“It’s better to talk about before”

Cheapo Vegas was a website started by Matt Weatherford and Mark Sinclair in 1999. It was a spinoff of their main site, Big Empire, as a way to poke fun at Las Vegas. The site was inspired by their Big Empire articles such as “Las Vegas on 25¢ a Day” where you could learn the depths of depravity people would go down to get all things cheap or free. Their trip reports are entertaining exploits of a bunch of young guys trying to have fun in Las Vegas on the cheap.

Loaded with all of that “experience”, Cheapo Vegas was created as a tongue-in-cheek casino hotel review site. The site’s own mascot, “Casino Boy”, gave snarky recommendations on everything from the quality of included soap and shampoo in hotel rooms, whether the pool was clean or not, to the caliber of people watching you could expect. Here’s a review of the now shuttered Western Hotel on Fremont Street from October of 1999:

Western Hotel Review

I was inspired by these guys. Poking fun at Las Vegas, the “Ma and Pa Kettle” tourists, while keeping tabs on the abhorrent conditions people would tolerate just to find cheap greasy food, hotel rooms or gambling sounded like way too much fun to pass up. If I were going to go to Las Vegas for the first time, it would definitely be ‘in the style’ of Cheapo Vegas. Here’s what I wrote when I did exactly that:

October, 2008

The hot Nevadan air blasts me straight in the face like a furnace as I leave the airport, luggage in tow. Throngs of people, families even, scramble this way or that, some of them in a panic to find their hotel shuttle or a cab. I can’t help but smile; isn’t Vegas supposed to be about relaxing, about leaving your daily panic behind? Apparently not. In no hurry, I skip the long line of people waiting for a taxi, and stand calmly next to a sign that proudly announces “CAT”. Most people here wouldn’t be caught dead taking public transit, but hey, for a buck and twenty-five cents, you can’t go wrong.

It’s my first trip to Vegas, although not my first to Nevada. That honour went to the city of Reno. At night, Vegas appears to be like Reno, but on a much larger scale. Of course, it’s probably the other way around. But in my mind, Reno always comes first. The air-conditioned bus is a comfortable ride as it meanders through the city, giving me a glimpse of places I had only read of before: the Convention Center, the Sahara, Stratosphere, and finally good ole downtown.

I disembark the bus on Fremont Street, and my ears are instantly bombarded with loud music in all directions. People move around in loud, rowdy clumps, moving across the street in a fashion that demonstrates that the pedestrian lights here are only mere suggestions. I have the downtown map permanently branded into my brain, so I look up to see.. ah yes, there it is.. the Gold Spike, the red fluorescent lights announcing its lonely presence a block away.

As I walk towards my final destination, some of the more unsavoury elements begin shouting in my direction. I’m still wearing my fancy work clothes, and that’s just something that doesn’t blend in very well in this neck of the woods. Surely, someone dressed as I am is headed in the wrong direction. “Where you think you goin’?” they shout.

The Gold Spike is under renovations, and I was prepared for that. There’s a reason why the room rate was so cheap, after all. But it strikes me full force in the face as to what ‘renovations’ really means as I enter the dilapidated building. The ceiling tiles are all gone, and one half of the main floor is walled off in a fashion not unlike that of the Berlin Wall. An array of cables in all colors of the rainbow hang down and sprawl like some kind of tentacle monster. The combination lobby-and-gambling hall is dark, dingy, and dim, rows of slot machine screens lightning up the faces of their respective gamblers. It’s like an arcade from the 80’s, but with slot machines. An employee shoots me a quizzical look. Clearly, dressed the way I am, I must be in the wrong place.

Most people in my position would turn tail and run out as fast as they could. Perhaps they would book themselves into the MGM Grand at $200 a night. But not me. This was all part of the adventure, part of the charm (or the stark lack thereof) that made up Las Vegas.

With half the floor out of commission, I figure that finding the registration desk for the hotel couldn’t be difficult. So I walked down a hallway, and then back again, before stopping in front of a fold-out table complete with a computer that looks like it’s been in use since the early 90’s. There’s a portly lady behind the desk, and a rat’s nest of cables veering off in all directions. Some of the cables have been spliced together with electrical tape, so a bright orange extension cord will terminate in a mass of black, only to emerge on the other side a dark brown before continuing on into some conduit. A power bar hangs in midair above the desk, suspended from the depths of the ceiling, where the computer and various other devices are plugged in.

