I've been in sort of a melancholy mood for the past few days. I've been sick, which hasn't helped at all, and I'm missing out on a trip this week that I very much wanted to go on--the annual Caribbean cruise I take with my sisters. Two of them are doing that very thing this week, albeit on different ships, and not being along for the ride is driving me crazy. A number of things in the news and on TV have also reminded me that the 5-year anniversary of 9/11 will soon be upon us, and when I think about that, I can't help but remember the good/bad dichotomy that was a part of my experience back then.
So what does one do when they're feeling down? I like to read, and the fun experiences of old Vegas trip stories, along with browsing through discussion boards for related topics seem to have a positive effect. Vegas has always been my second-favorite topic, the place I run to when I wish I were in the Caribbean instead. I recently saw a thread on some Las Vegas discussion board where people were talking about their greatest craps rolls ever--that sounded promising. In my trip reports, I've documented some good ones, but the truth is, my personal Greatest Craps Roll Ever didn't happen in Vegas. In fact, it didn't even net me the most money I've ever won on a dice table.
But the circumstances surrounding it made it my all-time favorite gambling experience that may never be topped.
I'll share it with you here.
Back in September of 2001, times were starting to get tough for me. I didn't know how tough at the time, but I was clearly starting to feel the pinch. The economy was in the shitter, I'd been out of work for five months, and although I'd just had a great weekend trip to Vegas with my buddies for the beginning of the NFL season, we got home to Phoenix late on a Monday night just to wake up the next morning to the awful news of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
After the initial shock wore off, I had a dilemma of my own to face. The 11th was a Tuesday, and all air traffic in the U.S. was shut down indefinitely. But I had to be in Nashville on the following Friday, and Ft. Lauderdale two days after that. My sisters and I were going on our second annual 'Sibling Revelry' cruise, and it was such a fantastically great time the year before that I couldn't even imagine missing out this time around. Early on, I was worried that there would be no air transportation available for a couple of weeks and I would be stuck either driving all the way to Florida (yeah, right), riding the train (too farking expensive), or riding the bus (absolutely not--even I have minimum standards).
As much as I wanted to go, reality dictated that if there were no flights by Friday, I'd have to skip it and go another time. It just wasn't worth the hassle.
Luckily, air service was back up and running by Thursday, and I left for Tennessee early on Friday morning, somewhat apprehensive about having to take eight different flights over the course of the following ten days.
Lines at the airport were long, but almost silent. There was none of the usual background banter and noise you would normally hear in the terminal. All of the guys with M-16s, camouflaged uniforms, and all-business looking guard dogs added to the air of foreboding. Luckily, some volunteers from some long-since-forgotten organization were working the lines offering red-white-and-blue lapel ribbons for travelers, and everybody took one.
Word was that it was taking over three hours to get checked in and get through security, but due to all of the cancellations, I was at the gate after only about 20 minutes or so. I was flying American, and they were the hardest hit.
I was flying a 767 to Dallas-Ft. Worth, and of course everyone was aware of the type of equipment that was used to crash into the World Trade Center. I, like everyone else on the plane, eyed every other passenger with the jaundiced eye of suspicion.
I'm a big guy, and sometimes the seatbelt doesn't fit around my entire fat ass, so the flight attendants will give me the little seatbelt extension that they use for the pre-flight safety demonstration. I figured that if some Haji was going to get out of line on my flight, I could use that seatbelt extender to pummel the ever-lovin' shiat out of him while staying safely out of reach of his boxcutter. There was another stocky six-foot-plus guy sitting across the aisle from me, and we gave each other a knowing nod as we made eye contact. If the shit goes down on this flight, we're gonna do something about it...
These are the things you think about when flying cross-country three days after the worst terrorist attack in US history.
The flight only had about 45 people onboard, and of course we were an hour late leaving Sky Harbor. But nobody complained. Luckily I had a longer-than-usual layover in DFW, so I wasn't worried about missing my connection. But the captain assured us that everyone was delayed leaving Dallas, so no matter how late we got there, nobody was likely to miss their connecting flights.
I had a row to myself, just like every other passenger traveling alone on that flight, and, just like everyone else, I pretended to sleep. But just like everyone else, I had one eye open the entire time, waiting for an incident we each prayed would never happen.
Yes, there was a collective sigh of relief when the wheels touched down at DFW. We had survived our first flight, and everyone was just a little less tense than they had been three hours earlier.
But anyone that's ever had to change planes in Dallas knows that their connecting flight is never close to their arrival gate. I've change planes there dozens of times over the years, and I've always had to hustle to another terminal to make my flight. This time was no different, and my connection to Nashville was already boarding by the time I got there.
Again, everyone that wanted one had a row to themselves, because there were only about 45 passengers on this flight, too. I was assigned to the very back row of the plane, so nobody was sitting near me, and I could keep an eye on things, plus stare down anyone carrying a bag into the lavatory.
Yes, these are the things one thought about while traveling that week.
Once we all got onboard, they told us that we'd be delayed because our captain was delayed getting through Security. A half hour later, we were told that our co-pilot was also delayed in some other city, so they had to round up a replacement, (and of course get him through security, too). Once the personnel issues were solved, we were told that we'd be delayed even longer because a couple of pieces of luggage were checked on our flight but the passengers never boarded.
Yeah, lets go ahead and ratchet up that tension a little more...
We could hear the baggage handlers crawling around below us searching for the errant luggage, and about fifteen minutes later I could see them removing some bags from the cargo hold and putting them on a cart down on the tarmac. Shortly after that, we got another announcement that it'd just be a few more minutes before we were cleared to depart the terminal. By that time, we'd been sitting on the airplane at the gate for over an hour.
It was getting frustrating.
The flight attendants started passing out bottled water, but I'd had just about enough. It had been a long day of travel already, and I was only halfway to Tennessee. And nothing is more frustrating than being trapped in an aluminum tube with no information of any progress being made. Especially that particular week.
