By Bob Kaster, Yreka California, January 2021
Ben sat at the bar where he could hear the country music coming from the Silver Queen Lounge. He couldn’t see the performer from where he was, but he sure could hear the music, and it was great. Some guy named Wailin’ Jennings, or something like that. Initially Ben wanted to see Frank Sinatra, who was performing in the Copa, the casino’s famous main showroom. Sinatra was sold out, but Ben hoped he might slip in, since he was by himself, a single. But, no dice. So, Wailin’ Jennings–or was it Waylon Jennings? —was sounding better and better. It was early June, 1963, and Ben had just finished his junior year final exams at the University of Arizona. He was en route to his summer job at Yosemite National Park. His normal happy anticipation of summer in Yosemite was overshadowed by grief because Norma, his girlfriend for more than a year, had dumped him two days before. She had worn his fraternity pin for six months, sort of like being engaged, but not quite. Without warning, she returned his fraternity pin, and told him she wasn’t ready for a permanent relationship. She wasn’t even sure if she would return to the university for her senior year. Meanwhile, she planned to spend the summer in Paris with a sorority sister whose parents owned an apartment overlooking the Seine. She needed to “find herself.” Until that moment, Ben had been sure that Norma would be his mate for life.
Sitting there at the bar, Ben’s emotions were mixed. He looked forward to Yosemite. This was his third summer working at the Ahwahnee Hotel dining room, possibly the best summer job in the world. But he was still stunned, and hadn’t gotten over the unexpected rejection from the girl he thought he would marry. Back in Tucson, while loading his car for the drive to Yosemite, he made a spur-of-the-moment decision to make an overnight stop in Las Vegas. Why not? He thought. It’s out of the way, but it will be fun, and maybe I can win a jackpot.
As much as he was getting into the country music and the exciting Sands Casino scene, he still felt real sadness, thinking how much better it would be if he had Norma with him. At the bar in front of him was an electronic blackjack machine with a one-dollar minimum bet, within his price range. As long as he played the machine, the bartender let him sit there, and brought drinks on the house. The whole thing–the music, the Los Vegas glitz, and of course the free drinks–were improving his attitude. He had been there an hour, and was actually a few dollars ahead on the electronic blackjack machine, when a young woman climbed onto the barstool next to him, brushing against him lightly. She was alone, which made him suspicious, but also excited. She sure as hell didn’t look like a prostitute. But then, Ben wasn’t sure what a hooker was supposed to look like in a place like the Sands. His experience on that subject had been limited. He expected a lady of the night to be dressed in a short skin-tight skirt and stiletto heels, and have lots of eye shadow and big hair. The young woman who sat next to him didn’t fit that description at all. She looked like a college sorority girl, about five foot-four, blonde, suntanned, very wholesome-looking, and drop-dead beautiful.
She looked up at him and smiled. “You look lonely,” she said, in a low, seductive voice, which Ben could barely hear over the music. “What’s your name?”
“Ben. What’s yours?”
“I’m Anna. You really do look like you need someone to cheer you up.”
Now Ben was uncertain. Was that code for, “Wanna have a good time?” He definitely could use some cheering up, and “having a good time” with this beautiful lady would be okay with him. “I’m just passing through. I’m headed for Yosemite tomorrow. I finished the semester at the University of Arizona, and have a summer job in the National Park. It’ll be my third summer there. Before I left Tucson, I broke up with my girlfriend, and I’m pretty sad about that. But my summer job’s cool, and I’m looking forward to that, so I guess I’m okay. What about you? What do you do?” Was that a really dorky thing to ask? he wondered.
“I work here,” she said. “In the casino. Don’t you love listening to Waylon? I think he’s the one that should be in the Copa Room. Someday he’s gonna be famous.” She nodded to the bartender, who brought her a glass of red wine, no verbal communication necessary. She held up her glass and they clinked. Now Ben was more confused than ever. If she’s not a hooker, she’s probably a groupie for this ‘Wailin’ guy.
“I take classes at UNLV,” she said. “I’m only doing this job to earn money for college. At first, I didn’t think I could do it, and I was really scared. But the job’s interesting, and I’m getting the hang of it. I get to meet people … like you. I’m happy when there are no wild cards.” She smiled and touched Ben lightly on the arm. Damn, she was beautiful!
No wild cards? What does she mean by that? Ben wondered, more confused than ever.
“I’m majoring in psychology at UNLV,” she continued. “I’m really interested in what makes people do the things they do. But I’m probably learning more through my job here than from my college courses. My customers come in all shapes and sizes, and hardly a day goes by that someone doesn’t want to try something new. And some, mainly the local ones, are very loyal, and come back often. But there are even some from out of state who tell me they come back to the Sands just to see me. It’s very rewarding, but I don’t want to do it forever. When I get my degree from the university, I’ll probably do something else. But it’s something I can always come back to … Hey, I’m hungry. There’s a great little Mexican place a block from here, right on the strip. Do you want to get some food?”
“Sure,” said Ben. Well, if she wants to leave the casino with me, she’s probably not a groupie. So … what is she?
As they walked down the strip, Anna continued her chattiness. She was easy to listen to, and it suddenly dawned on him he hadn’t thought of Norma once since Anna sat on the barstool next to him.
“There is a learning curve with the job,” she went on. “At first it was really hard for me to learn how to respond to different situations. You start to recognize patterns after a while. But some customers just don’t follow the rules, or maybe they don’t know what they’re doing, and I have to set them straight. I’ve been doing it long enough now that it just comes naturally for me. I’m getting into the rhythm of it. And the happy ones leave good tips.”
They ordered their food after the waiter brought cervezas, chips and salsa, and Anna continued her story. “The casino actually came to the University and recruited us. At first, I didn’t even consider it, as I didn’t think I could do it. But the recruiter was persuasive. I think what convinced me was how well the working hours meshed with my college requirements. Also, there was a two-week training course, which the casino paid for. By the time I finished the class, I had learned all the techniques, and I can respond automatically, without even having to think.”
Ben almost dropped his beer glass. “There’s a training course?”
“Sure,” she said. “There were several options. I chose blackjack, mainly because the game is straightforward and fairly easy to learn, and there aren’t any wild cards.”
“You’re … a dealer?” he stammered.
“Sure. What did you think?”
Ben and Anna enjoyed a lovely evening together. They exchanged addresses and phone numbers, and made a date to get together after summer vacation, when Ben was on his way back to Tucson. The next morning, as he was driving toward Yosemite, Ben felt just fine. It occurred to him that the whole time he was with Anna, he never once thought of his old girlfriend.