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Salt Lake City Weekly The Sin Bus

Take a ride over the line to that mecca called Wendover.

By Phil Jacobsen

AUGUST 25, 1997:  If the United States were subject to zoning laws, Nevada and Utah would not be allowed to reside side by side. It would be like putting a bar next to a schoolyard or a strip club next to a church.

Nevada has organized gambling and prostitution. Utah has organized religion and proselytizing. Nevada is the Silver State and Utah is the state with the silver lining. For many, Nevada is the monkey on Utah's back and the albatross cinched too tightly around Moroni's neck. Nevada is the prodigal son who never came home.

And there sits Wendover, in the heart of hell's furnace, looking cool and calm, neon lights flashing, bank machines cashing and Black Jack tables beckoning, like a carnival barker at a traveling circus: "Come one, come all."

Two hours downwind from Salt Lake City, Wendover has prospered from the fallout of the unrighteous, the pious, and the hypocrites of Utah. Every major casino, the Silver Smith/State Line, the Peppermill, the Rainbow, and the Red Garter, has undergone, or is currently undertaking a "Field of Dreams" — if you build it, they will come — expansion.

But who is coming to this gambling orgy? The Salt Lake City elite hire limousines. The middle class drive their own cars. And the others? With their lungs hacking and souls coughing, like the band of the same name, they get onto the bus, the "Bus to Beelzebub" — home of the Devil.

For a pittance, bus services like Casino Caravans and Donna's Tours will take you on a ride to Wendover, so you can gamble your pay, Social Security and welfare checks away. And, with nothing better to do on a Friday than "count flowers on the wall or play solitaire 'til dawn with a deck of 51," I decided it was time to do a little "research" in Wendover. I would throw myself into the foray of the gambling forlorn and ride the bus to the state line.

I chose Casino Caravans as my carriage of choice, and with little reservation I made reservations for my bus ride to gamble in Wendover.

(Indian reservations also have gambling. I point this out, not because it's relevant to the story, but rather to show that English is one tricky language.)

The plucky Casino Caravan voice, on the other end of the 1-800-876-LUCK phone, instructed me to meet the bus at Denny's on 500 South, Friday, at 9 o'clock in the a.m.

Thursday night, gambling eve, I was as excited as a child at Christmas time and hardly slept a wink. I daydreamed of the gambling windfall that lay ahead. The gifts I would buy my friends. The restaurants where I would eat with my untold fortunes and the faces on the employees at these restaurants, when I would look them in the eye, unwavering, unnerving and unhesitantly, saying, "Yes, this time I will Supersize."

I arrived at Denny's, not at 9 a.m., or even 8:57, but at 8:43. A little earlier than I had wished to come, but such is life when you're excited. Sure, I was a bit too early, but Oh Susanna, the bus did come around the mountain eight minutes later.

I gathered up my gambling paraphernalia: Lucky Troll doll, rabbit's foot and Mr. Ed's horseshoe, and proceeded to board the bus. Three steps on the bus, I took five steps backwards out the door and towards my car. The hostess, Maxine, poked her head out of the bus levelor doors and said, "Honey, what's the problem?"

"You see," I responded, "I wanted the Casino Caravan bus to Wendover, and this bus, as best I can tell, is headed to an AARP convention."

"Oh no, dear," Maxine said, "This is the bus to Wendover." So I put my left foot on the bus with a little trepidation. Then, I put my right foot in. "Ah, what the hell," I said to myself. I was a little nervous and shook all about, but I got on the hokey pokey bus.

I had my ID ready to show the hostess, because just over a month ago a bus was robbed at gunpoint on the way to Wendover. I had heard there would be stepped-up security measures, and, since I fit the John Hinckley, Mark Chapman and Richard Jewell lone-gunman profile (single, white, malcontent, exhibitionist), I thought I would have to undergo, and actually looked forward to, a full-body cavity search. No security. No search. And if there were to be a seizure, it would be because nitroglycerin tablets weren't popped this morning.

Now, it's possible that every bus to Wendover is full on a Friday. Or maybe, since this was the first of the month.

As we pulled out of Denny's, the bus headed south on Interstate 15. The wrong way, typically, but with I-15 resembling a patchwork quilt at a dyslexic quilting bee, Wendover appeared to be the location you could not get to from here. And with a bus full of senior citizens, pulling seniority over the bus driver, we had a bus bursting with card-carrying back seat drivers.

"Take North Temple," one lady shouted. She had a very familiar "I know I'm going slow, but at least I'm ahead of you" coifed look to her head. A head I had been behind many times before, when she was going 55 mph in the fast lane on the freeway.

Another Prevention magazine subscription-holding senior citizen yelled, "Take 21st South to I-80 — It's the back way, you know." He had that look from behind as the person who slams on his brakes at the first hint of a yellow light.