We'd all been through all of the security checkpoints. The luggage and passengers were all accounted for, the crew was onboard. Lets GO!
Finally, an hour and fifteen minutes after sitting down in my seat, I felt that a tension breaker was in order.
So I called out in a very loud southern redneck voice--just short of yelling--Yo, let's get this show on the road! There ain't no A-rabs on this plane!
Everyone, flight attendants included, started laughing. And in a moment of comic timing never-since matched, immediately the cabin was filled with the sounds of the engines spooling up, which in turned caused spontaneous applause to break out among the passengers.
The flight attendant nearest to me looked at me, shrugged her shoulders, and said I guess all you had to do was ask...
We were finally on our way.
I arrived in Nashville to a warm welcome from the family, and of course our evening was spent making last minute plans and alternating between reveling in the anticipation and talking about the news of the week that nobody could force out of our minds.
I also had a voicemail on my cellphone when I arrived in Nashville on Friday evening with good news. I'd had a job interview with Washington Mutual the week before, and the message stated that they intended to make me an offer, but that I needed to call them back first thing Monday morning. Nice! Things were looking up.
On Saturday, my sisters talked me into having a 'spa day' with them, so while we were out running last minute errands and shopping, I spent an hour with them getting a manicure and pedicure from the little Vietnamese lady that my sister Sherry goes to. Good times. I was all groomed up and ready to go.
Sunday morning we were up at the crack of dawn heading to the airport again. Since I was the seasoned veteran, I was the designated expert of the group in charge of making sure the four of us jumped through all of the hoops required to end up in Ft. Lauderdale on time. Amy and I had a flight on US Air, so we had to change planes in Raleigh-Durham, and we left first. Cyndi and Sherry were on Southwest and had a direct flight, but we were all scheduled to arrive in Florida within 20 minutes of each other.
Being much-shorter flights on 737s instead of widebodies going cross-country, we figured we weren't much of an inviting target, so the tension level was significantly lower that day, and I think it also had something to do with the fact that by that time, commercial air traffic had been re-established for three full days without incident.
All of us made it to Florida on time, luggage and all, and managed to find a taxi big enough to carry the four of us and all of our stuff to the cruise terminal. Again, it was quite eerie with all of the military presence in the ports, but we felt safe. We just wanted to go on vacation and get away from it all.
Our home for the next week was floating next to the dock--an impressive sight of bright white Bristol-fashion paint and miles of green-tinted glass embodied in Royal Caribbean's Enchantment of the Seas. The year before, we took a cruise on Carnival's Paradise--a very nice ship to be sure, but parking next to Royal Caribbean ships at each port we could tell that they were even nicer. So we chose Royal Caribbean the second time around.
Making the trip even better was the fact that our other sister Nancy, from Houston, and her then-fiance Mark were joining us, too. So all of us kids except for Reverend Dave were on hand for a week's worth of buffoonery on the high seas.
Security at the port was tight, as expected, but once we finally were allowed onboard, we felt like our vacation was finally getting underway. The first announcement we heard once we got to our stateroom was that the ship would delay leaving port for a few hours just to accommodate all of the flights that were arriving late, but that we'd still get to our first destination on time--they'd just crank up the speed Titanic-style, knowing that icebergs were few and far between in the Caribbean, and there were plenty of lifeboats to go around.
Our destinations for the week were the ports of St. Thomas, St. Martin, and Nassau in the Bahamas, but the first stop for most cruisers is lunch in the Windjammer Cafe. But exploring the ship was high on the agenda, too, and my first stop was the Casino Royale to check out the tables.
Of course, no games are open while the ship is in port, but the casino was open and available to walk through. I was rather impressed, though--it was an excellent casino, compared to the afterthought of a grind joint I'd experienced the previous year on Carnival. It had more tables, and it certainly offered a nicer decor, so I was looking forward to spending a few hours tossing the dice and playing some blackjack during the course of the upcoming week.
The casino itself wasn't scheduled to open until 7 pm the first night, but since we left port three hours later than usual, we weren't far enough offshore in international waters until much later. So instead of hitting the tables at first chance, I opted to go to the Broadway Theatre after dinner with my sisters and catch the opening lounge act of the week.
It was billed as an R-rated comedian who also did magic, so we were looking forward to the show. Unfortunately, our extremely gay British cruise director was the Master of Ceremonies, and just loved to hear the sound of his own voice. He stood out there onstage in his tuxedo, giving the audience his life story, telling us all about his resume, all the different jobs he's had and ships he'd worked on, and basically boring the shiat out of everyone in the room. Almost ten minutes had gone by, and he was still standing up there on stage under the spotlight talking about himself while the audience grew noticeably restless.
I felt like I was in church--dressed up, listening to somebody I didn't want to listen to, bored, and wishing I were in the casino instead.
Finally, I'd had enough.
When he finally paused to take a breath, I yelled out from our seats in the balcony--This magician SUCKS!!
Of course everyone in the theatre just broke down in laughter and totally flustered the idiot cruise director. Some folks in our section were laughing so hard that I thought we'd have to carry a couple of them out on stretchers, and my sister Cyndi's makeup was running due to the tears in her eyes.
It was a moment of pure comedy gold, and I doubt I'll ever have a better heckling opportunity. Seriously, it was pandemonium in the theatre for several seconds, and I actually felt bad for the headliner, because everyone knew that no matter how funny he was, he wouldn't get a bigger laugh than that one.
Several of the members of the audience couldn't stop laughing, and a bunch of us excused ourselves before the show started. I got a few high-fives out in the lobby, and as luck would have it, they announced that the casino was open for business. That's all we needed to hear, and a number of us decided that we'd probably have more fun there instead of the show, so off we went.
