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September 1, 2014

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Gritty Western casino survives in ‘the underbelly’ of Las Vegas

On a stretch of despair that tourists in Las Vegas seldom see, the Western Hotel-Casino stands out as a beacon for the broke and nearly broken.

With their crumpled dollars and gloomy gait, they stumble in off Fremont Street through the wide, doorless entrance, beckoned by the sounds of penny slot machines and cheap table games.

The Western is a poor man's dream, a downtown casino where sad Las Vegas cliches collide.

"This is the underbelly of Vegas," said 28-year-old Byron Hilton, who was playing $2 blackjack on a recent Friday night. "This is not the Strip."

There is no uniformed valet parking Porsches here. Instead they come on foot, in beat-up cars and wobbly bicycles. For many, it's been a short journey to the Western.

The boxy structure is planted among a slew of low-income houses and budget motels -- the Downtowner, the Uptown and the incongruous Lucky. The Western feeds from one of the city's bleakest ZIP codes, stained by high poverty and unemployment rates.

Inside they gamble, pouring nickels and quarters down the throats of always hungry machines.

The roulette table sees an occasional gambler, but the blackjack tables -- marred by cigarette burns and beer stains -- get plenty of action at minimum $1, $2 and $5 bets.

"You can't win no money here," said 38-year-old Ace, who has frequented the Western since 1995, the same year he said he "pulled a job" in Reno, and had to get out of town "real quick."

In the early morning weekend hours, the smoke hangs in the air like a veil, a giant gray cloud that wraps itself around the customers. The booze is working its sleepy magic.

Some people are slumped over, passed out. Rousted, they are politely, gently made to leave.

Others, thumbing their last casino chip and in need of one more drink, look to Betty Williams.

Williams has walked the worn floors as a cocktail waitress for 31 years. She's spent the past 15 of those working the smoky graveyard shift.

She has logged the most time at the Western, except for an algae-colored bingo machine that has been pumping out balls since the casino opened in January 1971.

The 54-year-old Williams, who's originally from Tallulah, La., loves the graveyard shift and loves the Western. The teetotaler has never been married and doesn't have bad days.

In a city that exploits weakness and promotes vice, Williams has never buckled. Known to her loyal customers as Miss Betty, she doesn't blink.

"I don't let nothin' bother me," Williams said, her soft Southern drawl draping her words.

Williams, who has curly black hair and the legs of a marathoner, has witnessed it all in three decades. She's seen a man die playing bingo and another collapse dead during keno. Heart attacks, she said.

"I've seen all types in the Western, down from the poor to the rich," she said. "You got to treat them all the same. I laugh with everybody."

Williams does more than tote complimentary cans of Budweiser and Tecate. She delivers hope.

"I try to lift their spirits when they don't have anything. A lot of people like to come talk to me because I'm a good listener."

Her common refrain, "You gotta get off the drugs, clean yourself up and look for a job and save your money."

How many times has she uttered the advice?

"Oh man. Whoo-whee. Probably a million times," she said, adding plenty of people have listened.

The Western has been good to Williams and many of its loyal employees who talk about the casino fondly. Williams has a house in a quiet residential community in North Las Vegas. Tips can reach $200 on a Saturday night.

Williams plans to retire here.

"I made it 31," she said. "I can do seven more."

Violeta Calicdan, a booth cashier, has spent 24 years at the Western.

"It's like family."

Even the dealers, the ones who speak little English and must endure the abuse of drunken players, have learned to smile, though they sometimes run low on patience, slamming a hand down on the green felt when a foggy brain can't calculate two cards.

"Today," one dealer snapped at a math-challenged man missing his front teeth.

Employees find refuge in the cafe, which seems to double as a spotless soup kitchen for the down and out trying to wangle an inexpensive meal or cup of coffee.

Thirty-eight-year-old Yolanda works the counter and she tolerates no nonsense.

She commands Ace to choose between his cigarette or service.

"No smoking at the counter," she said. "I will not allow it."

Ace complies and orders the baked chicken, peas and rice with giblet gravy. Ace and Hilton, who have been gambling together for hours, take a booth. A $3 comp paid for his food.

Ace had just started in on the chicken when a woman approached him and whispered in his ear.

"I gotta go," he announced.

A grinning Ace put tin foil over his plate and declared, "One minute you chewin' on the chicken bone, the next you hit the jackpot."

Yolanda smiles.

"I'm a people person," she said. The cafe is "open to everybody."

Hilton laughs.

"This doesn't happen at the MGM Grand."

But for $23.98 and the proper identification, a guest can get a clean room. Patrons, however, may not check out until a security guard has completed an inspection of the room.

Ted Schaghy, 39, who has worked security at the Western for three years, said the hotel is safe now that Las Vegas police have run off the drug dealers and prostitutes who once lingered in packs on Fremont.

"Most of the faces you see in the Western are the same day in and day out," he said.

Mary Bellman, who was breathing from an oxygen tank while playing a slot machine, said the Western gets a bad rap.

"It is well-protected, even though people don't think so," said the elderly Bellman, who used to work at the hotel. "Security will walk me to my car. I don't know why people think this is such a horrible place."

Some of the Western's regulars could change after the hotel's new owner completes a planned makeover.

Barrick Gaming Corp. bought the Western and three other older downtown casinos and intends to revamp them. The company also purchased properties surrounding the Western, Barrick President Stephen Crystal said.

Crystal dreams of putting the glitter back in Glitter Gulch and giving the Western and the downtown community a rebirth.

"Maybe create some better stories over time," he said.

Across the street is the Atomic Liquors bar and a closed school for card dealers blasting its unfilled promise on a dilapidated sign: "Your Future Starts Here."

Every morning Crystal visits the Western and he's decided he doesn't want everything about the Western to disappear.

"We don't want to lose the character," he said. "I find something there that makes me smile."

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