Las Vegas and the Mojave Desert
A travelogue by Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2000 Mark R. Leeper
07/14/00 New Jersey to Vegas
07/15/00 Valley of Fire, Hoover Dam, the Strip
07/16/00 Red Rock Canyon, the Mojave Desert, the Paris
07/17/00 Las Vegas Casinos: NY:NY, Luxor, Tropicana, Caesar's Palace
07/18/00 The Venetian, Fremont Street, Treasure Island
Let's get the rules straight from the start. I am not a high roller. I am not a low roller. I am a non-roller. That's not because I am a Holy Roller. I am a mathematician. Playing in a game where I have a negative mathematical expectation is the same to me as making a contribution. No casino is a favorite charity of mine. If I gamble at all it is something like a roll of nickels. If you want to learn something about gambling this log is not a recommended source.
So if I am not a gambler, why go to Vegas? Ask my parents. They are not gamblers either but love going to Vegas. The food and the entertainment are cheap, subsidized by high rollers. Eighty years ago today my father was born. He was born on Bastille Day and has made it a tradition every year to celebrate his birthday on Bastille Day, whatever day it falls on. Sunday the whole family will get together in Vegas. We will spend Sunday and Monday together. Whole family here means two parents and their three children. The other two children each will be bringing a spouse, a son, and a daughter. There will also be my Aunt Anna Mae and Uncle Dave. That is a total of 14 family members.
07/14/00 New Jersey to Vegas
We supposedly are leaving (or rather our plane is) something like 9 PM. This is the day of our work picnic. Since the largest part of our department is in Denver we have the picnic with EID who in some senses are internal competitors. It turned out to be a rainy day so most of us were under cover. I was sitting there eating a burger and corn on the cob with my group and suddenly I hear my name on the loudspeaker. The place breaks out in applause. Then I hear my name again and the voice says I have a phone call. It turns out our non-stop 9PM flight was cancelled and we have an earlier 6 PM flight with a change in Phoenix. Evelyn had gotten us on an earlier flight. I guess it was a little embarrassing. I mentioned that to a friend and she said it she thought it was pretty neat. These people all applauded when they heard my name. There are not many names that would have gotten that reaction. It is a common impression among the people I work with that I have done them all favors. That is not really true, or it is only a half-truth. I have sort of invented a job for myself. I go between the developers and the computer center and the users trying to make the interface between them run more smoothly. This involves a lot of on-the-spot problem solving and on-the-spot teaching. When I send out status and how-to bulletins, I try to use a little bit of humor. That helps to encourage people to read. This creates the surprising situation that this little introverted tools guy has people wanting to applaud him at a picnic sponsored by his competitors.
At about 3:15 Evelyn showed up and we headed for the airport. We headed for Newark Airport. The economy parking is a long way out. It took us till about 4:30 to get to the terminal. There was a fair-sized line for America West.
We stood in line to check in. And stood and stood. It was about twenty minutes before the person at the head of the line was processed. Rumor has it that the 6 PM flight that they put us on when they cancelled our 9 PM flight will also be cancelled. This is just hearsay since the people dealing with the people on the check in desk are entrenched in their positions and not moving. The guy behind the desk serving then looks like he is highly stressed out. Perhaps it is because in his eyes you can see white the whole way around the iris. They may be placing people on other airlines. America West may well be a leveraged airline. If they are, they are allowed by law to cancel any flight for which there is a serious safety risk for the passengers. On a leveraged airline, flights always have a serious health risk for the passengers. That is because they have no airplanes. It is very dangerous to be up in the air without an airplane. A leveraged airline cancels every flight and puts passengers on other airlines, which then travel fuller. They get a kickback from the other airlines, which goes into a fund to buy airplanes.
Well, we got up to the America West check in. Our flight had indeed been cancelled but they would trade it for standby on a 9 PM Continental flight. America West seems to be run by Continental. This was for me a discouraging turn. We paid for assured seats, not standby. I am surprised they didn't ask if we would settle for going someplace like Orlando.
They gave us vouchers for dinner since they gave us a later flight and we were not getting the dinner. We went to the C terminal where the plane would be leaving. Evelyn looked at the big board before we headed to dinner. Continental had a plane boarding just then for Vegas. We dashed the length of C terminal. Did they have room for more standbys? After a while the answer was yes, they had room for the two of us and we could even ride together. We boarded about 6:30. After waiting on the ground quite a while the pilot announced they had to move the plane out of the gate but still did not have a clearance to take off. The plane was going to wait in a large waiting area called "the ballpark." People could leave if they did not want to wait while the doors were still open. He, however, was going to go to Las Vegas tonight. I told Evelyn that he missed a bet. He should have brought out a sword and draw a line in the carpet. We taxied out to the ballpark but then he said we were sixth in line for a course called Elliot. Later the wait dropped to three but Elliot closed up again. Must be thundershowers. Finally we left after considerable wait for an opening in the weather about 8:50.
Dinner was a cheeseburger and Doritos, but good. We left at twilight, caught up to sunset, then slowly progressed back into twilight. We are following the sun. The movie is ERIN BROKOVICH but the monitor near us makes Andy Warhol op-art image transformations on the picture. Very hard to watch.
I read, worked on the log, and slept. The captain says that the temperature in Las Vegas is about 100.
