The Spear Carriers

Chewing the fat with long-time Las Vegas residents never tires. By that I don’t mean retirees who’ve descended here from elsewhere. Those people invariably have nothing interesting or worthwhile conversationally to add. Just complaints about today and regrets regarding opportunities deferred then dismissed through lengthy delay.

There’s only so much wistfulness one should hear until it starts burdening the present. Besides, once here and once monotony sets in too many of them become pill-poppin’ day drunks.

No, the older Las Vegans to whom I refer built careers here. After retirement they stayed in the Big Mayberry. None of them worked prestigious jobs. Instead, they toiled in the casinos and hotels during the city’s ascendence into its heyday. Although nobody remains from when mobsters Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky brought this part of the Mojave into fruition, plenty still walk among us when the city, the “idea” of Las Vegas, really started captivating as well as luring fun-seeking Americans whose discretionary income rose through widespread postwar prosperity.

The conversationalists were not notables. In a star-power firmament they were at best indiscernible lights, when seen at all. They mostly utilized themselves as eye/arm candy, slung drinks, served diners, dealt cards, cleaned facilities, and valeted vehicles. Some worked in proximity to known figures; a rare few were intimates with them. One had once even been a “mob princess.”

About that last, it surprised her I knew of her father. “Knew of,” not “did know.” That knowledge took our conversation to a more intricate level.

If we play our lives on stages, then the above actors were bit players.

From backstages, the wings, or showroom floors while maneuvering around patron-filled tables, they enjoyed some of the finest mid-20th century live entertainment for free. Seeing luminaries, maybe interacting with some, quickly became a common perk.

Best of all they adhered to rules present society’s younger members would doubtlessly find restrictive: eyes and ears open, mouths shut. To them, knowing seldom led to telling. None immediately or indiscriminately notified the planet. The oldsters routinely practiced the sort of discretion that would craze today’s shallow splash it on social media fiends.

It’s easy differentiating retirees who’ve worked in Las Vegas’ main industry from other pensioners who’ve flocked here from outside after having fulfilled other careers. For one thing former industry workers behave less pinched and crabby. They’re also resolute in having the best time during what remains of their lives.

Moreover, they retain habits from work. Former industry workers dress to impress. They groom, manicure themselves in similar fashion. As my parents, who were their contemporaries, would have remarked, “They look like something.” That sharpness is a vital sign.

Casual as attire inside Las Vegas casinos has become, the long-timers observe care in their presentation. Surely not so much when simply running errands around town but certainly on social occasions such as lunch with fellow industry retirees or chancing fortune with them at the machines, tables, and inside sports books.

Diners and gamblers who never worked “a Vegas job” comparatively neglect their public appearances. In apparel as well as physically.

The latter quality should be a no-brainer in a Southwestern town. Over 320 days of sunshine brighten arid Las Vegas annually. The natural urge is to be out and about among it. Just ask Arizonans. Yet universal air conditioning has transformed vast numbers of those who’ve relocated to this part of the Mojave into climate-control refugees. In summers especially, when yes, days broil, the most exercise they may get involves going from air-conditioned house to air-conditioned car into air-conditioned casino. And this begs little exertion at all because they’ve been sedentary inside their homes, seated in their cars riding to casinos, where they spend hours settled before slot machines.

The inactivity must contribute mightily to the incidents of obesity here. Morbid obesity at that. We’re talking about Dunlops stacked and bursting atop Dunlops. Are mobility scooters as prevalent elsewhere as they are in Las Vegas? Wouldn’t the health of a good number of the voluntary invalids be improved if they kept ambulatory instead of succumbing to these wheeled crutches?

Prior lifetime patterns must influence the discrepancies. Those who toiled in casinos did so amid swank. Maybe not so much on the gambling floors, but in the restaurants, showrooms, and lounges. Having first visited Las Vegas at the end of mob rule as it transitioned into soulless corporate rapacity, I wonder now what the old dese and dose guys might’ve made of the tatted and pierced slobs wearing droopy board shorts, muscle shirts, and flipflops rolling bones at the craps tables. Or wearing gaudy sneakers and ripped jeans inside elegant restaurants.

Daytime it wouldn’t have been seen as unseemly as during night. After all, fine dining establishments don’t open until gloaming hours; while sagged-out chumps and busters invariably tap out long before sundown.

Casino retirees notice this decline. Not one shied from criticizing. They’ll gladly refer to past glamor in order to provide comparisons. Also, now with principals from that era having shuffled off our coil to have claimed their rewards, any old compunctions about the living keeping lips zipped have mostly vanished with them.