And when the bus driver took 1300 South to I-80, I heard a lady say, "The bus driver's an idiot. He doesn't know where he's going." I could tell it was a lady, only because of the voice. I could not see hide nor blue hair of her. It was then I realized this was the lady who drives the car that is large enough to qualify for an open-water permit — a real boat. Fasten your seat belt and take two Dramamine, the captain of this ship is only visible from her forehead up.


Bus Bingo

My seatmate for the ride into the bowels of this Hades off-shoot of Las Vegas was Olga, a relatively-young 53-year-old Russian immigrant. When I take a bus, a train, a plane or boat, I seldom take that big walk that separates the few inches between me and the stranger who has the audacity to be 23A to my 23B. But on the way to Wendover, the bus passengers seem to have an "Us against Them" mentality. Them being the casinos and us being us, of course.

Oh cuss, I forgot to mention prices. On a Friday morning in early August, it costs $12 to ride the bus, but you get $11 back in cash when you step into the Silver Smith Casino. Therefore, even when you use that new math they're cloning in Scotland, the bus ride only cost a buck. But wait — there's more.

As we were settling in for our trip to Wendover, Maxine, the hostess with the mostest, was serving complimentary beverages, the finest Shasta has to offer. And she let us all know we were allowed to bring our own alcohol on the way to Wendover. At 9 o'clock in the morning, as I'm still wondering why I didn't stop at 7-11 for a cup of coffee, the last thing I need thrown in my face is a whiff of alcohol.

Kyle, the 67-year-old sitting across the aisle from me, offered me a snoot of Jose Cuervo: "It's great with orange juice, perfect thing to take the edge off." I didn't know I had an edge to take off until I saw the tequila. At 9 in the morning Jose Cuervo is no friend of mine.

Once the bus reached a comfortable cruising speed on I-80 and the cataract passengers were assured that Ed, the bus driver, wasn't heading east, the back-seat driving heart attacks subsided and everyone settled in. Crochet, cross stitching, dentures and pictures of grandchildren were pulled out. Bus bathroom blue liquid sloshed in the lavoratory and the early morning drinkers sloshed on the bus.

After Maxine dispensed colas and pleasantries to the passengers, she passed out bingo cards. "You can win $2," Maxine says to the Depends Generation, "so you may get wealthy on the bus, before you even get to Wendover." She pauses for courtesy laughter and actually gets it, plus a few Ed McMahon-like guffaws. Not since the heyday of the wireless, I fear, have these passengers laughed so hard. Who's on first? What's on second? And the man next to me is on his third Tequila Sunrise.

When the bingo cards come my way, I politely hold two of them out to Olga. "Ladies first," I say. She takes the card I wanted. Damn.

Maxine starts us off on a game of blackout Bingo. "N-43, B-13, I-19 ... "

"Slow down," The blue-haired lady with a boat for a car yells, as though these numbers are so important that they could foretell the future, replacing her calls to the Psychic Friends Network.

"You're going way too fast," a woman who I've seen at the grocery store with 37 cans of cat food in the "12-Items-or-Less" lane yells.

"I'm cold," Beehive-hairdo authentic-looking retro-granny says. "Turn off the air conditioner."

"It's hot in here," Toupee-touting, black sock, Bermuda short-wearing man says.

"Ask the bus driver if he's on his way to a fire," the 55 MPH-in-the-far-left-lane lady yells.

"N-30, G-55, O-69 (nervous laughter), B-9."

"BINGO!" yells Olga, holding what should have been my card, and now my $2.

We play five games of Bingo and Olga wins two of them. I'm feeling a cold war beginning to develop between her and me.


Russian Roulette

When Olga bays "Bingo," like a pig to the final call, we turn our attention to "Wheel Roulette." Ideally, a Casino Caravan bus is retro-fitted with a tire resembling a roulette wheel. The only difference is that a roulette wheel has 36 numbers, 37 including the green 0, or 38 if you're playing on a double-00 table. Wheel Roulette also has 50 numbers painted on a tire with chalk. When the wheels on the bus that go round and round come to a stop in Wendover, the hope is that your lucky number is selected on the bus' black tire.

Since this bus is a rental to Casino Caravans, it doesn't have a Firestone tire doing double-time as a roulette table. Maxine apologizes and says we'll just have to play by picking a random Bingo card.

"It's not Wheel Roulette if you pick a card," the lady who's been kicking the back of my chair says. "Besides, the odds are better on the wheel."

"The odds are 1 in 50," I say to her. "Whether your number is picked out of a deck of cards, or if a wheel spinning 70 miles per hour over the Salt Flats picks your number, the odds are still 1 in 50."

"You're wrong," she says, "It's easier to win on the wheel." She kicks the back of my seat. Stupidity is the hardest logic to argue against.

Trying to change the subject, I turn to Olga and ask her if she is going to play "Russian Roulette." I mean, I stutter, I stammer, "Wheel Roulette." She looks at me like I just referred to Belgian waffles as French toast; or Leningrad as St. Petersburg. The third time I referred to "Wheel Roulette" as "Russian Roulette" was when I said "I wish I was that guy," pointing three rows up. "Maxine just drew his number and he won Russian Roulette — the lucky bastard."