At about 10 PM we approached Las Vegas. We have seen little oases of light on the ground. Now out of the ocean of blackness a huge ocean of light opened below us. If you want to know the feel, see the final reel of THE ABYSS. The first recognizable building we see is the Stratosphere. Almost immediately more buildings are recognizable. We come in for a landing and after standing for five minutes deplane. As I walk out a blast of hot air hits us. I say I hope that is from the engines, but I know it is not. The Nevada desert is HOT.
As soon as you get off the play you are in a foyer filled with slot machines. God forbid you should land in Las Vegas and have to wait to gamble. Just in walking to the baggage pickup you go through two or three more rooms of slot machines.
There are lots of tall people arriving. It seems it is some sort of basketball championship. Teams are arriving from all over.
You see lots of ads up advertising Wayne Newton. He is Mr. Las Vegas by his own admission. This town seems to make big that which is small. Outside of Las Vegas, Wayne Newton is pretty much a joke. Here he is an institution.
We found the National Car Rental desk. As we waited I looked around at all the gambling machines. No place is the Bible Belt as dedicated to one ideology as this place is to gambling. I imagine in Iran you don't see this kind of dedication to Islam. That's because only a few mullahs are making the moolah. Here it is the whole economy.
Waiting for the van from the rental company. Every other rental company seems to have vans. Not ours. You could die from "heat frustration." It is nice to arrive here and have this almost full moon staring down. Monday night, our last night, it will be full.
Finally we get the shuttle and get to the car pickup. There are about six cars to choose from and we choose the least nice of the six. Why? It has a cassette player rather than a CD player. We have brought music cassettes we want to play with Western Movie themes. If we are going to drive around Nevada it is a priceless piece of atmosphere. We picked the Chevy passing up a Mitsubishi.
I would like to get the classical music station, whichever that is. Instead I can find only an oldies station. They play "Be True to Your School." The background has a chorus singing college cheers like "Push 'em back. Push 'em back. Way back." Great. As long as their heroes can act like human bulldozers, it doesn't matter if they are dumber than bulldozers. Push 'em back indeed. The next song is "Baby, Baby. I Hear a Symphony." I wish I did.
We are staying the first two nights in a Motel 6. Evelyn is driving and we thought we knew where it was. I was last in Las Vegas maybe ten years ago. Maybe if you visit Springfield, Mass, after not having been there in ten years you can detect some differences. Las Vegas looks like I have never been here before. As we approach we see a skyline with a Pyramid, an Empire State Building, an Eiffel tower. The MGM Grand has a golden lion three stories high, not counting the pedestal. It looks like the Las Vegas of ten years ago went through a matter transmitter and had its atoms mixed with Disneyworld. Everything is huge and incredibly kitsch. It may be the one place that we outstrip the Japanese for nuttiness. And here we outstrip them by miles.
After some effort we find the Motel 6. (When my family comes on Sunday we will move to the Paris.) We go to check in and discover what the science fiction club was in college, Motel 6 is in Las Vegas. This is where all the geeks and misfits comes. Over on one side three Indians are trying to negotiate something with the manager. I don't know what, but they are there the whole 15 minutes we are. Behind us is a white-bearded farmer with a big paunch in denim coveralls and spectacles on his forehead. I swear to God. I cannot figure out why he came to Las Vegas unless he heard his daughter was in a girly show, and he has come to fetch her home.
Finding the room is not easy. This is the world's biggest Motel 6. They seem to have bought a second motel and made it a Motel 6, though it now flanks the Rodeway.
We get to the room. It is now midnight. That is 3 AM New Jersey time. Evelyn suggests this would be a good time to see the Strip at night. That is the main and most garish drag of Las Vegas. It sounds like something I would suggest and Evelyn would reject. I'll go.
Midnight and going out to sightsee
07/15/00 Valley of Fire, Hoover Dam, the Strip
On the way out I report the toilet is broken in our room. What room? 1258. It is easy to remember because it is the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 6th Fibonacci Numbers. "Welcome to the Motel 6."
Around the corner from the Motel 6 is an Air Force Gooney Bird. Just one more thing to see. We pass New York, New York. It is as big as at least two city blocks. It is make up to look like many buildings, some famous and others just types. Standing in front is the Statue of Liberty. Further back is the Empire State on one side and the Chrysler building on the other side. These are (much smaller) replicas so close there were court cases over whether it was architectural ownership infringement. And over the top of all this is a roller coaster. There seem to be a lot of hotels with roller coasters. Probably it was successful at one hotel and several others have imitated.
Boardwalk Casino has another roller coaster, but a theme of the Atlantic City Boardwalk. That is interesting. I would say that what I have seen of Atlantic City makes it nothing to be nostalgic for in Las Vegas. And the lackluster theme is probably hurting them. The most garish casinos attract the most gamblers, apparently. It is like the brightest flowers attract the bees. And what was garish last time we were here is now tasteful and understated. Now wherever you look there are huge temples to the excessive. All of this was built on the difference between what people put down on the table and what they take off. You would think that all the conspicuous spending would tell people they are probably going to lose. The fancy fronts should be the casinos' own worst enemies. But when it comes to gambling suddenly people consider losing money to be entertainment. Casinos claim they are going to give good odds and it no longer matters that everything else shows it is a lie. The Venetian is a prime example. It is a building at least a block long in the style of a Venetian palace. That may not have the usual pizzazz but it exudes class and money. Perhaps the low-key approach works for them.
