Leaving Las Vegas

April 19, 2016

Las-VegasWalking through the dimly lit casino inhaling stale cigarette smoke and dodging flashing lights I spotted an elderly woman at a slot machine, sucking on her vape pen and pulling the machine’s handle repeatedly. A rush of memories came flooding back.

That woman could have been my mother.

Mom loved to gamble. A friend of hers ran charter trips to Las Vegas from Rochester, NY and Mom was an enthusiastic participant, loaded to the gills with Valium for the flight, of course.  Not only did Mom love to gamble, but she won and often. At first, it was blackjack.  She had the facility with numbers I don’t and it was easy for her to beat the house  Later, as she aged, it was slots. She could sit for hours pulling the lever, smoking her Viceroy Filter Longs and then, when she tired, cashing in her chips for cold, hard cash.

Meanwhile, my father (who had no luck at all at the tables) would take a 10-mile run into the desert and be back long before he’d get the call that Mom had cashed out. He’d go down to the casino floor to escort her (and her winnings) back to their room.  It was their version of a partnership.


Shameless irony is a way of life in Las Vegas.

I first visited Las Vegas when I was 19. My parents gave us kids the choice of either going to Vegas with them or to Switzerland to ski. Cementing my position as the family intellectual (ok, as NOT the family athlete) I chose Vegas. My brother chose Switzerland. He still skis. I still do not.

It was 1970 and the Rat Pack Days were waning, but still, it was an exciting place to a young woman from western New York: the flashing lights, the bells and buzzers, the people all dressed up. I remember standing in line to attend a show feeling very grown up in my long purple gown and heels.  I was a beautiful young woman on the cusp of adulthood, and, like most 19-year-olds from small, conservative cities would, I thought this was the big time.


This is what the Strip looked like when I visited in 1970. It’s unrecognizable to me today.

But I did know my celebrities. Near a blackjack table I nearly stepped on the singer, Tom Jones—he is quite short, by the way.  It was fun to be part of this exciting world for a few days and I never regretted turning Switzerland down.

Some ten years later I had to spend time in Vegas for work every year. That went on until the late 1990s and I got to know the place quite well. My first company even offered to transfer me there because the Vegas office–which was in constant contact with Vegas celebs–asked for me.  I turned it down. I always wondered what my life would have been like if I’d gone.


I happened to be there the October day in 1993 when they imploded the historic hotel, the Dunes. A sad day for so many.

Vegas has changed a lot in the decades since that first visit and I’m wistful for those old days when everything was fresh and new to me. Vegas still had a bit of the Wild West back then, with Mob influence everywhere. It hadn’t become the huge, almost generic, chain-outfit city that it is now.


Discounts are still the same, though.

The meeting I attended in Las Vegas last week was off the Strip and I was glad. I don’t like the Strip now, maybe because I remember the way it used to be. While I’d enjoyed my time there in the 1980s and 1990s, today, the whole place leaves me cold. Was it me, leaving Las Vegas? Or did Las Vegas leave me? I don’t know.

Like old Vegas, my parents are also long gone and so is my youth.  It’s strange, this aging thing, and a bit hard to adjust to sometimes. It’s unfathomable that my first visit was more than 45 years ago. That long! And the time has sped by.

On my way back up to my room, I spied that elderly woman again. Her vape pen was still positioned between her lips and her arm pulled the slot machine lever over and over.

I thought of my mother. She’s been a virtual stranger to me since she died, while my late father has been around my life constantly and in big ways.  I still think of her, though, all the time, and wonder where she’s been these past 17 years.

Breathing in the familiar smell of burning tobacco, I looked around the casino for her, as if she would materialize right then and there.

I miss you, I whispered, and sent her a silent blessing.

29 comments on “Leaving Las Vegas
  1. Perhaps that woman was your mother, her way of saying I’m doing what I always loved to do.
    It was so great to finally meet you.

  2. GAry says:

    Never been to Vegas, but I have to think the “old” Vegas had to be way cooler than the current corporate jungle it is now.

  3. Beautifully written, Carol. You painted quite a picture of your Mom and I can see that beautiful 19-year-old woman in you. Enjoyed meeting you in person. This is my first trip to Vegas. Enjoyed the food & shows. The rest – meh…

  4. Excellent! I appreciate your photos – especially the Namaste one. I enjoyed talking with you and wish we had more time together. You described Vegas perfectly. I’m haunted by the visions of older people tethered to oxygen tanks, sucking on vapes, and confined to walkers and wheelchairs sitting for hours in front of noisy machines.The BAM attendees receive the bells, whistles, and payout with every well-written article. The quiet victory is intoxicating.

  5. I love this piece and could just see your mom in my mind. Thank you for sharing this part of your life with us. So happy I was finally able to meet such an incredible writer at last in person.

  6. What a lovely story! I have never been to Vegas, and never really had the desire to go. But I can see the allure for you.

