THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

On a roll

Email|Print| Text size + By Arthur Schram
Globe Correspondent / April 18, 2004

It's way past midnight Boston time, and I've been awake for more than 36 hours.

The casino at Bellagio is pulsating, but my night is over. I wait in one more 30-person taxi line and get in a cab to the airport. The driver says he's writing a book on Vegas.

"It's not the people," the cabbie says, "it's the situations. This town makes people do things."

He's right. I've just spent 24 hours in Vegas, short on cash and without a hotel room. 11:30 p.m., 23 hours earlier . . . I meet my friend Tom at the airport. It was his idea to spend 24 uninterrupted hours in Las Vegas.

There's something exhilarating about boarding a cross-country flight with no bags, taking the plane the way you would take a taxi. If you book a Friday evening direct flight out of Boston, you arrive before midnight, local time, which means you're starting 24 hours when you've already been awake for 18. No use counting the hours.

Maybe time moves differently in Vegas.

When you hit the strip, and you're not checking into a hotel, it's worth it to take a walk and revel in the architectural kitsch, buildings as impulsive as slot machines.

We start under the massive, faux-medieval towers of the Excalibur, and walk past the Brooklyn Bridge replica at New York-New York and the Eiffel Tower replica at the Paris.

Why see the world when you can see Vegas?

1 a.m.

The Casino Royale, at 3411 Las Vegas Blvd. South, is a modest-looking establishment, nestled between Harrah's and the opulent Venetian. It carries just the right amount of low-rent appeal to entice us -- and the super-size sign advertising 99-cent Michelob at the bar gets us in the door.

We have unwittingly wandered into a low-stakes paradise, featuring a $2 mini-craps table (one of perhaps only a handful of $2 tables on the strip). The restaurants aren't run by Wolfgang Puck (who has four in town) and instead boast names like Subway, Denny's, and Outback Steakhouse.

2:30 a.m.

The ''Snack Nook" at Slots-A-Fun casino, another low-rent place at 2890 Las Vegas Blvd. South, far from the heart of the strip, features the best pound-for-pound post-gambling deal in Vegas: a 99-cent half-pound hot dog.

We order two, and hit the road, grabbing a taxi to the Hard Rock, hoping to branch out beyond the world of cheap food and meet some beautiful people.

The trendy bar and MTV decor make the Hard Rock a couture magnet. By the time we arrive, however, the beautiful people seemed to have sounded the call of the herd and migrated to after-hours events, like one at Drai's, at the Barbary Coast, where low rollers like us don't get in the door.

So we get in a cab and head downtown, off the strip.

4 a.m.

Our driver, an ex-trucker from Revere, revels in telling us that the legendary Binion's Horseshoe casino, which has hosted the World Series of Poker since its birth in 1970, reopened the night before, after shutting down early this year under a mountain of debts.

(Founder Benny Binion, a Texas cowboy implicated in at least one killing, essentially invented high-stakes gambling. He died in 1989.)

The lights outside Binion's aren't back on yet, but inside, the poker room is full of poker hounds, some sitting behind mountains of chips. For the poker player with the aplomb to actually join a table, this is mecca.

Time for the second best pound-for-pound deal in Vegas, Binion's breakfast special. Ham, bacon, or sausage, with eggs and hash browns: $1.95.

5:30 a.m.

The streets are empty in the half-light. Downtown boasts the Fremont, the Golden Nugget, and of course Binion's, but once you wander away from these three, it's the Vegas underbelly -- seemingly devoid of tourists, but full of heavy gamblers and dirty carpets.

At El Cortez, an announcement says security will happily ''escort you to your vehicle."

The Western, several blocks down Fremont Street, is an unsavory joint full of dead-end characters and penny slots. We breathe in a pack of Marlboros just getting from one end to the other. It's the end of the line. The sun is up.

7:30 a.m.

Back on the strip, most attractions open midmorning, and the first hours of daylight are a rare witching hour.

We fall asleep watching ESPN in the Mirage sports book -- the sports gambling area -- and are politely, but disdainfully, awakened by management and followed around the casino by bouncers. It is clear we aren't welcome. We leave, feeling totally punk.

Outside, it has begun to rain.

Back at Casino Royale, a $3 craps table is still going, with some of the same dealers and pit bosses who were there seven hours earlier.

The shooter, who already had been thrown out of Harrah's, is desperately drunk. One man puts down $5,000 on the table in stacks of hundreds.

The dealer turns to Tom and tells him to watch the drunk man, whose eyes look as if they might roll into the back of his head at any moment.

''You might learn something," the dealer says. ''See how he waits, pauses, thinks about his next throw. It's a thing of beauty."

To us, the shooter just looks drunk, but he hits a winning streak that lasts an hour.

Take a quarter. Put it in a slot. Win $5. We head out into the rain.

9:30 a.m.

We wander into Paris. I put another quarter in a slot and win $6. I'm on a roll. We wander through the Parisian-style shopping arcade, where Francophiles can find pastries at Lentre, an authentic Parisian institution.

11:30 a.m.

High rollers play golf, shop, or go to spas. Low rollers shoot guns.

The Gun Store, at 2900 East Tropicana, is a dealer and shooting range where any adult with a driver's license can walk in and shoot semiautomatic and automatic weapons. It's enough to make Michael Moore consider another documentary.

No training is necessary. For roughly $50, the helpful staff gives you a pair of Glock semiautomatic pistols, or perhaps an M-16 or AK-47, and live ammunition. We walk onto the range and start shooting, alongside total strangers also armed to the teeth.

At the Gun Store, they take their business seriously.

''Do you want the weapon of the winner or the weapon of the loser," the store clerk asks Tom, who is choosing between the M-16 and the AK-47.

As a bonus, the ambitious shooter can unleash rounds of machine-gun fire at targets depicting effigies of Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. Tom chose the M-16. And Osama.

2 p.m.

The Fatburger at 3763 Las Vegas Blvd. is open 24 hours. Watch the rows of patties sizzling in grease, and it's obvious that the burgers live up to the restaurant's name.

In 24-hour Vegas, a Kingburger and fries is essential fuel.

We take the free shuttle that goes from Harrah's to the Rio and make the short walk from the Rio to the Palms, host of MTV's ''The Real World."

5:30 p.m.

We watch a Final Four basketball game at a bar in the Palms, don't place a bet, and get back to the strip to tackle a casino buffet and soak in a few more hours of neon.

The Spice Market Buffet at the Aladdin ($22.50) is one of many all-you-can-eat tables in town. Its menu typifies the excess of Vegas.

It is fitting that in a desert city where a medieval castle and an Egyptian pyramid stand side by side, you can heap your plate with pad Thai, tandoori chicken, and crab legs.

8 p.m.

Tom leaves for the airport. I wander the strip.

It is the time of night when hairstyles and outfits still seem freshly put on.

For the hundredth time, a group of workers push fliers at me advertising ''Strippers direct to your room!"

Twenty-four hours earlier, the lights and buildings evoked their intended sense of fantasy. Now, the magic is wearing thin.

I watch the fountain show unleash every few minutes at the sprawling artificial lake in front of Bellagio. Next to me, a group of people carry signs imploring me to ''Repent or Else!"

Vegas, however, is a town without regrets.

10 p.m.

Time to get a taxi to the airport.

Arthur Schram is a freelance writer in Cambridge.

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