My new-found posse and I gathered at the dice table, bought in, and ordered a round of drinks.
It was one of those magical nights in the casino where seven or eight random strangers all get together and everyone just clicks. The dealers were a lot of fun--it was a British crew with a token Russian guy and they were to serve us all week long. The best part was the fact that we all started winning, and before too long I was up a quick $300. I showed a couple of the other newbie players how to make bets for the dealers, who very much appreciated it (You'll never roll that hard eight unless you get the dealers up on there with you!), and the vibe of the table just kept improving as the night wore on.
Not that I was trying to be, but I was obviously the 'table captain' at the time, and all of the other players were following my lead. It helped that everyone was rolling well, the dealers were getting paid, and we were all having a great time. A couple of like-minded fellows even had cigars to share, and I clearly remember stepping back from the table to take a puff and having a moment of clarity. Everyone's chip racks were filling up with winnings, the drinks and laughter were flowing, and strangers had become friends--it was exactly the kind of night Jimmy Buffett was thinking about when he wrote African Friend. Just standing there in silence for a few moments, watching the evening unfold before me was an amazing experience.
A core group of about seven or eight of us stood around the table for a couple of hours, everyone shooting the dice at least twice. When we finally decided to call it a night, everyone walked away with a little extra cash. I gambled a little heavier once I got the house's money in my rack, so unlike the dudes from Swingers, I was actually up five hundy by midnight.
We made informal plans to gather in the casino again the next night after the late-seating dinner had concluded, so I was looking forward to repeating the same magical evening.
I ambled back to our cabin with a great big grin on my face. I'd given my credit card to the Purser's Desk for all of my onboard charges, but had only brought $300 in cash with me for gambling and spending money. And we hadn't even been on board for a full 24 hours and I already had $800+ in my wallet--a small fortune to somebody who hadn't gone to work in almost five months.
I got back to the cabin and Sherry, Cyndi, and Amy were already in for the evening, lying in their bunks, but still up talking and clowning around. Yes, the tradition was that even though we could easily afford two cabins, it would be more fun if we all piled into one. We did it on the first cruise, and everyone agreed that living like we were at summer camp was one of the surprise highlights of the trip. Just being able to hang out in the room and reconnect was especially nice, because at the time the four of us lived in three different cities. And of course, my sisters are every bit as goofy and silly as I am, so the laughs were nonstop.
Anyhow, their first question when I got back from the casino was Well, how'd you do? So I assumed my Bono persona and gave my best impromptu rendition of Bullet the Blue Sky.
And he's peelin' off those dollar bills...
Slappin' em down...
One hundred! Two hundred...
All the way to eight hundred as I stacked them on the nightstand, and announced that expensive fruity drinks at the pool were on me the following afternoon.
Monday was a 'sea day', meaning there was no port of call, so the entire day is spent aboard ship at it makes it's way to the next island. Personally, sea days are my favorite part of cruising, as it gives me time to relax and unwind before going ashore and getting pillaged by all of the touristy distractions.
I'm usually the first one awake, and having been raised in a household full of women, I know that if I want to use the bathroom, I better do it early. So I shower and do my usual morning toillette before the girls start waking up, and I'm dressed in my daily uniform of a t-shirt, swim trunks, and a pair of flip-flops before the battle for bathroom time begins in earnest.
If the ladies are up and about, we all head to breakfast together, but if not, I head up to the pool deck for a cup of coffee and a few quality minutes of staring at the sea and clouds moving past the ship. Talk about the ultimate battery recharger--if somebody could package it and sell it at Radio Shack, they'd make a billion dollars.
After a few minutes of enjoying exactly what I paid for when I booked the cruise, it's off to the Windjammer Cafe for the breakfast buffet. I have to admit, even though I generally hate most buffets, I like the breakfast offering they do on Royal Caribbean. All the standards are included, the quality is decent, there are two main lines and several stations, and unless you want a made-to-order omelet, you're barely standing in line at all.
So we all meet up for breakfast, and there's no need to plan the day's agenda. After we finish eating, we snag four lounge chairs on the upper deck and lie around in the sun--tanning, reading, and drinking umbrella drinks for several hours (the Dirty Banana is this crowds' favorite), while taking the occasional dip in the pool and hot tub.
After a few hours of that, you begin to think that those commercials are exactly right--It truly is like no vacation on earth.
But we can only roast in the sun for so long, and my sisters have a higher UV tolerance, so I told them I'd meet up with them later--the casino was open and I wanted to go back down and play, with the added bonus of sitting in air conditioned comfort. They knew where to find me.
I don't know if it's lucky or not, but the dice table doesn't open until 7pm, even on sea days, so my options were limited to blackjack, roulette, slot machines, or Caribbean Stud. Of course I chose blackjack.
The dice dealers also pitch the cards during the day, so they were happy to see me sit down and join their games. A few of my new-found friends were also lurking about the casino, so it was fun to sit at the table and relive a few of the highlights from the previous evening. And even better, I was still on a roll. Although I wasn't winning as fast as I was the night before, I was still doing pretty well.
When the game took a break for the dealer to shuffle the shoe, a gentleman in a suit came up to the table and introduced himself to me. The passage of time has not allowed me to remember his name, but he shook my hand and told me that he was the casino manager. He also told me that he noticed that I brought a bunch of fun players to the table the night before and that he also really appreciated that I had everyone taking care of 'his dealers'.
And then, he offered me the best comp I've ever gotten in any casino, anywhere.
In Vegas casinos, all drinks are free (well, you know what I mean). But not so on cruise ships, or even most Indian casinos for that matter. And drinks aboard ship are where they get into your wallet. Yeah, you might find an internet bargain and pay only $599 for your week-long cruise, but at the end of the trip when you get your sail-and-sign statement, you'll find out that you've spent a couple hundred more on fruity drinks and beer at the pool, cocktails in the casino, and wine with dinner. At almost $6 a glass, it adds up fast, especially when you're on vacation and not in the mood to care about such frivolity.
