Rolling the Bones, Chapter 21

I first met Ivan Karp in 1995. Kevin Sonmor, one of my painters, was having an exhibition at Ivan’s OK Harris gallery in New York. After the opening a group of us were invited to a nearby Soho restaurant. Ivan was one of New York’s most colourful art dealers, a tough, cigar-chomping ferret in his late sixties. Dinner promised to be a memorable experience.The restaurant had seen better days, but it was clearly one of Ivan’s favourites. Several tureens of hot, steaming food were already waiting when we arrived. Ivan walked straight to our table, took off his coat and, without uttering a single word to anyone, sat down and dug in. I lowered myself slowly into the chair next to his and watched in wonder. Such religious devotion to chicken and vegetables was uncommon. Ivan’s tongue darted in and out of his mouth with such quick, reptilian delight, he scoured a leg bone clean in seconds. I tried to ask him questions about the old days—what it was like working with Leo Castelli, how well he knew Rauschenberg—but he responded to everything with grunts. After twenty minutes I faced a humiliating possibility: I was too small-time to matter. I glanced down at the carnage strewn across his plate, screwed up my courage and posed what was likely to be my final question of the evening. “Mr. Karp, I was wondering,” I said, lowering my voice to nearly a whisper, “what did you do last week?”

Slowly Ivan lifted his head, as if interrupted from some deep primeval trance, and gazed at me for the first time. “Went to Vegas,” he growled. “Shot craps.” He speared another carrot with his fork and raised it to his teeth. I braced myself and asked for more.

The Galapagos Islands weren’t half as interesting as the gaming rooms of Las Vegas. According to Ivan, they crawled with everything from Europeans in tuxedos to lonesome cowboys down to their last dime. Some dames dressed to the nines, others in nearly nothing at all. Old ladies in muumuus flitted between casinos clutching tubs full of coins. The ghosts of mobsters, bagmen and at least one billionaire stalked the imagination of anyone who cared to remember them. Ivan conceded that divine disgrace was visited upon the least likely individuals. Those convinced of systems and calculations often suffered massive defeats at the tables, and could be spotted in their underwear at the airport boarding planes for home. Grim and downcast, they were unaware they were lucky to be leaving at all.

Ivan’s wife, Marilyn, was equally irrepressible in her description of the city, but she deferred to Ivan when it came to elucidating the game of craps, which was played by rolling a pair of dice over a felt-covered table marked with places to make wagers. He was a patient instructor. Contrary to popular myth, he explained, the number seven was only welcome at the beginning of the game, on the Come Out roll. If the shooter rolled anything else (except two, three or twelve), that number became the Point. Rolling the Point again was the game’s sole purpose. He vilified the “Wrong Bettors” who wagered along with the house, and he lamented the grinders who eked out a living by playing low percentages eight hours a day, seven days a week. He had no patience for the maniacs and losers that craps games attracted. He did, however, have a unique perspective on the game’s fundamental nature. He lowered his voice and glanced at his wife. She nodded in approval and he continued.

The dice used in craps were manufactured from plastic resin, he pointed out, a petroleum by-product with origins deep beneath the planet’s surface. His eyes narrowed. An astute shooter, cradling a pair of these polyester cubes in the warmth of his palm, understood that he was communing with something far greater than dice when he hurled them toward the far bank of the table. I wasn’t sure what he meant. Did he meditate on a number like a Zen monk when he threw the dice? Maybe, somehow, he organically aligned himself with the inner workings of the planet? I went to the washroom to mull over the possibilities while emptying my bladder. When I returned, Ivan was already out of his chair and buttoning his coat. “You should come down sometime,” he growled. He barely nodded at the other guests at the table and disappeared into the night.

Ivan’s invitation, casual or not, couldn’t have been timelier. I was desperate yet again. The gallery was close to bankrupt. My personal life was a muddle. The future?

I didn’t think I had one. I picked up the phone three weeks after returning to Toronto and called him. He wasn’t surprised to hear my voice.

“No problem,” he barked when I told him every room at the Golden Nugget was taken. Five minutes later he called back and I was booked. I scraped together whatever cash I had in a drawer and boarded a plane for the Southwest.

Before my rendezvous with Ivan, I decided to spend a few days driving around in the desert. I was especially interested in visiting the Anasazi ruins at Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, and immediately upon arriving I toured the canyon on an irascible old mare called Flint’s Cooking, who waded through the spring runoff and soaked me to the bone. A few hours later I crawled into bed, shivering with fever. On the tour the Native guides had made a point of showing me the cave where the Spanish had massacred over a hundred Navajo in 1805. That night I was the canyon’s only lodger. If their angry spirits chose to take revenge, my remains wouldn’t be found for days.