The woman behind the desk is clearly more interested in catching a nap than tending to customers, so I offer a polite, “good evening” to wake her up. That seems to do the trick, as she puts on a smile. “Ah, yes.. welcome to the Gold Spike. Do you have a reservation?” Checking in seems to take far longer than it should, doubly so in a place as simple as this. But I’m patient and polite, watching as she feeds a keycard through a device with the nervousness of a novice. I guess keycards are newfangled in these parts.

Then I’m in the elevator, a creaky affair that spits me out onto the third floor. A sheet of paper fresh off of an inkjet printer announces “ICE” along with an arrow. Scotch tape has been used to affix it to the wall. “How tacky”, I think, but then again, that’s the twisted charm of this place.

I open the door to my room, flick on the dim light, and can only laugh. I’ve read every detail of the review a million times over, but nothing had prepared me for this. Cigarette burns in the floor, furniture fresh from a thrift store, linens from the 60’s, and a television that still proudly calls itself a color TV. I flick on the light to the bathroom and am greeted with chipped and worn counters. The floor has dirt that has been permanently embedded into the tile several times over so that it forms a dirty shield several millimeters thick.

“They weren’t kidding” I muse to myself. Without further ceremony, I discard my luggage, and more importantly, my work clothes. I put on something more appropriate for this neck of the woods, something liable to not get me shot or mugged: a t-shirt and some khakis. I look at the old digital clock by the bed which flashes “12:00” over and over again. They say that even a broken clock is right twice a day, and this is no exception: it’s actually about Midnight.

I set off to explore Fremont Street, walking slowly by each casino, taking a slow stroll through the gambling floor of each one, taking in the unique, cheesy atmosphere that each casino provides. For the most part, the table minimums are too high, or the rules too unfavourable. It’s clear that downtown Vegas attracts the younger party crowd. Lights flash everywhere, deep bass rumbles in from every direction, and the shouts and clanking of liquor bottles ring like Christmas bells.

Feeling a little hungry, I helped myself to a one dollar hot dog somewhere, in some casino that I can no longer remember the name of, and drench it in ketchup. A woman to my right talks excitedly about how she’s going to play a few rounds of Keno. The teenage employees slaving over the heavily smoking grill openly trade laughs and jokes with their customers. I’m positive that I’m the only sober person here.

This time, I didn’t get so much as a look from the locals. Excellent. Blending right in was on my agenda.

Walking through the Gold Nugget, it disappoints me that the casino seems to be very unremarkable. Which is a shame, considering that the whole premise of the short-lived reality show “The Casino” was to make it very much remarkable and “Old Vegas.” Now it pretends to be just another Strip casino, except that it’s not on the Strip.

Figuring that I had got my fill of the “Fremont Street Experience”, I started walking towards a less brightly lit end of town: Fremont East. This was the home of a cheapo casino famous in its own right: The Western.

I had a dream a few years ago about a casino that looked like something fresh from the early 70’s. Wood paneling on the walls, linoleum on the floors, and a stark, sort of grey-white tackiness to it all. The Western is, without a doubt, that dream come to life. Smoke hung in the air much like smog does over Los Angeles. The players looked downright depressed at the tables, spending their hard-earned money away on a friday night.

After a quick table survey, it looked like the best I was going to get was $3 a hand. That was fair enough, so I plonked down a likeness of Franklin, which I suppose is a lot of money in this casino. Receiving a huge stack of white chips made me feel important, but that euphoria quickly passed. I asked about what happened to $2 minimums, and the dealer just laughed. “We don’t do that around here anymore.” He says it like a $3 minimum is a big step up.

I realize that I’m not here so much for the gambling as I am to do some people watching. The players at the Western certainly don’t disappoint. To my left, someone jumps up and stares down the slot player next to him. I can only guess as to the insults that were hurled about each other’s mothers. Security quickly intervenes; I guess they’re used to that sort of thing around here. Of course, the gentleman being escorted out tries to show up the guard, gestulating wildly with his arms, but it doesn’t work.

Back at the blackjack table, an elderly woman to my left keeps on making stupid decisions. Doubling down on 17. Splitting 10’s. Hitting on 16 when the dealer shows a 6. Sometimes she dozes off completely in the middle of a hand, and the dealer has to shout for her to wake up. Eventually, she goes bust completely.. her fifty bucks all gone. The woman then begins to mumble under her breath, her hand clenched in a fist as she tries to grasp chips that are no longer there.

Eventually she leaves, and everyone at the table (including the dealer) breathes a sigh of relief. This gets the table talk going a little more, and the dealer explains, “She just got her paycheque today. Every time, it’s the same old thing. She blows the whole works in one night.” At least the dealers here are pretty cute, which works for me, and the cocktail waitresses attend to my drinks with sufficient speed.

