Friday, April 27, 2012

Friends in Low (and High) Places

Recently I went to Las Vegas to see my two of my closest friends, Tracy and The Other Rick. He's really just Rick, but I call him The Other Rick just so I don’t get him confused with myself. I had a voucher on Southwest that was about to expire and all runways lead to Vegas when you have a voucher on Southwest that’s about to expire.

I’d never even been to a convention in Las Vegas before Tracy and The Other Rick moved there. Las Vegas, “Who needs it?” I thought.  But I went to visit them once, had a blast, and have been back several times since. I’m sure I’d have a super time visiting Tracy and The Other Rick if they lived in Duluth, Minnesota, but if I had my druthers I’d rather they live in Vegas than Duluth. No doubt Duluth has many wonderful sights and attractions (e.g. Lake Superior and Lutefisk World) but alas and alack, they’re on hold until I retire and start spending my time driving around the country in a motor home.

In my trips to Vegas since Tracy and The Other Rick moved there, I’ve done lots of the usual touristy things like Hoover Dam and the Liberace Museum. (It’s a crime that it’s closed.) But there are still plenty of things to see and do and there's oodles of local culture to absorb.

Unless I’m staying at The Other Rick and Tracy’s house in the suburbs, I stay at the Wynn. As my father used to say, you don’t go on vacation to save money.  The Other Rick is an executive there, and I believe in doing business with people who do business with you. I have a long way to go to pay them back for all the times I've tied on the feedbag at their house.

Lots of casinos seem to have a theme—The Paris, New York,New YorkCaesar’s Palace, etc. but the Wynn’s theme is well, it’s the Wynn.  And believe you me, that's all the theme it needs. Roger Thomas, Steve Wynn's interior designer (just profiled in The New Yorker) pulled out all the stops to create what feels like a 21st century cousin of West Virginia's legendary resort, The Greenbrier.

The spaces are grand, the décor is within a gnat’s eyelash of being completely over the top, and the place is maintained within an in inch of its life. There are plenty of Dorothy Draper elements--she designed The Greenbrier--such as dark walls quilted in diamond motifs and oversized white baroque plaster moldings.

Since the Wynn isn't low end, you don’t have the feeling most of the casino patrons have hawked their government cheese in order to feed a slot machine hoping for the big payoff which will allow them to move out of the trailer park, buy a big boat, and pay for a decent criminal defense lawyer for their good-for-nothing stepson, and ditch the old lady for a new, firmer, and with luck, augmented model. Vegas is way more fun for me when I can ignore all that real life stuff.

Saturday, The Other Rick arranged for Tracy and me to see Garth Brooks in concert at the Wynn.  I’d seen him in concert once before and was bowled over by what a great entertainer he was, so I was delighted to be going back. 

The crowd was well dressed, which in Vegas encompasses every fashion crime known to man and then some. More on that later. The men wore every sort of get up imaginable, from nice western wear—pressed jeans and western shirts—to shirt tails fashionably untucked, riffing on that great fashion icon, Ferdinand Marcos. Lots of women wore impossibly high shoes and dresses so short and so tight that they looked like Technicolor sausage casings.

The theater was intimate (esp. when you are in the front row) and it was plush in a way that reminded me of the theater at the Hearst Castle. The seats are the right size and you don't feel as if you's sitting on top of your neighbor. Everyone was SO excited to be there.

We had seats in the front row, right in the middle. (Thank you again, Rick!) When we sat down the seats around us were empty but that didn't last long. An older man doing one helluva impersonation of a drunken fraternity boy and his shovel-faced non-trophy but still not age appropriate date soon sat next to Tracy. Tracy remarked to me that he was going to turn out to be a jerk and she was right. He knew all the songs better than Garth and the usher had to come over and tell him to put a lid on it. Fortunately for us, he and his shovel-faced non-trophy but still not age appropriate date dashed out during the first standing ovation. They missed the encore but presumably beat the traffic on the way to the bar.  

A well-dressed, cute, young married couple sat next to me. She was a petite thing in a knee length flowing floral silk dress and expensive vintage dress cowboy boots. The Boy Next Door was thin and had a boyish face and a vaguely olive complexion. His short dark hair needed more (or better) product and he wore a suit, fashionably sans tie.  

