You never know who you're going to run into when you're down and out in Las Vegas.
There I was standing on a hot dusty street in Glitter Gulch. I had just gone through a divorce. My finances were nil. And I was looking for a job.
I have news for you. Las Vegas is not the best city in the world to look for work. Oh, you can find it if you want to stand on street corners distributing literature to pull people inside to a bar, girlie show or whatever the owner happens to be selling.
That wasn't my style. I am a writer. If it doesn't have something to do with editorial, I am not interested.
My finances totaled less than $30. Inside my briefcase I had a couple of gambling stories I had written on an old Smith-Corona Typewriter that somebody had left at the cheap motel where I was staying, probably because they were short of cash for a night's stay. The stories weren't bad. One was non-fiction, a portrait of a horse player I had met. The other was a short story called 'Weeping Willie' that I had written about a poker player I had met in Lake Elsinore, CA.
It was August 2003. The temperature was sizzling at around 106. I had been walking all morning to save the cost of an all-day bus pass. I had visited three publishers in less than three hours -- the Las Vegas Sun ('Sorry, no openings. You can leave your resume if you'd like.'), the Las Vegas Business Press, and some other entertainment magazine whose name I don't remember.
The sign on the door of the non-descript building on Industrial Road said GAMING TODAY, CHUCK DI ROCCO, PUBLISHER. The plate glass window looked like it could use a good cleaning. I took a deep breath and walked inside, thankful to be in an air-conditioned office.
A smallish man in a sports jacket and tie sat at a desk. He wore glasses and was studying a Daily Racing Form. In his lap was a small white dog.
'Chihuahua?,' I said, reaching out to pet the dog. It snapped at me, missing my hand by half an inch.
'Mixed breed,' said the man, laying down the racing form. 'She hates people.'
That was how I met one of the legends of Las Vegas.
Di Rocco was a native of Philadelphia who studied journalism at Penn State University. After working at several newspapers and magazines on the East Coast, he had relocated to Las Vegas where his colorful, off-the-wall personality fit in like a glove.
As he listened to my spiel about looking for a writing job, he glanced through my stories. Once he held up his hand to stop me from talking. I clammed up. Di Rocco read my stories and nodded.
'You can write,' he said. 'You're hired.'
HUH? Hired? For what, I wondered. I hadn't even gotten to the point where I was asking him for a job. But that was the way Chuck Di Rocco operated. He liked my stories, he bought them on the spot, and when I left his office an hour later, I had an extra $75 in my pocket that would cover the $25 buy-in at a poker tournament that night at the Union Plaza Casino.
Di Rocco was born Feb. 25, 1935 in Philadelphia, PA. He came into this world on the tail end of the Great Depression. That alone taught him to fight, scrape and clay to make a living in a tough profession where only the tough survive.
He became involved in a number of ventures, including the simulcasting of horse races. When Di Rocco appeared on the Las Vegas scene, only a couple of major races, including the Kentucky Derby, were simulcast to the Las Vegas casinos that were lucky enough to have horse rooms.
Di Rocco changed all that. An avid horse player and gambler all his life, he set up 'wires' between Arlington, Churchill Downs, Turfway and other tracks so that bookies and sports book operators could handle their bets. Although he ran into occasional problems with the sports books -- some claimed he was charging too high a rate for his services -- Di Rocco expanded his services until people began coming to him for advice.
He was a tough, hard-nosed businessman who loved a good fight. Once when a business associated screamed at him over the phone and called him a name that cannot be published in a respectable newspaper, Di Rocco ended the conversation by saying sweetly, 'I have been called worse than that by better than you,' and slammed down the receiver.
I went to work as a staff writer for Di Rocco, working under an editor named Ray who was Di Rocco's right-hand man. I interviewed poker players, horse handicappers and other high-profile celebrity gamblers in Las Vegas. It was fun and Di Rocco paid me fairly for my services -- when he had the money.
Friday at 5 p.m. was when we got paid. I remember sitting behind my desk in the editorial office waiting for my check. My editor and the other staff writers and columnists would be sitting in a row drinking coffee, eating peanuts and waiting for the publisher.
'I hope he had a good day at the track,' Ray said, yawning. 'Otherwise...' his voice trailed off. 'We might not get paid until Monday.'
At precisely 5 p.m., the door swung open. Di Rocco came in. He was carrying his vicious little white dog and had a big fistful of bills in his hand. He was smiling.
'Line up, children, for the goodies,' he said. We all burst into laughter.
Di Rocco died on March 6, 2004 at the age of 69. I didn't know it, but he had been ill for a long time. The cause of death was complications from pneumonia.
His widow, Eileen, and son, Edward, took over the business. They immediately suspended operations. Although the company owed me money, I wasn't thinking of that when I picked up my personal belongings and headed for the door.
At the door, I paused. The other staffers were gathered around Di Rocco's desk, heads bowed.
'He was a helluva guy, wasn't he?,' I said.
Ray looked at me and smiled. 'Even on his worse day,' he said.