All the beautiful weirdness of Fremont Street is coalescing inside Mermaids, where Michael Jackson is at the snack bar, dressed to the nines and angry that people are taking his photo.
Everyone wears Mardi Gras beads. They're savoring final refills of their yard-longs and cashing in vouchers as a voice on the loudspeaker reminds us that the snack bar will be closing in 30 minutes, then 15 minutes, then 10.
That would give one last hour of slots and cocktails Monday night before Mermaids, whose cartoon facade looks like a party store exploded into Vegas glory, shuts down its casino at 11 p.m. It will terminate a tradition of Coney Island hot dogs, deep-fried Twinkies, beads and showgirls out front who've been luring pedestrians into the tropical-themed casino long before life under the Fremont Street Experience canopy became a free-for-all for buskers, fully clothed and otherwise.
Other than the 40-minute wait at the famous snack bar, it would seem like any other night at Mermaids, except suited bosses are hugging employees at the bar, taking photos and talking about the good times. We've seen this before. Casino life creates families among employees, each serving time in a carnival that promises some sort of salvation from the nine-to-five office grind. This is goodbye and it says so all over their faces.
Downtown resident David Abrass chips away at a loaded hot dog while fries and deep-fried desserts patiently wait. "It’s kind of bittersweet," he says. "This place has a lot of memories. One last Coney Island, one last Twinkie. I’ve never had the Oreo so I’m trying it."
He's found another good hot dog at the D, another Fremont Street casino whose owners have purchased Mermaids, La Bayou and Girls of Glitter Gulch and plan to replace them with something new. But, Abrass says, "I don’t think anybody else offers the Twinkies like this. What are they going to do with all these people?"
Beverly Brown and her friend wait in line with their yard-longs, in it for the Twinkie. Brown, a regular, hasn't had one. In fact, the last Twinkie she had was 50-plus years ago. She decided to try the deep-fried version as part of her goodbye to Mermaids, a cherished spot she’s sad to see go. “It’s traditional, what Fremont used to be," Brown says. "Now it’s going the way of everything else.”
Similar lamentations roll like waves at La Bayou across the street, where an employee walks through the nook of a casino singing Europe's "The Final Countdown."
Cashier Barbara Bolt, working behind a counter amid the folk art that decorates La Bayou, is all out of the trinkets traditionally given to customers cashing out. Beck Lane, visiting from Omaha, Nebraska, wears one of the last, a Santa Claus ornament dangling from her Mardi Gras beads.
"They always try to give you something," she says. "We love them. You don’t meet a stranger here."
She and her wife, Kara, are on their honeymoon. They'd learned of these closings from their airport shuttle driver. "The stars aligned," Lane says. "We were here. It was meant to be. It won’t be the same without the Bayou and Mermaids. It’s sad but I’m glad we got to experience it."
Back at Mermaids, the snack bar is empty. The line had been blocked earlier to ensure a clean finish at 10 p.m. Local blogger Scott Roeben, sharing the evening's last deep-fried Oreo with a friend, says it got pretty hostile at the end: "There were almost fisticuffs."
The loudspeaker returns: “Attention Mermaids customers, the bar is now closed." It's over. The place is cleared out and employees, on and off duty, chat at the bar. A busker dressed as Gene Simmons is one of the remaining patrons. "C’mon guys. Cash out those tickets. It’s over," says general manager Rudy Nino.
The games are turned off and the casino area is empty. Gene Simmons gets in his scooter and rolls away, out past Mermaids employees posing for photos in front, and into the party that is Fremont Street.