Well, due to my being such a valued and generous player, I was offered all of my drinks for free while in the casino for the duration of the cruise, as much as I wanted for me and my guests. And not only that, I had my own personal waiter assigned to me for the entire week, too!
Suddenly, I had a whole slew of new friends at the blackjack table.
My sisters showed up a little while later, saying that they were heading back to the room, so I colored up for an additional profit of around $200 and told them the good news. We headed back to the other end of the ship, and on the way I was greeted a few times by somebody waving and saying Hey Mikey! You gonna be at the casino tonight?
Even after getting off of the elevator on our cabin deck, while walking past dozens of random doors on the way to our room, one of them opened up just as we were passing by. Of course it was another one of my 'dice gang' leaving his room and heading up to the bar, so he gave me the thumbs up and a See ya tonight Mikey! causing one of my sisters to chime in with Geez, dude. We haven't been here 24 hours and you already know half the boat!
All I can say is that it really was a memorable evening.
After several hours lounging in the sun, coming back to the air conditioned comfort of our cabin was a real treat. Another great thing about cruise ships is that ordering room service is completely complimentary. The menu is somewhat limited, but we would normally order four servings of the 'dessert of the day' and several cartons of milk. Either that or a tray of cookies. And we'd sit around snacking and conversing about the day's activities or the adventures that awaited us in our next port of call. Sometimes, if we were hungry, we'd order lunch, and my favorite thing to get for a mid-afternoon snack was a baguette with roast beef, Brie, and Dijon mustard. It's probably the best damn sandwich I've ever had, and I've unsuccessfully tried to recreate it in my own kitchen on several occasions over the years since the first time I had it.
It probably had more to do with the setting than the ingredients, but it's my fondest sandwich memory (You laugh, but you have one too. Admit it).
Additionally, I had to make that call back to Phoenix--it was afternoon in the Caribbean, but it was still Monday morning back in Arizona. I used the satellite phone in the room, at the bargain price of about $14 per minute, where my soon-to-be new boss extended my formal offer and asked when I could come down to the regional HQ and start doing paperwork. When I told him I was calling from the cabin of a cruise ship on a sat-phone, he understandably cut it short and told me that he'd clear up his schedule for the following Tuesday after I got back. We agreed on the date and time, and as I hung up, my sisters offered congratulations to me for finally getting decent employment after five long months.
So we ate our lunch, toasted my good fortune, and just hung out enjoying each other's company. The combination of sun, cocktails, and the need to relax conspired to sap the energy from us, and one by one we started dozing off. We may have been stacked like cordwood on four bunkbeds in a room the size of a shoebox, but damn, those little twin beds are comfy. The last person still awake had the sagacity to turn off the light before falling asleep, enveloping our interior cabin in pitch black darkness.
I can attest that there is no better way to take a nap--pitch darkness, comfy bed, and the gentle swaying of the ship on a calm sea.
Our internal alarm clocks still work, however, and before long we were awake and ready to start our evening. Again, I'm the first to shower and use the facilities, and I was dressed and out the door by 6:30, leaving two hours for my sisters to get ready. During that time I'd wander the ship, maybe relax in a lounge or smoke a cigar up on deck, but invariably I'd find my way back to the casino.
Of course, all the faces were familiar at the time, and everyone else was doing the same as I--killing time while waiting for their significant others to get dressed for dinner. Luck was still on my side--I couldn't lose at the dice table, and I had an hour of play-time before having to head to the dining room. The table was still relatively hot when it was time for me to go, and of course being a true aficionado, one has to respect the streak, so I was a few minutes late to the dinner table, having no time to go to the cage to cash out.
Our gang always opts for being assigned to a large table in the dining room, so we have a nice mix of family and strangers. Usually it works out well and we have a great time with our dining companions. This trip was no different, and word had already spread of my dice-playing acuity. So when I showed up a few minutes late, the question of the night was So, how'd you do?
I answered by reaching into my pocket and dropping four black chips in the middle of the table. Those familiar with casino operations smiled and nodded knowingly, while half the women at the table were like, Huh? What? How much is that?
Four hundred dollars.
What? You just made another four hundred bucks since you left the cabin?!?!?
Of course not, silly. A hundred of it was my buy-in.
Dinner was especially enjoyable, and while everyone else had made plans to go see the late show, head to the piano lounge, or enjoy the solitude of the adults-only hot tub in the Solarium afterwards, I was definitely heading back to the casino, and all were welcome to join me.
The 'regulars' had gathered at a bar outside the casino, while the dice table stood empty. I walked up and made an entrance and the dice table immediately got busy. I'd become fast friends with a big-haired blonde lady from Texas named Betty. She was relatively attractive, knew her way around a dice table, and had the redneck personality of Reverend Dave's wife Angie--so she made the perfect wingman at the dice table.
We took our spot at the end, and well, you know the rest of the story.
We spent an hour or so rolling the bones and made a couple hundred more bucks apiece. And I kept my personal waiter, Salvadore, busy bringing cocktails and bottled water for Betty and me.
I couldn't believe my crazy luck in the casino. I was up over a thousand bucks, just two days into the trip. Feeling it was better to walk away and remain a winner, we called it an early night. Besides--we were going to be spending the next day in St. Martin, and it looked like it was going to be a long one.
Back in the cabin, I did my nightly reporting of wins, much to the amazement of my sisters, and suprisingly, none of them wanted to join me at the tables.
We all woke up at the same time because we could feel the bowthruster coming on, maneuvering the ship into the dock at our first port of call. Once we got dressed and headed up for breakfast, we saw that the weather was dreary, gray, and rainy outside. Not a great day for snorkeling and sailing, like we'd originally planned.