The Finer Points

"He's not so lucky," Kyle, the man across the aisle, says to me.

"But he just won $50," I say.

"When you win on the bus, you lose in Wendover. That's not superstition, that's a fact."

He takes a Camel cigarette out of his shirt pocket and holds it up, thumb and index, for me to see. "Can't smoke these on the bus, but I can chew on them."

He unwraps half a cigarette and sticks the tobacco under his front lower lip. "You didn't see me playing those kid games, Bingo and Wheel Roulette — those games break your gambling concentration, and if you're not focused, you're going to lose in Wendover."

I felt like I was at the feet of gambling greatness. This guy was the master and I was Grasshopper. Hannibal "The Cannibal" to Jodi Foster. Marsha to Cindy or Greg to Bobby Brady. Teach me, guide me, gamble beside me. Tell me when to hold 'em, fold 'em, or walk away.

"Can't do any of that," he says to me, "because gambling is a passion; it's not learned — you are born with it." He takes out his tequila bottle, and pours the remainder into his Coca-Cola Dixie cup, at least a four-finger shot. He spits his tobacco into the empty tequila bottle, shoots his shot and puts a lid on his impromptu spittoon. "Somethings you just don't want to spill." I don't know if he was referring to the tequila he just drank, or the tobacco he just spit out and put a lid on.

"At one point or another, doesn't everyone who gambles need to learn how to gamble?" I ask.

"A loser learns how to gamble, a winner has always known. A loser plays slot machines, winners play craps. A loser who once played slots and now plays craps is still a loser, because, if they were born gamblers, they would have known all along to avoid slot machines."

Looking forward to the untold-riches I'm about to reap in Wendover, I ask Kyle to teach me how to play craps.

"If you have to be shown, don't play."

"How did you learn?"

"Like I said, I've always known. It's as though when I was young, Cupid took an arrow and pierced my heart with the love of gambling, but that arrow also severed my spine, and gambling has left me paralyzed."

"Is there anything you can teach me?" I ask. He pulls the other half of his chewed cigarette out of his shirt and chews it down to the filter.

"If you want to win, don't gamble. But if you must gamble, then read Love in the Time of Cholera."

"What?"

"Just read it. You have to have passion like Florentino in that book in order to be a successful gambler, or a success in general."

When we arrive in Wendover, my concentration is on the lady behind me, the chair kicker. I let her go in front of me, and all the way off the bus I hit her in the back of the legs with my camera. I was concentrating so intently on this that I didn't see Kyle disappear.


Gambling is a Bitch

We arrived in Wendover at 11 a.m. My gambling money was gone by noon, and the bus wasn't going to head back to Salt Lake City until 5 p.m. I found that if you're out of money, the Keno area is the best place to sit and collect free drinks.

Around three, Martin, the man who won the $50 in Russian Roulette, the lucky bastard I wished were me, came and sat down in the Keno Room. He was drinking a one-litter bottle of Mt. Olympus water. The bottle was half empty. When you're in Wendover and out of money, you can bet that you're a pessimist.

"Hey," he breathes fire at me, "you were on the bus."

"Yeah, and you won the $50."

"It's all gone now," he says, "I spent it on this," holding up the water bottle. "It looks like water, but it's not." He swigs a Boris Yeltzen-gulp. "It's vodka. They don't allow bottles of vodka in here, but they allow water."

We introduce ourselves. I know his name because I thought I wished I was him when he won the $50. I tell him my name is "Phil." He calls me Steve for the rest of our conversation. At first, everything he says to me is "off the record" — until we get some free drinks and he calls the cocktail waitress, "Honey," and tells her he'll see her in church.

"Steve," he says to me, "I drink, but I have my reasons." A few years ago, he lost over $10,000 in Las Vegas. Actually, he calls Las Vegas "Lost Wages" and Wendover "Bend Over," but the gist is the same. He admits to having a lot more friends than he has money.

"Even though I've gambled my home away, this is not the reason I drink." Martin takes his Mt. Olympus vodka and staggers towards the lights and sounds of slot machines.

If you have fed your life savings into a slot machine, is a casino "Home Sweet Home"?

On the bus ride back to Salt Lake City, Olga is convinced the Mormon Church owns the casinos in Wendover. By raising the odds on all the slot machines, Mormons are deterred from gambling — and the kicker is, the church prospers. "I can vin in Las Vegas. I can vin in Mesquite, but I can't vin in Vendover. It's because of zee Mormons."

"It's because you play zee slots," I hear Kyle say.

As we are pulling into Denny's on 500 South, a voice slurs "Steve" from the back of the bus. Martin motions for me to sit beside him. "I want you to write this in your story, Steve. The reason I drink is because I still love my ex-wife." One hundred-proof tears stream down his face. "Gambling is a bitch. Write that in your story. Gambling is a bitch."


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