Me and Nick rolled into Vegas. Neither of us had been before. It was exactly what I hoped it would be, which is to say it felt like someone had a vision of the future, and managed to build it in the desert, and then it failed.

Nick and I rolled out from LA, both of us 24, both east coasters (he of deep Queens, me a fierce defender of North Jersey), both of us unstable in a way that would be proven disastrous later in life. Both of us destined to briefly lose our minds, both of us to be rescued by friends, both of us to become dads, both of us happy to survive.

But back then we hadn’t lost our grip yet, we were just enjoying the feeling of being manic when you are young and unaware of how dangerous that can be. We didn’t look for trouble, but didn’t plan on shying away from it. A lot of it would come to us, on this five day blitz across the country. Later in the trip I’d wander the streets of Austin crying for no reason. He’d fistfight a man in an inflatable grenade costume in New Orleans. Those would never have happened without the precedent Vegas set, without the cracks in the armor of both us and this country that this so-called city illuminated, and most of all none of this ever would have happened without The Tinkler.

The Tinkler was the impetus for Vegas. We weren’t taken in by the gambling, the lights, the kitsch. Nick said to me, “There’s this guy I grew up with in Queens, I told him we were driving from LA to New York, he told me he’d show us the real Vegas.” And we went, because I’ve always believed that when you can see the real anything, you should, and when someone says they can show it to you, it’s true.

We drove through the failed future. Lights, engineered overload. People wandering, who flocked here thinking it was a vacation and finding it was a mix of pumped in oxygen and cash grabs and bells and buzzers and shouting and music and dancing water, all of it pummeling their brains, grinding their reason and good sense into submission, giving them permission to fail their own senses of integrity — if only for a few nights — and all while people, shadowy unnamed people, collected money off of their naiveté, and the government got their cut too.

Nick and I called the casinos; who had the cheapest room tonight? Who was the most empty, in capacity and standards, and willing to take us on? It was the Stardust, at a mere forty-five bucks for the night, a room with two beds. That’s 25 bucks each after tax, a price low enough that even two kids in their early 20s who needed gas and food and weren’t sure when they were leaving the open road and making a break for home — who weren’t even sure what exactly home entailed at this point — were left over with a pocket full of gambling money.

We played a few table games to break ourselves in, then walked to the lobby bar of a much nicer casino to meet The Tinkler. He was heavyset in that five boroughs way, tough, ready to roll, and while yes, out of shape, not in an off-putting way. He dressed well, in a leather coat and designer jeans and sneakers more expensive than my entire outfit. The sneakers screamed Queens. He was the brand of New York cartoonish that is antiquated in the home borough but charming as hell to those who have never been.

He and Nick embraced, Whitestone meeting Whitestone in Las Vegas. They grinned, grunted a few guttural native New Yorker greetings, slaps on the back and all. The Tinkler turned my way.

“This is Chris,” Nick said. “And Chris, this is The Tinkler.”

“Nice to meet you buddy,” The Tinkler said. Big smile, direct eye contact. “So tell me honest — do ya do cocaine?”

“Nope,” I answered, “not my thing.”

“Good,” The Tinkler replied. “Me either.”

Then he laughed, the hearty unapologetic laugh of a man who has just lied and who knows you know it.

He offered to show us “the real Vegas, the Vegas the locals go to.” In the parking garage, we slid into his Queens-fancy car, one that could beat you in a road race. I, being the new element in the ecosystem, took the back seat. Nick, the old friend, sat shotgun.

“Nicky, don’t push your seat back,” The Tinkler said as Nick sat down. “I got a gun under there.”

We went to a casino that felt like a bar. A townie bar, grungy, locals only, a place we wouldn’t have dared enter without The Tinkler shaking hands and patting backs. It was simple, one large room for games, one small room for drinks, bathrooms.

I played roulette. On my second spin I put all my chips on 29 red, because before I left Los Angeles, I’d been seduced by a redhead, older and wiser than me. She’d just gotten out of a relationship, and for some reason I was the bounce back man. We first kissed at night on the beach in Santa Monica, waves rolling in. She placed my hand on her breast. I was too shy. She whispered “It’s all ok.” We both knew I was leaving a few days later, and she decided she’d use that time to teach me to grow up, to be 24, to act as I should have been for a few years now, had I not been me and broken and only now, finally off the east coast for a few months, feeling not quite healed, but like the psychic scabs were psychic scar tissue and I could dabble with the world again. She had fun educating me, breaking me in, once sneaking into her **redacted** at the age of 24, not knowing up until then that things like this could happen, that you didn’t have to be shy and scared all the time, that the Irish-Catholic vestiges could melt away with a deep satisfied sigh, that someone could find me attractive, want-able, corruptible and crave-able, let alone someone like her.

And it hit. Twenty-nine red hit, it hit on the wheel. I tipped the dealer, bought Nick a drink, bought The Tinkler a drink, tipped the bartender too, and we headed out, money in my pocket, not chasing more, not pushing my luck in a hard luck bar like this, money put in my pocket by 29 Red, the girl who healed me and held my hand and dragged me into manhood.

It was my score but the adrenaline hit The Tinkler. His statements became more animated, more outlandish. I’d made money. The excitement of it, he needed it back on him. So he said things, bad things, some of the worst I’ve ever heard.

“I’m gonna introduce you to my girl. Nice girl, but she’s got real fucked up teeth. Don’t make fun of her fucked up teeth.”

“Nicky, you gotta move here. These dancers come through, just for a few months, and Nicky. They’re pent up. This one girl, she couldn’t just have normal sex, she loved cum too much. She’s like ‘Cum in my mouth, cum on my tits, cum on my hair.’ I finally had to stop her, I’m like ‘Yo, I only got so much cum.’”

The sadness rose, just a few centimeters, from below the surface to above. The statements, he didn’t mean them. He just needed focus on him. Spotlight, for once. To be the guy who knew this place, could show it off to outsiders, and to therefore show himself off. Because if I won money, and he impressed no one, it was clear he was just a guy in a desert, so he ran his mouth and said sweatier things, more desperate things, things meant to impress that did nothing of the sort.

But that fuel burns dirty, and the yield diminishes quickly. We met the girl with the fucked up teeth; they were bad but she was good and didn’t deserve it. We moved on, a cokehead without coke guiding us, sweating through his clothes and boiling within his leather jacket. He asked us where we should go next, and Nick finally faced reason and said “Just drop us back at the Stardust. We’re tired.”

We walked the steps to the top of a parking garage. He was parked on the roof, facing the city. The neon. The vibrating city, all activity, incomprehensible, like staring into a beehive. And he said it, the first fully honest thing he’d said all night, as we sat in the car, running but idling, staring over the edge of the parking deck at the neon and noise.

“What do you think would happen if I just floored it right now? If I just hit the gas?”

“Don’t do that, Tink,” Nick quietly said. “Just get us home.”

He backed out of the spot. We spiraled down to ground level, and he got us home. He didn’t say much, finally. And in his silence, it was clear what he was; like everything else about this place, he was not of this desert but dropped into it. A spectacle, a light to attract the moths, unmoored, thinking he could shake home, but having merely carried it here, to the desert, the dry, arid desert that supports no life, so why do so many people think they can fully live here? He was Vegas, having sought a future that failed, but hung on, fueled by excess and flash, but under the surface vulgar, but also vulnerable, a true American anomaly, unique and beautiful in its own way, and in the end not hate-able but pitiable, which when you return to Vegas becomes your starting point, and then and only then can you enjoy it, now that you know what it is.

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