"Sin City".....more like, "Regret City". Not 24 hours into a six day Vegas stay (I know what you're thinking....six days in Vegas?!?!), I had enough to almost call it quits. Almost. The night before I dove head first into the shallow pool of promise and riches that is the Las Vegas casino floor. I chose the Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas as my battlefield, and the blackjack table as my point of engagement. It went well, really well. I had tripled my money, which was HUGE considering my budget and the prospect of another month and a half on the road. I boastfully texted a friend at 9am, and told him I'd been on the blackjack table for 10 hours. That was the beginning of my regret spiral, which ended with me losing everything, save the ensuing hangover. The toughest thing about Las Vegas, whether you're in the casino, nightclub, or strip club, is knowing when to walk away. It's a lesson many never learn.
This isn't where the story ends. It's where it begins. The following night in Vegas wouldn't be about regret, it would be about redemption.
Somehow I mustered up enough confidence (stupidity?) to go back to the Nugget on Wednesday night in an attempt to nobly reclaim my money. I swore off alcohol (ok...just two beers), and promised myself I would walk away when I recouped my initial investment from the night before. I patiently waited behind tables, looking for "my game", as if the universe would have a hand in this. As it turned out, maybe it did.
I first noticed his ear. Starting above the earlobe, he had small silver rings lining the outside of his left ear. Maybe 12 total. It's Vegas I thought, it attracts people from all walks of life! Sitting next to him, I'd then begin to notice his tattoos, most noticeably the poorly etched letters across his fingers below his knuckles. Most tattoo artists will stay away from hands and fingers, you know someone's all in when they get "knucked up". Still, I've got friends with similar tattoos, it's not that strange to me. What was strange was the guy he was playing with. Under a bucket hat from REI, and behind wire framed glasses, a pasty, articulate, and awkward guy with a baby face coached him on the rules of blackjack. They really didn't feel like friends, more so acquaintances, but they clearly had an established relationship, an understanding, a trust.
It seemed as natural as talking about the weather, which is probably why it's difficult for me to remember how it came up. You see I've discussed this topic, and situation, half a hundred times. Most people would bat an eye or choke, when the guy sitting next to you at the blackjack table tells you he was wrongfully convicted by the city of Chicago and spent 20 years in jail. Me? I didn't even pause as I replied that I have a friend who was wrongfully convicted and has spent 14 years in prison.
His name is Juan, and at one point he told me, "You could probably Google me and find out anything you wanted to know." You definitely can, I did, and that's what I'll tell you to do if you're interested. All I'll say about his case, is that the police planted blood on his shoe, and that's just one of a number of appalling aspects. Honestly, I wasn't interested in the case or the fact that he was awarded the largest settlement in the history of the United States for a wrongful conviction. I was more fascinated by what he was doing in Vegas.
Since his release, and subsequent settlement in 2015, Juan has been speaking out about wrongful convictions at engagements and conventions across the country. He's even been offered opportunities in Dubai and China. That week in Vegas he was there with his lawyer, the pasty guy in the bucket hat, addressing a group of criminal defense attorneys. While the association with his lawyer serves a dual purpose, that fact that he's chosen to be outspoken and carry the flag for others wrongfully convicted is the sign of a man working to move through his past, and find redemption.
Juan creates separation from his 20 years in prison, and three convictions, by calling it his "story". It's a psychological tool, oft used, which allows one's self to not be defined by what has happened to them. To you use a poker term, it's a tell, revealing that he has begun the all important work it takes to heal mentally from what I can only imagine 20 years in prison would do to your psyche. He likened the experience, and symptoms, to that of a soldier returning from war with PTSD. He still wears the scars. In his eyes, and mannerisms, you can see the damage...a hesitancy in his smile, a shift in his eye. It's nothing to be ashamed of, you can still see the pain of losing my mother in my eyes, but it's impossible to ignore. And to hear him tell it, he's not. He hopes to use his life as an example for others who will experience this daunting reintroduction to society. Personally, he plans to go back to college and get a Masters in Finance, so he can use his settlement money while avoiding the financial pitfalls that plague those who receive a windfall of money but have no idea how to manage it. NBA players come to mind. Either way, he was saying all the right things, and I could genuinely sense that over our 4-5 hours together he really wanted them for himself and others. I genuinely want them for him too.
I was down to my last $20 at the blackjack table. Juan had gone up to his room, and returned without his lawyer/friend. He was playing for fun, and I was playing to "nobly reclaim" my money from the night before. It did not look good. The dealer sprayed out our cards, and hit me with a 20. I stayed. She turned over a 19, busting the rest of the table out, and doubling me up. For the next two and half hours with Juan at my side, I would work my way back up from my last $20 and win the money I brought to the table that night and the night before. I stopped exactly when I reached my goal. I had learned my lesson, if you will, and earned my meager redemption.
Juan and I would sit for another 20 minutes at the blackjack table before he felt that he had had enough fun. We got up, and decided to take a stroll around the newly revived Freemont Street in Downtown Las Vegas. He shared some more of his life, and I mine. Something told me that trust was big for him right now. And while I like to think I earn my trust because of my character, I also can't escape that it was also partially due to an agonizing common bond.
With that, I'd like to dedicate this piece to the friend, and his family, currently fighting for justice in their wrongful conviction case. Peace to you, Justin, and the entire Wolfe family. May there be an end to your suffering, and an opportunity for your own redemption.