Big and flashy is in. I assume we soon will see Triassicasino. But normal-sized dinosaurs will not be big enough. Maybe a 400-foot Godzilla casino with glowing scales and fire breath. They will be double scale.
I was thinking that we might stop someplace for a milkshake but Evelyn saw an open Korean restaurant and rather surprised me by stopping. The name of the place was Kimchi and we looked like the only non-Koreans. There are three Korean couples and us. I opt for Hwe Neng Myun: cold noodle, hot seasonings and raw fish. The waitress wants to make sure I want it spicy and that I know it is raw fish. Also that it is not soup. Fine.
We looked a little further up the street, but that is the older section. We drove back on the Maryland Parkway. It runs parallel to the Strip only two blocks away but you would not know it was in a gambling state. Not a sign of garish or gambling. We got to sleep about 2. I woke up several times in the night and finally was really up at about 6 AM.
We set out by car in the morning. The Strip looks a lot more subdued in daylight. Night is the Strip's finest hour.
We set out for the Valley of Fire. On the cassette player I put my cassette of Western film music. It is the perfect accompaniment to the Southwest topography. We were going to pick up breakfast along the way, but there was not much on the roads. We stopped at the Moapa Indian reservation shop, which was really just a grocery store and souvenir stand. We got cheese and I got a grapefruit juice. Evelyn got a Frappaccino.
From that point on, toward the Valley of Fire, the road is not leveled out. There are lots of dips and peaks. There are plenty of craggy hills in the distance but as we approach the valley they become redder. These rocks were banks of sand in the age of the dinosaurs. The dunes petrified and pressures from underneath pushed up pieces. Now you have rock up-juttings maybe three or four stories high. This sandstone is soft rock and at places Indian carved pictures, now known as petroglyphs. It is quite scenic. This was Nevada's first state park. We stopped by Mouse's Tank. By most accounts Mouse was a renegade Indian. On the signs someone scratched out the word renegade and replaced it with patriot. We walked through Petroglyph Canyon and back, then headed out for Hoover Dam.
Every time I visit the Southwest I have the same frustration. Why the heck am I living in New Jersey? Not that I would live in Nevada. It is just an existence proof that there are places a lot better to live than New Jersey. These wide-open spaces and the hills framing them are just where it feels natural to live. I don't know what I would do for a living. I don't know what I would do for entertainment. But there is some chord in me that responds to cowboy country. I tell this to people back east who have never been out this way and it sounds immature. Tell it to people whom have been out here and many know what you mean. I just want to live next to something majestic that makes me feel small. That may be the secret of why my marriage has lasted. Southwest is the place to live in the US. New Jersey is a piddling area.
The drive to Hoover Dam is through Lake Mead National Recreational Area. It is a beautiful region of rocky cliffs and plains. We had to get to the dam for our 11:30 AM tour. We get close to the Hoover Dam. This is where the big scenery meets big man-made structures. Built in the 1930s at the height of the Depression it still looks very futuristic. In fact, the pictures of the huge machinery undoubtedly influenced the science fiction art of the period and helped to create our view of what was futuristic.
We must have been out this way about ten years ago, but like Vegas it has changed a lot in ten years. They have built a big new visitor center visitor center not here last time
During the Great Depression there were two giant construction feats that captured the imagination of the public. They were basically statements that a fantastic future was coming and could not be stopped by an economic downturn. They were everybody's hope for the future. One was the construction of the Empire State Building; the other was the building of Hoover Dam. The Colorado River was really the source of water for most of Southern California, but it was a dangerous source. When the river was high it was a disaster. When it was low it was a disaster. A dam could serve the double purpose of controlling the river and it would generate electrical power for much of the Southwest. It controls water for Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, and other cities. Mexico was also guaranteed to get an apportionment of the water. (That apportionment could not actually be implemented until nine years after the dam was completed due to some highly technical problems involving them being weak little foreign people without much political or military clout. Also they speak Spanish.)
Black Canyon, a bed of anthracite, was chosen as the place to dam the Colorado. The dam was expected to take six years to build but actually took four. Workers would be paid five times the going rate but it was really living on the edge, frequently literally. Five thousand men took part. How does one build a dam? Four conduits were built--two on each side--to bypass and divert the water away from the proposed site. The upstream end of each is sealed off until the bypass is completed. Now the river has five paths. You dump rock and sand to dam up the original path. Now you have a muddy basin where the river once flowed. You build your damn there. In this case it is 726.4 feet high. It is 1244 feet wide at the widest, at the base it is 660 feet wide. At the thickest it is 45 feet thick. You have conduit under the dam for the water controlled by huge butterfly valves. These conduit can run as many as 17 turbines. Next you remove the temporary dam and let the first water through the conduit. Finally you close off the four bypasses. Each of 17 generators can give you 130 Mega-watts of power. Each weighs 150 tons each. They revolve at 180 RPM.
Those of you who follow such things know that I like to ask good questions. Can I ask a good question that will stump the guide? I did stump the guide this time. From something as imprecise as water running through a conduit how is the generator kept at 180 turns a minute? I stumped our guide who could only say the engineers knew how to do it.