Maybe the Boy Next Door just liked my hair or glasses or pink oxford, which may be the one clothing item no one ever wears in Vegas. All good possibilities. Or perhaps he wanted to know where I got my fetching brand spanking new green (yes, green) suede bucks. (Brooks Brothers). Then again, maybe he really liked the Toby Keith song, Who's Your Daddy? No matter what the reason, I had the distinct feeling that this marriage was not going to work out, if you know what I mean.

Mark my words, it won’t be long until he’s living in an expensive Design Within Reach-esque apartment in the gayborhood with his new partner Bruce, an underwear and men's accessories buyer at Neiman-Marcus. They’ll share their tasteful 3,000 square feet digs with their golden-doodles Dow (short for Dowager Empress Tz’u-Hsi) and Jones (as in Grace Jones). The B.N.D. will be the personification of his law firm’s commitment to diversity, and as a dedicated barefoot runner who takes off his shirt every time he has to run farther than the Xerox machine, he'll do great things for his law firm’s pulchritude quotient and scores in the bar association's citywide fitness challenge.

Back to the concert. It was great.  Actually, it was fantastic! Way, way, better than great! Garth obviously loves to perform. Everyone knows he’s one of the all-time great singer songwriters, but he’s also a great storyteller, with superb comic timing. He takes the audience through his life story, mostly in music, touching on George Jones and Merle Haggard, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, the Eagles, dive bars in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and his mother driving a P.O.S. Chevy Chevelle, going down Oklahoma highways like  a bat out of hell.

An added bonus was that his wife, Trisha Yearwood, unexpectedly came out on stage and sang a couple of numbers with him. They’re obviously quite in love, and she’s got a voice that just won’t quit.  I’ve always wanted to go to a concert where they announce that someone (say, Bette Midler) is in the audience and she comes up on stage with the scheduled performer and sings a couple of numbers. This was as close as I have gotten to that. It was great music and great theater.

At the end of the show, Garth left the stage and the crowd was on its feet in an instant. He came back and led the audience in Friends in Low Places which, of course, everyone knew by heart. It’s been sung at a billion fraternity parties, every bar at the Jersey shore, and plenty of wedding receptions where they'd run out of food but don't come close to running out of booze. 
We had scarcely finished singing when the house lights came up and The Other Rick appeared and led Tracy and me to a door at the side of the stage where he entrusted us to one of the house staff who was to take us backstage to meet Garth and Trisha. She asked Tracy and me how we liked the show as she led us down a long, antiseptically clean hallway deep into the bowels of the hotel. I wouldn't have been surprised had we passed a doorway marked “Undisclosed Location. Dick Cheney. Knock Before Entering.” 

We made a left turn and we found ourselves in an anonymous lounge sort of room. In a half a sec, someone said “they’re ready for you” and our guide took us across the hall, unlocking one of those weird push button combination door locks they have on data centers in hospitals. 

The door opened and there, in a room furnished with leather sofas and a big flat TV with the hockey game playing were Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood. We introduced ourselves (they already knew Tracy) and they invited us to sit down and chat. Garth asked me if I wanted a beer and I said sure, and the next thing I knew I was drinking an Amstel Light. We chatted about his playing the Grange Fair eons ago and I mentioned that my sister had seen him near Elk City, Oklahoma even before that.

Amazingly we didn’t talk about how Tracy and I met in the 7th grade math class and all the related topics that arise out of that. Garth and Trisha were warm and gracious and as nice as you could possibly imagine. After a while Garth mentioned that my phone must have a camera and I said I had an actual camera. One of his entourage members snapped some photos. Tracy said "Rick, you didn’t say what you always say, 'Say sex not everyone likes cheese!' and we had a couple of laughs about that.  Garth Brooks shook my hand and Trisha gave me a big hug. And that’s how Tracy and I came to have another story to share with our lunch table at our next high school reunion.

After we left, I looked at my watch. It was 10:10, way too late to call any of my friends back East. So for an evening at least, this was something that happened in Vegas that actually stayed there.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Muscletown USA

I went to York the other day for a meeting. I don't go there with any frequency. I mostly drive by on the Interstate en route to Baltimore. I say to myself, oh, there's the Harley-Davidson factory and then enjoy the sight of the rotating weightlifter sign at the York Barbell factory-slash-Weightlifting Hall of Fame. I always mean to stop at the Hall of Fame, but it's still on my to-do list.

