Letting go in Vegas 

Knowing when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em

I've had two cocktails and it's not even 10 a.m., which leads me to conclude that I love Las Vegas. How could anybody not? It's so radiantly cheap and impure. Right now I'm on the Strip in the Venetian, a hotel that is the total ass-end of tacky, and as much as I'd love to wallow in the chlorinated canals of the replicated Italian village upstairs, I prefer the casino on the ground floor even better.

"One more," I tell the bartender.

The bartender notices that I'm one-handed today, because the other is clutching my backpack with a grip like a lobster. I might love Vegas, but I still don't trust the pocket-picking flotsam that lives here. "Here's some advice," says the bartender. "If someone tries to steal your purse, let go." It turns out his friend's daughter was knifed in downtown Vegas by a purse-snatcher because she wouldn't let go.

"Let go," he repeats.

I was 8 when I first came to Vegas. To us it was a family vacation spot. For my mother, who was uncomfortable with conventional displays of parental endearment, gambling became the perfect conduit for family bonding. "Don't get suffocated by your safety net, kid," she'd narrate as she played. "Let go of your chips and go for it."

On one of those family outings I found a menu of services from the notorious Chicken Ranch whorehouse and learned that in the market of legalized prostitution, the going rate for a tongue bath was only $95. "Is that all?" I thought. To this day I can't think of a harder job than being a whore.

"Give me that!" my mother shrieked, trying to snatch the menu from my hand. "I said let go!"

I let go of it, but she didn't. Years later, I found the menu in a box of her possessions that included her wedding bouquet. The fragile rosebuds were browned and curled like the little fists of a half-dozen mummified babies. It was hardly recognizable from the day my parents got married 37 years earlier at the Little Church of the West on the Vegas Strip. Their wedding picture shows my father looking dapper and my mother looking like she has no idea what's in store for her. In the picture they were holding hands, but eventually they let go, and I mean that more than in the literal sense.

Then came the famous MGM Grand hotel fire 26 years later, which killed 84 people. Heat and smoke had trapped some of them and pushed others to the outer ledges of the upper floors, where news cameras trained on them as they clung, dangling, from their useless sky-top perches. I don't remember where or when I saw that footage, but I remember imploring the people to hang on. They didn't. One woman's skirt billowed above her head as she fell. "No, no, no, NO!" onlookers cried in anguish. Another group of victims was found in an elevator lobby. They died clutching the suitcases they refused to let go, having wasted valuable time packing them before attempting their evacuation.

Still other victims were found in one of the hotel rooms, five of them all holding hands and looking like they were asleep except for the shadows of soot around their nostrils and mouths. They had let go but not of each other. My guess is that they ventured escape as far as they could, then, upon discerning the inevitability of their predicament, decided not to cling to things like frantically packed suitcases or the hotel's unforgiving exterior ridge, but instead to spend their final moments in the simple comfort of human contact.

So there you have it, perfect examples of the importance of knowing when to let go and when not to. It's like gambling, I guess. I remember back before my mother had gotten good at it. She used to play the nickel slot machines at Circus Circus. When she won her first $20 jackpot, my mother, who even on her deathbed was uncomfortable with human contact, surprised me by hugging me tightly in her excitement. It's no wonder I love Vegas, because it takes a long time for 400 nickels to fall out of a slot machine, and as I said, she held me tightly, waiting until every last nickel had clamored into the tray before letting go.

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