured the worst, helping to further entrench his self-deception.

    Paul’s need for a sympathetic ear never inspired me to share in his proclivity for heroin use.  On the contrary, it pushed me away from ever wanting to relax with him on a friendly basis outside of work.  He had no idea the role narcotics had played in destroying my family. It was enough for him to know that he could confide in a non-heroin user concerning the reality of having the drug a part of his life and not be judged in return.  He never suggested that I go down with him.   

    For the busboys to converse freely about drugs and drug use at work was commonplace.  We were not only all youthful products of the 1960’s (the decade still freshly interred in history’s graveyard), but worked in the casino sub-culture which by means of calculated omission on the part of its ruling elite actually promoted the use and abuse of mind-altering substances. There was little fear of reprisal over a little drug talk.

    For all the reptilian-blooded, exploitive policies casino owners exacted on their expendable labor force, they were laissez-faire concerning drugs and alcohol.  The owners were content to see their labor pool remain a self-defeatist, on-the-ropes horde of losers.  “Let them have their anesthesia that delivered them from the pain of being human in such a dehumanizing environment!” was their attitude.  “What the hell- allow them their escape valve!”  It was only to the owners’ advantage to see the bulk of their employees further degrade themselves.  They were that much easier to trammel on and treat with wanton disrespect.

    One could reasonably assume nearly every casino employee abused some variety of drug or drugs.  Usually it was in the plural.  Many imbibed drug cocktails with suicidal abandon.  It was difficult to survive without having to laugh cynically at this carnival of human blight, the entire casino milieu, and at oneself.  In so doing we all spit in our own faces and spited ourselves. It was only when someone came close to overdosing that the lethal potential of drug abuse was pondered with any due cause for serious reflection.

    The casinos attracted free-wheeling, risk-averse personalities who felt most alive while on that wild ride that risks all.  Drug use and gambling are natural bedfellows.  I enjoyed select, yet milder forms of drugs, but hated gambling and all that it stood for.  There was nothing glamorous or attractive about it. 

    Possibly I was unique in the entire Cal Neva operation because I had grown up around “the clubs” as my father had and still did work in them.  I had seen first hand how the influence had corrupted him. He drank and gambled after hours, and never told us back home of his losses- only his winnings.  I landed in the casinos simply because they offered ready short-term employment in the otherwise undeveloped Lake Tahoe area where jobs were scarce- no matter if you were young and inexperienced or older with a successful work resume. 

    By 1971, the Viet Nam war had almost single-handedly defined a powerful generation gap, and as youths we were on the shit-end of that stick. Membership in the youth culture bound us together like superglue in a common cause if not common plight. For me and my cohorts, our youth gave us enough in common to desire mutual company on a daily basis.  But often the only other thing we had in common was drug use. Fortunately I could see my way clear, and knew my life was just beginning at nineteen.  Many of my young casino peers had already grown old in spirit, sensing only doom as the walls seemed to be collapsing in around them.  They lived like there would be a million tomorrows just like today, but the candle of youth burns away in the blink of an eye. It would not be long before we would all never see each other or our youth again.  Our Diaspora was in the immediate offing, but most of us didn’t see the day coming.

    I had some daring, if naïve plans for my immediate future- few others I knew did.  Soon I would have enough money to travel the world and find a better place to play in the sun than what the United States had to offer.  I rigorously saved my money while most others pissed it away.

    This put me in a rare position which I exploited in benign ways.  While spending inordinate amounts of time at work and after hours with these downtrodden souls I acted as a kind of voyeur, indulging in the perverse pleasure of sharing in their downward spiral- but only as would an informant who feigned the appearance of truly being one of them.  As informant, I would only report my findings to myself, and compile these life experiences for future reference. 

    Later as a mature adult I would be able to do what I am doing right now- write in a removed, historical sense about a youthful period of life I had wasted living a down-and-out existence with social outcasts.  Hadn’t a whole cast of luminary authors such as Kerouac, Orwell, and Henry Miller done the same? I fancied the Bohemian life, and serving my time in casino-hell seemed to help qualify me. In the mean time I could enjoy the comradery and non-stop party atmosphere as realized in the moment. My cockamamie bent of mind rationalized this rather self-convincingly.  The companionship I had at my disposal was as good as anybody could have.  The package was worth the pain. In a period of several months I could leave it all behind once fulfilling my projected goal for saving money.

    Paul and I continued our conversation for several minutes. Both of us were looking forward to working the banquet as it did promise some extra cash and was a welcome break from the bleak monotony of day-to-day bussing rounds.  In fact, there was every promise that an anarchical insanity would accompany the Roman-style debauchery that would commence in earnest at 7 PM.

    We understood the guest list to consist of the most detestable cast of characters.  Surely many members of the mob had been invited. Ray Plunkett was Cal Neva’s general manager, and as an old timer at the North Shore clubs his mafia connections were legendary.

    The banquet’s MC was to be the actor and comic Jim Backus, the voice of cartoon buffoon Mr. MaGoo.  Backus was even more well-known for playing the eccentric multi-millionaire Thurston Howell marooned with a cast of other improbable characters on the hit television series Gilligain’s Island.  We had grown up with the man and his inimitable voice, and it delighted us to no end there would be a chance to actually meet him.  His choice for MC struck us as both odd and fortuitous. We had heard rumor a stripper would be providing entertainment, and that was also cause for giddy anticipation.