After breakfast, we grabbed our stuff and headed for the debarkation deck. Cyndi and I were hoping that our shore excursion would be cancelled and we'd get our money back. It was a cruddy day out with no breeze, so sailing was going to suck. Luckily they announced that all 'outdoor' shore excursions would be refunded if we wanted, so we opted out and saved about $80 apiece.
Since we had no commitments and all day to explore St. Martin we took off to see the sights. Nancy, Mark, Sherry, and Amy went off to do their excursions, while Cyndi and I were improvising. We hadn't even stepped off the water taxi before it stopped raining, the sun came out, and it was a beautiful Caribbean day in the making.
The first thing we saw was a beach bar at the end of the pier called The Barefoot Terrace. And it had a sign out front offering two cans of cold Budweiser for a dollar.
I'm not a Bud man by any stretch of the imagination, but hell, for a buck, I'd drink two cans of warm PBR out of a dog dish just to have a good story to tell. So we parted with two dollars and sat down in the shade in our plastic chairs and waited for the mass influx of tourists to pass by before hitting the town on our own. Actually, after the beer was gone, I remember that we had a couple of Pina Coladas also, just to get ourselves in a good and tropical frame of mind. When in Rome and all that.
We didn't make it ten feet outside of the bar when we noticed a CASINO right there next door on the beach. And not only that, they were offering free match plays at the door for any bet between $10 and $25.
Oh hell yeah, I know a bargain when I see one.
Cyndi and I both grabbed a coupon and went inside. There was nothing but blackjack and slot machines offered, so I sat down at third base of a six-decker and put $25 in the circle with my match play.
Mikey had 20, dealer had 19. Woo hoo!
Cyndi just watched for a bit while I made a quick hundred and colored up.
We took off with the casino's money looking for adventure on the main drag of Philipsburg. There was lots of duty-free shopping available, and tons of stuff was on sale dirt cheap because even though the economy was already crappy at the time, the number of tourists from the US was half of what the local merchants were used to due to the events of 9/11. Every ship that docked there had been only half full, and ours was no exception.
Being seasoned cruise travelers, we knew better than to buy stuff right away because of two things--you can always find it cheaper down the street, and we didn't want to have to carry stuff around if we bought from a merchant who didn't offer delivery to the ship.
So we just wandered a bit, enjoying the sites, stopping for a drink or a snack here and there, basically enjoying our carefree day on a Caribbean island.
Eventually, we found ourselves at another casino, this one being much bigger than the first. It too only offered blackjack, but it had about a dozen tables and the dealers were all smokin' hot east Indian beauties dressed in the White Man's Kryptonite--a crisp white Oxford blouse and a plaid Catholic schoolgirl miniskirt.
Did I mention that all of them were smokin' hot?
Yeah, Cyndi, I think I'm gonna just play here for awhile...
She just shook her head and headed upstairs to the slot machines. The good news was that I was on fire--I couldn't lose a hand if I was playing at a table by myself, one on one against the dealer. The bad news was that every few minutes some jerkoff would sit down at the table and ruin my mojo. So I did a lot of table hopping before I found a spot where nobody would bother me, and in less than 45 minutes I was up an additional $350 or so. The only reason I stopped was because Cyndi came running down to tell me that she hit a slot machine for like $250 herself.
As much fun as we were having, we decided to heed Steve Miller's timeless advice to go on take the money and run.
We hit the cage, cashed out, and went shopping. Cyndi was into jewelry and trinkets, but I was after booze and Cuban cigars.
Armed with the latest info from the counterfeit gallery of Cigar Aficionado, I went on the hunt for some fine products from Uncle Fidel's island gulag 90 miles south of Duval Street. I found a few spots touting Cuban cigars, but only one of them looked anything close to legit--a real live Habanos shop, connected to a duty-free liquor store.
Had there been a strip club attached, they could've pretty much renamed it Mikey's Happy Place.
I found a few of my favorites--Cohiba Siglo V's, Romeo y Julietas, Monte Cristos, and some original Cuban Partagas Robustos that were said to kick like a mule. I was able to mix and match a few of the items and got a very small discount for buying two full boxes. But when I said that I wanted to pick up some duty-free booze, also, the proprietors eyes lit up.
He said to pick out whatever I wanted and that he'd give me a huge discount if I got at least six bottles.
Oh hell yeah. I know a bargain when I see one.
I proceeded to pick up a bottle of Captain Morgan for $5, some flavored Stoli vodka for $6, and a few random bottles of different 'exotic' rums, too. But then I saw a four-pack of half-sized Johnnie Walker Scotch sitting on the shelf. I'm not much of a scotch drinker, but my buddies Eddie and Ed are huge fans and drink it all the time. And I can appreciate the good stuff. There was a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue included, and back on the ship in the onboard duty-free shop, a bottle of the Blue was still over $200. I asked what kind of deal he could give me on the four-pack and after a few seconds punching numbers on the calculator, he said $70 was as low as he could go for all four bottles.
Sold, said I. Wrap it up.
I walked out of the shop carrying two boxes of Cuban cigars, eight bottles of assorted rums and vodkas, and four bottles of Johnnie Walker Scotch, included were a bottle each of the Black Label (12 year old), Green Label (15 years), Gold Label (18 years), and the ultimate prize, the Blue Label (25+ years, maybe?).
Needless to say, I dropped several hundred dollars worth of my gambling winnings into the Dutch colonial economy that day.
Cyndi and I made our way back to the ship, but while waiting for the water taxi to show up, we ducked back into that first casino, where there gave us a couple more match plays. After winning four of them, they told me I couldn't play anymore, so I colored up another hundred bucks of profit and left.
Due to the generosity of the casinos in St. Martin, it was like getting my booze and cigars for free, and most of you degenerates out there know that nothing is more enjoyable than not paying for your vices.