The next morning, I was astonished to find that the fever had miraculously vanished. I felt better than I had in years. I used my renewed vitality to justify taking secondary roads back to Las Vegas, thinking I’d enjoy the scenery, but one epic vista after another convinced me I needed to grapple with something more human in scale.

I arrived around midnight and hit the Strip. The Luxor, Excalibur and MGM Grand, Aladdin and the Dunes all whipped past in quick succession. By the time I got to Caesars Palace, with its eighteen-foot statue of the great emperor himself holding up an arm as if hailing a cab, I was fumbling for sunglasses. A city ablaze in the depth of night was deeply unnerving, though I was pleased to note there were few shadows in which the spirits of dead warriors could lurk. I remained vigilant all the way down Las Vegas Boulevard to Freemont Street and the Golden Nugget, where I checked into my room and fell into bed.

During the day, business in Las Vegas is conducted indoors while the city streets are abandoned to the whir of air conditioners and flies. I spent most of my first few hours with Ivan visiting casinos, each of which had a unique culture and a retinue of sweaty desperadoes. Ivan pointed them out to me like a docent giving a tour through a museum. At the El Cortez one old-timer in particular attracted his solicitude. His hand shaking noticeably, the octogenarian placed his last chip on the table only to see it swept away on the next roll of the dice. “Guess I’ll see you tomorrow,” the man muttered as he left. “Not likely,” Ivan replied.

The game of craps was fast and complicated. It demanded concentration and a good nose for a table’s mood, which shifted with every shooter and sequence of rolls. We stalked from one gaming room to another like bushmen tracking the spoor of an animal, hunting a kill. Ivan was by turns short-tempered and impetuous, and approached or left a table on the spur of the moment. I’d come to Las Vegas to scrutinize his strategy and style, but I found his mentoring inscrutable, especially as I had to gather up my chips the instant he wanted to leave. During a game of craps back at the Golden Nugget, when my dice clattered off the table and onto the floor, Ivan screamed at me, “You throw like a chicken!” On my next roll they dropped from my hand like two soft-boiled eggs. The dealer shouted, “Seven!” Without a glance in my direction, Ivan walked away in disgust.

I retreated upstairs to my room and went to bed early that night. It was an unusual sleep, the skull-heavy meditation of a man lost to the world, afraid of what the future might bring. Toward dawn I awoke with a vivid dream in which my mother stood at the foot of the bed brandishing a rolled-up newspaper. I pulled back, ready to duck. She blinked once, her brown eyes large and vacant as an owl’s, and vanished. The clock on the table read 5:00 a.m. I fell back on the bed, certain now that I was doubly cursed for the day.

Breakfast at Binion’s with Ivan was a cornucopia of eggs and bacon, sausage, cheese and thickly buttered toast, all washed down by a gallon of coffee. The day began like the one before it. I trailed behind him through several casinos, dutifully depositing cash into their coffers while waiting for the legendary monster roll, the game to end all games. This time I learned nothing I hadn’t the previous day and my host hardly spoke. His luck, however, whether due to karmic duplicity or his affinity for the arcane laws of polyester resin, held true.

Ivan approached a roulette table, bet on a single number and walked away a winner. I covered the same table with chips and the ball bounced onto double zero. The slots crossed their legs whenever they saw me coming, but for Ivan they gushed. Only the game of craps eluded him. He played it vigorously for hours, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, always pressing his bets.

By mid-afternoon on the third day, my ears were aching from the popping of the slots and I escaped to my room. My head hardly hit the pillow before my dream from the previous night slipped back into the room. My mother’s silence had puzzled me, but her threat hadn’t. I felt myself wince, anticipating the blow, and jumped from the bed.

I jumped out of bed. The casino downstairs was busier and noisier than when I’d left it. Sweat and perfume jitterbugged the air. I loitered for a few moments around the slots, tried one out here and there to warm up, then spotted Ivan wedged into a throng around a craps table. I waded in. He was as remote as usual, his glassy eyes riveted on the game. I inhaled deeply and put my last hundred-dollar bill on the table. When it was my turn to throw, Ivan looked up but said nothing. I chose the two dice of the five that I wanted and tossed them with authority and grace, as if waving them goodbye, to the far end of the table. They bounced against the rail.

“Seven!” the stick man shouted.

Not bad on the Come Out roll, I thought, and tossed again.

“Six! Hard Ways!” he announced.

Three tosses later, I rolled it again. The players around the table were paid and pressed their bets. “’Bout time,” Ivan clucked, the crack of a grin erupting around the cigar stub in his mouth. I made several rolls before hitting a point again. People passing in the casino paused to admire the game. Chips flashed in and out of racks as bettors flew into action, flinging them at dealers. On the next roll I sevened out. The table was cleared immediately. Barren again, its bright green surface resembled a recently mown lawn in a cemetery. Twelve men stood around it, solemn as mourners.