    Just as Paul and I finished our conversation, Ron Gilbert pushed through the double doors and emerged from the kitchen.  Dressed in sear sucker pants, Hawaiian shirt, and wreaking of cheap cologne, he looked more strung-out and self-preoccupied than usual.

    Gilbert motioned for those bussers who would be working the banquet to briefly convene.  He needed to lay down the guidelines concerning our responsibilities for the evening to come.

    Ron Gilbert was one of the ugliest men I have ever seen.  He possessed a swollen baby face that featured a puffy, permanent snarl in lieu of a pair of lips; a blotched and freckled facial texture that was sickly pale; a swinish snout; and a haircut Mad Magazine routinely used in the 1950’s when caricaturing a white gang banger of that era. The term punk as used during the Great Depression captured him perfectly.  Ron Gilbert was a baby faced little gangster with a mug only a mother could love. He had missed his true calling, which should have been playing  bit roles in Hollywood film noir.  The role of Sidney Greenstreet’s body guard in The Maltese Falcon should have been cast to Ron Gilbert, but he had been born too late.

    Just what Gilbert did in the casino to earn a paycheck was a subject of constant conjecture amongst many casino employees.  Unlike everybody else, he carried no job title.  It was wholly unclear just what the hell he did of any consequence. Given his furtive demeanor and the hushed conversations held regularly in lounge booths between him and Jack Holt gave us all the impression he was one of Holt’s minions.  Jack Holt’s security team was a scary bunch, and many went incognito.  Gilbert sure seemed to be part of Holt’s team.

    Holt was new on the scene and had imported into Cal Neva a security regime of fear and loathing.  As an ex-police officer and former marine originally from the Deep South, everything about him was threatening. He flaunted a Lester Maddox-style intolerance that embodied the worst of the Southern tradition.  Upon first being employed as head of casino security, he arranged a meeting with every department in order to introduce himself and his new standards of security.  Standing before any given group of employees, he made it plain that a new Sheriff was in town. His communication style was to smile and employ gallows humor as he calmly explained how it was he would be instituting a chilling culture of intimidation that promised swift retribution for any employee who strayed off the straight and narrow while executing their assigned responsibilities.  Jack Holt was a walking blunt instrument.

    Most of us in the dining room figured Ron Gilbert served in part as spy and informant to Holt.  Holt and Gilbert trusted the employees no more than they did professional gamblers or the grifters that circulated through the small collection of casinos that were clustered on the Nevada-California Stateline at the North Shore of Lake Tahoe.

    We assembled around Gilbert and waited to hear what news he had to offer. He raised his hands up and held them opposite each other with palms open and fingers slightly curled as if he were holding an imaginary football by the pointed tips.

    “OK.  So you bussers have to bust ass tonight.  This is the only time I’m going to say this, so listen up.  The guests will be serving themselves food from the banquet tables, got it?  Your main job is to bus away the dirty plates as they come ready.  I mean there’ll be a lot of ‘em cause there’s so many courses and so much food and all.  And then make sure the carafes of water and coffee are always full.  The cocktail waitresses on shift tonight will be taking and serving drink orders.  I don’t want any of you touching or serving up carafes of wine or anything alcoholic, so remember that.  Some of the guests will ask you for whatever- a fork, some sugar, some Tabasco sauce, some A-1 - whatever.  So make sure you damn well get what they need and do it fast. A lot of supplies will be stored on top of carts in the back of the showroom.  You’ll be assigned your sections when you show up.  And don’t be fuckin’ late!  That’s the worst thing you could do.

    “I don’t need to tell you the three hundred banquet guests are all Nevada big shots.  You know the fuckin’ score. It’s strictly a VIP crowd.  The governor of Nevada will be there.  Cal Neva’s reputation is at stake, ya understand?  If things go well, the club has a lot to gain.  Don’t go fuckin’ anything up.  Put a smile on your face, and kiss their asses if you need to.

    “Now for the dress code.  It’s the usual- you gotta wear black shoes and black pants.  If you don’t, you’ll be sent home. Grab the usual gold bussers jacket off the rack in the back.  Make sure it’s a clean one. And make god damn sure you groom yourselves before hitting the floor.  Some of you guys- I mean Cheezus- your wigs look really fucked up!  Go home and wash ‘em or somethin’- I don’t know- maybe go out and get a new one or better yet cut your sissy, fagged-out hair.  Let’s get on the ball and look half-way respectable.  I’ll be circulatin’ and checkin’ on everything tonight.  I’ll be watching you.  Behave yourselves and use common sense.”

    “What about the tips, Ron?” one of the bussers asked.  “What are we making for the night?”

    Gilbert’s eyes started to roam and his face froze momentarily.  “I ain’t promisin’ a fixed amount.  You’ll get paid decent.  If you ain’t satisfied- well, just remember a lot of people are in on the cut. At the end of the banquet I’ll give you all you bussers the same amount in cash.  Just look for me after the gig.”

    The conversation was dead on arrival. Gilbert back-stepped away from us and quickly disappeared through the swinging doors and dissolved into the kitchen.

