I suppose all of us who make it to the brink of 70 have had moments in our lives when eternity flashed before us.
Maybe it was a close call on the freeway, or a lump of prime rib in the throat. Or perhaps it was a pounding in the chest that at first inkling felt like a heart attack, but turned out to be merely a gas pain.
One such moment that stopped time for me occurred in 1976, my first year in Las Vegas. I was at one of those stop points in my early 20s where I strongly felt like our city was the best place for me to scratch out a living as a writer. But both from a lack of skill and a knowledge of how to sell my work, I wasn’t making any progress toward that goal.
So a friend taught me how to shuffle cards and cut chips on an ironing board and steered me to a friend of a friend who could possibly have enough juice to get me an audition as a blackjack dealer in a downtown casino.
The tryout was at the Four Queens, on a prime corner of what used to be called Glitter Gulch. I was a 5-1 underdog to pass the audition, but I somehow beat the odds and made fewer mistakes than other rookie dealers and was told to start the following Monday. My shift would be what is called “late swing,” from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.
I’d always been a morning person, from my 12 years-plus of Catholic education when wakeup time was 6 a.m., through college and grad school. The idea that in this new job I would just be tucking in at an hour I was life-conditioned to be waking up seemed daunting to me. Indeed it was.
I never felt totally sharp during my four-month stint as a croupier. It wasn’t that I struggled with math. I didn’t have any trouble doing the calculations, even when someone would hit a blackjack with a bet of $3.75. I could figure relatively quickly that the customer was due a payoff of $5.62, or something rounded off to the nearest dollar.
My dullness was rather due to a lack of self-esteem and a feeling that my six years of earning degrees in literature and writing had been totally wasted and that I had settled for a job that required no proof of education whatsoever.
But now to the near-death experience:
It was about 4 a.m. of a particularly slow summer evening when a disheveled man staggered to my table. I hadn’t had a customer for at least half an hour, and was hoping to make it to the end of my shift without seeing another.
“You look like an easy mark,” the man mumbled, obviously impaired by alcohol or something stronger. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a wadded and crinkled five-dollar bill. He flattened the bill on third base and said, “Money plays, sucker!”
He’d obviously forgotten everything he’d learned in etiquette school.
As I was dealing two decks from a shoe, I took an intentionally long time shuffling the cards in hopes he would get impatient and move to another table. That wasn’t to be.
You might be able to guess what happened. I dealt him two face cards, and my up card was a five. He flipped his cards over cockily and said, “Beat that, Honky!”
I complied and hit my 15 with a six. To rub it in, I then took his withered finsky and slammed it into the money tray with the paddle.
The next hand was even more painful for my unfortunate gambler. He showed 19, and I slow-played several low cards into a five-card 20. Once again, I slammed the bill into the tray with extra flair.
Within an instant, he barked out an expletive, then pulled a pistol from his pocket and aimed it between my eyes. The gun was less than a foot away.
I ducked beneath the table and yelled “Security!” Within seconds, the guards who had not been tested like this in months, had the man secured and in cuffs, and led him outside, where a Metropolitan Police patrol car took him to his next stop on a tough night.
When I had gathered myself, I got a stern scolding from the pit boss that I should never have gone under the table and taken my eyes off the money tray.
“You’re kidding, right? I said.
“Not for a second,” he replied.
I resigned the next day, and got back on track with my life.
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