- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 30, 2004

LAS VEGAS - On a stretch of despair that tourists 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 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 valet parking of Porsches here. Instead, customers 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.

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.

Miss 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.

Known to her loyal customers as Miss Betty, 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.

Miss Williams, 54, has witnessed it all in three decades: She’s seen a man die playing bingo, and another collapse dead during Keno. Both 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.”

Miss 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.”

The Western has been good to Miss Williams and many of its loyal employees. Miss Williams has a house in a quiet residential community in northern Las Vegas. Tips can reach $200 on a Saturday night.

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.

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

“This doesn’t happen at the MGM Grand,” Mr. Hilton said.

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