    The group of us were left to stare at each other.  Our only question had to do with tips, and as Gilbert had done with Paul, he had side-stepped it.

    “Fagged-out hair?” one busser mocked reprehensibly.

    “What a bullshit artist that mother fucker is,” said a second.

    “If he stiffs us I’ll kill the slimy son-of-a-bitch,” chimed a third.

    “Naw, he’ll just short us and pocket the rest,” retorted the fourth.

    The fourth and final statement of the round robin had succeeded to land squarely in our collective solar plexi.  We all stood together on the inevitability we would be shorted.  Gilbert would simply make off with a certain percentage.  And nobody in the casino would ever know or care.

    Gilbert stood accused and judged guilty in a nanosecond. And we knew that there was nothing we could ever do to stop the baby faced gangster from doing his will.  We would have to bite the bullet on this one. But this kind of larceny was nothing new to us.  The bussers were an enterprising and resilient group of comrades in arms, and when it came to mal-distribution of wealth, we had already come to terms with a day-to-day system of exploitation that inflicted us more damage than anything Gilbert could manage to conjure.

     

    In those domains where we could employ solidarity to deal with our abusers, we took action.  The dining room itself ran on the pretext of preying on the busboys as far as we were concerned. The guiltiest perpetrators were the waitresses. 

    The waitresses didn’t seem to ever give us much, even on the busiest of days.  Dining room policy didn’t stipulate the bussers to be given a certain percentage.  And the waitresses weren’t required to report their daily tip earnings to any one.  The system of tip distribution was one easily abused.  In fact, the bussers always felt the waitresses loathe giving us anything.

    Over a period of a few months, a growing animosity on the part of the bussers had bloomed into a collective revolt.  One busser had started the trend of lifting tips, and in short order all of us were doing it.   Soon and by consensus we devised a fair way to split the purloined gratuities, and we unerringly stayed true to the arrangement.  We had proved the exception to the rule that there is no honor amongst thieves.  But we never thought of ourselves as petty criminals.  We were simply expropriating by stealth what was rightfully ours.  It was an honorable and adventurously fun endeavor, and we stuck together through thick and thin.  The thick of it was the money we managed to recoup.  The thin of it was when one of us was caught.  There was no remedy in saving a red-handed tip thief.  He was simply a fatality of the battle field- a martyr to the cause.  Those that had to face the music never revealed the existence of a tip-stealing ring.  Nobody snitched.  They took their punishment like a man and walked away with head held high.  That busser was simply fired, and that was the end of it.

    Because we pooled and shared the takings, we realized the value of  economic collectivism.  For most of us, it was an early lesson in the advantages of the socialist ethic.  At the end of the shift we would all meet somewhere outside in the tall pines that surrounded the back parking lot and divvy up the day’s take. 

    Soon after the conversation with Gilbert the shift ended, and we bussers trudged together down the stairway from the kitchen into the cement labyrinth that was the basement passage underneath Cal Neva.  The catacombs of Rome had nothing on the gloom that pervaded these concrete halls.  It passed by the housekeeping department and then on to the time clock where we clocked out with Ernie the times keeper before exiting into the clubs back parking lot.  As usual, we made for the nearby woods and gathered behind a huge Jeffrey pine to count and split our stolen tips. 

    Downfield from us and across a patch of manzanita bushes stood a cluster of the grand old, rustic mansions of Crystal Bay.  One of the dark, bark-skinned beauties shrouded by pines and perched atop the granite boulders that were strewn along the shoreline of the lake had once belonged to the heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Dempsey. 

    First looking out for signs of spies and other prying eyes, Gene, Paul’s buddy from hometown Brooklyn, produced a joint and we all sucked away in relief as eight hours going without was about all anyone could bear.  Steve took off his hat and passed it around.  Each of us took a turn and dropped in a handful of coins.  We made it a policy to steer clear of stealing dollar bills, as individual tips were small to warrant lifting a whole dollar off of any one table.  The waitresses weren’t that stupid; they’d notice something was awry. Our scheme was strictly one of nickel and diming with a few quarters tossed in as well.

    “Damn, this is a pretty shoddy take for eight hours of workin’ for the man,” said Steve once the hat had made it around the circle.

    Paul had been toking hard.  Steve’s lament struck him as hilarious, and he had no success in holding back his laughter.  A cloud of smoke sputtered out of his lungs as he vainly attempted to hold on to it. “Shit man, you made me cough it up!” he said to Steve.

    “It ain’t that funny, man,” said Steve deadpanned.

    “Relax,” said Gene.  “Not to worry, boys- here’s another.”  He slid another sleek fat one from his pocket and stuck it in his mouth.  Twisting the joint that was rolled in a yellow wheat straw Zig-Zag about his mouth, he pulled the joint through his lips, wetting it down as he went.

    “Why the hell do you have to nigger-lip it like that, man?” asked Steve, greatly annoyed.

    Gene laughed.  “You’ll soon forget you ever asked,” he said.  “This, my man, is the good stuff.”

    Paul reached across the circle and snatched the hat full of coins from Steve.  “Look Steve, you’re way too uptight.  Take a hit off this and I’ll count the money.”  He handed Steve the joint in return.

