There was a day when I didn't "know" someone in Vegas. That spot in southern Nevada was a fairy tale place where no one actually lived. We tripped the light fantastic (not to mention the fandango), rode through the worm holes, and emerged in a land of lights, concentrated sin, and blissful anonymity.
These days, I know people. Not in the "I know people" sense of knowing people. (I know people in St. Louis, though, and they know people, so that has to count for something.) In Vegas, I have familiarities. I figure that is as much as one can ask in a city where relationships are as tenuous as a string of good luck on the video poker machines.
And, yet, so it happened that I came to know someone in Vegas named Wil Wheaton.
It had been three weeks in what I was beginning to think of as the Lost City. I had already seen too much. I'd seen old men, drunk on booze and too many hours at the table, fall to the floor in a heap of old skin and liquor fumes. I'd seen poker mensch Barry Greenstein in a cab line, holding his books like children, and dodging the drunken twenty-somethings on their way to yet another club. I'd seen a guy sitting at a video poker bar at six in the morning and smirking at the poker players across the way like he'd prefer to eat them with BBQ sauce. At first, the way the guy drank coffee, talked to the hookers, and kibitzed with the bartenders, I thought he was a cop. Then, he struck up a conversaton with me and let on that he had been up for two days, had just popped a tab of ecstacy, and was going to stay up and play the next WSOP event in seven hours.
"You play better on x?" I asked, finishing off my beer and looking toward the elevator.
"The decisions are a lot clearer," he said.
The three weeks had been tough. Though I knew people, I still didn't know people. My work colleagues were involved in their own work and in bed well before I was done with work. Dr. Pauly was hiding under a massive workload and milking the high life at the Redneck Riviera for all it was worth. Everybody else was playing cards. So, I played cards, or else I slept.
When you're in Vegas for an extended period of time, it is easy to stop believing in people. Even when you grow up like I did, never being suspicious of people and always believing there is a good side to everybody, you start to see true greed and malevolence where you once believed it couldn't exist. You find yourself clinging to the faintest shreds of friendship on the hopes that, when it's all over, you'll still have an innocent soul. Over the course of those three weeks, I found myself seeking out an odd couple named John and Marie who played $10/$20 almost every night. In the odd hours just before sunrise, they were people who knew my name and always greeted me with a smile.
But that was about it.
Looking back over the past 31 years, with the exception of my family, there have only been a few people who have directly and dramatically impacted my life and future. Most of those people have been close friends or people who would go on to be close friends. I think only twice have complete strangers had such an effect.
The first was a guy named Andy.
There was a time when I was stuck in Mississippi, living lakeside in a one bedroom apartment, and staring so deeply into my navel that I eventually convinced myself I had belly button cancer. Andy, who went on to become my boss in TV for six years, took a shot on me when he didn't really have to. During my tenure under him, I did everything I could to make him proud. And I did, I think. I won a couple big awards and, generally, kicked ass as long as I could before television ate my soul.
When my soul was most of the way through television's digestive tract, Wil Wheaton came along.
The story has been chronicled here before, so I won't go deeply into the details. Suffice it to say, Wil is the reason I'm doing what I'm doing today. When he was offered an opportunity, he pointed at me and said, "Give this guy a shot." That was eight months ago and until earlier this month, we had done no more than exchange a couple of e-mails.
I had moved out of the Rio the day before and headed over to the Mirage. The change of scenery, while not necessarily convenient, was welcome.
I was due back at the Rio at 11:30am for a media event my company was hosting. When I arrived, the room was already buzzing with media types and deli sandwiches. In the middle of the room stood John Vorhaus.
I've always been a little in awe of John. I may be wrong about this, but I believe he pioneered the concept of "live blogging" a tournament as it is known today. When Wil pointed Stars my way, Mrs. Otis ran to the store and picked up a copy of one of Vorhaus' books.
"Study up on your competition," she said at the time.
I walked up to John and shook his hand when it was unencumbered by the sandwich meat he had piled on his plate. I'm relatively certain he had no idea who I was and even more certain he had no idea why I thought he was the bees knees. Nonetheless, he was friendly and, through bites of his food, accepted my fawning.
I went to work, snapping the pictures I was supposed to snap, and meeting and gretting with the best of them. Before long, I spotted John talking to a familiar face. I think I actually walked over and said something about "two of my heroes standing in the same room." Before I blushed, I snapped a picture, and went back to hiding in plain sight.
Wil was there to play in the main event of the World Series of Poker. After suffering a bout of mono and riding a hell of a rollercoaster, he'd made it to Vegas. I could see a bit of tension in his eyes and I knew he didn't need me waxing silly about how much he'd affected my life. So, I tried not to.
When the main event day came, I tried to be casual about sidling up to his table and knocking off a few shots of him and Darwin holding court at the table. I tried not to wince when I saw Paul Darden sitting at the table as well. And when Wil's luck finally ran bad enough to end him to the rail, I tried not to be the "aw, you'll get'em next year" kind of softy.
I think I failed on every count.
Wil was unsure of what he was going to do after the main event. Part of him seemed to want to go home. Part of him seemed to want to stay. He ended up staying to play in another event and we talked about how we should grab dinner or a beer or go play cards when we found the time. Of course, there is no time in Vegas.
When Wil departed his next event, he called my phone to tell me the news. I asked if he was going to stay in town for another day or so.
"No, I think I'm going to go home to my wife who doesn't fucking call my pocket jacks with K4 off," he said. He said he was in the middle of the room and getting ready to leave.
By and by, Pauly and I worked our way through the crowd and found Wil in the middle of a conversation with Chris "Jesus" Ferguson. It was a conversation they couldn't finish, because every time they tried, a fan would come up and ask one of them for an autograph or picture. Pauly and I stood by, railbirds to two kinds of celebrity.
In the days leading up to Wil's departure, he'd gotten back to writing and was turning every narrative corner like he was on rails. When we finally had a chance to chat for a second, I let him know as much.
That was half of what I wanted to do. I wanted to fawn over his writing and then buy him an entire bar full of Anchor Steams to thank him for making my life what it is today.
But before I could finish my fawning, Wil said he'd read one of my "Month in Las Vegas" entires titled "Card players."
"That would make a nice forward for a book," he said.
And before I knew it, Wil was wading back through the crowd and toward his wife and family.
I, myself, waded back toward my work station, absorbing the odd moment. Nine months ago, I thought, I was carrying a TV tripod down an icy street and doing one of a dozen live reports on yet another ice storm in northern South Carolina. Now, Wil Wheaton is introducing me to Jesus and complimenting my writing in the middle of the damned WSOP.
It was only after the moment became a memory that I realized I never properly executed my mission that week.
All I had planned to do was sincerely, personally thank Wil for giving me a shot when he didn't know me from Adam, Eve, the serpent, or the rainbow. And what did I do? Well, I guess I got so caught up in the chance to thank him, that I never really did it.
So, Wil...thanks, man. Your next case of Anchor Steam is on me.