Does pop culture skew history? When hearing of the long-ago mob presence which once greatly influenced Las Vegas, what American doesn’t envision some card counter being manhandled from the blackjack table, dragged into an alley, and being mangled by a pair of goons or three? Well, yeah, that happened. Though I bet not with the frequency TV shows and feature films insist. And yes, I heard one or two instances of such rough chastisements from former employees who then instantly forgot what they saw after opening rear doors for the bruisers and poor unfortunates they pounded into those establishments’ more obscure pavements.

But the heavies were far more than just guided muscles.

While never to be mistaken for philanthropists, the no-necks generally abided by an ethos that aligned them with little regarded foot soldiers who kept the glitzy properties humming. Although visitors might’ve dismissed frontline hotel-casino employees as menials, those who kept people straight – or straightened them out – would do good turns for fastidious staffers. Back then exemplary service got noticed and rewarded. Not like today.

Now, above and beyond attention barely rates a grunt from younger guests who believe themselves routinely entitled to slavish devotion. It’s a failing often practiced by callow Las Vegas visitors. In between condescending and insulting, they demand plenty, expect even more, get it, then tip like pikers. To them, nickels weigh more than manhole covers.

Say one thing about earlier visitors to the Big Mayberry, they treated the help better. Nor were they anywhere near as frugal with gratuities. Probably because somewhere in those guests’ lives, years before Las Vegas splurges possible, they knew what it was to have labored hard having done it themselves. Having been there, they wouldn’t stint showing appreciation.

In the old days, gentlemen whose business no one inquired about but was known by all might’ve been more generous than the best-known charitable donors. The latter are gold for the destitute or sponsoring all sorts of well-intentioned foundations, and that’s fine. But the fellas helped working people. Theirs were lifts that directly improved lives.

So far, of the examples of benevolence I’ve heard the best delivered a house and a car. The pensioner who told me was black. His outlook on life, similar to his disposition, was bright. Younger he must’ve been a bantam because aside from age having slowed him, he was still quite cocky.

Working in a hotel was the only job he ever held after serving in the Korean War. Despite Nevada still retaining plenty of its Mississippi of the West vestiges for the longest, he lived the high life nonetheless thanks to a steady, well-paying job. One that started granting more and more benefits as his longevity increased. Most treasured memories? He caught the Rat Pack’s acts during the course of his work.

Finally tiring of the sporting life, he eventually met his wife here then established a family that somewhat lived in comfort.

Yet he desired better. Good earnings aside, his home in the black part of town was ramshackle. Not enough bathrooms, insufficient space for his growing family. He started reconnoitering for more suitable premises.

Then, Las Vegas was compact. A substantially smaller Big Mayberry than it is today. A co-worker knew somebody looking to sell his home. The pensioner went to inspect the property. It suited him. Fast preliminaries led to what ought have been a quick sale. Though as I mentioned previously, that Nevada still had a lot in common with “don’t let the sun set on you here” Mississippi. The house sat in a “white neighborhood.”

Whether by covenants or tacit agreements, non-Anglos were redlined from living there. More than a few of the pensioner’s prospective neighbors made their displeasure known regarding the house’s sale to the owner. Apparently, the resisters were even in the process of banding together, bundling money, and furnishing the owner a higher resale price.

Business was business. The pensioner understood this. He disliked it, but respected it.

Back at the hotel where he worked, a few of the boys followed his progress. Not that any were big on civil rights but on a human one-to-one level they recognized him as a man of quality. That he was being wrongly aced out displeased them. They bluntly rectified the situation.

One day several of the surlier reform school graduates visited the disputed block. Having somehow ascertained the names and addresses of the recalcitrant homeowners, they appeared at front doors. There, the hammers vouched for the hopeful buyer. Must’ve been persuasive because those unwilling freeholders speedily fell in line and dropped any opposition.

One can only wonder what measures might’ve been suggested had they not seen reason. Oh! Didn’t the pensioer and I laugh loudly at that?

The most rewarding part of the pensioner’s story wasn’t that he and his wife still lived at that address. Nor learning afterwards his family had resided in the sweetest harmony with all their neighbors. No, the best part was hearing the guys had kicked in for his new home’s down payment. Tossed in a new car, too. A Continental Mark IV.

Met a former showgirl. She was more sprightly than spry. Passing decades had turned her blonde into ash. Lenses held in a Sally Jessy Raphael frame magnified her blue eyes. Naturally she lamented the demise of floorshows. And as old Brooklyn Dodgers fans did, she, like they, hoped for the beloved thing’s return. Again, like old Brooklynites she did so in vain.

Blazing neon lights drew her to Sin City. But let’s face it, anything would’ve worked to have gotten her out of the Nowheresville in which her life had stalled. Being tall, shapely though not voluptuous, having a sugary nature to accompany her sweet face, and possessing the sort of ambition that reduces moral qualms to purely financial goals, certainly eased her progress through and upward in the Las Vegas of 60 years ago.