Yes, one could say that I really loved my time on St. Martin, and I left the island with some pretty fond memories, but there were plenty more adventures ahead.
That night was our first formal evening aboard, so we broke out the tuxedos and cocktail dresses, and the ship looked like a huge high-school prom full of grown-ups. We did the requisite pictures in front of the various backdrops, my favorite being the staircase from Titanic. There were pre-dinner parties to go to, champagne tastings, and of course drinks with the Captain.
Dinner itself was a formal affair with excellent food, great conversation, and fine wine. But afterwards, it was back to the casino.
I met Betty and the rest of the gang at the dice table, and we were having a great time being our usual loud drunken selves, except this time we all looked like we were starring in a James Bond film. Being so far ahead of the game, and wanting to enjoy the free cocktails a little more, I scaled back my bets a bit. The table was still running better-than-average, but a very drunk newcomer stepped up to the other end of the table just as the dice came to me.
You could tell that he was an asshole by the way he approached the table and began ordering the dealers around like they were beneath him. And he started by putting a stack of chips on the Dark Side.
Clearly he was there trying to capitalize on ruining the vibe in our friendly dice game.
Before I tossed the dice, I had to call him out from across the table.
Hey man, why you gotta come up here and bet against the rest of us?
"Just roll the dice, Fat Man!" was his reply.
Sudden silence at the table.
Excuse me? What did you say?
"I said, ROLL THE DICE FAT MAN!"
He insisted on being obnoxious, and nobody at the table said a word, caught off guard by the display poor manners, and waiting for the next move in the sudden confrontation. I really wanted to go over and pound the shit out of him in front of his skanky wife, but that wasn't a realistic option, even though the entire table, dealers included, certainly had my back.
So I responded with First you come up to the table and try to ruin the vibe, and now you have to insult me?
Unbelievably, he responded by saying "I can't help it--you're fat!", while looking around for the laugh that never came.
So I yelled back, Well I can't help it that I'm fat, either--Every time I f*ck your wife, she gives me a cookie!
That immediately killed the tension as the entire table erupted in laughter, dealers included, and I thought the boxman was going to piss himself right there in the bank. The drunken asshole had no visible reaction, but his wife, already embarrassed by his boorishness, turned and walked out after giving me the finger.
I just stared him down and tried to knock over his chips with the dice. It took a few tosses before I made my point, but when I finally did, everyone at my end did the exaggerated cheering and high fiving, while I just looked at him and gave him the palms-up shrug and a smug smile.
He was much too drunk to do anything, and lost three separate hundred-dollar bets before finally shuffling away.
The vibe was kind of ruined after that, so we all started coloring up and moving on. I still made a small profit, but nothing like the previous nights. I said goodnight to the dealers, left them a small toke, and headed up to the pool deck with a couple of the guys to smoke cigars and chill out, halfway hoping in our drunken bravado that we'd run into that asshole again with no crew members around, but inwardly glad that we never did. It was a rented tux, and of course I didn't want the expense of repair and removal of (his) blood stains, I told myself.
Since I didn't come back to the cabin with another big stack of hundies, my sisters weren't much interested in hearing about my night at the dice table, so that story remained untold until now.
The next day found us docked in St. Thomas, one of my favorite places in all of the Caribbean. We had a sailing and snorkeling trip scheduled for that afternoon, but the morning was free to do what we wanted. Mark and Nancy headed over to St. John's for the day, Cyndi and Amy went shopping, and I spent the morning hanging around with Sherry.
We caught a tour bus/taxi to downtown Charlotte Amalie to go exploring, and while stopped at a traffic circle, I realized I was probably lucky that Amy wasn't with me instead. Because I'm sure we would've jumped out and got into some trouble when I spied a couple of huge pot plants growing on the side of the road in a stand of trees...
But we made it downtown and got dropped off relatively close to the beaten path, and in addition to the usual shops selling jewelry, gifts, perfume, and booze, we found a great little New Orleans-style outdoor bar down at the end of a very picturesque alley. We pulled up a couple of chairs and I introduced her to the tasty goodness of Stoli Vanilla and Coke on ice. Even though it was early, the bar was open, but not much else was, so we hung out there for awhile enjoying the waterfront scene unfolding in front of us.
We were lucky enough that the Carnival Paradise was in port at the same time we were, so I got a pretty cool picture of the two ships we'd taken on different cruises parked end-to-end in the same harbor.
We did a little more shopping before heading back to the ship, and I picked up a few more varieties of duty-free rum. We had a light lunch onboard before ditching the shoes and clothes and getting ready for our shore excursion. There was still plenty of time to kill, so we were hanging out on the Promenade deck about fifty feet above the water watching the tour boats, water taxis, and other activity in the harbor. About that time a nice-looking 40-foot sloop came motoring by with sails furled, but there were five or six bikini-clad chicks hanging out on deck, and as if on cue, two of them waved and yelled HEY MIKEY!!!
I had no idea who they were--didn't recognize them without clothes on--but waved back.
One of my sisters said What, are you like a rock star back in Phoenix or something?
No, but it's always nice to have bikini-clad groupies.
Our trip that afternoon was aboard that same 40-foot sailboat, as we were sailing out to Buck Island to go snorkeling along the reef out there. We'd done it the previous year and had so much fun that we made sure that we did it again.
There were eight of us on the boat and it took us about an hour to sail out to the island. The captain was kind enough to provide some Jimmy Buffett music on the stereo, and nobody enjoyed the beautiful sailing experience more than I did. It was a perfectly sunny island day, with enough breeze to drive the boat and keep us cool, and you just couldn't beat the scenery.
Truly, there is no place I'd rather be than there in the Caribbean on a small sailboat with not a care in the world.
