We limped into Phoenix after midnight. Little was said in the time since Kar Wai made the revelations about his past. Even if we were comfortable enough to speak out, when he was in that state it was useless. And if we could get through to him, what to say? Sorry Chairman Mao’s thugs tore your family apart? Don’t think Hallmark makes the appropriate card for that one.
It’s probably for the best that there was no bar in the hotel. Or across the street, around the corner, or on any of the surrounding blocks, for that matter. After my brief, fruitless search I returned to the hotel and my room. Still, even absent the booze, I felt hungover in the morning. Perhaps an emotional hangover? We were all getting road-weary and the last few days had been pretty intense.
Kar Wai appeared and was just as lost as when we last saw him. No smiles, no greetings, no breakfast. He went to the truck wordlessly, sat down and buckled in. Darius, Stephane and I all had the same intent, which was to do our best to bring him back to a good place mentally. For once, their solution was to work harder. While I felt them, my experience teaches me that scouting smart is more effective than scouting angry. They wanted to explore Phoenix. I’ve spent time there and didn’t think it had much to offer us. My solution was to bust ass straight to Vegas and have a good time, blow off some steam then get back at it fresh. My faith in the healing power of debauchery remained unshaken. As I lost the vote, we began grid-searching the town.
A couple hours worth of strip malls, mini-marts, blinding sunlight and disappointment later, they agreed with me. Time to get the hell out of Dodge. Darius and Stephane bemoaned the lack of “there” there while I drove the car and held my tongue. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to love about Phoenix. I’ve done some
lovely camping in the deserts and mountains outside town. One of the best days of my life was spent in and out of a cool mountain spring that flows through the red rocks of Sedona. My first successful bar crawl using a fake ID took place in Tempe. However, our film stood nothing to gain from the area, and I was glad to put it behind us.
We pulled into Vegas in the early afternoon. By then Kar Wai had at least partially checked back in. The four of us had scouted Vegas on an earlier trip and found some things there to our liking. A couple of the seedy motels and casinos downtown were promising, and Kar Wai inexplicably loved a seriously run-down convenience store deep in the North Vegas ghetto. He had no interest in revisiting them but was not ready for the hotel, either, so we rolled around a bit. The man had gotten very interested in poker and was hoping we could find an appropriately dingy card room to scout. The big casinos had pretty successfully taken over all the action on poker, though, and it makes sense. Why do you need an underground game when gambling is legal?
Kar Wai and I had hit a mob-run poker game before we left New York. Our “poker consultant”, a former WSOP finalist, had hipped us to it. The three of us met in a Soho bar one night for a martini before making our way to a nondescript building on the edge of Little Italy. Stopping outside, the consultant got a little jumpy. Fair enough, as he didn’t know me and was trusting Kar Wai on reputation alone.
“There’s no messing around in there. These guys are serious,” he warned us.
“Don’t worry, I know these guys. If not, I know people they know,” I reassured him. He gave me a long look before making up his mind, then pushed the buzzer. The normal looking front entrance opened into a tight vestibule facing a reinforced steel door. We three squeezed in together and raised our faces to let the security camera have a good look at us. After an uncomfortably long pause we were buzzed inside.
Half a dozen tables filled the room, which appeared to be a hastily converted woodworking shop. Low level wiseguys played with slick-looking Chinese and an occasional asshole white guy with a doofy fedora or wraparound sunglasses. An entire room full of stereotypes. A platter of cold cuts sat unmolested on a sideboard. The house used a rolling locked tool chest as a bank. My eyes were drawn to a ridiculously hot blond broad who sat behind a large and growing stack of chips. As a younger man I would have been all over that, but having lived through that movie and its resultant misery a wiser me took her measure and put her out of my mind.
Our guide couldn’t play, which I understood. His rep at the tables was serious enough that sitting down was laying out a challenge that would have been met. Kar Wai is more about observing than participating, so it fell on my shoulders. Taking an open seat, I laid five hundred on the table and joined the game. Once again I found myself wondering what sort of receipt I could submit for this if I lost. Have to worry about that later and concentrate on the cards now, my game isn’t that sharp. Fortunately, I managed to tread water for an hour or so. Eventually Kar Wai leaned in and tapped me on the shoulder between hands.
“I’ve seen enough. We can go now.”
We gave each other a long look.
“Are you going to scout anyplace else…?”
He didn’t let me finish, but smiled widely.
“Yes, you can stay. I’ll see you tomorrow. Good luck.”
Now it was months later and we were on the streets of Vegas. Kar Wai turned to me and I was pleased to see the return of that smile.
“Enough work. I think you need to show me how to have a good time in Vegas.”
My smile easily equaled his. Yes, my friend, you have come to the right place and you are with the right guy.