The decorating scheme of the Tropicana is Bordello-Moderne: flocked wallpaper, dark rugs, and embossed Formica walnut, with massive brass rails and gray antiqued mirrors in the elevator. On the bureau is one of those table-tent signs that says, both sides, "Did we treat you like a winner?"

The casino is on the ground floor.

The first banks of slot machines ($$$1,000,000 Progression $$$) are within stumbling distance of the front door. The casino is not overwhelmingly impressive. When I checked in, I even asked where the main casino room was. I misunderstood. The casino, unlike the rest of the hotel, is not a display. You're not supposed to stand back and look at it. You're supposed to" dive in, with no transition, no formality, no feeling of awe. Your hand should be reaching for your wallet before you pass the bell captain's desk.

Lights flash, buzzers go off, and bells ring in the aisles of the slot machines. In the pit, at the crap tables, the crowd's voice rises and falls like an auctioneer's, building to a plea as the dice are rattled, exploding as they are thrown. It's like the moment when, after building the bidding to a gabble, the auctioneer slams the gavel down and yells, "Sold."

The heart of the pit are the blackjack tables — with minimum bets ranging from two dollars to one hundred dollars. There are even some nonsmoking blackjack tables, the only ones I find in Las Vegas.

A startling number of the. dealers are women. The pit bosses, supervisors, and midlevel executives are overwhelmingly male, but on this shift more than half the dealers are women. Even more noticeable is the surprising disparity in business at the tables. The women dealers do far more business. It's a week night, a

slack time, but every woman dealer seems to have two or three players while some of the men stand with their arms folded, waiting for customers.

The next day, talking with a chamber of commerce rep, I asked if the numbers of women dealers owed anything to equal opportunity legislation. He thought not. He thought it was just something that worked out gradually, and there were two reasons for it, both discovered after the fact. First, he thought, gamblers prefer women dealers. They prefer to win from them and, more important, they don't mind losing to women as much. And second, women turned out to be better dealers on average, more dexterous, their fingers more nimble, their hands better suited to the deck.

Waiting for the elevator, I stand beside two hefty men in maroon leisure suits. They each carry two drinks, which they will apparently take to their rooms. Suddenly a lot Of shrieking comes from the casino and we all lean around the corner to see what's happening. People are rushing toward a far crap table. A woman's voice, boozy, broken, and hoarse, ascends from the crush of bodies. She is apparently screaming at the dice, "Come on, you bastards. Oh, you sonsabitches." There's a pause as the dice are thrown and then she shrieks, "Yeah! Oh yeah! Babies!" This goes on, with the crowd stacking deeper around that table, and her voice becomes more penetrating, rising to a grating screech.

One of the maroon hefties winces each time, exaggeratedly, and I understand that he is drunk. "Jeezus," he says to his friend, "I sure hope somebody shuts that broad up." His friend reacts with an expression I can only

describe as slurred shock, his mouth is a wobbling indignant line and his eyes bulge. "Not as long as she's winning!" he says.

Seven a.m. at the buffet breakfast. It's $2.95, all you can eat, and that seems to be a di-

rect order for most patrons. In the booth beside me are three immense women. Two wear pastel pantsuits, the third wears a vertically striped dress, with a sweater over her shoulders. They are working through their third course now, platters of meat. Each plate once held a stack of ham slices, a mound of sausages, a crosshatch pile of bacon. The woman in the dress and sweater smears a dab of butter on each sausage and then pours a little pancake syrup on it before she cuts it up.

Earlier, their first-course plates held croissants, pastries, sweet rolls, sliced bagels, soft rolls, hard rolls, and three kinds of muffins, and on the side of each plate, one thoughtful bit of fruit. Two of them chose melon, one selected a cluster of grapes. They left the fruit for last, which is when one of the pantsuit ladies looked at her cantaloupe with dismay. "I thought I wanted that," she said, "but I don't believe I can finish it." She offered it to her friend, who obliged, and then they all got up together to rejoin the buffet line.

There, they waited politely, not cutting in like so many others - skipping ahead for specific seconds - but just waiting for the line to move along. Past the pastries and rolls, past the fruit, to the steam table. Here they assembled second courses: half plates of hard-scrambled eggs and half plates of potatoes O'Brien.

In the restaurant around me are about a hundred eaters, at least eighty of them are overeaters - mildly to enthusiastically overweight. First postulate: Some people come to Las Vegas to gamble. Second postulate: A lot of people come to Las Vegas to eat. Over the next few days, at every meal and every time I swing wide in a hallway or sidewalk to pass yet another mountainous body, the second postulate is hammered into a firm belief. Every casino, motel, bar, and hotel offers a caloric incentive on its signboard: 49c Breakfast 49c (Eggs, biscuits & gravy). Prime Rib, King Size Cuts, $4.95. Complete Steak Dinners — Under $5.

The ladies light fresh cigarettes.

Their smoke rolls and joins the layer from this level of booths and tables. Looking down through the levels of smoke to the line of buffet tables is a little like squinting to see freeway taillights on a very foggy night. Postulate I: Some people come to Las Vegas to gamble. Postulate II: A lot of people come to Las Vegas to eat. Postulate III: Generations come here to smoke.

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