    Before taking a hit, Steve forced a tension-filled exhalation through his puckered lips as his cheeks ballooned under the pressure. “Yeah, you’re right, man.  This job is just bringin’ me down.  I had to work with Betsy today.  She is so god damned bossy.  I’ve had it with that bitch.”

    Paul held up the hat.  “This is payback, my man.”

    Steve held on tight to a lung full and began to shake his head vigorously.  Finally he released a long stream of smoke.

    “No man- that is chicken feed.” He held the joint between his middle finger and thumb while pointing and shaking his index finger at the hat Paul held in his hands.  A seed in the joint suddenly exploded and a plume of smoke shot up in a column.  The scorched seed flew across the circle and hit me in the face.

    “Gene- you rolled another runner, man!”  I said good-naturedly. “Time for a refresher’s course.”  The group suddenly roared with laughter, and even Steve lightened up.

    Peter looked around nervously.  “Shit guys, keep it down!”  We all looked around for a moment, but couldn’t restrain.  We burst into laughter once again.

    “Listen, Steve,” said Paul reassuringly, “You work for eight hours, party for eight hours, and then sleep for eight hours. If the first eight hours is a bring down, the next eight will help you forget the first eight ever existed.  As for the last eight, you just pass out and don’t know the fucking difference one way or the other.”

    The joint was now in Doug’s grimy paws.  “Paul, you are a man of great insight.  I whole-heartedly subscribe to your philosophy.”  Doug’s lung capacity was legendary, and his powerful draw rapidly burnt the joint down to roach-size.

    “Jesus, Doug, you talk a great game but you’re nothin’ but a fucking Bogart!” Peter growled.  Laughter erupted once again.

    “I think we’d better divvy this up and get the fuck out of here,” said Jerry. “And hey, John, you want to come down to the bungalow and hang out before we head up to the banquet?  That way you don’t have hitch home or kill time in the kitchen waiting until seven. You can shower down there, too.”

    “Hey, thanks a lot, man.  I’ll take you up on your offer.”

    The tips were quickly counted and distributed.  Jerry and I broke away from the group and he led me down to his bungalow which was located on Cal Neva grounds. 

    Jerry was one of a handful of club employees who had managed to get on the bungalow short list and eventually come up pretty.  These were highly desirable places to rent and at one time had been rather exclusive suites during the heyday of the club when Frank Sinatra was the owner.  The bungalows had been built in ranks and from their decks they looked out with a view of the lake.

    We walked below the towering nine story Cal Neva Hotel which was a monstrous blight on the otherwise pristine landscape surrounding us. Jerry led me down a manzanita path along one of the bungalow ranks.  We passed by one identical unit and its small veranda after another until reaching his own.

    Jerry opened the sliding door and invited me in. 

    “Well, it’s no more than a cubby hole, but it’s home!” he smiled.  I nodded in agreement. 

    “Care for a beer, John?”

    “Sure, thanks Jerry.”

    Jerry reached in to a small refrigerator and pulled out two Coors.  He handed me one, popped his open, and threw himself on the bed, reclining with his boots still on and head propped up on two pillows.  The bungalow was tiny, indeed.  Sparsely furnished, only one chair had been provided along with a small desk and night stand beside the bed.  It had obviously once been a hotel room.

    I sat down in the chair and put my beer on the desk. “That your fridge?” I asked.

    “Yup, ‘tis indeed.  Gotta have my cold beer.  Food I can get anytime.  Beer’s another matter.”  The bungalow dwellers could buy food tickets and eat in the employee’s diner.  As Jerry was a bus boy, he received an actual restaurant meal as well.  He was one of the few and proud who didn’t have to bother with cooking, shopping for food, or washing the dishes.

    “So, Jerry- you can handle eating Cal Neva’s food day-in and day-out?  Isn’t it a little on the over-processed side?” I asked with motherly concern.

    “Look at me!”  He raised his arms and stretched them out with hands held palms-up while looking down at his torso.  “I eat like a horse and it goes right through me!”

    He hadn’t answered my question, but indeed, Jerry was consumptively thin.  I thought for a moment. 

    “Oh, I see.  You’d go broke otherwise.”

    He stared at me comically with a quizzical dumbness and nodded his head vigorously as would a puppet, arms still outstretched.

    “As long as I work here, I’m staying put.”

    “You have neighbors?”

    “Yeah the old battle ax Ruthie the maid is to the left, and Hawaiian Sam to the right.  They’ve lived here a long time.”

    “Hawaiian Sam lives down here?  I didn’t know that.”  I was surprised.  Hawaiian Sam had told me he had a house in Kings Beach.

    “Yeah, and it’s been alright having him as a neighbor until recently.  He has a new girlfriend now, and they fuck each others’ brains out in there.  My sleep has suffered quite a bit lately.”  Cocking his forearm back and forth at the elbow, Jerry  pointed repeatedly at the adjoining wall to Sam’s bungalow with a mock sneer on his contorted face with one eye shut.  Suddenly turning to look at me, he feigned a silent laugh as would a mime, mouth wide open and eyes ablaze with mad delight.

    “The old man is as virile as a bull elephant,” he added.  Turning back to his sip at his beer, he suddenly countenanced a stoical affect and stared ahead out the sliding glass window.