My meeting was at the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Complex. The complex is made a former 1920s vintage movie palace and an adjoining smaller vintage theater that have been adapted into venues for live entertainment. It's quite grand--there's nothing quite like an old movie palace. It looks as if they bring in some great performers, too. This year they're having performers as varied as Bruce Hornsby and David Sedaris. And, of course, lots of folks I've never heard of.

This sign was near a food cart in York's central square. I never really thought of sausages and lemonade as being natural compliments to each other.

York has a nifty central market which, unfortunately, was closed the day I was there.

The parking garage across the street from the Strand-Capitol overlooked a mural that would be more at home in West Hollywood, California than in York, Pennsylvania. The large work of art, in sort of a post Paint-by-the-Numbers style, celebrates York's place as Muscletown USA. During my few trips to the York metro area, it's never looked like the Dutch Country version of Muscle Beach to me. But what do I know?

In case you are wondering, it's just 36 miles from Muscletown USA to Chocolatetown USA and then another 497 miles to Hitsville USA.  

The figures in the mural are Bob Hoffman, Tommy Kono, and John Grimek.  They are framed by the York YMCA (no Village People visible) on the left, and on the right, some guys lifting two other men sitting in what looks to be an MG TC parked in front of York Oil Burner, the home of Strength and Health Publications.

Actually, the car looks as if it's levitating, so perhaps it's a reference to the flubber powered Model T in the Fred McMurray movie The Absent-Minded Professor. I know I could bench press a helluva lot more than I can now if I had a little flubber at my disposal. But I digress...

Bob Hoffman was known the "Father of World Weightlifting". In importance this title outranks the "Father of American Weightlifting" yet is outranked by the "Father of Galactic Weightlifting". All kidding aside, he seems to have had quite an interesting life. You can read more about him in the book, Muscletown USA: Bob Hoffman and the Manly Culture of York Barbell. by John D. Fair. Whatever it costs, I think it's worth it just for the title.

Tommy Kono, America's greatest weightlifter was an asthmatic kid who spent part of his childhood in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. He won gold medals in two different Olympics and held lots of other weightlifting records.  Fyodor Bogdanovasky (you just knew he was going to come up sooner or later, didn't you?) of the Soviet Union once said of him, "When Kono looks at me from the wings, he works on me like a python on a rabbit." Fyodor had quite a way with the simile, didn't he?  Interestingly enough, this look (along with a different kind of python reference) was also employed when The Village People were hoping to enjoy the company of others at the YMCA.

John Grimek Mr. America 1940 and 1941, was called the "Monarch of Muscledom" and was the only undefeated bodybuilder ever. It would take an undefeated career to live up to the that title!

During my next trip to York I plan to drive around looking for a mural about 98-pound weaklings having sand kicked in their faces. I'm sure there's one someplace.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Charlottesville. Part Two

There were plenty of non-fiction authors at the Virginia Festival of the Book, though most of their presentations seemed to have happened before I got there. I did, however, have the good fortune of spending some time in the Charlottesville City Council chambers (easily Virginia's ugliest) attending a talk by Earl Swift, the author of The Big Roads, a history of the interstate highway system. I know what you're thinking, "I need to finish that utterly fascinating history of the Waring Blender before I start on something else..."

I haven't started The Big Roads yet, but I think it might surpass the history of the Waring Blender. Highway building attracted some fascinating characters--like the mover and shaker who required his wife to call him "Chief". Interstate highways have not only had an enormous influence on how we travel, but also on how we live and where we live. Interestingly enough, the Interstate Highway System was pretty much all a done deal when President Eisenhower came along. Calling it the Eisenhower Interstate System is a case of a politician getting credit for something he didn't do. Pretty shocking, eh?

Between sessions on murder and highways, I took time to provide economic stimulus to central Virginia by visiting a number of locally owned shoppes. How could I not stop in a store with large and colorful peters in the window?  The store was called Artifacts and it was the Charlottesville version of Aero Studios in New York City. They had lots of cool stuff and I bought some great cocktail glasses. Actually, by my way of thinking, any glass is a cocktail glass.

C-ville is definitely the place to go if you want to buy some pink skinny jeans. For men. Jack Wills University Outfitters can get you all decked out. The pink jeans are a nice change from the standard PSU raiment of a hoodie and sweatpants.

There was plenty real live music to shop by on Charlottesville's downtown mall. It's hard not to like a trio of band geeks having a good time on string bass, guitar and accordion.

There was also a kid in bright blue sneakers and coordinating blue and green striped t-shirt playing Mendelssohn on the solo violin.

