Friday, September 20, 2013

City of Big Shoulders, I Mean Big Breasts

Yes, I like Las Vegas.

While I mostly like Las Vegas because my friends Tracy and Rick live there, the city wouldn’t be without its charms even if they lived in Waukegan, Illinois. Yes, it’s an environmentally unsustainable automobile-centric big city in a hot desert, and it’s out and proud about money, and sex, and the just-out-of-reach Big Score. But it’s the largest city founded in the twentieth century, offers fantastic food and entertainment, sometimes at bargain prices, has plenty of whacked out places to see, and was beloved by single-moniker style icons Elvis and Liberace. A quart low on irony, it’s Disneyland for adults. And if you’re lucky, while you're there, instead of having It’s a Small World After All going through your head again and again you’ll have a tune by Frank, or Beyonce, or Garth. Or even an Asian pop star I’ve never heard of. Whatever makes you happy! That’s the Vegas way.

Sometimes I stay with Rick and Tracy, but mostly I stay at The Wynn, or its companion property, Encore. It’s just easier on all of us. Everyone knows that fish and guests get old after a few days, so staying in a hotel extends my shelf life a bit. At least I hope it does.

As I’ve noted before, both The Wynn and Encore are done in a style that’s a 21st century riff on Dorothy Draper. It’s kind of a wacky idea, but it really works. It's be hard to imagine another elegant scheme for the mega-scale that prevails on the Last Vegas strip.

My room was on the 60th floor so I enjoyed quite a view of of the abandoned construction sites between the hotel and downtown Las Vegas.

I got the boots-on-the-ground view when I got up early each morning and took a brisk walk along Las Vegas Boulevard to check out the sights. There’s not much happening on Las Vegas Boulevard at 7:30 am, so I had to walk a whole two blocks before I saw someone drinking a Bud Lite pounder.

Enjoying my Monday morning jet lag, I walked as far as the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign, somewhat over three miles. When I was going by the Little Church of the West Wedding Chapel a Jeep SUV with California plates screeched to a stop in its lot and a cute 30-something guy in Wayfarers, a madras shirt, khaki shorts, and the kind of Chucks that have no laces jumped out and raced to the font of the building and snapped a few photos while his friend the driver patiently waited in the car. I smiled. A fellow traveler. I wondered if, back in the day, he’d been to the Liberace Museum.

The next day I walked the other direction, towards downtown Las Vegas. It’s gets a bit gritty, as you pass low-end businesses and construction projects that have stopped well before completion. If Detroit is the capital of ruins photo porn—think Gloria Swanson in the Roxy Theatre only photoshopped—then Las Vegas is the place to shoot abandoned construction projects.

Las Vegas perennially hosts the World Cup of the “European or Gay?” completion, so you never really know the story on those guys you stumble into in the elevator, by the bar, or out shopping for a new pair of martini trousers. It’s one of the few places where the answer could not only be European or Gay, but also Both, or even Neither. Sometimes guys just dress and act they way they do since they have bad taste and are in Vegas.  

I shared an elevator ride (going down) with a 50-something husband and wife and a man in his country club’s golf shirt and pink shorts. The married couple sounded as if they were from New York and appeared to be in Vegas on business—they had plastic name badges on lanyards around their necks. They were probably in town for a meeting of the Industrial Caster Alliance or the Association of Civil War Battlefield Segway Tour Operators.
The man in the pink shorts noticed that the elevator floor was sticky. Actually, we’d all noticed it, but he was the only to violate the code of not speaking to strangers in elevators. But the floor was really sticky. Really very sticky. I laughed at the incongruity since the hotel sparkles. It’s maintained by a small army of extremely polite men and women scrubbing and polishing 24/7.

To no one in particular Mr. Golf Shirt said, “Wow’s that’s sticky. That’s beer or something

I replied “I’m thinking it’s something.

With a broad smile and a twinkle in her eye, the woman from New York said “Mind out of the gutter now!