    I didn’t know Jerry that well, and was actually surprised he had invited me down to his bungalow.  He was older than the rest of the busboys, and was approaching thirty.  He had deep set eyes, a bony cantilevered brow, and markedly sunken cheeks set beneath a pronounced set of cheek bones.  The bridge of his extraordinarily large nose was like the knob on a bump headed wrasse, giving the appearance of  having been broken at least once. 

    “You know, John, this is actually the nicest place I’ve lived in for years.”  Jerry’s tone had become serious.  “It sure beats the hell out of a locked cell with a fellow prisoner who’s intent on jumping you in your lower bunk while you’re sleeping and fucking you up the ass.”  He continued staring out the window, his face expressionless and still.

    I was too shocked to say anything in reply. I sat nervously still and wondered what he might say next.

    “Yeah prison is a bitch, John.  Don’t ever go down that road.  I really value what I have here.  Having to listen to everyone at work bitch about their jobs and the pay and what not makes me want to just let out a scream and say, ‘You don’t know how fuckin’ good you have it you dunderheads!’”

    Jerry had turned the corner with me.  I never expected he would chose to so confide.  We hadn’t ever really spoken much.

    “So you were in prison.” I said weakly.

    “Yeah, I was in prison,” he replied, stretching out the last four words as he role played the voice of an automaton. “Got out about two years ago.  Served a five year sentence.  Grand theft.”

    “Where did you do time?”

    “Folsom prison.  In fact I was there for the Johnny Cash concert that was recorded and made into an album.  Maybe you’ve heard of it.”

    “Yeah, I have.  Jesus, that must have been something.”

    “It really was.  When he sang the song Folsom Prison and came to the line “I shot a man in Reno, just to see him die,” and the whole place went to pieces, I thought I was going to die, too.  It was fucking surreal.  And I tell you this, too, John- it was the best concert ever performed on this planet, ever.”  Jerry had finished his beer and lazily got up to fish another one out of the fridge.

    “No, I don’t plan on going to prison,” I said rather aimlessly.

    Jerry propped himself up and making himself comfortable with his back against the headboard of the bed, began to talk in earnest. “We’re all treading on thin ice with this tip lifting thing John.  It’s starting to bother me.  I need the cash, too, but I can’t afford to lose my job over it.  In the beginning I just kind of went along with it.  Now I’m beginning to wonder.  Two guys have already gone down.  It’s just a matter of time and we’ll all go the same way. But if I back out, I could end up being turned on by everybody.”

    I was apprehensively silent for a long spell.  “You worried about Holt?”  I finally asked.

    “Damn well I am.  He’s been brought in for a reason.  The club’s been really loose for a long time.  His job is to make the place so tight it squeaks.”

    “Maybe you should break all this to the guys.”

    He looked at me with some alarm.  “Oh no; no way.”

    “Well, you’ve already told me….”

    “Oh, don’t go saying this to nobody, man.  This is just between you and me.”

    “No- no, I won’t.  Don’t worry about that.  But why tell me?”

    “I don’t know.  I guess I trust you.  And I feel like talking to someone about it.”

    “Things probably won’t change until we all move on.  Yeah, I understand; you’re talking about the downside.  It’s something the group hasn’t talked about.  Never been raised before.”

    “I have a chance of getting a waiting job at a restaurant in Incline. But they want me to earn more experience bussing.  I don’t want to blow the opportunity.  And I don’t want to transfer out of the Cal Neva dining room to another department.  This bussing gig- I’ve got to keep it going to pad my resume. I could transfer to another club as a busser, but I’d lose my bungalow.  I gotta stay at Cal Neva until I find a waiting job. You understand?  I’m stuck.”

    “Yeah, Jerry.  I do. I still think you ought to talk to the other guys.  Tell them your situation.  Tell them you want to opt out.  I think they’ll sympathize.  I mean, we’re all a little crazy, but nobody’s totally hung-up on this scene.  Everybody’s cool.” 

    “I’m not so sure about that.  Everyone is making enough extra to buy more drugs, man, and now they’re used to having it.  The expectations are getting higher.  One man drops out and they make a little less, and worse, maybe they won’t trust I’ll keep quiet.  They’ll always be thinking I might snitch.”

    “That’s paranoid, man.  Why would they think that?”

    “It’s a gut feeling.  And I trust my gut.  I learned that in the joint.  Always follow you gut, or else somebody will spill ‘em.”

    “What else is there to do, man?  I don’t see any alternative other than being open about things.  Tell ‘em the truth.  You’re an ex-felon.  You’re on thin ice- for the rest of your life.  If it all comes down on us or on you it could mean more trouble for you than just losing your job.  Tell ‘em you could end up back in prison.  I mean- that’s the truth, right?”

    Jerry studied me seriously as I spoke.  For the first time, he seemed to be listening carefully.  “Yeah, man.  You’re right.  That is a possibility.”

    “Well? This is serious shit for you.  Be up front about it.  They’ll respond- like I said- with some sympathy.  Personally, I feel that way for sure.”

    “You really do, man?” Jerry’s eyes revealed a man slowly unlocking his captive fears.  Rarely had I seen anyone at Cal Neva affect the guise of vulnerability.

