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Monday, August 14, 2006

On finding friends

Now back from Vegas, I probably have enough to write to keep me busy until this time next year. Right now, however, I'm struck by how much people care about me when I don't given them good reason to do so.

The dinner was meant as a "thank you." We sat in the back corner of Nob Hill. It was right in the middle and a world away from the metal-slug clanking and faux-winning jangles of the MGM casino. Ryan had cashed in the World Series of Poker a few days before and had invited a few folks out for a dinner that turned out to be the top five in my life.

There were people there that meant something to his success. Several of the people had chronicled his exploits on their blogs. I hadn't done anything to deserve my $200 of food and drink. At least anything I was aware of. I had taken him out for a couple regretful evenings and traveled with him on a failed mission to the World Series of Beer. Other than that, I didn't deserve to be sharing his tuna and bison (that sounds like a euphemism, but it's not).

After a couple of toasts, I got around to saying why I was happy to be there.

***

Five weeks earlier, I was alone in Vegas. Although millions of people travel through McCarran every year and turn the city into the world's most insane party, I had never felt more alone. Though I knew some people there, I didn't have any friends I could call at 4am when I got off work. My eating and drinking were done alone.

One night I rode the elevator downstairs. When it's 4am in Vegas and you have to get up at 11am, insomnia is a real bitch. If you're a poker player, you know getting into a game means you're going to be awake until it's time to go to work. I you're a drinker, you're forced to sit at bars that are populated by drunks and hookers. While I am both a poker player and a drinker, 4am was no time to be at the table or at the bar. And so I went to the only other place that had seats. I sat down at a blackjack table.

See, Vegas is about activity. Several weeks later, I would look at Ryan and say, "I need to do something active."

"I think there's a rock climbing wall..." he mused.

He knew scaling fake walls wasn't what I meant. I meant I needed to be doing something--anything--that made me feel like I was doing, well, something.

In those early days in Vegas, gambling seemed to be the only active thing I could find. What's more important, though, was that there were people there--people with whom I could form half-hour friendships that didn't cost me $200 and my marriage, anyway.

One night I met Craig and his wife. Craig was a gambler at the tail end of a too-long Vegas trip. A half hour later, we had become blackjack buddies. We'd even formed our club's motto: "Drinking and winning."

We did both for the next three nights, until he was no longer winning and we were both tired of drinking. When we parted at 6am one morning, his wife gave me a hug, and Craig shook my hand.

I think they were from Chicago.

***

At the Nob Hill dinner, I was sober and quiet. I listened to people tell stories and offered only a few of my own. Although most of the people there were people I'd have died to impressed in an earlier life, now I was content to sit back and just be. Every person there came from some sort of creative background. I occasionally swallowed and wondered if I really deserved to be among such creative people.

After two toasts, I said, "There's always been one thing about me that my wife can't understand: I don't like to make new friends."

***

It was true. I'm horrible at making new friends. Every time I am forced to move or change jobs, I have a really hard time liking new people. When I left high school, I never thought I'd find friends as good as Brad and Gary. When I left college, I never again wanted friends other than my crew from Laws Hall and Juniper Circle. When I finally move away from Green Vegas, I'm sure I'll have the same feelings about my group of friends here.

To be sure, the friends I have here in G-Vegas are the kind you don't want to lose. My friend, T, called me more times than I could count (he says it was ten times) while I was in Vegas. I never called him back. Uncle Ted gave up after two phone calls, but took care of my wife when I fell into a comatose black hole.

See, while I was in Vegas, I fell into a world that I don't think most people would understand.

One night, out behind the Rio, in the shadows where the card dealers hang out, Ryan said, "After watching you guys for a few days, it makes me think of ex-pat war reporting."

I'm not sure he could've been more correct. While I've never had the misfortune of reporting on a war, the books I've read and the movies I've watched make me believe it's true. While the WSOP and Vegas have been dolled up to look like the world's most exciting carnival, they are anything but. We people who are forced to work in such an environment are stuck there. It's a place where the currency isn't real money, the food and drink are not what we consume at home, where the hours aren't measured in minutes but in daylight and darkness, and where the so-called fog of war is omnipresent. Nothing makes sense after five weeks of 18-hour days and life/professional pressure that is so high, you think your lungs and wallet are going to collapse.