The longest roll in history, which lasted an incredible three hours and six minutes, had taken place many years ago at the California Hotel on Ogden Street. Ivan had pointed out the tarnished plaque commemorating the event on one of our casino tours. I’d understood immediately. The meaning of time had been tested, the nature of a man’s destiny questioned. As news of the monster roll spread from casino to casino, ambulances would’ve been dispatched and stationed at the California’s doors, ready to carry off the emotionally distraught and hopelessly enraptured. Those remaining—accountants transfixed by the odds, unrepentant believers and many too weak with joy to care—survived and grew rich. My own brush with ecstasy had been comparatively short. I’d rolled a mere six minutes. I’d glimpsed eternity in two cubes of resin, all too brief a moment for a man yearning to decipher the nature of luck or of Ivan’s charmed existence.

That evening, Ivan wangled comps for dinner at the Rio’s Fiore restaurant for himself and Marilyn, Jim Del Grosso, an artist from New York, and me. I ordered the

Grilled Tenderloin of Ostrich with Northwest Black Truffle and Duck Foie Gras. A massive black waiter tasted our wine using a gold spoon that dangled like a door knocker from his neck. Over dinner Ivan was by turns loquacious or taciturn, depending on the degree to which the conversation centred on him. Having spent three days tolerating the man at the craps table, I’d had enough of his Jurassic manners and made a point of talking to the others, though I soon realized he didn’t give a damn for what I or anyone else thought. He simply continued on his way. Money—the acquisition of which often destroyed a man’s soul, especially when gambling was rolled into the equation—distilled Ivan to a heartbeat.“The odds are always in favour of the house,” he’d warned me back in New York. I had assumed he was stating the obvious. The consequences of playing were immediate. Sooner or later the house took it all. But a casino was so full of distractions—paisley carpets, cocktail waitresses, the ceilings pockmarked with surveillance cameras—that even knowing the true odds on a roll wasn’t enough. A good player, let alone an art dealer invested in revelation, had to look beyond the crass attempts to divert his attention. He needed to steel his mind and exorcise his fears. He needed to cultivate a rapport with the grander scheme of things. For this, according to Ivan, our distant cousin the carbon polymers, fashioned to within a micron of plastic perfection, made the best resonators.

Stuffed with too much meat and wine, I returned to my hotel room and crawled into bed. The next day I was flying home. Schemes and strategies to save the gallery eluded me. I was tempted to call it quits. I drifted listlessly away on a raft of sleep, my ear cocked to the muttering that lapped up from my worries, when a familiar voice swamped the uneasy calm of my desolation.

“You poor bastard!” it barked. “If only Mother Teresa could see you now. Maybe you should ask

her for a loan!” Ivan’s cackle was unmistakable. I sat up and glared at the very spot where my mother had stood two nights previously. The American Southwest was replete with spirits. I was lucky that only two of them had found my room.At six-thirty the next morning, I joined Ivan and Marilyn in the Golden Nugget’s coffee shop. Ivan had already been up for an hour playing keno while he ate breakfast. He was typically irritable, but I had to admire the purity of his mechanics. Too many minutes wasted chewing and swallowing thwarted his momentum. The grander scheme of things awaited us both—for Ivan in apprehending the mystery of the tables, for me in unravelling the narrative thread that had led me to them. My last cup of coffee was a quick one. I rose and bade them farewell. Ivan chuckled, “You should come back sometime.” I toyed with replying, “Not likely,” but bit my tongue and headed for the airport.

The day after I returned home, I was diagnosed with “walking pneumonia” and ordered to rest. Fat chance, I thought. I had one promising exhibition left before the gallery went under.

Jane Ash Poitras was a Cree from Edmonton. Her paintings were an intelligent and colourful pastiche of Native imagery cut with a political edge. I mentioned the pneumonia to her before the show opened. She told me that her dealer in Scottsdale had recently attended a charitable function. She’d been given exactly the same diagnosis. She’d died the next day.

Jane had art star status in Canada—a country notoriously bereft of star status itself. Her work hit all the right notes. It was complex. It was pleasurable to the eye. And it was politically correct. Jane’s paintings appealed to everyone from museum curators to hausfraus, while the artist herself was beguiling, quick-witted and instinctually drawn to anyone who might further her mythos. The night before our opening, she attended an art/society event that drew the toniest movers and shakers in the community. Jane Corkin, the photography dealer, was among them.

The next day, I remained immobile behind the reception desk throughout the entire opening. Whenever someone indicated interest in purchasing a painting, I grimaced, lifted pen to paper and wrote up the invoice. People flooded through the door in unprecedented numbers. By the end of the afternoon I’d sold out the entire show: $100,000! Jane Corkin had been quite taken with Jane Ash Poitras the night before. She came to the show and bought three paintings (an extraordinary confluence of Janes). My trip to the American Southwest had been providential after all. The gallery was saved by an Indian.