    “Yeah- sure I do.  I tell you true, man- I’m no different than the others. We’re all in this thing together.  There’s some real loyalty amongst us.  I mean- think about it.  Maybe one or more of us have served time, too.  Have you ever stopped to think about that?  I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case. We’re all breakin’ the fuckin’ law every day of our lives- all of us. Do any of us have a respect for the law or the cops? Fuck, no. Nobody’s gonna look down at you for having been in prison.  The guys are pretty fucking accepting if you ask me.”

    Jerry was flipping nervously through a pack of playing cards, running one thumb repeatedly across the top edge of the deck that he was clutching hard with his other hand. The clatter of cards smacking up against each other filled the tiny room.

    “Yeah, well, I gotta think some more about this.  But I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.  It’s been a bitch thinkin’ about all this just on my lonesome.  You know what I mean.”

    “I can dig it, man.  No problem; anytime.”  I stood up and reached out to Jerry.  We shook hands like brothers.

    I entered the Cal Neva kitchen a few minutes before 7 PM.  The chaos that had held sway all day had reached an apex.  It was hard to pick one’s way through the crowd of employees running to and fro.  Cocktail waitresses, cooks, busboys, floor managers, and others were flowing in and out of the kitchen in a mad rush. Large multi-tiered carts full of stainless steel food servers were being rolled out to the banquet tables covered with golden linen set up on the show room floor.  I was accosted by Hawaiian Sam on my way back to grab a gold bussing jackets off the uniform rack that stood in the kitchen’s linen room to the rear of the kitchen.

    “Hello, hello!  Hey- hey there! Slow down my friend! Why you not stop to talk with me today?  You know I have new stories for you everyday.  You miss out, you know.”  Sam smiled as he took a comb out of his back pocket and carefully groomed his expertly cut, full crop of salt and pepper hair.  His handsome, bronzed Hawaiian face brimmed with vibrancy and good health.  Hawaiian Sam was the only man I knew in Cal Neva who took care of himself.  To bad it hadn’t rub off a little on his partner, Jeb.

    “Yeah, well you’ve been holdin’ out on me, Sam.  I hear you have a new girl friend! When did that all come down?”

    Sam chuckled  as he affected the look of a weasel which had just eaten a trout..  “Hmmm, yes, that is so true, my young friend.”  His eyebrows raised a little and his eyes sparkled with delight.  “Yes, nature call us together maybe two weeks pas’. Hmm, yes. Very nice ass she got.  Yes, like watermelon without rind.  And you know, sex very good for the health.  There so many positions you can use.  Exercise every thing just so. You so young- maybe you no know this. But you mus’ use imagination.  I can teach you things, you know.  I am man of great experience.”

    “Sam- I’m all ears.  But first I have to get a girl friend of my own.  Not much use listening to lectures if you can’t practice what you learn.” 

    “So true, and lectures just make man horny.  I don’t want see you suffer.  Hmm, hmm.  Heh-heh…”

    “Oh, yeah, well- I have to suffer through everything else you rap to me about, Sam.  I mean- what else is new? You know I’ll give you my attention anyway.”  I turned away from Sam and peered around, looking for any busboy that might be about.  “This is an insane asylum, man.  I’m on my way to get a jacket.  I guess you’re working a double today, huh?”

    Sam nodded. “Biggest night we have in long time.  Extra shift- extra dollahs.”  Sam rubbed his thumb and index fingers together repeatedly.  “Maybe I buy perfume for my honey with next big pay check.  Sam need keep romance going.  Important for sex life.”

    “I’ll remember that, Hawaiian Sam. Don’t work too hard.  Save your energy for when and where it really counts.”

    I dashed back to rear of the kitchen where the traffic was thickest.  The side door entrance to the showroom was located there, and a blur of uniforms were entering and exiting simultaneously.

    Suddenly I spotted Jim Backus yucking it up with the chef and Jack Holt.  The two men who had been at each other’s throats a few hours earlier were now as docile as lambs and affecting the playful enthusiasm of children in the presence of celebrity.  Backus comported himself in a regal manner, standing ramrod straight in his tuxedo.  He was a much taller man than I had imagined.  I guess television tends to warp our perceptions.

    I threw on my wig and gold jacket.  Soon I merged into the work flow and entered the Cal Neva showroom.  During the day it was difficult to take even a peek of the famous room where Frank, Dean, and Sammy had once had their day under the sun not so many years ago, as the place was off limits and locked down until opened at night. 

    The first and last time I had stepped foot inside was when I was invited to come see a performance by the ultimate torch singer, Johnnie Ray.  Someone told me he was one the progenitors of rock ‘n’ roll- that if you closed your eyes you’d hear the soul of a black rhythm and blues artist instead of a white guy who was constantly adjusting his hearing aid and over-enunciating his words as he was half-deaf.  Affectionately known as the “Nabob of Sob,” and “the Guy with the Rubber Face and Squirt Gun Eyes,” Ray sang his old war horses recorded with the Four Lads like “Cry,” and “The Little White Cloud that Cried.” As a performer he was over the top, alright, but I couldn’t figure how the bizarre looking, lanky, red haired crooner could share the ranks of the true rock patriarchy like Chuck Berry and Little Richard.  I was a cocky young rock and blues musician, and in my way of thinking Ray didn’t qualify as a distant great uncle let alone godfather of groups like Led Zeppelin.

