August 2011 - Ezy Reading:
Back at the El Cortez
Evan Kanarakis

I was taking a stroll through the Old Downtown of Vegas when I met Memphis Bill. Like most visitors, I hadn’t been to that part of the city in years and barely ever left the Strip, but with time on my hands I decided to revisit the area, and to stop at the El Cortez. The casino had been a favorite of mine dating back to my earliest visits to Sin City. It was one of the few aging casino properties that had managed to keep at least a little of the ‘Old Vegas’ charm about the place. Softly lit (compared to anywhere else nearby), with low ceilings and a wood-paneled interior, most of the patrons who walked through the door of the El Cortez came to gamble, because in the absence of circus acts, decaying musicians and musty comedians who were famous twenty years ago, there was little else to do here. I liked that.

After completing a lap of the place, and with a few stray dollars tossed across a roulette table –with middling success- I’d seen enough and figured to move on, but not before grabbing myself a cup of coffee. As I approached the entrance to the casino’s 24-hour café, however, I encountered a heated exchange in full flight between the hostess and a somewhat bedraggled, increasingly agitated customer sporting a thick, black beard who was easily in his mid-seventies and spoke in a thick Southern drawl. It seemed that the gentleman wanted to order himself breakfast but, realizing he was going to be two dollars short, had helped himself to the tip that had been left on a nearby table when the hostess momentarily turned her back. Though clearly down on his luck and caught cold in the act (and despite the sheer foolishness of thinking he might get away with stealing any amount of money in a casino full of overhead cameras), the man resented the insinuation that he must be some sort of thieving bum and, arms folded in front of him, was refusing to return the tip while still demanding he be served. As the situation continued to escalate, it was clear that security were only moments away from being called in.

With the situation souring further, I intervened and told the hostess I’d not only cover the two-dollar tip, but I’d pick up the tab on the man’s breakfast as well, just for the sake of keeping some peace. She hesitated at first, frustrated by the sheer stubbornness and gall of this would-be-diner, but finally relented. So I handed her the money. I hadn’t completely busted out on the blackjack tables in the previous few days, after all, so the least I could do was spot this man some breakfast. I ordered my coffee and took a seat in a nearby booth.

I was tearing open a packet of sugar when, from over my shoulder, “Do you mind if I join you? That was very good of you, guy.”

It was the old man. I invited him to take a seat.

“I didn’t mean to cause a scene, but in this town everyone looks down on ya if you don’t have money. I ain’t no bum. All I needed was two dollars. No-one’s ever gonna’ miss two measly dollars.”

“Hey, don’t sweat it," I replied. “Enjoy your breakfast, it’s nothing to worry bout.”

Despite the stifling Vegas heat, the old man was wearing a grey woolen coat that had clearly seen better days. Rips and holes, grease spots and muddied stains spoke of countless nights spent sleeping under highway overpasses, on concrete slabs, and in abandoned lots. He pulled back at the stretched right sleeve and extended his hand.

“I’m Bill, but everyone calls me Memphis Bill. I’m pleased to meet you.”

Over the next half hour, Memphis Bill shared some of his life through hurried mouthfuls of eggs and bacon. As his name suggested, he was indeed from Memphis, Tennessee, the youngest of six, and the son of a bellhop at the Peabody Hotel. His mother had died when he was very young, and with a father busy at work all day he had been mainly raised by his grandparents. Clearly, it wasn’t an easy upbringing. Bill spoke of a home that rarely had much to eat, of being arrested more than once for shoplifting food, and of having no choice but to drop out of school at fourteen to find work. Given the countless freight trains bustling through Memphis to make the Mississippi River railroad crossings, he eventually wound up in the rail yards on a busy but steady-paycheck job.

Somewhere in his twenties, he met a girl, got married and had a son. It sounded as if his life was happy enough for a time until, out of nowhere, he began to suffer severe depression. He described what it felt like with remarkable openness. For Bill, depression had been ‘a heavy stone’ that would abruptly wheel across his life and seal him in, trapped inside a tomb devoid of any light or hope. He was misdiagnosed for years, shuffling from one doctor to the next without any help until he became overwhelmed by it all, sank deeper into despair, lost his job, lost his wife and lost a relationship with his son. The next forty years of his life became a blur of bad fortune, missteps, and brief lulls of respite, broken by the inevitable return of that ‘heavy stone’. He had now been in Las Vegas for almost ten years and couldn’t quite tell me –or chose not to explain- how it was that he ended up in one of the most challenging of all cities trying to survive a life on the streets.

I tried my best to turn the conversation around to brighter, cheerier things, so told Bill about my own story and answered a few of his curiosities about Australia.

“I’d like to have gone to the Great Barrier Reef. My wife and I talked about it once. A long time ago.” He pushed his empty plate aside and exhaled. “But it’s too late for that now. I’m here with the bright lights and slot machines for good… Thank Christ I love the sunshine, right?”
It was the only real laugh I heard from Bill during our brief meeting.

Eventually it came time for us to shake hands again and say our farewells. As he was about to exit the booth, he hesitated a moment, then sat back down again.
“Look… I hate to ask ‘cause I know you already helped me with breakfast but… I don’t suppose you could spare a few more dollars, do you? My pockets are empty except for coins and I sure would like to be able to eat some dinner tonight.”

I reached into my wallet and slid a twenty-dollar note across the table. “Memphis Bill, it’s been a pleasure. Take care now, friend.”

Bill nodded and we went our separate ways.

Not even two minutes later, I was approaching the exit and pushing through the casino’s glass doors and into a rush of heat and sunshine from the desert city when I remembered I’d left my newspaper in the café booth. I wheeled back around and made my way across the casino floor.

As I turned the corner towards the café, I passed a bank of slot machines to my right and recognized a familiar figure.

It was Memphis Bill.

He was feeding the twenty-dollar note I had only just given him into one of the machines and reaching for a chair. He glanced up and saw me. Bill’s eyes flashed ever so briefly with a hint of panic, but then he relaxed, smiled weakly and just shrugged his shoulders.

I smiled back, “Good luck”, then continued on my way.

I’ve no idea if what Bill had told me about his life was a lie, but I doubt it. At the end of the day, I wasn’t going to judge the man on how he spent that money regardless of his story and current circumstances. Clear enough was the fact that life hadn’t been fair to him. I hoped he came across some dinner later that night. But I also hoped he hit the jackpot on that shiny, whirring slot machine. Whatever the truth in his tale of a long and painful road, the only thing I really did know was that Memphis Bill was long overdue for a change in fortune.

Maybe he found it at the El Cortez.


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