Somewhat clueless, the man in the pink shorts said, “Oh I was thinking a mixed drink.

I replied “If my mind weren’t in the gutter I wouldn’t know where to put it!

As the New Yorkers and I laughed, Mr. Golf Shirt realized he was in over his head. His look said that he couldn’t get out of there fast enough. As soon as the doors opened he hurried out. Unlike Lot’s wife, he didn’t look back, no doubt fearful that he’d turn into a pillar of something.

One of the things I like best about staying at the Encore is going to its spa. The décor is Baths of Diocletian crossed with The Viceroy’s House in New Dehli. In other words, more is more, and a lot more is even better. You can exercise, get a spa treatment (the kind of massage that doesn’t come with a happy ending), or sweat to your heart’s content in the steam room, sauna, or Jacuzzi while you imagine that you’re more physically fit than you actually are.
This year my masseur or therapist or whatever he’s called was an older guy (my age or younger), with a body like Jack LaLane, though with the good sense to skip the jumpsuit and ballet shoes. He was from one of those countries in Eastern Europe that has a shortage of vowels. I had no idea what his name was, but it looked and sounded like Joe Btfsplk, the character in Lil’ Abner.

My guess was the masseur learned his craft at the Slobodan Milošević School of Physical Culture and Bovine Chiropractic. “Is too much pressure?” he asked, as he flattened my back against the massage table with what I swear was a large wooden rolling pin, treating me like a too cold piece of pastry dough being rolled out for a pie. “No, I gasped. It’s just fine,” as my eyeballs popped out of their sockets like a cartoon character who’d been hit in the head with a frying pan.

He didn’t say much but I still noticed the thick mittel-European accent. The fact that every last molecule of air was pushed out of my lungs discouraged conversation about the many mittel-European topics I am somewhat conversant in: Brno chairs, the Gabors, the classical music scene in Bratislava, and Hungarian midget porn.

When I had been rolled out and twisted and contorted and put back together in a shape resembling my old self, it was time for me to spend some time in wet part of the spa: the steam bath, hot tub, waterfall shower, and log flume. OK, there wasn’t a log flume, but I’m sure that’s on the drawing board. Since eyeglasses aren’t much good in a steam bath I could only make out the vague outlines of the other customers. Everyone had the same basic shape as people do on the beaches of New Jersey but there was no yelling into cell phones about stopping at Wawa to get some wooter.

Post-spa, I took time from my Vegas-appropriate magic act of taking $50 to the casino and turning it into $30 to go to the Erotic Heritage Museum. It was near the hotel, on a secondary street called Industrial Road.

The chirpy ticket seller recited the price list for me.

Admission is $15. Unless you're active duty military. Or a Nevada resident. Or a first responder. Or have appeared in a porn movie (VHS era). Or over 55 and…" 

Before she could add ‘and have a Viagra prescription" I said “Oh Oh! Oh! I’m over 55!  I practically waved my arm and made a scene the way I used to do the rare times when I knew the answer in 7th grade math class. “Do you want to see my ID?” I asked, as if she’d think some geek trying to get into a cheesy museum on a hot summer afternoon in Las Vegas would lie about his age in order to save a few bucks.  She believed me without documentation, and soon I was making my way through the door into the darkened galleries.

Frankly, I thought the museum was going to be worse than it was. Not that it was fantastic, or even good, but it was at least trying to be a museum. I thought it might be the typical “Doll Museum” in an old house that turns out to be a bad antique store filled with crap you’d never buy in a million years. This place was a museum in the sense that it had works displayed on the walls and in cases, right next to text panels identifying the stuff, just like a real museum. However, there wasn’t much heritage. So, if you want to see Martha Washington’s push-up bra, or an inflatable doll invented by Alexander Graham Bell, this is not the place to go.