The Buck Island reef is an amazing place--the water is gin clear with a hundred feet of visibility, and the reef is teeming with sea life. We saw a sea turtle munching on the sea grass as soon as we got there, and with all of the hundreds of fish circling around, it was like diving into an aquarium. The fish have been conditioned to expect treats when humans show up, so they get really close, but they always remain just out of reach. I brought some bags of saltine crackers I lifted from the cafe, and the captain of our tour boat had a couple of bags of frozen peas, which for some reason, the fish just loved. It was a lot of fun feeding the reef critters, and there were dozens of different varieties of fish darting in an out trying to grab a morsel of food before any of the others did.
We swam around for a couple of hours, looking at the fish and the coral formations, careful to avoid the fire coral, King Neptune's answer to poison ivy. We spent the balance of the afternoon lounging around on deck relaxing in the sun or cannonballing over the side of the boat.
Sherry was up on the bow being crabby about something, so while Cyndi and I were in the cockpit, we dug her camera out of her bag and left her a time-honored traditional photograph on that roll of vacation film. Remember, this was back in 2001, before any of us owned digital cameras, so Cyndi and I were cracking up after she snapped a close-up picture of my bare ass on Sherry's camera. What we'd give to see the look on her face once she got those vacation pictures back from Walgreens...
Once our time on the reef had ended, we dropped the mooring line, raised the sails, and headed back to the harbor. On the way back, the captain broke out a fruit and cheese tray, a pitcher of rum punch, and a cooler full of ice-cold beer. With Brother Jimmy providing the soundtrack, it was a perfect day in paradise.
After dinner that night, the dice table was still very good to me, and I spent another hour or so treating it like my own personal ATM machine before hitting my newly-stated goal of winning a total of two thousand dollars.
Now that I was so far ahead in the win column, I decided to share a little of the wealth. In addition to paying off all of my sail-and-sign charges in cash at the Purser's desk the next morning, I paid some of Amy's expenses too (she was also out of work at the time, and even poorer than me), and as a bonus gave her the cash to go hit the Sea Spa for a couple hours of pampering and massage that afternoon. I figured it was good Karma, and why not experience a little of the Good Life when one can afford it?
Little did I know just how well Karma would pay off.
We had a couple of sea days to enjoy while we made our way north to the Bahamas, our last stop before heading back to Florida. I played a little bit of blackjack during the day, mostly when it got too hot outside on the pool deck or I got tired of reading. I won a little bit of money here and there, but nothing notable to speak of. I figured my biggest wins were behind me. I also did a lot of card-playing outside of the casino, playing either Hearts or Gin Rummy in the cardroom while taking a break from the sun-worshipping.
That Friday night was our last formal evening onboard, and it was basically a repeat of the previous one. Lots of people were milling about the ship all dressed up in their best cocktail clothing, lots of pictures were taken, and lots of high-quality booze was consumed.
After dinner that night, I remember going back to the cabin and ditching the jacket, tie, and cummerbund so that I might be more comfortable, but I didn't want to change into shorts and a t-shirt and be the most underdressed guy in the casino.
The party had already started by the time I got back up there, but Betty had saved me my usual spot next to her. Her husband told me that he was worried that I wouldn't show up, saying that she had been looking forward to our 'date' all day long...
I bought in for a couple hundred dollars and told everyone around me that I was prepared to spend $400 that night chasing a good roll, and I'd either win big, or lose the four bills and still go home way ahead for the trip.
Luckily it didn't come to that, as when I got the dice for the first time, I held them for almost 45 minutes before sevening out. It was a thing of beauty, and instead of digging for that extra $200 reserve, I made over $400 more.
My brain told me that I should take the money and walk away immediately, but I was having such a great time that I told Betty that I'd stick around for her roll.
I'm so glad I did, because she held the dice for over an hour. It was easily the longest dice roll I have ever witnessed, and in the five years since that night, it has never been surpassed. At the time, I did nothing but Pass Line bets, Come Bets, and the occasional Hard Way. I managed to press my bets from $5 flat to $25 flat over the course of the evening, which I would normally never do, but it was only a single odds table. If I wanted more odds, I had to put more on the line. They were generous enough to let us play double odds on the 6 and 8, but otherwise, it was all 1x odds.
It was an amazing run of dice rolls, and the biggest payoff I got was having pressed a hard eight up to $20 and having it hit for a $180 win. By the time she finally seven-out, my rail was full of green checks and I was easily up over $1500 for the session. It was just a beautiful night all around. Normally they would close the dice table around midnight, but at that point we had won way too much and I could sense them beginning to sweat the money. They offered to keep the dice game open until 2am, hoping to get some of the money back, but after those two monster rolls, we scaled our bets way back, unwilling to part with our winnings so easily. We both had another decent roll each, but nothing like the earlier ones, and debated whether or not to stop and call it a night.
The table was still full and the casino was hopping, but the decision was made when I got the dice for the third time and immediately went point-seven-out.
Color me up for the week!, I said, and stood there smiling as all of my green and red checks were converted to a stack of black. Betty had also done very well, earning over a thousand dollars in profit that night herself. We left a couple hundred dollars behind for the crew, in addition to all of the bets they'd won, and they were truly appreciative and wished us well. And after all of the free drinks Sal had brought me and Betty over the course of the week, we each tipped him $50 on top of all those singles he'd collected.
The trip to the cage was a thing of beauty, and I pocketed over $1800 in profit for the night. A few of us headed up to one of the still-open lounges for a nightcap and a smoke, where we exchanged email addresses and re-told stories of our amazing luck that week. The only regret we had was that the table only offered single odds. Had it been at least a 2x game, or heaven forbid a 3x4x5x table like on the Vegas strip, the amount of money we potentially could have won would've been staggering.
The girls had stopped by the casino earlier in the evening, and knew I was winning, but by the time I got back to the cabin, they were waiting up for me to hear all about it.