  7. I started going to Vegas with my family as a kid. We usually stayed at the Sahara. My dad loved to play craps. As kids, all we had to do was go up and down in the elevators or swim in the pool. The strip has never been my favorite place. I did a movie there in the early 80’s and haven’t been back to the strip since. I love the outer parts of Las Vegas, though. Lake Los Vegas and Summerlin. Resort life and spas are always wonderful. Love the irony of slots and Namaste. I could have done without the stinky casino.

  8. For me, my memories are of Atlantic City trips when I was young, but I understand the sentiment. Sometimes wiping away all the grime may make things prettier, but the character is gone

  9. My mother was a compulsive gambler, and loved those slot machines. I play poker. We always told mom we’d put some of her ashes in Vegas (and in her favorite machine) after she died. Yes. I did.

  10. My grandmother loved going to Las Vegas and we always talked about going together when I was older but never had the chance. I have always wanted to go even though she is no longer with us and know that I will think of her when I am there.

  11. Rosemond says:

    Lovely remembrance of your mom and dad and the Vegas that no longer exists. I can picture the woman sucking on her vape at the slots. A true Vegas snapshot.

  12. Lawrence Hamilton says:

    I myself haven’t been to Vegas since ’96. The Vegas you knew was way cooler. That was the picture of Vegas I got. Always wanted to go. Went in ’96. Kind of a letdown. You got to see Vegas when it was popping with your parents. Awesome memories. When what happened in Vegas really stayed in Vegas. Now you see it an hour later on Facebook, if it takes that long.

  13. I have never been to Vegas. But your great writing takes me there, especially to the times with your mom. What a great story! Embrace the reminders. They are there for a reason :-). Thanks for sharing such heartfelt memories.

  14. Hi Carol! Yes, in so many ways those of us who went to the “Old Vegas” back when we were younger have such a different vision of the place. Thom and I did a real estate convention in the Rivera back in the 80’s for about three years and spent A LOT of time in Vegas. It was much more “quaint” and interesting at least in my opinion. And as time goes by and i get more sensitive to energy I find it VERY difficult to be in any casino. The people there seem devoid of energy and that makes me sad. Oh, and it doesn’t help that smoking killed my mom too so I’m not a big fan! BUT–on the positive side I must say that this trip to BAM was the best Vegas trip I’ve had in years. It was a great hotel, a good conference and awesome meeting you and others in person. Good new memories of Vegas! ~Kathy

  15. I loved this one Carol. I hope you had fun at BAM! I did want to come but it didn’t work out at all.

    Be well.


  16. Here is my latest post…I am still figuring out which box to click…even after over 11 years of blogging. Go figure!

  17. Your mother and my mother sounded like kindred spirits!

  18. I know that feeling I used to go to Las Vegas often with my family as well. My mother and her bff used to go there every other weekend for a few years. Which in turn allowed me to become pretty familiar with Vegas. But that was back in the late 70’s though the late 80’s. I remember the first time I saw my grandpa spend $5 in a slot machine. I nearly lost my mind. I could’ve easily used that 45 more constructively. 😉

    Thanks For Sharing
    Celeste Sundragonlady Choi

  19. This was only my third time ever going to Vegas and it was the charm! Your description of the older woman at the slots smoking is poignant. That is the picture of aging I do not want to find myself in. Like your mom, my hubby loves to gamble (slots) and can play all day on $20. Me? I would be outdoors doing something like your dad. Lovely post, Carol!

  20. Las Vegas definitely has a vibe all its own! And it’s one we can only take in small doses!

  21. Haralee says:

    I’m glad you had a glimpse of a memory of your Mom in the woman at the slots. Vegas is an interesting place. In the 90’s I had to do business there and I kept seeing all these tall beautiful women everywhere. In the supermarkets the checkers and the customers until I realized they were show girls or wan-a bee- show girls just going about their lives.

  22. I’ve only been once and that was right before my accident. My husband won $3000 it was pretty exciting. It’s on the list of places we’re visiting with my mom when we head out that way. I could see your mom sitting at the machine you described her perfectly.

  23. Tam Gamble says:

    I have never been to Vegas, it isn’t somewhere that appeals to me if I am truthful – maybe the old Vegas would have better suited me.

  24. I have never visited Las Vegas before, and I’m not sure I want to, only because I’m not a gambler. I have never gambled in my life, though my husband has played in a band at a few casinos and I have seen many people like the woman you wrote about.

  25. Nancy Hill says:

    Vegas drained me emotionally, I have never been a bright lights and big city kind of girl. That said, I had a wonderful time at the conference, The aura of smoke and loneliness tugged at me as though from a haunting work of fiction, I’m grateful for your sharing of the people and place I felt but could not see. It is a nonfiction.

  26. barbara says:

    The way your parents shared their vacation – separate but together – was perfect. It makes me think they must have had a long, and happy in their way, union.

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