This piece originally appeared in my Vegas.com column Tourists For Breakfast, March 8, 2000.
I am not a drunk. Never call me a drunk. That kind of talk could get me a reputation, and besides, I’d much rather you describe me as a lush. Anyone can be a drunk, given the tools and the time. Being a lush, it seems to me, requires a measure of urbanity. A lush could drift through a Noël Coward play without incident: “Oh, that’s just our Geoffrey. A bit of a lush, but otherwise a fine fellow.”
But this is Las Vegas, not Look After Lulu. And I spend my drinking hours not in the countess’ arboretum, but at the Double Down Saloon on Paradise, which is a place for drunks.
8 P.M. FRIDAY
“Hey! Blue Chevy truck!” howls Bartender Grant, over the in-house PA. “Fuckin’ move it! Get outta here and move your fuckin’ car!”
I don’t remember when or how I first got the idea of spending 24 hours in the Double Down, but now that I’m actually doing it, I feel mighty good about having Grant at the helm. All the nighttime bartenders at the Double Down are absolute sweethearts – Melo, a displaced surfer with the best head of hair you’ll ever see; Lynn, a husky-voiced temptress who should be a movie star; Scotty, an affable, bearded fellow with an affinity for the Grateful Dead.
Grant, though – he’s my funk-soul brother. We can converse in dialogue from “Jaws,” 1975 (“Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies…”); he knows what I want to drink before I know; he is conscientious enough to serve me a glass of water (a “spacer”) between every round. That’s a good bartender.
Grant nods approval at me as I arrive this fine Friday night, and sets up a Rolling Rock, which is exactly what I wanted.
“To start you on your journey,” he says.
Moss, the proprietor of this fine establishment, stops by my table. He’s the quintessential bar-owner type – if this were 1950. He wears a neatly trimmed goatee, smokes cigars, wears bowling shirts. He’s done so for years, long before the recent swing craze rendered such things ubiquitous, and, in the man’s own words, “easier to find.”
“You all right?” he asks.
“Well, then,” he says, “I’ll see you to-morr-owwwww!”
9 P.M. FRIDAY
The Double Down Saloon is the hippest bar in Las Vegas, and has been for seven years. Every flat surface is covered with darkly colorful murals and collages by local artists Magda Kearns, John Emmons, Tony Bondi and Elizabeth Blau. In one corner, a guitar-wielding Ganesha rocks out, as a pack of spindle-legged women mix it up nearby; a voluptuous nude palms a Cosmopolitan in the entryway, her nipple artfully covered by the cherry garnish; the wood paneling above the bar itself swims with oversized rubber cockroaches, swizzle sticks and surgical clamps, colliding in crazy gridlock.
And the jukebox matches the visual chaos note for note. The CD selection runs the gamut from Frank Zappa to Billie Holliday to NOFX to Elvis. Shortly after 9, I load up the juke with Clash, Dead Milkmen and Louis Jordan, and wait for the crowds to hit.
Sure, every bar has its characters, people who seem more or less conjoined to barstools, but in my humble opinion, the Double Down has perfected characterization. The surroundings demand nothing less, and inhibitions are loosened, if not tossed completely: patrons writhe on the children’s quarter-operated mechanical horse, dance erratically to garage / surf rock, bellow at each other across the pool tables, even strip naked on short-lived, glorious occasion.
The crowd begins to pour in shortly after 10, and it’s one cute bunch of psychopaths. I’d expect nothing less of a place that has hosted the late Dr. Timothy Leary, Man Or Astroman, Tim Burton, members of Pearl Jam and Sister Spit’s Traveling Roadshow. Rumor has it that even Bill Bayno used to drink here, before he became respectable.
Maybe some of them will show tonight. If Leary shows up, I will switch from Cuba Libres to Shirley Temples.
The crowd reaches critical mass. Tonight, it’s an even mix of gothic babes, suspender’d and Prada’d power yuppies, flattop rockabilly punx and true lushes. Someone is celebrating a birthday with an inflatable sex doll; she is batted around the room like a beach ball.
Finally, someone gets the perfectly rational idea of placing the doll astride the horse. Without hesitation, I wedge the doll’s nether opening onto the saddlehorn (it’s just a doll, kids), fish out a quarter and send the whole assemblage a-moseying along. What’s not right?
5:30 A.M. SATURDAY
The crowd has thinned out, but only slightly. Most nights, the crowds don’t really come on until 11 or so, and they stay on until dawn. I’ve done it a few times; it’s too easy to do in a city bereft of clocks. On lucky nights, I get out just before sunrise, and race the light home.
Not tonight. I’ve been awake for 23-and-a-half hours, and this time—when I’d normally make my way to bed, or to Mr. Lucky’s for steak and eggs—I’m still at the bar, shooting something that barely resembles pool.
My friend taps me lightly on the shoulder as I try to line up a shot.
“That’s the cue ball,” he says, pointing. “Down there.”
6:30 A.M. SATURDAY
The dawn patrol arrives. After drinking the last bourbon Melo served me – about half an hour ago – I settled into one of two overstuffed chairs for a quick nap, only to be awakened by the invigorating smell of bleach. Two fine fellows, Grandpa and Stoney, come in every morning and mop up every inch of the joint with a mix of bleach and solvents that could strip the proverbial skin off a cat.
I run to the front door for a lungful of air that isn’t burning, and promptly return to my chair.
“You survived the morning cleaning!” says Grandpa, running a hand through his Mohawk. “You’re a true Double-Downer!”
I watch the Army/Navy game listlessly. I’ve met a few other true seekers, still lashed to the bar. “Otto,” so nicknamed for his resemblance to the “Simpsons” character, and John, a real neighborhood drunk. When he tries to stick his bankcard into the receipt slot of the ATM machine, Ian, the morning bartender, eighty-sixes him.
“You’re all fucked up,” says Ian. “Why don’t you beat it?” John nods sagely, throws a bill on the counter, and leaves without incident.
After he walks out, Ian shrugs, and tells me a story about the man who, bent and belligerent, demanded food of one of the bartenders. The bartender calmly walked to the supply cabinet, took out a urinal cake, and handed it to him.
3 P.M. SATURDAY
Moss visits, accompanied by his daughter.
“You see that guy?” he tells her, pointing at the journalist hunched over a video poker machine. “He’s trouble.”
7 P.M. SATURDAY
Almost zero hour. My girlfriend brings some Vietnamese food, which I share with Grandpa as we shoot pool. Grandpa has been in two major pedestrian accidents this year, fracturing his wrists and legs respectively. The fortysomething takes it all in stride – “I’ve been around the block a few times” – noting, with a smile, that a pool had been started amongst the Double Down staff, along the lines of “What will hit Grandpa next?”
“A week or so after the contest started,” he says, “a rule was added: ‘You may not hit Grandpa yourself.’”
He sinks the eight ball. He was once a tournament pool player, before the road turned.
8 P.M. SATURDAY
“You made it,” Grant says.
I have. And though I’m pretty much done with the Double Down Saloon for the day, and I smell like a thousand ashtrays, I find myself reluctant to leave. So I look around at my home away from home: at the “You Puke, You Clean” sign, at the advertisement for house specialty “Ass Juice,” and at “Otto,” asleep on the couch. The night before, someone told me that he had been at the Double Down for three straight days; this would make it his fourth.
God love that wonderful lush. He should have written this piece.