While it’s a far cry from the National Gallery or even the Packard Automobile Museum (both Dayton and Warren, Ohio versions) but it’s also not the late, lamented New Bryant Sextacular Theatre in Times Square where I paid $4.99 to see a live sex show in 1985.  That was real sex. Yup, the real deal. And no, I didn’t get my penny in change from my five. The stuff (I think calling it a collection might be a bit much) at EHM is as if some guy saved a whole bunch of porn industry ephemera and hid it under his bed for forty years. Now that he has more than will fit under the bed he has to figure out what to do with it. 

There were some actual works of art, like porn-y Rowlandson prints, and Pre-Columbian fertility totems. There were posters for famous porno movies of the 1970s and a porn star Wall of Fame—in alpha order, no less. The props from Star Wars XXX (I, too, missed it when it was at the theater) were set up for a photo op. I don’t know about you, but had I not visited the museum, I wouldn’t have known that the personal vibrator (as in for those hard to reach places like the bridge of your nose) was invented well before the electric vacuum cleaner.

My favorite exhibit was the one on the history of the peep show, complete with different kinds of peep show booths. (Who knew?) There were also lots of text panels on the history of obscenity laws but the timelines on the panels ended in the 1970s, so who knows where the panels came from; perhaps some other, now closed museum.

There is going to be an exhibit called Sex Behind the Iron Curtain. I’m sure it features Rosa Klebb. I can’t wait to see to see that.

There were only two other patrons around and about and they didn’t look as if they went to many museums but then again, perhaps they thought the same of me. The place even has a museum store, but there wasn’t anything I needed among the books about erotica, posters, and refrigerator magnets. The museum is definitely a work in progress so I’m hopeful that they’ll find Martha Washington’s push up bra by the time you go. Oh, and don't go there on a first date. Unless he (or she) has a great sense of humor or is a professional sex worker.  Preferably both.

Since I’m always in a museum kind of mood, I was quite excited to visit The Neon Museum. A new-ish addition to a city known worldwide for its marquees and bright lights, The Neon Museum has more intellectual bona fides than the Erotic Heritage Museum but lays on the ironic hipster vibe just a little too much.

The museum’s ticket center/gift shoppe is in a restored Paul Williams mid-century modern motel office. I made reservations in advance for the 7:30 tour, so Tracy and I could be there after dark when some of the collection would be lit up. There were two prices, plain ordinary tourist and Nevada resident. Interestingly enough, there was no discount if you could document that you’d arranged the letters on your local drive-in theater marquee so they’d say Starshit Poopers instead of Starship Troopers.

After we got our tickets the clerk pointed us to their somewhat lame selection of merch while we waited for the tour to start. At the appointed time, a hipster with his arm in a sling took our tickets and then passed us off to a docent with a bad personality and elocution issues. The docent was very knowledgeable, but his personality was made for bad community theater.  It didn’t take me long to decide that the guy with the laid up wing should have given us a tour while Mr. Personality was in the back room counting our ticket stubs as he waited for someone from the Clark County Community Theater to put him into a production of Once Upon A Mattress as the Yodeling Sealy Posturpedic Salesman. He was the worst docent I’d run into since the guy who did the Las Vegas Mob Tour a few years ago. THAT was the single worst tourist experience of my life.

The tour was fun-ish and educational, if SLOW.  Interestingly enough, Las Vegas businesses didn't own their electric signs--they were typically leased from the sign company. So, when signs wore out, they came back to the sign vendors and ended up in big piles. In other words, as one of my architectural history professors would say when he pointed to a whale oil lamp, "Hence Moby Dick!"

To his credit the guide did talk about the fantastic public art program where they put up restored signs in various parts of old Vegas and on Las Vegas Boulevard. So...go to The Neon Museum, but ask the guy in the sling to give you the tour. And if you go on the evening tour, take a better camera than the one in your phone.

After the tour, there was only time for a quick bite to eat at a great place in a downmarket strip mall, before Tracy headed for the suburbs, since it was a school night for her. I spent some time trying to cram my clothes into my roller bag and wondered why I thought bringing four pairs of shoes was a good idea. Oh wait, I was in Fabulous Las Vegas for the European or Gay World Cup. Four pairs was the bare minimum.