We took the hard hat tour. It is more expensive but you get to see some of the more dangerous parts of the dam. Part of the reason it is more expensive is that it includes the cost of earplugs and a hard hat. It is a genuine professional hard hat. With this equipment you see not just the generators but the actual turbines a few floors below. Superficially it all looks like a simple piece of technology. You have a big wall with drains at the bottom and the water through the drains runs waterwheels.
How am I going to get this hat back to New Jersey? It is 105 degrees hot out today. We made an ice cream stop and saw a 1936 documentary on the building of the dam. It really did not capture how the dam grabbed the country's attention. When we were done we drove back to Las Vegas the long way. We drove south and looped through a bit of California, then picked up I-15. We saw a lot of Joshua trees which Evelyn thinks have an alien look. In Nipton, CA, one of those very long trains got to a railroad crossing just before we did. Just when we saw the end of the train coming it stopped. It seems a train was coming in the other direction. This one was also very, very long. It was carrying liquid petroleum gas and corn sweeteners. It was about 94 cars. All told it as about a 15-minute wait, but it was just perfectly timed so we got the worst of it. Evelyn asks how many trains a day go through Nipton.
We returned to the room and found that the toilet had not been fixed. No surprises there.
We went to a Mexican restaurant recommended in Fodorís. Viva Mercado's was only okay as a restaurant. I am not sure it was the same as when Fodorís liked it. I had a combination platter with a Chile Relleno and a Tamale. Evelyn was anxious to see a special store that dealt in good luck charms. It took a while to find and I suggested they may have gone out of business. It is like the psychic who had to go out of business due to unforeseen circumstances. It turned out the shop was still in business but closed for the day.
We wanted to take a walking tour of the strip so headed back that way. Turns out we saw two casinos. The Stardust was just gambling. There are no side extras. Not of much interest. We tried Circus Circus. Ground floor was much the same. We went up to the midway. The midway is where to go for better luck. There were once four Japanese aircraft carriers sunk there in about five minutes. The Japanese gamblers might not have liked that so much. We saw one circus act, a family of Bulgarian tumblers. Watching them work I see what the rules of the game are. When something goes wrong have a backup plan, and if you have to use the backup, keep smiling and pretend that was intended. Pretty good rules for life.
After the act we walked around the midway, but it seems to be all gambling games for children. The old giveaways are gone.
Watching gambling was not really thrilling us so we went back to the room.
Write. Fix toilet. Drink (Snapple). Sleep. Not necessarily only one each or in that order.
07/16/00 Red Rock Canyon, the Mojave Desert, the Paris
I woke about 6 AM. I used the toilet and had to try all sorts of jiggery-pokery to flush it.
I filled the hard hat with laundry and with the space that saves in my luggage I can put the hat right in the suitcase. About 8 AM we check out and head for breakfast.
Evelyn had earlier thought that the Paris was near the Orleans and that we could try the highly recommended buffet with my family. It turns out it is not so we decided to try it for breakfast. We wanted good service so I told Evelyn I should say in a loud voice "What do you say? Shall we have some breakfast before WE GAMBLE AWAY ALL THIS MONEY?" That way they would not look down on us for just coming for the buffet. The buffet is usually $4.95, but as luck would have it is $9.95 on Sunday. It was worth it. What a variety of foods. It is a real bargain. The only problem is that there is confusion about where you sit. The hostess takes you to a table and puts your receipt on the table. You get your food and by then someone else is sitting at your table. It happened to us and also at another table.
We headed out for Red Rock Canyon. We saw some of the nice part, and then it got less scenic. We had taken a wrong turn and were out toward Mountain Springs. We headed back.
This time we did see Red Rock Canyon and it has some great rock formations, many graced with a mysterious red layer of rock. This is a collection of sand from what used to be a sea bottom. It mixed with other minerals and the sand turned to sandstone. Mysteriously for a long age there was a great deal more iron oxide mixing with the sand and dying it red. When the banks of sandstone are pushed through the surface the result is cliffs with this large red band.
Some of the Western music we were playing was from Westerns taking place in Kansas. Somehow it seems not well paired with these mountains. When God made Kansas he put down just a foundation intending to get back to it, but never did. We ride along and I turn up the air conditioning. While I think of it, that is the other major Thing of Las Vegas. Air conditioning in the summertime is a life support system. There would be no La Vegas if we had never invented air conditioning. It is as basic as oxygen.
After driving the loop we went back to the visitor center for their discussion of the red rock and the flora and fauna of the park. They tell you about the geology.
It is going to take a little while for me to get my trust back. One of the dangers of being in Las Vegas is that every large building turns out to be a casino. The city is lorded over by what looks like an airport tower. That is the Stratosphere, a hotel and casino. You see a big office building and it too is a hotel and casino, the Tropicana or maybe the Monte Carlo. What looks like the Palace of Fine Arts is Caesar's Palace.
Evelyn gets to see her good luck charm shop and is disappointed to discover it is not tongue-in-cheek. They are people who really just are New-Agers. It took the fun out of it for her and she quickly left.
On the Strip there are trucks that drive up and back with big TV screens on the back running filmed ads for casinos. This sounds like a dangerous alternative to the old trucks that were traveling billboards.