    The showroom was darkly lit and some of the dinner guests were already beginning to enter as they had helped themselves at the banquet tables.  Swarthy-looking men with greased back hair wearing sharkskin suits and silk ties while sporting pearly teeth and shit-eating grins were all carrying two heaping platefuls of food to their dining tables.  The head chef was carving away at the leg of bison which was attracting a lot of takers.  Many had queued up for a slice of buffalo fresh off the blade of the chef’s carving knife. The massive hunk of meat was an eye-grabber and  possibly the largest roast ever served in the history of United States dining.  It was a carnivore’s wet dream and provoked the VIP’s salivary juices to flowing.

    The proscenium stage had been done up in pure “camp.”  Manzanita bushes, pine boughs, and tree branches had been decoratively arranged across the back of the stage in simulation of a forest scene.  Hunting trophies such as large bucks with full antler racks had been fixed to poles and their heads stuck out of the bushes.  Stage left, a full-sized, stuffed Alaskan Kodiak bear stood fully erect on its two hind legs, paws outstretched and a raging snarl animating its face. Reminiscent of an outdoorsman’s wet dream, set center stage an artificial campfire was ablaze and laying along side it were two mannequins who had been stuffed inside a sleeping bag and suggestively posed as to be fucking each other.

    Set before the stage and in an empty area level to the showroom dining was a large, spacious black divan.  On top, a woman covered in a long sheet lay prostrate.  Staring out at the audience, she feigned the smile of a slut who couldn’t wait to service the sexual needs of the banquet’s entire guest list.

    I soon spotted the man of the hour. Paul Laxalt, the gray-haired Governor of Nevada,  stood serving himself some wild game from one of the banquet tables.  He was on his way out of office, choosing not to run for another term, and the banquet was in honor of his political service to the state of Nevada.

    He was of some interest to me because we were both Basque. To my knowledge, he’s the only Basque-American to have ever pursued high political office in United States politics, eventually becoming a U.S. Senator in 1974.  One of Ronald Reagan’s most trusted chums, he had apparently even been mentioned as being on the short list as Reagan’s vice-presidential running mate in the 1980 election. He served as national chairman for all three of Reagan’s presidential campaigns. The son of a Basque sheepherder, Laxalt had been sent by Reagan during the Philippine revolution in 1985 to confer with strong man President Ferdinand Marcos.  He famously told Marcos to “cut and cut cleanly.”  Marcos soon followed the advice and with Imelda in tow soon went into exile.

    But this was still 1970, and Governor Laxalt had yet to become known outside his own state and neighboring California.  Apparently there was no political damage to be feared from him attending such a stag event.  The only clean cutting here was being done with steak knifes.

    Stag was indeed the operative word.  Within minutes the show room was reverberating with the  clatter of cutlery against chinaware and the brutish clamor of three hundred hungry men wolfing down food and drink as if it were their last meal on earth.  With only one stripper already disrobed and in attendance, the Wild Game Feast was in full swing and it was pure Stag. Belching guffaws, vulgarity, and lascivious laughter erupted from every table.

    The gluttony on display conjured images of medieval banquets and Roman feasts but surely had upped the ante.  New historical standards were being set as per this most American of the seven deadly, and it was a shame that a film crew wasn’t on hand.  Men were gasping for air as they laughed, drank, and stuffed their primary orifices simultaneously.  It was a miracle that no one choked on a piece of under-chewed meat requiring someone with knowledge of the Heimlich maneuver to bear hug the victim and squeeze away at their diaphragm in hopes of the blockage being coughed up. 

    Cocktail waitresses in skimpy, sequined uniforms hustled trays full of mixed drinks and wine carafes to the mob of meat eaters.  The bussers were in a full blitz grabbing armfuls of plates off of tables and ferrying tubs full of dirty dishes back into the kitchen where Hawaiian Sam was waiting with sprayer in hand.

    Time passed quickly, and soon Jim Backus made his appearance on stage.  He immediately launched into a monologue laced with taunts, predictable crudity and licentious humor which drew uproarious laughter from the receptive audience.  Then turning his attention to the guest of honor, he first roasted then toasted the governor, and the climax to the evening was now at hand.

    Backus ended his toast by entreating the governor to do some pitching.  And by this I refer to baseball- not an on-the-Hustings.  Backus requested the governor to stand, and then promptly threw a regulation hard ball out to him, which the surprised governor first juggled and finally held on to with great difficulty.

    Backus explained that the governor was now going to do his best to aim his throw at a circular pad that was fixed to a wooden lever attached to the divan where the show girl still lay seductively curled up under her sheet.  If and when he connected, the lever would spring a mechanism which would cause the divan to jack-knife and toss the girl up into the air and off the divan, finally revealing her fleshy wares.  It was an ill-conceived plan, as the circular pad was impossibly small, and the governor stood some thirty feet away.  A major league hurler under the influence of a few cocktails would no doubt have had difficulty pegging such a target.

