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Brendan Buhler

Worn but hanging in there

11 February 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- One thing that strikes you about the Gold Spike — the downtown casino on the corner of dirt and despair — is that it's a friendly place.

For instance, within a couple of minutes of going in, I make a new friend, Fred, who says he sees me here all the time and is my old friend.

No, it's my first time. Aw, Fred says, what the heck. He waves me over to his table and offers to sell me a new pair of sunglasses, shades that would blow my mind, for only $10. No? That's OK. How about buying him one of those $1 shots?

Icy beer goes for mostly under $2 at the worn but welcoming Gold Spike, where the service is quick and close to cheerful. Aw, thanks, Fred says, I got the shakes bad from yesterday and this will clear it up. It restores a guy's faith in people.

"I like people. I'm a people person," Fred says. "I don't know what I would do without people. I couldn't drink alone, not at home. I mean, maybe if I had friends over or one of those dirty movies on."

Fred's a regular at the Gold Spike, which sits across the street from Neonopolis. The last guy who bought the 110-room Gold Spike said he was going to take the place "from crackhouse to penthouse."

Then he gave up six months later and sold it.

But how bad is the Gold Spike?

Crackhouse? That's pretty rough.

You wouldn't call Fred a crackhead. Fred, well, he's maybe in his mid-to-late 60s and has seen better days, but has a freshly shaved face, a recent haircut and a couple of bluing tattoos with only tasteful nudity. He also just got out of jail, where he was taking a little break on account of having an open container, giving false information to a police officer and trespassing. Nothing major, and no hassle with his probation.

"I'm a lucky man," Fred says. "Oh, I tell you, I'm a lucky man."

The roughly 30-year-old casino he's in, well, it's maybe not so lucky, but though it might be down at its heels, it's got the dignity of a stop at the end of the day and the end of the line. It's not full of trash, it's holding itself together and it's not turning anyone away.

Wandering in on a Thursday afternoon, the first thing you notice is cigarette smoke hanging down to your navel, which doesn't so much strike you as knock you down and mug you. While it's got you pinned down and is going through your pockets, you also notice the fake wood paneling, the losing army of ceiling fans, the stained carpet, the stained ceiling and the little sign by the bar that says tequila shots cost a buck.

The slots still take actual quarters. The grill is suspiciously empty for a place where everything on the menu is under $5, and I'd say the men's room has seen better days, except I'm not sure that's true. The stalls are on their second or third locks.

Fred is in the small bar, where the beer is snow-melt cold and mostly under $2, and the service is quick and not far from cheerful. The guys are all drinking beer and the woman is drinking a Midori sour and telling a sympathetic ear that if that guy ever touches her again, that's it.

Fred's game of chance is making friends, seeing whether any of the off-the-job construction workers will buy him a drink, buy his key-chain Elmo doll or chat for a minute. A lot of them do, and he even sells the Elmo.

"I'm not a bigshot. I'm calm," Fred says. "I don't give no trouble and I don't take no trouble. I like people. I like to drink."

Originally from Wisconsin, where he was the fastest hay bailer you ever saw and worked at the Schlitz brewery for a while, Fred's been in Las Vegas for 20 years. He didn't come here right away. He was a boxer in San Francisco for a while and got unpopular when he won a decision in Oakland in '68. He had a daughter out there, but doesn't know whether she's still there. It's been awhile. He thinks about Wisconsin a lot — well, the people there, long ago and long gone. He remembers sitting in the basement with his grandpa after holidays and other family days, drinking Old Crow and Grandpa saying he'd take the blame if Fred had a few too many.

"I miss my grandpa. I miss my grandma, too," Fred says. "I miss 'em. I ain't got anybody now."

Fred tries to take care of people he meets these days.

Need new shoes? Nikes? Fred can get them.

Some big guy wants a fight? Fred doesn't care. They're not supermen. They don't stop bullets with their hands, don't change into some costume in a phone booth.

And Fred always remembers to hug people. His wife told him to hug before she died, and he isn't afraid to do it.

If I need money, really need it, he'll go down to his bank and get it for me.

But if I'll lend him $5 for food, Fred will pay me back $10.

"I'm small potatoes, but I'm good people. Honest. Ask anybody."

Come back tomorrow. He'll be here, with all his friends in the Gold Spike.