An old friend from Boston visited the other day, and we sped into Death Valley to see the desert, stopping by the old opera house before we looped back to the city. The appearance of Vegas is always a shock to the system: so much electricity where there shouldn’t be.

In the evening, we hit the Strip because my friend wanted to gamble. The only game he wanted to play was the coin pusher, those old arcade machines with a metal arm that nudges a pile of coins toward the edge. Coin pushers aren’t a big draw in Vegas. As we scrolled past the roulette and blackjack tables, the atmosphere shifted from scented lobbies and luxury malls to cigarette smoke and stained carpet, and the themes became increasingly blunt. Beneath the eye of the Luxor’s pyramid, plastic pharaohs gazed down upon us, and I pondered the idea of a Vegas-themed casino until I gave myself a headache.

We found a bank of coin pushers in the Fun Dungeon of Excalibur, a casino that feels like getting kidnapped at a Renaissance fair while on dirty hallucinogenics. My friend diligently plugged tokens into the machine, where they joined a delicate web of coins so close to falling over the edge that I held my breath. Here was suspense and possibility in its most concrete form. Eventually, the coins fell, and my friend collected a small payout of tickets that could be traded for candy, which he gave to a small boy and his father.

Metaphors and lessons abound.