But then Senile Lady is back as quickly as she left, this time grasping a crumpled ten dollar bill in her wrinkled hand. She stands in front of the table, crushing the bill into a little ball, and then smoothing it out again before repeating the motion over and over again. She begins to mumble, contemplating whether she should spend the ten dollars on a few more hands or just go home.

Meanwhile, the darkness outside turns to a light blue, and I’m becoming hungry. It’s 6:00am now, so I figure it’s time to leave. There’s nothing quite like having a good breakfast, so after a quick visit to the cashier, I find my way walking back down Fremont Street to the El Cortez.

The temperature outside isn’t quite furnace-like anymore, just comfortably above room temperature, in fact. The streets are mostly empty, but the party hasn’t stopped yet. I walk by a few buildings and drunk people stumble out in uneven intervals, loud thump-thumping music emerging from the dark depths. It occurs to me that Vegas is really just one, gigantic 24-hour party.

El Cortez turns out to be rather unremarkable, except for the tired-looking gamblers contained within. The poker players look as if they’ve been running marathons. The folks manning the slot machines move their money from wallet to machine with robotic efficiency. At least the Cortez has a carpet, and feels more “old Vegas” than either the Western or the Gold Spike. Or should I say, it is the most “Reno-like.”

Breakfast is tasty, cheap, and uneventful. I walk back to the Gold Spike and consider getting some sleep. However, I couldn’t bring myself to crawl into those dirty, flowery sheets. Especially not when I had a free reservation at the much fancier Planet Hollywood on the strip. You see, Planet Hollywood is a Starwood property, and that means Starwood Points can be converted into free stays. If I could only convince them to let me check in early, then I’d technically get two sleeps for the price of one. Or is that the price of “none”, since I wasn’t paying a dime?

Thus I pack my things, which really means taking my luggage by the handle and rolling it out the door. I check out of the Gold Spike, having spent $40 for what was essentially six hours of luggage storage. That done, I walk over to the Downtown Transit Center to catch the Deuce down to the Strip. For two bucks, how can you go wrong?

A pedestrian light switches to ‘walk’, and I instinctively look over my shoulder to see an unsavory local sneaking up on me. I don’t know what his intentions are, but he’s clearly making an effort to make sure I don’t notice him. I do my best to ignore him, continuing on to the bus depot. He follows me for a little while, but finally turns around and goes back the way he came. The Downtown Transit Center isn’t much better, though, with all sorts of locals crowded around in various states of cleanliness and drunkiness.

The double-decker Deuce is a pleasant ride, giving a more detailed view of the strip. It looks far different during the day, large buildings towering over massive plots of land. To my eyes it looks all very clean and almost like a vast amusement park.

Before long I’m at the registration desk of Planet Hollywood, and it’s 8:00am. There’s not another customer in sight, thankfully. The vastness of the room speaks for how bad the lines must get on a Friday evening.

A clerk welcomes me from behind the desk. “Good morning, sir, welcome to Planet Hollywood. How can I help you?” I explain that I’m very early, but would like an early check-in. The attitude of the clerk changes instantly, and he sighs. He doesn’t say anything, but the body language speaks volumes. ‘Of course you can’t check-in, you idiot, who checks in at 8:00am?’ But after punching my reservation into the system, his attitude swings back and he smiles broadly, “Ah, of course. Your Starwood Platinum status entitles you to a free upgrade to a suite and we’ll check you in right away.” Business travel has its benefits, after all.

The suite is a complete 180 degree difference to the Gold Spike. It’s like I’ve gone from the lowest form of accommodation to the highest. A large bathroom with two sinks, a separate tub and shower, and an adjoining water closet. A walkway into a room featuring a king-sized bed and a great view overlooking Bellagio and Caesar’s Palace. Everything is immaculately clean. Surprisingly, there is no mini-bar, which strikes me as odd.

I quickly dump all of my stuff off in the middle of the room, close the blinds, and put out the “do not disturb” sign. It doesn’t take very long for sleep to claim me, helped along by the dull thump-thump of some still-ongoing party nearby.

Afterword

I got an email from Matt Weatherford about my story, here’s what he had to say about it:

Your story was entertaining, but you lose a lot of points for not even
sleeping at the Spike.  Come on, man, you have to live the full
experience.  Too bad you never stayed at the Western when it had a hotel.

Good luck,
Matt

Cheapo Vegas co-founder Mark Sinclair passed away in 2006. The site was sold and became a generic hotel booking/referral site in 2012, erasing most of its sarcastic past. It’s never been the same since.