    Laxalt seemed a little flustered and embarrassed, but under the circumstances, he had no choice but to perform.  He wound up and his first toss was horribly wild, nearly taking off Backus’ head, sending the comic scampering awkwardly in retreat. It caused his pants to hike up which revealed two scrawny ankles. Another ball was thrown out to Laxalt, and the governor settled down a tad.  Surprisingly, he nearly hit the pad on the second try.  But it would take several tosses before he connected.  By then, the crowd was lulled by the food and alcohol in their bloodstreams.  An animal inertia had been spawned throughout the showroom.

    When Laxalt finally did make solid contact, the lever failed to trigger the sprung divan.  A bewildering moment of confusion ensued, and Backus made the snap decision to tell the girl to simply get on with it  and roll off the divan unassisted.  She did so, tossing her sheet aside and exploding into a wild, primeval dance that Nijinsky in his advanced stages of schizophrenia might have choreographed as a senseless goof for such an event.  She was naked save a G-string, and was greeted with great enthusiasm by the crowd.  

    It was an anti-climactic end to the gaudy feast.  That any of the guests could have been titillated after the massive volume of food and alcohol ingested seemed far-fetched.

    The politicians, businessmen, and mobsters all filed out of the showroom and made there way into the casino where some retired to one of the lounge bars while others milled around or sat down to do some gambling.

    The feast’s left-overs were wheeled out into a side room and the banquet employees were allowed to scarf-up what the VIP’s hadn’t been able to consume.  The crocodile pie and bobcat a la burgundy were delicious.  The chef entered the room to check on us, and everyone spontaneously hailed his inventive recipes.  He stood smiling before us for maybe the first and last time, basking in the limelight of appreciation from those who usually maligned him vehemently behind his back.

    Ron Gilbert finally graced us with his presence. Paler than usual, he looked gawd-awful. Taking a huge wad of money out of his pocket, he nervously fumbled through it while mumbling incoherently, and gave the busboys all twenty-five dollars, most of it in one dollar bills. He made no pretense of thanking us on a job well done, which is just as well.  No one would have found it credible anyway.

    We had all hoped for more, and a collective blankness swept across our faces.  The silence was deafening.  The general feeling was one of disappointment, but surely no surprise.

    Paul pocketed his cash and left in a hurry.  My guess was he needed to score quickly before his dealer had left town. 

    Almost all of us had pulled double shifts that day.  Those who were over twenty-one decided to go buy a drink.  Home and my bed were all I cared to think about.  I walked through the casino alone and out the front entrance.  The marquee’s neon lights were humming in high pitched crackles and the cool night air quickly settled into my nostrils and bones as I slowly traipsed across the parking lot on my way to North Lake Shore Boulevard, some two hundred yards ahead of me.

    As I always did, I stuck out my thumb once on the highway. I hoped it wouldn’t be an ordeal flagging a ride after dark.  Having to hitchhike home at night was not the usual routine.

    As it turned out, I found myself crossing the Nevada-California Stateline and walking down Brockway hill into Kings Beach before a cageman who had just gotten off shift at the Crystal Bay club pulled over and gave me a lift.

    He was driving a beat-up ’62 Ford Galaxy.  As I opened the passenger door, I was greeted by a thick cloud of cigarette smoke.  Settling in for the short ride ahead of us, the driver struck up a friendly conversation. He was graying prematurely and his face was horribly pitted from adolescent acne. 

    I told him my father had at one time worked in the Keno department at the Crystal Bay Club for seven years.  He asked me for his name, and pensively mulled it over in his mind.

    “Yeah- yeah; sure kid.  I remembah your fatha.  John.  Yeah, his name was John.  Short guy with a big smile and a crew cut. So how is he now?  Still workin’ the clubs?”

    “Yeah.  He’s working at Cal Neva in Reno,” I replied.

    “Oh, Christ, that’s a helluva commute.  He drives from Tahoe over to Reno every day?”

    “No, he lives over there now.”

    “Oh, I see.  Well, sorry to hear that kid.  Hard not having your father around.”

    “Better he doesn’t have to commute.  He typically falls asleep at the wheel on long drives.”

    The man chuckled softly. “So why did he leave Crystal Bay?  He worked there a long time.”

    I stared at the man for a moment and then turned away to peer blankly through the Galaxy’s dirty front windshield at the black, deserted highway pealing by.  I didn’t need to tell him the truth, but didn’t feel up to lying. 

    Skimming the till from behind the Keno counter.  That was why they fired his ass.  He got away with it for years, though. The day after he was caught I remember hearing him cry in the shower when I went in to the bathroom to take a piss. That’s all he ever had to say about it.

    It wasn’t until years later I was finally told by someone else what allegedly happened.  No one cares to tell you the motivation for such things.  But I knew why.  He was paid shit.  And my mother was addiction to prescription drugs.  I honored him for it.  He did what he thought was right.

    There was some saving grace and one piece of sweet remembrance associated, though.  I suddenly realized why he carried so many coins in his pants pockets which had allowed me to put together a really handsome coin collection before U.S. collectors had swept up all the silver and put it permanently out of circulation.  All those Buffalo Nickels, Barber Dimes, Standing Liberty Quarters and Silver Dollars.  They were the most beautiful things I had ever seen.

    “Pay back,” I finally said.

    “What’s that, kid?”

    “He paid the miserable sons-of-a-bitches back.”