By now it was time to go to the Paris and check in. So here I am a sweaty mess from the day, carrying my luggage. And I run into my family on my way in. We are all on one floor. I talk to them for a short time then headed over to check in. The room is quite nice. It is a lot fancier than the Motel 6. Things work. Evelyn went to turn in the car and get a shuttle back. I take a warm shower and get dressed. I go down to explore the Paris and if possible find my family. They are there at a small cafe. We talk for a while. Evelyn finds us due to the use of our walkie-talkies. We talk for a few hours. At 5-ish the group breaks up and I explore with Evelyn. This is much more interesting than the casinos of yesterday evening. They have recreated an idealized French street. It is always just at twilight due to special lighting and a painted ceiling. There are little shops and restaurants, both over-priced. Like somebody who has just made a chewed bubble gum replica of the White House, one can be impressed with the accomplishment without actually believing it was a good idea. Outside they have a lot of Paris landmarks reproduced including a half scale (hence 1/8th sized) Eiffel Tower, an Arch d' Triomphe, a Paris Opera House, and more. We stopped in a poster shop where they sold framed posters of many old horror films. Just looking at the wall I asked which poster was a reproduction of the film poster which sold for the highest price of any film poster in history. Evelyn suggested it was the FRANKENSTEIN. I said no, it was THE MUMMY. I think the proprietor was impressed I knew that. Or thought it was good salesmanship to appear impressed.
We went up to the room to get ready for dinner and rest up. We met at 6:55. Dinner was a long, slow affair at Mon Ami Gabi. The food was okay, but nothing to write the Internet about. I had Steak au Poivre. The restaurant prices were quite high for what we got. Perhaps I have a crude palate. The time was that Vegas was a good place to come for bargains, but there is a lot less of that now. The really good restaurants are priced like really good restaurants. The shows are up to something like $125 a ticket. The show they keep advertising at the Paris is NOTRE DAME DE PARIS. Supposedly it is not that good. It seems like a natural for Broadway since the two biggest plays of recent years have been LES MISERABLES and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. LES MISERABLES and NOTRE DAME DE PARIS are Victor Hugo's two greatest novels. But the original film of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was made because of the success of Lon Chaney's previous film THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. The two have often been associated together as a result. Like LES MISERABLES, NOTRE DAME DE PARIS is a French musical translated to English. It is a good touch that they do not change the title to the odious title THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. That is a odious title for the novel. It gives away that the relatively minor figure of Quasimodo will become the focus of the story.
Just across the street from where I was sitting was Bellagio. At fifteen minutes before and after the hour they had a water fountain ballet creating beautiful visual patterns in time to music I could not hear. After dinner a bunch of us went out to watch the water show. Some of the music was nicer than other music, but the water show was nice. Supposedly it is very beautiful seen from the Eiffel Tower above.
Afterward we crossed the street at an overpass and went inside to see how Bellagio was decorated. I don't know from architectural styles but it was in an Italian style, very pleasant as long as you were not near the slot machines. They make a sound pleasant only to gamblers. Bellagio has indoors some large and very well maintained gardens that we stopped to admire.
Heading back the fountains were dancing to a song my brother identified as "Conte por Tulo." It is quite beautiful. It took me a while to figure where I had heard it. It was used on THE SOPRANOS and even there I thought it was terrific. Apparently it is a signature melody for Bellagio and locals are sick of it. But it is a beautiful piece of music.
From there back to the room.
07/17/00 Las Vegas Casinos: NY:NY, Luxor, Tropicana, Caesar's Palace
My parents like a local breakfast buffet called the Surf Breakfast buffet. We have my parents, the two of us, my aunt and uncle, my brother, his wife and their two kids. There is some problem getting a table together for that whole group. My mother asks proudly so how does THIS compare to the breakfast buffet you found yesterday. Well, yesterday we had eaten at the Orleans, which was recommended by experts on the Internet. This is about one quarter the size, I guess conservatively. My mother turns a little cold. But that was the Sunday brunch and they don't have that much every day. I bet that they do, but the problem with the Orleans is that you need a car to get to it. That is how they get you to go to their out of the way casino. I cannot imagine any good way to get my mother who loves breakfast buffets together with the one at the Orleans, but I bet if we could it would really impress her. But the Orleans is not walking distance from anywhere and their whole thing is to entice people to come over and gamble and they do the food with Las Vegas style overkill.
Next stop is to visit the casino New York, New York with the family. No woman is so old and ugly they will not put her in a skimpy outfit and have her serving drinks. It really is kind of sad to see.
As with many of the casinos the interior come-on is a shopping mall with a design motif of another time and place. This one is intended to look like New York City some time between the 1890s and the 1920s. The floor is cobbled. There are old-fashioned storefronts. One has meat aging in the window. I assumed it was fake, but a sign on the side mentioned a local restaurant and the meat was really aging for that restaurant.
We had a seat by the Goldenberg Deli and talked a while then continued around. My aunt heard some roaring and said she did not know what it was. I said it was probably the roller coaster and she did not know if she should believe me that with everything else they had at New York, New York, they also had a roller coaster. Across the street from where we sat there was an anachronistic Gonzalez y Gonzalez. Elsewhere were Chinese restaurants and a sort of Times Square, though it had ads for companies like Panasonic.