***

"I'm going with you."

Wil and I are both fathers, and as such, are anomalies. Most people who survive the fog of Vegas reporting are either childless or have children old enough that six weeks of being fatherless no longer bothers them. As for Wil and me, we had slipped away from our families on what most people would see as a month-long vacation from responsibility.

Every one of us measured our level of sanity in terms of "tilt." Taken from the term used to describe messed up pinball machines, tilt is how we describe poker players who aren't functioning with full control of their intelligence and sanity. I rarely went below 50% tilt during my trip. Wil was much the same way.


Wil at the Tilted Kilt, home of anti-tilting


One night, I said I was going to take a walk and Wil said, "I'm going with you."

That was how it started with Wil. We were already friends in some ways. He'd helped me into my new career. Our wives had become friends on a previous trip. We'd shared a love of music, writing, and poker. We'd had drinks. We'd eaten together. He'd tilted me with his affection for manicures and hand creams.

Real friendship springs up when you don't expect it. That night, when I was nearing 100% tilt, Wil talked me down. This continued over the next several weeks. Some nights, when we could see the tears in each other's eyes, we'd take a walk. We didn't really talk about the fact that both of us were about to break down. We'd just talk about our families. It rarely lasted more than 20 minutes, but by the end of it, we were able to go back to work.

Toward the end of the WSOP, Wil's family came into town for his wife's birthday. One night, we finished early and Wil invited me to join his family for dinner. As we knoshed on Japanese food and drank chilled sake, I should've felt like a fifth wheel.

And to the credit of friendship, I did not.

***

Ryan and I were stuck in Henderson, NV. He'd waited for me for several hours so we could cash in some tickets he'd won in a charity auction. By the time we'd found the venue, we were a $30 cab ride and a million miles away from Vegas proper. Oh, and the charity event was o-v-e-r.

We walked into a sparsely-populated casino and sat down at a poker table. I ordered a drink or two. When the waitress returned to check in on my level of satisfaction, I told what I thought to be the truth: "This could be the worst drink I've ever put in my mouth."

The guy in the ten-seat asked where I was from and I told him.

"I would've thought you were from California. San Francisco, I think."

As I swallowed another drink of the sub-par dirty martini, I took exception to the big guy's evaluation and asked what moved him to associate me with San Fran.

"Well, the hair, the t-shirt, the complaining about the drink."

My hair was a tousled mess, my t-shirt was off-the-rack shopping mall, and the drink sucked, but in Henderson, Nevada, apparently I was gay-boy California.

To his credit, Ryan only laughed a little.

As we left around 4am, there were no cabs. We stood wagging our heads back and forth like a dashboard bobble head doll until a guy dressed as a valet arrived.

"You guys need a cab?"

We did.

"What did it cost you to get here? $30?"

It did.

"How about I get you a limo for the same price?" he said, nodding toward a stretch limo on the curb.

Well, that would be just fine. I put $5 in the guy's hands and watched him walk to make the deal with the driver.

A strange transformation took place as the dude slipped into the driver's seat, a valet-turned-limo-driver. He sat on my $5 as he drove us back toward he city lights.

By the time Ryan and I stopped laughing, I had consumed half of the bottle water in the back of the limo and we were halfway back to Vegas.

A half hour later, I decided I had a new friend. Ryan and I ate steak and eggs and talked about writing. For once, I was honest about my lack of ability, experience, and discipline. I told him what I thought of myself and my abilities.

And, again, to his credit, he didn't laugh that much.

***

One thing about the past six weeks is it reinforced how much I believe in my current friendships. I had the good fortune of being able to bring in a team of bloggers that is the best in the business. CJ and Pauly have been my buddies for years, but until this trip, I think I took them both for granted. Craig was a new friend and one of the most mature and hard-working guys around. That was a new friendship I didn't expect. When I was down by TKO to work, indiscretion, and insanity, these guys stepped up and made it look like I was the best blogger in the world.

"You can tell a good boss by the people he hires," CJ said to me one day.

Bullshit, I thought. I wasn't a boss. I was a lucky friend.


CJ in the media event of the WSOP--after he busted he sweated me to a ninth place finish


CJ left town with a migraine. Craig left with no sleep. Pauly disappeared into Pauly-land. I suspect he'll re-appear sometime soon.


