by Jules Older
With the possible exception of myself, I don’t know a cheaper sonofagun than Charlie Leocha. It’s no coincidence that we’re both writers — a notoriously underpaid gang of rogues who survive on free lunches. Wanna meet a writer? Wait by the food table at any press conference. The first ones there – plates in hand, pockets bulging — that’s us.
Charlie lives in East Boston — East Boston because it’s about a tenth the price of Boston, itself. Until I moved to San Francisco (that’s another story), I lived in the smallest, poorest, snowiest village in Vermont, about half an hour and half a million bucks north of the resort town of Stowe. Charlie and I meet when we travel — almost always, free travel — and this time we find ourselves meeting at what’s probably the most expensive city in the USofA.
OK, writer-cheapskates — welcome to Las Vegas! Let’s see you cheap-out here!
Hey. We’re writers. We can, to adapt the New Hampshire license plate to the writer’s creed, Live Cheap or Die anywhere. Even Vegas. Bring it on!
So we’re in Vegas for the Ski Industries of America (SIA) show at the Mandalay Bay. We’re staying at the Excalibur, the hotel that plays Cinderella to her two haughty stepsisters, the Luxor and the Mandalay Bay. Who needs pyramids and sand when you can snag a cheap room next door?
How cheap? Well, the SIA has got a rock-bottom room price of $59. Charlie talks it down to $49. Then, he gets a card in the mail advertising rooms as cheap as $39. And that includes a bonus package plus, in his case, a room upgrade. Go, Charlie.
Now, if you're having trouble with the concept of staying in a cheap room, consider this. A room is where you lay your head and shower your body. Nothing more. If it meets the Big Three, it’s gonna be just fine.
The Big Three:
1. Decent bed, decent shower
2. Relatively soundproof walls
3. Relatively clean
The Excalibur passes the test with ease. We don’t need no stinkin’ Jacuzzi.
Feeding the Body
But, like the man said, “You gotta eat a breakfast, Marge.” In my experience, the best breakfast for the price, just about anywhere, is to be found in America’s despised and denigrated fast-food emporia, Burger King and McDonalds. And guess what — the Ex has a McDonalds! I highly recommend their Egg McMuffin.
An excellent choice, sir.
Except for a pizza wolfed down on the Show floor, we’re too busy for lunch. Ah, but now it’s time for dinner, a relaxing reward for the day’s labors. Where to eat?
The first night, with my magazine paying, the SnowPress gang heads to Trattoria del Lupo, Wolfgang Puck’s place at the Mandalay. In case you've been on Mars for the past decade, Wolfgang Puck is that most celebrated, most adulated Hollywood restaurateur to the stars. His place at the Mandalay is a disgrace — expensive, pretentious and gustatorily boring. My sole with mushrooms and roasted potato chips is plain old fish & chips… for around 40 American dollars. Good thing I'm not paying.
Another night we cross the corridor to brilliantly decorated Red Square. Guarded by a headless statue of Lenin, complete with faux pigeon droppings, and hung with Workers Paradise posters, Red Square is the antithesis of the old USSR: excellent service and darned good food. Still, the bill is staggering. Good thing I'm not paying.
With two nights fare taken care of, that leaves two Nights with Charlie. On the first he takes me to dinner. For cheapskates like us, that’s a headliner: WRITER BUYS DINNER! READ ALL ABOUT IT!
Why the sudden burst of magnanimity? Because in his Excalibur bonus package, Charlie has discovered a dining twofer. So instead of $13.95 for one, the Ex’s buffet costs him $13.95 for two.
And what do we get for his money? A very nice pot roast, a rarity at restaurants these days. Crispy fried chicken. Good ‘n greasy ribs. Carved turkey and prime rib and unlimited shrimp. Bland ‘Chinese’ dishes. Crisp, fresh salad. Decent desserts. Unlimited quantities.
Aside from the price, what I like best about the meal is that it doesn't over-reach. Pot roast is a statement, a statement that declares: We’re simple but fulfilling. We don’t pretend to be anything else.
The next night we go out again, this time with two old friends, and again enjoy an incredibly cheap, deeply satisfying meal. The Bay City Diner in the Golden Nugget Hotel, in the heart of downtown Vegas provides:
1. A great waitress: kind, smart and funny
2. The biggest and cheapest shrimp cocktail I've ever seen
3. Big and juicy (if slightly tough) Porterhouse steaks
4. Crisp salad, baked potato, warm rolls
5. What Charlie swears is the best hot fudge sundae of his life
6. Assorted beers, teas and glasses of wine for four.
The total price? $40. For four.
Feeding the Soul
OK, we’ve eaten. But what's Las Vegas without entertainment? Now, don’t get me wrong. I've paid $200 a seat for O and never regretted a dime of it. I'm forked out for Mamma Mia without a word of complaint. I even saw the forever-young-through-the-miracle-of-surgery Sigfried & Roy (before the tiger incident) with only a slightly audible groan. I appreciate value for money.
But during our nights on the town, Charlie and I appreciate value for no money. The first night we simply walk down the Strip. Sound boring? Well, “Down the Strip” means beneath the Eiffel Tower. Across the Brooklyn Bridge. Beside the MGM lion. Through a tropical jungle and past the Sphinx. During our walk, we pause to listen to rock ‘n roll, a jazz combo, a Country & Western group. All free. God, I love Las Vegas.
We also stand in awestruck silence before the dancing fountains of the Bellagio. Sheer beauty, sheer brilliance. Free. God, I love Las Vegas.
As we walk, we talk of the value of experience, the pleasures of travel, the treasures of this world of fantasia, this impossibly lush, fabulously rich oasis in the midst of an endless, treeless desert.
The next night we go downtown for the free lightshow, the free people show, the penny slots, the 99-cent drinks, the best damned dinner $6.95 can buy.
Can the cheap survive in Las Vegas? Baby, we can thrive.