Evelyn and decided to split off and see some things on our own. Evelyn wanted to see the Luxor. We walked to the Excalibur. From there was a shuttle to the Mandalay Bay and back. But coming back it stopped at the Luxor. Besides Mandalay Bay had an exhibit of sharks called "Shark Reef." That sounded interesting also. We arrived at Mandalay Bay and after a false start find signs to Shark Reef. We walked. And we walked. And we walked. I had no idea the building was so big, but we walked about half a mile to the other end of the casino. It took about twelve minutes. Then it turned out that there was a $12.95 admission to Shark Reef. We both agreed we were not that interested in seeing sharks so turned around and walked back to the shuttle.
The Luxor really was impressive. They have done the Ancient Egyptian motif to the max, and in some cases very well. They have tall statues of Ramses. Inside some of the statues are eight feet tall. There is a reclining Anubis jackal. Behind the reception desks are paintings of ancient Egypt, not in the Egyptian style but more that of National Geographic. There are more statues inside. We stop in a shop and get a cold bottle of soda and sit down to drink it in front of two mechanical camels talking together about the Luxor. Luxor is done in nice style.
We take the shuttle to the Excalibur heading for the MGM Grand. But someone on the sidewalk we pass is offering a free pull on a slot machine. Everybody loses and gets a consolation prize of some coupons that can be turned in at the Tropicana. You just have to walk all the way across the casino to get to the promotions desk. We get our cards out and head out. There is a poster for the Casino Legends Hall of Fame in the Casino. It has a picture of four men. Elvis, Sinatra, and two more less familiar. Who are they I ask Evelyn as trivia. One is a handsome young man with thick features, the other an older man with a likable, comical wizened face. She does not know them. The younger man is Bugsy Siegel, a flamboyant hood who took over the building of the Flamingo when the strip was young. The older is Meyer Lansky. Just what Meyer Lansky was we will never know. He may have been just a casino manager for casinos run by the mob or he may have been the boss of Murder Incorporated. He bankrolled Siegal. Hey, that is the most interesting thing about Vegas. It was the rise and fall of organized crime in Vegas. Hey, we have coupons for admission to the Hall of Fame, Why not?
Well the museum itself is a lot of chips and dice from casinos I have never heard of. There was a film about Las Vegas movies OCEAN'S ELEVEN, VIVA LAS VEGAS, MEET ME IN LAS VEGAS, and LAS VEGAS VACATION. Another film was about fires in casinos and the demolition of old casinos. But by far the most interesting item in the museum was the "Bad Guys" film, a tape about organized crime in Las Vegas.
It traces the town from when it was sawdust joints. It claims Lansky, who formed Murder; Incorporated, sponsored his boyhood friend Bugsy Siegel. The latter wanted to muscle in on El Rancho, but could not and instead took over another project and built the Flamingo. He did a lousy job of managing the guiding and even appeared to be skimming the funds. They killed him for it. Then his successors they also killed. The story is told inaccurately in BUGSY.
They also talked about Allan Glick who controlled the Stardust. He brought in oddsmaker Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal. The film CASINO is a little more accurate telling the story and it claimed the mob lost Las Vegas to the corporations. Not so according to the documentary, but the mob has much less control. The documentary was about a half-hour.
MGM Grand was next and we finally got there. We saw some lions chewing on marrowbones. Not all that impressive. They also had a mall. We stopped for some ice cream. We saw that across the way there was a Wizard of Oz store. We went in and were looking at it when Roger S. Baum started a conversation with us. Baum writes Oz books himself and he is the great-grandson of L. Frank Baum. We talked to him about his campaign against the interpretation of THE WIZARD OF OZ as a political satire. He thinks that it really hurts the enjoyment. It has not done a lot to hurt GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, but he really would like to see WIZARD seen as an innocent children's story. I told him that I had written editorials to much the same effect about science museums. We talked about the various films set in Oz. He thought the Disney was much too dark, but otherwise liked it. We talked about the silents. He was quite fond of the biographic film about his great-grandfather.
We took the monorail that rubs from the MGM Grand to Bally's. Not that Bally's hold much interest at all, but it is a next-door neighbor of the Paris. It is a lot more comfortable than walking the Strip at 4:30 in the summer afternoon. Bally's was indeed boring but it connected directly to the Paris without having to go outside. There is a small stretch that is not air conditioned going from the monorail to Bally's, but the rest of the way was fine.
From there it was back to the room. My father wanted a dinner buffet, so we went to the Mirage. Nice casino. Lots of nice aquariums. The buffet was pretty good. On the way out you see a large living area, a glorified cage for Siegfried and Roy's white tiger.
After dinner we went next door to the shops of Caesar's Palace. One more mall with a twilight sky. The stores are fashions, electronics, and just the sort of thing you would expect from Ancient Rome. Right. Like one of the stores has Darth Vader's suit in the window. Is it the real costume or a copy? Well I remember from years ago an observation I made that nobody else seems to have noticed. Lucas sent around film props to World Science Fiction conventions. I noticed a small joke that nobody else ever mentioned. Looking close the writing on Vader's chest panel seems to be in Hebrew. I don't have enough Hebrew to understand it or even know if it is meaningful.
There is a nice neo-classical fountain with Jupiter and other gods. Further in there was an aquarium. We would see more of the aquarium the next day. There is a show there every hour, but our timing was off.
It was now past 10 PM. It is tough to tell because of the twilight lighting in the mall. We headed back to the hotel for the night. The way is not always clear. Toward the end as we went through Bally's, Evelyn was leading the way. She was setting quite a pace and the people toward the back were getting left behind. I told Evelyn to slow down and that if Moses had led the way she did he would have actually gotten to the Promised Land. But then he would have looked over his should and said, "Hey, where is everybody?"