Initially upon arrival, the former showgirl shared apartments cramped with other dancers, as well as waitresses, dealers in Naked City. These days, a down-at-its-heels neighborhood carries that appellation. When she strutted, though, the tight blocks north of Sahara and west of Las Vegas Boulevard served as something of a housing set-aside for industry types.

Those in the know knew it as “Naked City” because plenty of the residents, particularly the dancers, sunbathed nude around the many swimming pools of the assorted complexes. While Playboy Magazine promoted tan lines on the girl next door, fantasy women sought and pursued copper skin that glowed seamlessly.

Meeting the right men, accommodating them, got her out of Naked City. The matter-of-fact way she described her escape aptly demonstrated how age coupled with experience eventually dozes the clutter we pile before our lives when younger.

When asked, she estimated an indecent percentage of her fellow chlorines followed her same scramble. And for a while it was beneficial. But the struggle to remain pert got harder as she got older. More artfully applied cosmetics and lights angled or outright dimmed could only maintain the ruse so long.

No matter how the former showgirl might’ve been evaluated, discussed, she never considered herself a bimbo. Or a “bozette.” A lot of the “gifts” presented her – gilded trinkets, really – were turned into cash which she then invested. Although she’d misspent an inordinate amount of time with men who were warm-blooded chaff, a few edified her. And boy, pleasured as they were by what fit in her mouth, were they just as pleased by what came out of it!

She’d asked money questions from visiting businessmen; asked them for financial advice. This was the sort of pillow talk which engaged those kinds of men. Their guidance ultimately enriched her. Obviously. All one needed doing was inspecting the diamond mine circling her fingers.

One of Sonny Liston’s sparring partners must be among the most haunted people I’ve ever met. Not to say he knew where bodies were buried, exactly, though let’s not doubt he knew some people who buried bodies. The way Las Vegas is expanding no problem imagining him anticipating the day when fresh construction excavation unearths long missing persons and starts solving a cold case or two.

Briefly, the ex-boxer had been a heavyweight contender. A low ranked one at that. A window which slammed quickly. He spent the rest of his career as an opponent who served as other more skillful fighters’ stepping stones.

When we spoke, decades had reduced him into being a wizened old man. Now, heavyweights tip scales approaching 280-300 pounds. They’re musclebound, slow-moving behemoths. There’s nothing sweet about their science. Rather than establish any ring strategy that’ll accrue points while diminishing the opponent’s defenses, these fighters are looking to load up on that one shot which will separate the other fighter from his senses.

Then, in the late 1950s, early 60s, the fellow conversing with me entered rings somewhere around 200 pounds. It was tough envisioning him in his prime, larger, taller, hair thick, dark not wispy and gray.

The ex-boxer never banked a big payday. He was fortunate to meet a good woman with a sharp mind. If he ever had tomato can impulses, his wife controlled the purse strings and stymied them.

Having fought during an era of thinner padded gloves, less conscientious referees, and the possibility of betting trends determining bouts’ outcomes more so than the combatants in the ring itself, the ex-boxer’s brain wasn’t scrambled. Aged 90-nebulous, he retained enough marbles to enter Strip casino poker rooms then depart hours later holding more cash than he’d permitted himself to lose.

He and Sonny were close. Well, as close as Sonny Liston ever got to anyone. What made them simpatico was St. Louis. Both had roots there. That’s how and where he’d first met Sonny. Boxing in St. Louis.

After Sonny began rampaging through the heavyweight ranks and before he won the title. he summoned his fellow Midwesterner to join him in Las Vegas. Why? Why not? He’d be a familiar face. They could talk in that sort of verbal shorthand people who’ve spent lives in the same environment can.

That’s relaxant and comfort. Especially considering the malevolent figures increasingly circling Sonny. No friends or friendly faces in that outfit. Just guys looking to cash in on opportunities no matter how those instruments must pay.

The ex-boxer never believed Sonny had OD’ed. “The Bear” was afraid of needles. He’d never been on the spike.

It’s known how Sonny Liston died. The mystery remains why? It could be speculated he might’ve seen or heard something unintended for his eyes or ears. Years ago, someone postulated he’d disobeyed some boss’ or made man’s orders. At that time, once his career frittered away after the Clay fights and less imposing contenders ascended, hadn’t Sonny supplemented his income through thumb-breaking?

Maybe Sonny broke the wrong thumb.

Or maybe there was miscommunication, a job performed too thoroughly or perhaps not with enough vigor.
Then it always could’ve been confusion. Lack of clarity and vagueness have led to the untold demises of how many? It all could’ve been as simple as tying off potential loose ends. Even if there weren’t any. Just to be sure.

Because that’s how those guys were then.

Over 50 years after his death the Sonny Liston mystery still burned in the ex-boxer’s mind. Dead as all the likely conspirators and perpetrators are, being too insistent on knowing the exact circumstances still frightened him.

Now that’s reach.