Thursday, October 13, 2005

Fuzzy Recollections of Las Vegas and Beyond

Only just lately the cerebral and cunning Trina and the mysterious and enchanting Chloe visited Las Vegas, and their stories have brought to mind several impressions I have of the place. The family and I have been there twice, and during both visits I’ve strictly kept to the role of passive onlooker, never once gambling a nickel. It’s not that I’ve got anything against gambling — I can see the fun of it — it’s just that I can’t take in the immensity of Las Vegas, the “wretched excess” of it all, the staggering amount of concrete and steel and dancing fountains and lights that have gone into the casinos, or the innumerable gambling machines, with all their lights madly blinking and sending off a constant din, or the sheer expense of everything from the square miles of custom-made carpets to the beautifully wrought tables for craps and blackjack and poker, or the battalions of employees looking smart in their uniforms, all of them cool and professional in their manners, or the billions upon billions of kilowatt hours needed to keep the whole place running, without realizing that all of this is financed by people who have lost their money. I know some win; and I know there are many level-headed folks who go into it with the hope of winning but are sensibly reconciled to the prospect of losing — that it’s only the possibility of coming out ahead that makes it all exciting — but I feel spending even a quarter on a slot machine is like being suckered into a colossal confidence trick.

That being said, I enjoy Las Vegas. An inveterate people watcher, I enjoying looking at all the types you see there. I like the stores, I like the dry heat, and I like the shows. I especially like the buffets. I love watching people gamble as I drift through the various casinos. There are many architectural features to notice and admire. Everything is bigger than life; there’s a fantastic quality about the city — an artificiality, quite frankly — that reminds you a little of Disneyworld. I like staying in the hotels, exercising in the health clubs, and sitting in the saunas. I like the rides they have, especially the New York City cab roller coaster ride that takes you out onto the roof of the New York, New York casino and makes you feel as if you’re about to be flung away over the city. I like the Venetian, how they constructed an entire town indoors with sky and trees and a canal that runs through it all. I get a big kick out of the sea battle that takes place in front of Treasure Island. Everything’s done on a large scale; no expense is spared. It’s all magnificent and loud, impersonal yet beckoning. It’s not “real,” if you know what I mean, but I think unreality is a big part of its allure.

But what I really want to tell you about was what happened during the first time we went, when we set aside one day for a tour of the Hoover Dam and a plane ride over the Grand Canyon. The girls were small then and not very interested in that stuff — they much preferred the amusement park at the top of one of the casinos (it might have been Circus Circus). The price for all four of us wasn’t cheap, so I sternly instructed them to have a good time — and took care to refrain from using the word “educational.” We boarded a full-sized Grey Line bus and found ourselves the only passengers. The driver, a friendly, talkative fellow by the name of Larry, told us to sit up front so he wouldn’t need to use the microphone while he said his spiel. This was nearly ten years ago, but I can still remember many of the little facts he threw out. For instance, at one point we passed under an overpass with a snowplow laying in the grass near the base of the bridge. Not attached to any truck mind you, just a snowplow laying there. Larry told us there was some federal law or statute or mandate that called for all states to have one snowplow in working order for every so many square miles. It didn’t matter if the state in question actually had snowfall; there had to be a snowplow. I think if the state complied, good things would happen, probably in the way of money. So there was the snowplow, of no use to anyone, a monument to the inanity of bureaucracy. Another little factoid Larry threw out was every McDonald’s building the world over is different. If you’ve ever cared to notice, it’s true. There are God knows how many McDonald’s restaurants all carrying the exact same fare, but can you think of any two structures that exactly match? Larry was full of information like that.

I found the Hoover Dam fascinating. When you consider the time period it was built in, which if I recall right was the late-twenties, early-thirties, you wonder how the hell they were able do anything of that scale without the benefit of our modern technology. The mighty Egyptian pyramids come to mind. They had to split the course of a huge river into two spillways and build up a dam in the intervening space that could withstand more pressure than my little brain — even if you injected it with steroids and got all synapses firing at once —can ever possibly conceive. They had to fashion giant tools made especially for the project. An entire town was constructed to house the workers. And the project was completed ahead of schedule and under budget. I have to repeat that: ahead of schedule and under budget. Folks, I live in the Land of the Big Dig. Considered the most expensive single highway project in American history, the Central Artery/Tunnel Project was behind schedule and over budget before shovelful one was dug. What they did way back then was truly extraordinary.

When we left Hoover Dam for the airfield, we acquired two new passengers, a middle-aged couple from Texas. The husband sounded exactly like Huckleberry Hound — I’m not kidding, he really did. I kept wanting to tell him to cut it out and talk right. He and Larry got along famously. Huckleberry was a talker too, and he had a special knack for augmenting Larry’s running commentary with obvious observations and commonplace remarks spoken as if they were penetrating and insightful. Very entertaining it was. After arriving at the airfield, we boarded a Piper Cub that might have been assembled the day I was born. I sat up front and noticed how closely the dashboard of the small plane resembled that of an old car. It even smelled like an old car. And the pilot was just a kid, probably no more than 21 or 22. I don’t even think he needed to shave yet.

