Turning 21 at Chuck E. Casino

I’m probably the only one who notices the bartender’s slight roll of the eyes when we order shots of Jäger. He sighs under his breath. Asks to see a couple of IDs. (Not mine.) Pours ruddy liquid into shot glasses and slides them over.

Jägermeister is a German liquor, a blend of more than “50 herbs, fruits and spices.” Smells like anise, tastes like unsweetened black jelly beans. Not my first choice of things to be drinking at midnight on a Thursday.

“I can’t believe you haven’t had Jäger, Mom,” my son enthuses.

“Me either,” I reply. “What have I been doing with my life?”

We raise our glasses in a toast.

“Happy birthday!”

The guys down their tepid sludge in one neat gulp. Takes me two. I sip a tasty rum and cola as a palate cleanser.

This is all I will drink tonight. I am the designated driver, gambling nanny and all-around safety net. A 21st birthday party can be fraught with fatalities. I’ve read stories of young adults deciding to pull off stunts like doing 21 shots at midnight.

My son’s not stupid. But still. When invited to hang out on his 21st, I can’t say no.

The celebration begins at a nearby locals’ casino that doles out $25 food credits on birthdays and features $2-per-hand blackjack tables.

My two sons and a friend cash their paychecks and head over to the payday slot machine for free pulls. An employee resets the machine three times for the birthday guy. On the third pull, my son wins something like $1.75.

Ah, joy. Somewhere in Steve Wynn’s heaven, slot attendant angels rejoice as a new gambler is born.

To be honest, it feels like we’re at Chuck E. Cheese, minus mechanical singing creatures. But tonight I won’t spend $100 on pizza, soda and SkeeBall, get a headache and walk out with $1.50 worth of “prizes"—life-like toy insects, high-bouncing balls and a plastic keychain from the prize center. Instead the young adults drink free Heinekens, eat free steaks and watch money disappear into Wheel of Fortune slots.

I invite my son to deposit nearly all of his cash in my wallet for safekeeping. He immediately grasps the logic of this.

The guys play blackjack. With the help of his older brother playing next to him, the 21-year-old quickly grasps the basics and develops his own system for deciding when to hold at 15. He bets $2 per hand. A waitress delivers free beers, and he doesn’t forget to tip. After an hour or so, he’s up about $10.

I wander around a while, rejecting free drink offers, winning around $80. That makes this birthday party easier on my pocketbook than pizza joints, bowling alleys or arcades.

Have to admit, though, it feels weird. People give me odd looks. I was a teen mom, older than my sons by 17 and 19 years, respectively. I’m not ancient. Still, I look out of place in the 21-year-old guy crowd.

I feel compelled to tell one bartender that I’m the mom. He looks relieved.

At 3 a.m. Friday morning, we head to another off-strip casino. The streets are quiet, but the parking lot is nearly full. Inside, machines sing and the bar’s crowded.

Before you get judgmental, remember that this—preying on the recreational greed of residents and tourists—is where Nevada gets money for stuff like schools and roads. When’s the last time you paid state income tax?

The boys order Jäger. Show IDs.

“Happy birthday,” says the bartender.

I tip him, and my son’s friend looks up at me, grinning.

“I can’t believe we’re partying with your mom,” he slurs.

I am truly glad that he is not going to be driving.