Vegas, Baby!

In the fall of 1994, I was twenty-two years old – a fact that makes me feel pretty old when I see it on paper – or should I say on a screen – which makes me feel even older. While most of the kids I graduated high school with were finishing up their undergraduate degree, I had just enrolled in my first semester at a local community college. I was never much into school and could not fathom why, upon graduation, most of my peers would choose to continue the activity. While my peers were taken the ACT and SAT to qualify for college, I was perfectly content to be wrapping up my educational pursuits. The irony is that I would go on to receive a Masters Degree in Education and spend a substantial part of my adult life in working in education.

First Attempt at College

But in the fall of 1994, I found myself sitting in a classroom at 8:00 a.m. with the same distaste for academic pursuit that I’d had four years earlier in high school. My primary incentive for enrolling at the time was to receive money from the Federal Pell Grant Program. The Pell Grant is a financial aid grant provided by the U.S. government intended to help undergraduates from low-income families afford tuition. It was named after Claiborne Pell who was a senator from Rhode Island and sponsor of the grant. Despite the good intentions of the Pell Grant, which provided money for tuition, books, room and board and “other expenses”, many people took advantage of this government subsidy. Back in 1994, I learned that if you qualified for the Grant, you would be given extra money, beyond that needed for college expenses, and that money was yours to keep. This sounded pretty good to me, so I signed up. At the time I was a waiter at a local restaurant and was renting a small house with a roommate, who had also forgone college and was working as a car salesman. As a part-time waiter, I definitely qualified as low-income and, after completing all the required paperwork, was awarded a Pell Grant amounting to a few thousand dollars. I used the money to enroll in 12 hours of classes, buy my books, and put the rest in my pocket. What I did with the extra money I don’t remember, but at 22 years of age, I’m sure it was spent frivolously.

Since I was working evenings, I scheduled my classes for the mornings, starting at 8:00 a.m. In hindsight, this was the first of many decisions that would prove significant to the failure of my pursuit of higher education. The second of which was the decision to frequent a local bar that had recently opened and coined every Thursday night as “College Night.” My classes were Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and I found that getting to class by 8:00 a.m. was particularly difficult.

I knew things were not going well when I managed to arrive at my Introduction to Philosophy class one morning and heard, “Everything off your desk, please.” I asked the girl beside me, who I remember looked as though she had just stumbled out of bed herself with stringy unkempt hair and sleep crusted eyes, “Is there a test today?” Her response was sharp, “If you’d ever come to class, you’d know.” Seriously, what was her problem?  Since I’d rarely been to class, I obviously had been no annoyance to her. Nevertheless, when the test covering ancient philosophers was handed it out, I knew it was over. I have always been able to communicate relatively well on a number of subjects, for a brief time anyway, but there was no expounding on the philosophies of Socrates and Plato without some general knowledge. And for me, this knowledge could have only come by attending 8:00 a.m. Intro to Philosophy classes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I remember getting up, handing in a blank test and going home.

The Idea is Born

One particular afternoon, shortly thereafter, my roommate and I were both home at the same time. I was home watching a bit of afternoon television (that in itself will make you wish you had given more thought to your future) and my roommate was home for lunch. He was having a bad day and was not too positive about heading back to the used car lot. This is something that a decade later, upon graduating with my undergraduate in Business, I would experience myself as my first job out of college was selling cars at a Honda dealership. During that afternoon back in ’94, my roommate and I got to talking about life, jobs, our future. What was the point? What were we doing?  What if we gave it all up, quit our jobs, moved somewhere, started over. Why not, we were only twenty-two. But where?

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“How about Vegas,” my roommate said.

“Whatever,” I replied.  “We can’t just quit our jobs…and what about our lease?” Not to mention my university pursuits, I thought.

“Screw it,” he said.

Well, that was about all the prodding I needed. What I found out that afternoon was how quickly the commitments you have in life can be severed and how easy it is to walk away. We first called our landlord and explained our brilliant plan. The landlord was actually very understanding and said he would allow us to break the lease without repercussion. We then called our respective bosses, again repeating our strategy to reinvent our lives. Both bosses didn’t think too much of the idea, but given the high turnover in car sales and food service, they weren’t too upset with us. Finally, I called my father.  Not because I needed his approval, but because I needed him to move our things out of the house. We wanted to leave that day and there was no time for moving furniture into storage. My dad also understood. He said, “If you’re going to do something crazy, might as well do it while you’re young.” And it was crazy. We had decided on a destination of Las Vegas. Not for a weekend of debauchery, but to live. We were going to get jobs, an apartment, start over. After all we both had a bit of savings, about $1,000 each. This should last until we both found jobs, right?

On the Road…

The liberation of simply quitting a job, packing a suitcase and heading to Vegas never to return (at least not for a long while we told ourselves) was one of the most exciting things I had done up to that point in my life. We were on the road literally hours after hatching the plan. We stopped for the night in Albuquerque and fell asleep eager to make it to Vegas the next day and start our new life. Late the next morning we headed to Vegas; just because we were eager didn’t mean we weren’t going to sleep in.

