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Casino Underground

Story and Photos by Kit Miller
Gary the slot mechanic moves quickly through the casino catacombs. I struggle to keep up. "When I first started working here I used to get lost down here, it's so huge," he grins. "I would take a little pencil along and draw little arrows on the walls so I could find my way back." He takes me into a room choked with wiring, tools, parts and dozens of dismantled slot machines. "We do most of the welding, digital and other repair work here in the catacombs. A lot of other stuff goes on down here too."

chef No kidding. Down the hall I glance into a room, filled with big boxes labeled simply onions. Another room stores cases of pineapples. A security guard is casually chatting to a clown. I insist we pause a moment at the photo lab to talk with the women on break sporting tuxedos and 10 pound cameras. We listen to off-duty gossip in the hall while pale photo lab techs peer from their chemical-stink lair. One of them talks about the novel he is writing.

A dozen maids bring their linen-laden carts to a final landing. They converge on their locker room where they change into street clothes, exchanging weary goodbyes in four languages. Two women are in a hurry to get across town to their swing-shift busgirl jobs. Workers in the uniform control room hand out clean duds to receptionists, porters, kitchen workers and cocktail waitresses. They're lined up, looking perky or weary, depending on if their shift is ending or ready to begin.

The employee lounge is busy. Dressed in white satin shirts and black pants, dealers grab dinner. Floor sweeps dressed in green overalls--we're called cleaning specialists, one tells me--joke in Tagalog with each other. A tall-hatted cook relaxes with a cigarette, leaning back to reminisce about serving tea to Che Guevara at the casino back home in Uruguay. Sneakered Keno runner Maria slows down long enough to heat up yesterday's chorizo, beans and tortilla in a microwave in the employee lounge. She's in no rush to get home after her shift, since her aunt, who uses her bed during days, won't be up yet. A lone waitress spends her half hour break eating a burger and reading the Bible. casino maids Gary slips into a phone nook to say good night to his kids. His wife will be up at 4 a.m. to start her shift. By then Gary will be home, ready to launch the kids to school.

Behind closed doors the showpeople get dressed, carefully applying false eyelashes and adjusting sequined headdresses. Racks of glamorous almost-clothes line the room, topped by rows of mannequin heads sporting electrifying plumes.

Further on, swinging doors open like the gates of Hell, onto a steamy kitchen. The temperature jumps 20 degrees. Room service guys are jamming to get orders out, swapping tall tales about what's behind the hotel-room doors tonight. "You never know if it'll be a naked woman, a gun, or both," says Marty. Jesus the broilerman readies tomorrow's buffet bacon. (How many pigs does it take to make Sunday brunch? It depends. Do you count the customers?). A machine rolls round and round, belching out hundreds of baked potatoes for tonight's prime rib special. A Native American busboy slips some food into a bag for an old man standing outside. He wipes down grease to ward off fire.

Velma the cashier scoots by to ask her sister in the deli to come fix the computer again. She checks on her father who is washing pots amidst the steam. He doesn't speak such good English and since she brought them all up from El Salvador she feels responsible for them. casino showgirls

A bevy of showgirls bustles by, all greasepaint and feathers, clearly pumped for their 8 o'clock showtime. Two women help a fellow waitress up the showroom stairs with her heavy drink load. She looks to be eight months pregnant.

There are other scenes I can't see but I'm told are here. Billy the bellman tells of the alcoholism, sex trade, and compulsive gambling that haunt a lot of casino workers. His answer is to be out the door at three o'clock and don't look back. Janice the waitress talks of on- and off-work coke binges and the meth dealing in back rooms. Joey who deals cards tells me that casinos are constructed around addictions, to booze, to gambling. She says the only way to avoid temptation is to "backdoor it" after your shift, taking the shortcut away from the tables and the bars.

On the way out I meet a dealer who is on her way to pick up her sleeping kids from midnight child care. casino workshop In a casino there is neither day nor night. It is always a kind of twilight. When I leave the sunlit world to go into a casino and stay there for some hours, I get a gloomy feeling when I emerge again and realize it is night outside. I almost wish myself back underground in the casino. When I'm there, I imagine it is daylight everywhere else.

This story is adapted from Kit Miller's work, Inside the Glitter: Portraits of Workers in Nevada's Casino Industry, which is on display at the Enterprise Library, 25 East Shelbourne Avenue, Las Vegas through July 28.

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