Walking 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.