There was vocal music, too. This man was exercising his first amendment rights by carrying his picket sign and signing This Land Is Your Land at the top of his lungs. I don't know when I saw an old-fashioned picket sign on a stick last.

Some guy finally listened to his wife (or husband) and took his mounted gazelle to The Consignment House. Presumably he needs to make room for a coffee table made out of a wagon wheel or an étagère filled with Precious Moments figurines. If it the gazelle had a cigarette hanging out of its mouth I might have bought it.

There was an antique show in the arena that's just across Charlottesville's downtown mall from Omni Hotel, the home to most of the book festival. The show was a benefit for Preservation Virginia, formerly known as the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. Founded in 1889, Preservation Virginia was the first statewide historic preservation organization in U.S. It is responsible for the preservation of lots of cool stuff, including Jamestown, the site of the first permanent English-speaking settlement in the New World. So I looked upon it as my civic duty to go.

The show featured about fifty dealers and they were selling all the furniture and accoutrements that you would need to furnish an English country house. Antique oriental rugs that won't show the occasional episode of dog effluvia? Check. A lovely Chinese export porcelain tater tot dish? Check. Ancestral portraits? Check. Regency dining tables that seat more people than I have readers? Check. Just add a carload of chinless, freeloading relatives with bad teeth and a taste for Benny Hill to all this instant heritage and you'll have an authentic English country house experience.

There weren't that many customers about in the mid afternoon, so the gaggle of fleshy antique dealers channeling their inner Harry Potter really stood out. They all dress pretty much the same--blue blazers, nice trousers (with cuffs), Joseph P. Kennedy's gay cousin's glasses,  and expensive shoes, suede preferred. They all seem to posses x-ray vision that can zero in on your wallet as you walk by. (A good reason to wear clean underwear to an antique show!) If they think you're up to the rigors of an important Baltimore bow front chest, they are all over you. And if they think that you're cute AND up to the rigors of  an important Baltimore bow front chest, they cling to you like a burdock to your dog's fur. Antique shopping is not for the faint of heart.

There was some nice stuff, but most all of the stuff was out of my league, price wise. What's an extra two zeros among friends?  I saw a great duck hunting painting but it wasn't $26,000 worth of great.

Sunday morning, after we were done being Festive,  my friends and I were looked for a special breakfast spot since it was Karen's birthday. My go-to breakfast spot, The Tavern, formerly known as Sarge's--Where Students Tourists and Townspeople Meet (or so it said in a sign painted on the roof), recently closed after a zillion years of serving hotcakes.  So it was time for someplace new. Hence The Pigeon Hole on Elliewood Avenue.

The Pigeon Hole is in a tiny royal blue stucco building that for years was the home of Martha's Cafe. I think I ate enough asparagus quiche in that place to float a battleship. I know, I know, strictly speaking battleships do not float on asparagus quiche. But if they did.... Our waiter was a tall Ryan Gosling doppelganger, with a hipster haircut. He was wearing blue shorts and a plain formerly white v-necked tee shirt--next to the turtlenecked dickey, one of my least favorite clothing items of all time. He was so mussed and casually dressed that I thought,  Holy crap, we just got this guy out of bed!

Whatever our waiter was lacking in sartorial splendor he made up for in the personality department. After several trips to the table, I commented that he'd never told us his name. He replied that it was Andrew. I told him that I heard it as Amber and he chuckled and said, "Well, actually my name is Holly." Chuckles ensued. There were perhaps five people working there, and he was the only one who did not have a prodigious number of quirky tattoos on display.

The front dining room was so small that when the too-tanned parents and their laxer son came in and sat town, they were practically at our table. They wanted the Eggs Benedict but with the hollandaise on the side.
Everything in the place is deliberately mismatched. That might not have worked had the food not been delicious and the service epic. Epic is not a word I throw out casually. A card on the table recommended a 20% tip if the service were "epic". It's not every day that delicious food is served by a Ryan Gosling doppelganger, so I went with the "epic" tip. I highly recommend the huevos rancheros with grits.

The birthday girl's French toast didn't look bad either.

Soon enough we had eaten our fill and were ready to point the rental car back towards the Mason-Dixon Line. I won't be back in Charlottesville for a while, but I'm hoping that when I do that gazelle is still there. If it's taken up smoking--it's not hazardous to the health of a stuffed gazelle--he might just be coming home with me.