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It’s about an eight hour drive from Albuquerque to Vegas and those hours were filled with more enthusiasm, predictions and imaginative opportunities than you could believe. But there were plenty of common sense discussions as well. First of all, we would have to be thrifty. We would try to find a cheap hotel to stay at while we looked for work.  We would start our job search as soon as we got there. We would check out the casinos but not gamble any big money. Maybe play some quarter slot machines but that’s it.

“I’ve heard about people winning cars on those slots.”

“What if that happened to us?”

We got close to Vegas around sundown. When I say close, I mean some thirty miles away. As the sun set, we could see the golden glow of the neon miles away beckoning us as if it was the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. When we finally reached the city and drove down the neon-lit strip, I felt like I was in the movies. This was a time when iconic Vegas hotels such as the Sahara, Sands, and Stardust were still operating – years before the Bellagio and Venetian would be the luxurious destinations of choice. Only recently had super casinos like the Luxor and MGM Grand opened and, to us, these epitomized the opportunities of wealth and rebirth we had come to Vegas to realize. We realized very soon, however, that these palatial thirty-story resorts would not be the setting for our Las Vegas renaissance.

At a time before internet and affordable cell phones, the only way to check on room prices was to stop in, go to the reception desk and ask about rates – which we did, starting with the two aforementioned hotels. I don’t remember what the rates were back then, but they were expensive enough to keep us heading towards downtown and a motel experience with weekly rates and free local calls. I’ll never forget the place, it was called the Desert Star and, yes, it had weekly rates, and phone calls were restricted to the pay phone outside – no problem, as we knew of no one in Vegas to call anyway. At $140 dollars a week, the price was right, even though we wouldn’t have been surprised to find a dead body under the bed. It would have to do and soon we would find jobs and get an apartment anyway. We settled in that night and managed to have a restful sleep.

$50 a Day

The next day we did a bit of exploring. We went to a number of hotel/casinos and did some basic reconnaissance. We picked up some applications from various restaurants in the hotels and begun the first step in making our plan a reality. With accommodations sorted and a handful of applications obtained, we did the next thing any two, twenty-two-year-old guys in Vegas would do – a bit of gambling. We were very frugal that first night. We watched the blackjack tables for a bit, and got in when the time was right. We played true to the rules and after a couple hours of play we cashed out, each up around $100. We left the casino and went for dinner at a fast food restaurant. We were both feeling pretty good and had no intentions of blowing our winnings on an expensive hotel buffet.

During dinner, we hatched an ingenious plan. What if we continued to conservatively play blackjack each day – just enough to make a living, say $50 a day? If we stayed disciplined and didn’t get greedy, surely we could earn this moderate amount of income each day. Believe it or not, at the time it didn’t sound ridiculous, it actually seemed plausible. And once more, we figured if we could make this happen, there would be no need for a job. So, you guessed it, not one of those applications got filled out and returned. The funny thing is, if we had filled in those applications and turned them in, odds are we would have gotten jobs. After all, this was a time in which Las Vegas was experiencing rapid growth.

Photo by Krissia Cruz on Unsplash

The days that followed that flash of brilliance were a blur. We quickly found the fun side of Vegas – staying out late, drink specials, winning some money, losing more and finally confronting the painful reality that we could no longer sustain ourselves and would be forced to head home. In retrospect, I am surprised we lasted as long as we did with the limited amount of funds we had. But nonetheless, some twelve days after our arrival to Sin City, we had been beat. We checked out of the Desert Star for our nonstop journey home. On the trip back, there were no discussions of what could have been, no stopping off for scenic overlooks and no money to even stop for the night. We took turns driving straight through – sixteen hours from Las Vegas to Oklahoma, stopping only for gas and drive-thru burgers.  

The Lessons

It was a great adventure, one of those experiences that as an old man I am sure I will look back and smile upon widely. It also taught me a lesson or two. The first was that gambling is gambling, there is no future in it. I know many people enjoy it – they look at it as entertainment and that is fine. I don’t and never did. I looked at it as a way to make money. I was naïve sure, but I found out that I do not like losing money no matter the entertainment factor. I never really gambled again after that. And have no interest in it to this day. It also helped me appreciate how quickly money can be made and lost. It helped me see that the turtle method of earning is most likely far superior to the hare approach. This mentality would eventually help me in regards to investing. I never was enamored by the notion of a hot stock. In my mind, speculating on the next company to make it big was the same as betting on double zero at the roulette wheel. Both had the chance to make you rich, but the enormous probability was that they wouldn’t.

I have never returned to Las Vegas and most likely never will. Some call Vegas “Sin City”, to some she’s “The Lady”, to others it’s “Lost Wages”. But to me Las Vegas was a lesson about life:  nothing comes easy and you wouldn’t want it if it did.

As proven by the lessons on compound interest that I would teach students two decades later, I have since realized everyone has the opportunity to become wealthy. It is actually not that difficult to do if you are disciplined. It requires commitment, efficiency and a mindset that deplores frivolous expenses. Obviously, these are not words that are used to describe a Vegas escapade and, in fairness, they are not supposed to be. Millionaires are not made in Las Vegas any more than stars are born there. On the contrary, it seems Las Vegas is a place where people go for entertainment once they have obtained a certain level of wealth and where entertainers go when they are ready to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

–The Haggard

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