Pauly, expressing his love for me



***

The final table of the WSOP was predicted to last 20 hours or so. The night before it was to begin, I got back to my room early and turned on the TV. Some guy from the BBC was speaking in less-than-British tones about how the world was about to come to an end. Flights were being canceled and people couldn't carry water onboard.

I stayed up most of the night listening to tales of terrorism and the second coming of Bin Laden. I started wondering how long it would take me to drive cross-country to make it home in time for L'il Otis' 2nd birthday party.

When I arrived in the media room, Wil kept looking at me. He saw me power-surfing from CNN.com to Delta.com to Mapquest.com. I kept looking at my watch and checking my cell phone for orders from upper management.

Wil wanted to go home. He'd talked about little else for the past several days.

As night started to fall, Wil disappeared. I thought he'd taken off to call his kids. Instead, he re-appeared twenty minutes later.

"If this thing goes too late, I'm going to stay and blog it for you," he said. "You're going home for your son's birthday party."

I might have cried a little bit.

***

I made it home in time for the birthday party. The world had not come to an end. I had an easier airport experience than I usually do. Since then, I've done little else than sleep and spend time with my family.

Yesterday, I got to see the friends I'd left behind here. They looked at me like I'd been away forever. And they embraced me like I hadn't been a terrible friend while I'd been gone.

"Otis," one said, "we've been talking. We need to play more guitar now that you're home."


Me and Ted at a friend's birthday party



Me and Ted with guit-fiddles and happiness--photos courtesy of T, a friend who takes more photos than he appears in


***

That dinner at Nob Hill ended up costing even more than I thought it would. I guess when the chef makes a pot pie out of a two-pound lobster and carves up meets you didn't even know could be carved, it's going to cost a little bit.

I looked around the table. Ryan, Wil, and Pauly were there. At the far end, Spaceman was in full beard, a huge heart, and in good spirits. April was eating lobster for the first time. Change100 was tending to a cosmo and keeping an eye on a new project she has in the works. I realized, I was at a table full of true friends.

Maybe I could blame it on a couple blue cheese dirty martinis, but I finally spit out what I was trying to say--what I really meant about the people I found in Last Vegas.

"There's always been one thing about me that my wife can't understand: I don't like to make new friends. I'm not good at it. But in the last six weeks, I've made friends. Thank you all for making it so easy."





My two best friends, who welcomed me home and forgave me my absence

13 Comments:

Blogger Daddy said...

Your friends are lucky to have you.

Let's play some music soon.

3:55 PM  
Blogger Drizztdj said...

Being an invisible internet friend, anytime you need to unwind over a card game or on the girly IM box, my ears always open.

And I'd love to hear some guitar, if you're going to the Bash, please bring a little sample :)

4:12 PM  
Blogger Dr. Pauly said...

I miss you already. I'll be drinking scewdrivers at 2:30 everyday with starngers until we cross paths again.

5:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

welcome back home
all of g-vegas are glad you made it home
look forward to seeing you

shep

6:08 PM  
Blogger Huge Junk said...

Welcome back, Totally Gay Internet Diary friend.

8:39 PM  
Blogger Pokerwolf said...

Thanks for everything, Otis.

You deserve the friends and family you have.

9:24 AM  
Blogger Easycure said...

I'm glad you are home safe and everything is well.

You couldn't be as good as you are in Vegas without that home waiting for you.....that's just how you roll.

9:59 AM  
Blogger Shelly said...

yay for home! though we appreciate your work when you're away!

10:53 AM  
Blogger cc said...

Ditto, Brad. Here's hoping we'll stay connected. Let me know if you ever need anything.

12:26 PM  
Blogger Joe Speaker said...

Beautifully rendered, Otis. As always. One of the things that came through in everyone's writing the past weeks was the foxhole camaraderie.

Enjoy home.

1:10 PM  
Blogger Tooloftheman said...

Rock.

8:40 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

wonderfully told.

8:36 PM  
Blogger Joaquin "The Rooster" Ochoa said...

Ummm...as you know, I have a little tiny crush on Mrs. Otis....lucky bastard...forget the friends and take care of the wife...I'm on mega-tilt now. Little Otis is a cute kid, let's hope he isn't a writer and has to deal with all those crazy demons you writers have to deal with.

6:31 PM  

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