Friday, June 20, 2008

Ripping Off Las Vegas Three Times A Day!


What is a check roller? Naturally it’s someone who rolls a check, but the occupation here is applicable only to casino restaurants. The term was born in recognition of the bust-outs who preferred eating in casinos to soup kitchens when they went broke. So after the meal when the waitress put the check on the table, the bust-out simply rolled it up inside his folded newspaper and walked out, but not before stopping at the cash register to change a quarter for two dimes and a nickel, just to make it look good in case the waitress was watching as she cleared her table. If the bust-out was completely broke, then at the cash register he stopped only for a toothpick or a mint. Another term for rolling checks was “putting it on your Dine and Dash card,” though that meant you were probably being chased by a very pissed off waitress.
In Las Vegas hundreds (sometimes thousands) of checks are rolled every day, more than any other city. Same was true back in the eighties when a man nicknamed Neal Beat A Meal roamed the city’s casinos looking for coffee shops where he would beat his meals. He did it three times a day, reading his newspaper as he peacefully ate breakfast, lunch and dinner, then folded the check inside the paper and waltzed by the cash register and out the door. He kept records of his escapades, which avoided his going to the same coffee shop too soon. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred he was clean as a whistle. No one noticed him go. But once in a while a sharp waitress caught on to him and followed him to the register. When she saw he grabbed a toothpick instead of paying the check and then screamed for him to come back and pay, which of course he never did, the chase was on.
Neal Beat A Meal always got away but sometimes it was a close shave, especially when he had to run through casinos and escape security guards. Finally, word of his jaunts through the coffee shops spread up and down the Strip and casino security forces began an all-out operation to snag him. They gleaned photos of him taken from casino surveillance cameras, blew them up to life-size images and hung them on the walls of coffee shop kitchens so the wait staff would recognize him on the spot. Then they began lying in wait for him outside the restaurants.
But they were no match for the seasoned meal-beater. Neal Beat A Meal would not even let them spoil his appetite. Nor would he cut short his meals, always ordering sumptuous desserts like layer and cheesecake after his main course at lunch and dinner. Then he’d wait for the security men’s attention to waver and at the right moment make his move to disappear from the coffee shop right under their noses.
Finally, the Las Vegas police were called in. They actually set up an undercover operation to bag Vegas’s notorious meal-beater. But Neal Beat A Meal caught on to them, too. And he enjoyed a challenge. So he began making his thrice a day outings to casino coffee shops in disguise. Sometimes with a cane, sometimes as a cowboy. Even as a woman. Not to give himself away, he made sure to vary the dishes he chose from the menu. He also abandoned the newspaper, which really threw the cops for a loop. And when word about this unusual police undercover operation leaked out, Neal Beat A Meal appeared in the newspaper, and he couldn’t resist carrying that paper with his photo in it into the Stardust coffee shop one morning. He blissfully read the article about himself as he took his morning coffee with pancakes, eggs and hash browns. The waitress didn’t recognize him but two plainclothes cops at an adjacent table did. And this time they took no chances. They called for backup and the cops covered every exit out of the casino. If Neal Beat A Meal could escape that dragnet, the chief of Las Vegas detectives later confided to reporters, then he’d personally take the meal-beater out to dine in Vegas’s most expensive restaurant.
When the judge asked Neal Beat A Meal how many meals he thought he’d beat in his lifetime, the defendant replied in an unwavering and even proud voice, “Oh, I’d say around ten thousand.” The judge guffawed and then sentenced him to five hundred hours of community service, and specified that it be served as a waiter in a hospital cafeteria. When those hours were completed Neal Beat A Meal was hired as a waiter at the Stardust coffee shop, a restaurant he figured he’d beat at least a hundred times. He worked there twenty years. Then one night while carrying his tray he had a heart attack and died. His last words to a fellow waitress were that he’d always had a soft spot for the occasional bust-out who came to his table, ate a hearty meal and rolled the check.