Now the 26th floor of the Paris has five aisles leading into each other, all appearing to be identical and though the rooms are numbered consecutively in each aisle the aisles are in some funny order with the room numbering. I was feeling very dehydrated from the walk so I grabbed an ice bucket intending to get a Pepsi and some ice. Soda goes for $1.50 from the machines these days and you get 20 oz. I went to where I had seen the ice machine before. There was my father wandering the halls with an ice bucket. He had lost the room again. I smugly told him it was over here, turned into the door and found a locked room labeled "Staff." Something was wrong. I went back to the center with my father and quickly found the right aisle. I filled my bucket. My aunt showed up with an ice bucket. Quite a reunion. My father let her get ice and leave, filling his bucket last. We talked a little. My uncle showed up. Had we seen my aunt? Yes, she got ice and returned to the room. No he had just come directly from the room and he hadn't passed her. Okay, well where did she go now? We found her in the center section. She had found the ice machine first try but in returning to her room she picked the wrong aisle, found her key had not worked on what she thought was her room and was pounding on the door. Luckily nobody was in. Finally we got the aisles all straightened out. They had been out of Pepsi in the machine but Evelyn and I happily consumed the root beer.
We wanted to have something on the TV to go to sleep to so at 11 we turned on the Discovery channel. They had a program on how the biggest hotel in the world is run. What is the biggest hotel in the world? The Venetian on the Las Vegas strip. All kinds of facts like they have a $500,000/month electricity bill. It has the largest rooms of any hotel also.
07/18/00 The Venetian, Fremont Street, Treasure Island
Twenty-four hours a day they play the songs of Edith Piaf in the elevator. I tell Evelyn that to get in the spirit of Paris we could take this elevator to the roof and Piaf.
Most of us get together for breakfast at a cafe in the Paris. We have bread and a drink. Just having everybody saying goodbye to each other takes twenty minutes in itself. It is late morning before Evelyn and I set out to sightsee.
We walk up the street. Like flowers attracting bees each casino has a strategy to attract to attract people. It may be a unique shopping area, a decor, cheap food, free shows, and big name stars. Nowhere else will you see in such large letters the names of people you think of as mediocre. Wayne Newton, Howie Mandel, The Everly Brothers, unfamiliar celebrity impersonators, unfamiliar magicians. Second-stringers treated as if they were the biggest thing in American entertainment. Who is not a mediocrity? These days I would pick Jerry Seinfeld or Bill Cosby. Richard Pryor or Rita Rudner would be good choices. In fact Rudner was there, but she was about the only entertainer I thought really worthy of Las Vegas booking. (Look how much of American comedy is provided by blacks and Jews. I don't think Presbyterians are pulling their weight.)
We want to take a look at the Venetian. Particularly after seeing the documentary the night before. This place tries to recreate the grandeur of the Venice we saw in DANGEROUS BEAUTY. As you enter you see a ceiling that has at least 36 beautiful paintings. Each painted by hand in the style of the time. There is a shopping area with the same painted twilight skies again. These are starting to get monotonous. I guess people feel more generous and become spendthrifts at twilight.
There are a number of stores. Some are thematic. One sells puppets of the style of Italy of the time. One had in the window a nice painting of a man wearing a mask. It was probably a reproduction of one of the period. The overall experience is quite laid back and pleasant, but suffers from what I call "the Busch Gardens fallacy." I saw a picture from Busch Gardens brochure that showed you a really authentic-looking recreation of an Algerian street. At the time I said no place looks authentically exotic when you have walking around fat tourists in short pants. If the majority of the people you see are dressed as tourists, you cannot make a place seem authentic. That is the problem here. It would be a great place to visit but for the fact the visitors spoil the effect. Also having gondoliers with earphones does not help. You are supposed to have opera singers and courtesans but they are not there. Perhaps it is the wrong time of day. There are people getting gondola rides. It might have been a nice touch to have the Red Death or the Black Death hanging around, but no such luck. And I did not see a shop called The Merchant of Venice. There are some Moors visiting. There was a Kosher-style deli of all things. I suspect they may have had the bagels and the cream cheese, but were shy lox.
There was a Warner Brothers store but it was a great disappointment. To believe what you saw there Warners made cartoons, and only two films: OCEAN'S ELEVEN, and CASABLANCA.
We crossed the street to see Treasure Island. Not much to see but a few shops with a pirate theme. We walked around the front to see the boat walk. This is the place where there is a small-scale sea battle, but not till 4 PM. It is something like 110 degrees out today. Someone came up with an idea for outdoor cooling. They have water misters. They spray a fine water mist on people like they were vegetables. In the heat it evaporates almost immediately taking heat with it. I told Evelyn "they mist me, they mist me." Inside they have a restaurant called the Black Spot Grille. Now if I remember right once you get the black spot you die quickly. It is an inauspicious name.
We have been seeing almost entirely the Strip. That is what Vegas has become. But there is a different Las Vegas. There is the Vegas of little, simple, dark casinos. Just the rudimentary start of glitz. We take an intercity bus up to see Fremont Street in Downtown Vegas. It takes a long time as the bus just crawls.
