I was working at the Pioneer Club in Vegas, shilling my life away for $11 a day. Things weren't really as bad as they seemed, though. I had a "student dealer" job all lined up at the big beautiful Mint Hotel, but I didn't start working there until the following Monday. So I spent the rest of the week at the Pioneer, crying on the outside, crying on the inside. Let's face it, $11 was $11 and I needed the money. I owed my roommate Diane money, I owed the finance company money, and I didn't have any money.
There was one thing I'd learned about the casino business. If you were going to quit, you didn't give the place two week's notice, something that was always drummed into your head back in the real business world. Tell a casino you were quitting, and they'd fire you on the spot. Maybe they figured you were going to steal something before you left, which tells you something about their mentality.
And that was another thing. What could you possibly steal? The gambling checks weren't worth anything, not until you cashed them at the casino cage. They were just plastic chips, for crying out loud. Wouldn't it look kind of suspicious if I walked over to the Pioneer cage with my Pioneer name tag on and dumped a stack of $5 Pioneer checks on the counter?
But every single worker in every single casino was under constant watch. In fact, one of the first things I learned in dealers school was "clapping out" when you left the table. "You clap your hands, then hold them out, face up," the instructor told me. "That's to show everyone that your hands are clean."
"You know, that you're not taking any checks off the table."
Rotten bastards. If anyone was doing any stealing, it was the goons that owned these places.
I waited until Sunday, then broke the news to my boss at the Pioneer. "Artie, could I see you a minute?"
Damn. I was sort of thinking, maybe hoping he'd try to talk me out of it, tell me I had a great future here at the fabulous Pioneer Hotel and Snack Bar, but for all he cared I could've told him it was raining outside. "Okay," he'd said, and just like that I was off the payroll. Big deal, they were probably paying me out of petty cash anyway.
I almost kicked myself on the hike back to Diane's apartment. Seventy-seven dollars a week was almost enough to make one of my past-due car payments. I could've asked for different hours, like four to noon with weekends off, worked noon to eight at the Mint, did my radio show on weekends, and be making . . . $189 a week! Or I could just call the FM station back in Texas and try to get my old job back. Texas was looking better all the time.
I actually kissed Diane on Monday before I left the apartment, all dressed up in a wrinkled white shirt she'd bought me at Wal-Mart. Talk about nervous. I didn't have any idea what to expect, or if the guy who hired me even remembered me, for that matter. I didn't know what a "student dealer" was, or what I'd be doing, or where I'd be doing it. The only thing that propelled me down the street were four words echoing in my head: "Fourteen dollars a day, fourteen dollars a day, fourteen dollars a day."
I punched in at the time office, looking with pride at my very own time card with my very own name on it. Under my name was my new job title: "Student Dealer." It was true, then. I was working at the Mint, and the FM station in Texas could go to hell for all I cared.
I reported to the dice pit 20 minutes early. One of the higher-ups named Pete saw me and walked over. "Here's your name tag," he said, handing me a laminated card with "MINT" on the top, my name on the bottom. On the other side was a safety pin, ready to punch the first hole in my new white shirt.
"Today's indoctrination day," he said. "Go back to Personnel. Show 'em your work card and tell 'em you're being indoctrinated. They'll take it from there. You won't actually start working until tomorrow."
Oops, subtract $14 from the household fund. Pete must've read my mind, either that or saw my face fall to the floor. "You're on the payroll, though, starting today. And welcome aboard." He stuck out his hand, and for a second I wasn't sure whether I was supposed to shake it or kiss it.
Indoctrination, if you could call it that, went okay. Actually, it was more like being brainwashed in a concentration camp. "You will be courteous to the customers," the commandant said. "You will dress neatly and follow guidelines of personal hygiene. You will respect other employees. You will arrive at work each day in a timely manner." The only thing she left out was, "We have ways to make you talk."
The big kahuna, though, was getting a tour of the hotel. We saw where the eye in the sky was, which would probably make a book in itself. They had all these TV cameras mounted in the ceilings, and upstairs was a complete surveillance department, rows of monitors and banks of switches, this camera zooming in, that one swiveling around from one area to another. And I'm not lying when I say these things could actually zoom in so close on a girl's dress you could tell whether she was wearing a bra or not. The engineer saw me looking, and he quickly panned back out again.
Then it was on to the staff dining room. Oh my God, I don't know where to start. There were bins filled with sliced tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, carrots, celery, broccoli, crisp lettuce with dew sparkling on it. Fruit, real honest-to-goodness bananas, apples, oranges. There were trays of steaming food: meat loaf, fried chicken, salmon, spaghetti. Mashed potatoes, rice, corn on the cob. Soup, milk, rolls, cereal, oatmeal, a machine that dispensed cold orange juice and fruit punch and sodas. There was ice cream, Jello, cream puffs, pies, doughnuts, coconut cake. It was the most beautiful sight I'd ever seenand it was FREE! Quite a switch from the Pioneer, where we didn't even get saltines, for Chrisakes.
Actually, we were told we got one free meal a day, but no one checked on you. You didn't have to punch in or punch out when you went through the gate. You just got a tray and loaded up. I didn't see where I'd be doing anything wrong if I hit the place more than once a day. You know, just for breakfast, lunch, and supper. Also maybe a little doggie bag every night, so I could wean Diane off of Jiffy's peanut butter.
"Is it okay if we get something to eat right now?" I asked the commandant timidly.
"I don't see why not," she smiled, and there was an excited murmur from the rest of the new hires. I was like a kid in a candy store, scooping up stuff with no idea if it was even edible or not. For the first time I could remember, all my internal organs seemed to be working in perfect harmony, my teeth chewing, my tongue tasting, my throat swallowing, my stomach digesting.
God, it was great to be alive.