We rattled down the runway and became airborne with the all the power and majesty of a sparrow taking to the air. Where the airstrip was everything for miles around was flat, and this unrelieved flatness and sameness during the first 20 minutes or so gave me the impression the plane was moving very, very slowly, almost at a standstill, making no progress at all. It vibrated from propeller to tail. I could imagine that agonizing tight shot you see in the movies of the frayed fan belt about to break or the loose lug nut seconds from popping off. Steadily the little craft gained altitude and, eventually, the first cracks and seams of the Grand Canyon came into view.

Those first cracks and seams are about all I remember, because right about then a very alarming thing came to my notice: I was about to hurl. The sensation of nausea absolutely could not be ignored. The combination of the little plane being buffeted by the winds and the constantly moving imagery below acted on me with an irresistible force. My throat went dry, I broke into a light sweat, and I did the only thing that seemed to help: stare straight ahead and breathe through my mouth. Meanwhile, the pilot from time to time pointed out this or that, Huckleberry Hound found ways to twist all he said into a joke, my wife remarked, “Oh, really?” to everything, and our two girls dropped off to sleep and stayed that way for the whole trip (to this day, Daughters Number One and Two’s little visit to slumberland is known in family lore as The Hundred Dollar Nap).

That trip took over an hour and a half and all I wanted was for it to be over. Directly in my line of vision was an airsickness bag, and I knew that if I so much as reached out for it, the entire contents of my MGM Grand’s buffet breakfast would leave my stomach. To take the bag was an admission of the need for its use. Oh, the weary minutes! Time merely shambled along, unmindful of my misery. It took forever for the little plane to make a wide half circle around and start its slow progress back to where the firm, solid, lovely ground was. In my mind ran this continual mantra: Don’t throw up! Don’t throw up! I believe I literally kissed the ground when we finally disembarked.

One lasting image I’ll never forget from that first trip to Vegas was rising early in the morning, dressing and stretching, and leaving the hotel through the lobby for my run. The lobby gave onto the casino, and you could see, even at 6:30 in the morning, that the activity in there hadn’t abated one bit. All the machines were still going ding! ding! ding! and you could see people working them with drinks in one hand and smoldering cigarettes hanging from their lips. It was like watching a factory night shift still in full swing. Everyone seemed very businesslike; frowns of concentration marked every face. They were hard at it and nothing silly like a circadian rhythm was going to slow them down. You can’t fail to be impressed by that.


I’m still putting in the nutty hours, arriving at work well before dawn. Yesterday I introduced myself to the homeless guy who sleeps at our door: his name is Paul. He says he won’t sleep there much longer because it’s getting colder. Can’t say I blame him.

I hope to visit everyone’s blogs real soon. Y’all come back now, y’hear?


Blogger trinamick said...

I don't gamble either, but I'm fascinated by the number of people who can sit at a machine all day steadily losing their house. Then they win five quarters and act like they hit the Powerball.

I was a big fan of the buffets, but not of the price. I can't eat $25 worth of food in one sitting, at least not without being asked to leave.

8:09 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

I think the idea is to stretch out losing a certain amount of money over the longest possible time. If it took you 4 hours instead of 1 to lose three hundred dollars, then you're doing something right.

8:40 AM  
Blogger Chloe said...

You describe Vegas perfectly, Mr. Schprock, bravo! You've got me really looking forward to my next trip there in December. Mmmm...slots.

9:43 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

Good luck with that, Chloe. Give my best to Seigfried or Roy (whichever one got mauled).

10:24 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

I've never been there. Dammit man, but I haven't been to Vegas! Sure I've been to the pretenders like Tahoe, Reno and Atlantic City. I won a cool thousand one night while learning to play craps, and I've been addicted ever since--but only in my mind. I know better than to think my luck will continue. A friend of mine, who won big alongside me, used to go back with regularity. Me, I just reminisce and thumb my nose at casinos, because I've taken more than they've gotten from me.

I updated my latest blog entry if you want some background.

10:43 AM  
Blogger Kathleen said...

I'm not a gambler either, but I must confess that I put $2 (one wasn't mine) into the video poker machine at the bar and played slowly to get my free beer. And I ended up walking away with an additional $8. Like Scott, I walked away with more than I've ever gambled...just not on his grand scale.

And because I think it's a cool fact, my great uncle helped build the Hoover Dam - and to my father's anger gave all his money away to the "Indians" when he died.

7:11 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"I updated my latest blog entry if you want some background."

I know I'm a little late about it, but I'm headed your way right now, Scott.

"And because I think it's a cool fact, my great uncle helped build the Hoover Dam - and to my father's anger gave all his money away to the "Indians" when he died."

That is an extremely cool fact.

8:17 AM  
Blogger Spirit Of Owl said...

Mrs Owl has been to Vegas, and much more, and she took Owl D with her, though I hadn't met either of them at the time. Owl D was only about 18 months, and brave pre-Mrs Owl only a very delicate early 20s.

Together (and yes, alone) they saw a lot of the west coast stuff, and though Mrs Owl had no money to do Vegas really she says it is the most fantastic unbelievable thing you could come across in the middle of a desert.

Sadly, I only get Vegas by TV movies, but damn, it looks good to me. Like Babylon... LOL

6:48 PM  

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