We went into one small casino for some sort of promotion. We thought we were supposed to get a prize for a single play, but it turns out after 30 cents of play that there was a five-dollar minimum for a mug. And we lost 30 cents.
One casino offers "have your picture taken in front of one million dollars." Evelyn says, "however, a million dollars isn't what it used to be." That's okay. Neither is my picture.
Fremont Street is a step into the past of Las Vegas. In they days before all the glitz there were casinos for people who didn't want much in the way of fancy decoration. They wanted a dark quiet place to come and gamble. The Golden Gate is one such casino. Dark and a little seedy looking, it almost feels like it is out of the 30s. The casino's minor concession to wooing customers in with something besides gambling is a small lunchbar at the back. A shrimp cocktail in a sundae dish is $.99. A root beer float is $1.25. Leeper's principle: if there is a good non-gambling reason to go into a casino it is at the far end. They will walk you past as much gambling opportunity as possible.
After lunch we do a little shopping and head back to the strip. We get back to Treasure Island about ten minutes before the show. What is the show? There are two boats at opposite ends of a small narrow lake. One is a pirate boat, the other a British fighting ship, each maybe thirty feet long. The pirates say pirate sorts of things until they see the British ship come around the building so it can be seen. The pirate boat never moves and the British ship is pulled by mechanics. The British ship rolls out its guns. (It should be noted the guns point not at the pirate ships but at the watchers who were standing just where I was. Of course, there is nothing shot.) The two ships blaze away at each other and there are explosions on each and big splashes in the water as if unseen cannonballs were falling. Eventually the British ship sinks and the crew jumps off. It falls well short of the spectacle of the real thing but is fun to see. It is interesting that the pirates are the good guys. Afterwards it is almost as much fun to see the Britannia rise again out of the water and sail backward to its starting point. The broken masts on the pirate ship straighten up and miraculously heal.
Next stop is Caesar's Palace for the fountains that come to life. We arrived at the aquarium about five minutes before the show. On the hour the lighting changed and the statues in the fountain sink into the base. On a pedestal pops up the King of Atlantis (all figures done in what Disney used to call audio animatronics). Because of the acoustics of the room it was very hard to make out what he was saying, but he had to decide if his successor would be his daughter or his son. His daughter controls the water; his son controls the fire. I leave it to the reader to figure out if there is a male and female in conflict, which one is portrayed as being evil and which one is good. In any case the king asks the audience to vote which will be the heir. The audience votes for the good offspring, but the evil offspring vows not to be bound by the vote. There is a quick battle between them with puffs of fire and sprays of water. The king calls a stop as his throne turns into a mighty dragon. The battle is postponed and will be continued as a 3D ride available here at an additional price. So it turns into an ad for a pay thrill-ride.
There is supposed to also be a behind the scenes tour at 5:15, but after waiting a few minutes for it, it is cancelled due to problems. We sit down to write in our logs instead. At 6:15 we went to dinner at The Cheesecake Factory. I had Black Mushrooms on Angel Hair and Evelyn had a Navajo Sandwich. Both were very good, probably our best meal in Vegas. We did some souvenir shopping then headed back.
At the Paris we picked up our checked luggage and headed for the airport. At the airport we again refilled our water bottle. It must have been something like 110 degrees today, as I said, and I have been very dehydrated for days. Again our America West flight was cancelled and we were put on Continental.
On the way in I found it amusing that there were slot machines in the waiting area of the airport. Now that I am going to have to sit there for hours listening to the damn things it is not so funny.
I got on the plane on time. I saw that there was a basketball team getting on the plane and their manager sat next to me. I asked how they did. They won two and lost two. He asked how did we do in Vegas? We lost 30 cents and won two deck of cards and two museum admissions. I think that is coming out ahead. After a ginger ale I put myself to sleep.
I woke up about a half-hour before we were supposed to land. That is a successful red-eye flight. I actually slept better on the plane than anywhere in Vegas.
After we land the plane is playing the neo-Simon-Garfunklist song "Dust in the Wind." You know, it might even be true, but I would feel a whole lot better with an airline that thought we had some control over our fate.
It is 64 degrees. We go home, shower, and head in to work.
Well I have to admit I liked Las Vegas a lot more than I expected.
On the 50th anniversary of the release of KING KONG they put a giant full-sized inflatable Kong on the side of the Empire State Building. Perhaps "partially-inflatable" is a more accurate term. They could not get it to inflate properly. A Japanese tourist was asked what he thought of it. "I love it. It's so American. It's big, it's silly, and it doesn't work."
In Japan I discovered what it means to have something be Japanese. It means it works, but it is manic and strange. It combines absurdity and optimism.
Las Vegas is more Japanese than American. Las Vegas is manic and strange. Vegas never sleeps. It is a city placed where no city ought to be, in the middle of the desert. It is absurd and optimistic. Who would ever think that building a casino to look like something out of ancient Egypt would bring so many people to gamble that they would willingly lose enough to finance such a big project? Yet it works. And it has worked time and time again in Las Vegas.
The changes in Las Vegas over the last forty years have very much paralleled
the changes in professional wrestling. It has became bigger and stranger
and much less real. And the weirder and more unreal it becomes, the
more people love it. They drop huge sums of money to go along with
its weirdness. Like wrestling it has gone from a sort of dark business
for adults to a family entertainment.