I showed them my wallet being so thick with hundreds that I couldn't even fold it in half. That night, I sat on my bed and did an accounting, and even after all of shopping I did and paying down the charges on my sail-and-sign account, I was still up over $3000 for the week. It was just an amazing run at the tables that I'm sure will never be topped.
Our next day in the Bahamas promised to be a good one, but at that point I was paranoid about having all that cash on hand. I took more to the Pursers desk, filled up all of the tip envelopes for the room stewards and dining room waiters, and decided to have a little fun on our Nassau Beach Break.
The year before, we'd gone to an amazing place called Blue Lagoon Island that offered an ideal tropical fantasy--white sand beaches, hammocks under the palm trees, secluded trails and coves all around the island, and the most amazingly blue water I'd ever seen. This visit was a little bit of a letdown because we went to another island that although very nice, it wasn't nearly as spectacular as we'd hoped.
But that didn't stop us from having a good time. Some enterprising islanders had a jet-ski rental business and I negotiated two hour-long rentals for a hundred bucks each for two of the biggest, fastest, and meanest Sea-Doos available. Amy and I got hold of these monsters that would easily tow a skier at 50 mph, and spent an hour laughing our asses off and chasing each other around in the sound between the two islands, trying to splash each other and just going all-out as fast as we could as we raced back and forth along the beach.
There were also a few party barges cruising along with other passengers from the ship, and I recognized a few faces from the revellers on the top deck. They waved, so I pulled up alongside and somebody was kind enough to toss me a can of beer. I shotgunned it, dropped the can in my 'glove compartment', and then hit the gas while leaning over, shooting a thirty foot rooster tail of water all over everyone leaning on the rail watching me. The thing is, I had just learned that trick a few minutes earlier, as Amy, my little smart-assed sister did the same thing to me--we were racing along and she feigned a loss of power, coaxing me to slow down and come over close to her. As soon as I was in range, she 'showed me her ass' and hit the throttle, rocketing me with buckets of seawater and knocking the sunglasses off my head.
Of course, she thought it was the funniest thing in the world, knowing that I couldn't catch up to her--her machine was slightly faster due to the fact that it wasn't hauling so much weight. But we still laugh about that to this day, and the next time we're riding jet skis together, she's in deep trouble.
When our time was up, Cyndi and Sherry saw how much fun we'd had, so they rented them for awhile while we just hung out on the beach, did a little swimming, and drank pina coladas while hanging out and laughing it up with our fellow travelers. Our cruise was coming to an end, but we wanted to squeeze as much fun as possible into our last day.
Once we got back to the ship later that afternoon, we were pretty much spent. Of course we had to pack everything up preparing for departure the next morning, and while our last evening's dinner wasn't quite a solemn affair, there was an air of finality surrounding it.
During dinner, they made an announcement that made me curse my one incident of sorry luck for the week. Due to the terrorist attacks, there had been so many cancellations that they offered anyone who wanted to stay onboard for an extra week the option to do so for only $50 per day, with free cabin upgrades. Amy wasn't working at the time, either, and we *really* wanted to do it, and I could absolutely afford to do it, but I had to be back in Phoenix on Tuesday to go down and take care of all of the paperwork and legalities involved in starting my new job at the bank.
Damn shiatty luck.
(As it turns out, it was a very poor decision to return to Phoenix right away--that job at Washington Mutual was the absolute crummiest 'real job' I'd ever accepted, and I ended up walking out six weeks later. Just a horrible experience).
So instead of celebrating the fact that we could stay on the ship for another week and explore the western Caribbean, we spent the evening packing our bags.
I spread my cigar purchases among four different suitcases, with Amy agreeing to be my 'mule' and going through Customs as partial repayment for her spa day, the reasoning being that if they found one stash of contraband stogies, the others would get through without detection. I packed the scotch in my suitcase, and carried the other 12 bottles of booze with me in specially made airport-approved carry-on boxes.
Of course, the Customs Declaration form said that we could only bring back four bottles of booze each, so I had no idea how I was going to pull that off--everyone else had too much luggage themselves, so I had to carry all 12 bottles on my person.
Once we arrived back in Ft. Lauderdale the next morning and endured the debarkation shuffle, I had to run the Customs gauntlet. It was only a week and a half since September 11th, and security coming into the U.S. seemed to be as tight as a drum. But when I walked up to the desk, carrying a box of Cuban cigars and four times the legal limit of tax-free liquor, I was pleasantly surprised when I was waved through with barely a cursory glance.
Home free, baby!
Amy and I had several hours to kill before our flight back to Nashville departed, but we realized it too late to sign up for the airboat tour of the Everglades, so we sat in the terminal playing cards the whole day, instead.
I had to leave for Phoenix early the next day, but we did, however, get to enjoy a fantastic breakfast at that famous Nashville landmark, the Pancake Pantry before I went home.
Unfortunately, I ran into a little dilemma at the airport. I got in the wrong line at the American Airlines check-in counter and the bitch behind the desk insisted that I had to pay and extra $50 because of my extra carry-on bag. And she wasn't even nice or apologetic about it. It's like she took pleasure in wielding her small bit of power. I couldn't believe it--the flight was less than 1/3 full, American was reeling from the events of 9/11, and this chick decided to be a hardass by pissing off one of their few remaining customers. She wouldn't budge, so I threw her a fifty, and told her that when the layoffs inevitably come, I hoped she'd be the first one to get the axe.
It wasn't the money so much as the principle--I was carrying over $2500 worth of House Money in my wallet. But damn, did they need to treat people that way?
I made it back to Phoenix without incident, and the following weekend hosted a fantastic cigar and scotch party for my closest friends. Those Partagas Robustos lived up to the hype and gave me a total smoke buzz, almost causing me to get dizzy. But Ed and Eddie loved the Blue Label, and it was a wonderful evening sharing the spoils of the tables and telling the story of one of the most memorable weeks I've ever had.
Writing about it has allowed me to do it once again.