Saturday, September 16, 2017

Touring Vegas Hot Spots

I went to Las Vegas last week for my friend Tracy’s birthday party. Yes, I was just there in August. However, this birthday party celebrated one of those milestone years, and you don’t miss those events if you can help it. My friends Bruce, Martha, and Rebecca have all known the birthday girl forever and signed on to go as well. R hadn’t been to Las Vegas in almost 30 years and M & B hadn’t been in a decade. Since I was the old Vegas hand, with an annual trip to Sin City under my belt, I was the unofficial tour guide.

We all met at the Philadelphia airport. Thanks to TSA Precheck we were through security faster than you can say “You have been randomly selected for a body cavity search”. That gave us time to enjoy a bite to eat before our flight and avoid the 3-day old Soylent Green that passes for airline food these days.

R said “What about this place?” as we came upon a food joint near our gate. It was called Local Tavern.  

According to its website,

A warm toned and natural design with plenty of wooden elements gives Local Tavern its distinguished look. Each cushioned stool is equipped with its own iPad where customers can charge up at any of the numerous outlets or USB interfaces.

I didn’t particularly notice the distinguished look, but it was hard to miss the iPad on a stick waiting to be interfaced with at each place at the counter. And just to get technical about it, it the counter was equipped with iPads, the stools were not. They were, however, equipped with bolts that attached them to the floor as in at pre-digital lunch counter.

Neither R nor I could figure out how to order breakfast on the iPad, so a waitress had to help us. This, as far as we were concerned, defeated the notion of ordering via an iPad. We had to take special care to sign out after we paid via iPad so that the next person who sat in on the bolted-to-the-floor stool wouldn’t charge their order to our credit cards.

A few taps and swipes later, I was the proud owner of a not particularly tasty breakfast sandwich and an equally dismal cup of coffee, all for the price of $17 and change.

As my father used to say, you don’t go on vacation to save money.

The flight from Philadelphia to Las Vegas was uneventful.  I remembered to wear my Old GeezerTM brand compression socks. I used to be concerned about picking up a social disease while on vacation. Now I’m concerned about deep vein thrombosis. Getting old is so much fun.

The first stop in Las Vegas was the living hell known as the Rental Car Center. Even though I had a reservation, I waited in line for thirty minutes to see an agent at Budget Rent-A-Car. I’m not good at waiting in line. Actually I’m really not good at waiting in line.

When we finally got to the counter, I learned that our rental agent had received her customer service training in the former Soviet Union. However, she dressed as a capitalist and had long sparkly fingernails and fall plopped on the back of her head. When is the last time you saw a Soviet functionary in long sparkly fingernails and a fall? When is the last time you saw anyone wearing a fall? Even people who are losing their hair due to chemotherapy skip wearing falls.

I’m sure Ms. Fall’s previous job was in Moscow selling Kirby Vacuum cleaners or quite possibly stabbing people with the Rosa Klebb Autograph Model Knife from Cutco Knives. Ms. Fall was not going to fork over the keys to my car until I bought some insurance coverage from her.

As someone who was an insurance agent AND who once wrecked a rental car, I would much rather spend $50 for the chance to say to the rental agency “Hey, it’s your problem” than spend the rest of my deep vein thrombosis free vacation talking to angry rental agency about the coverage that came with my First National Bank of East Jesus Master Card. I bought the insurance when I reserved the car. Therefore, I didn’t need to buy it again.

I explained that I’d chosen the collision damage waiver on Budget website and had paid for it there. She acted as if I’d said I learned to drive on Mars. Ms. Fall was not having any of that.

She wanted me to pull up the email on my phone to prove I’d purchased the Loss Damage Waiver and wanted a copy of my insurance card and this and that and the other thing. I wouldn’t have been shocked had she said that I had to undergo the required body cavity search. I dropped an F bomb at the counter. No, it didn’t make me feel better.

She finally produced more documents than appear at the average house closing and turned over the keys to a KIA Optima POS. I was as hot under the collar a Vegas sidewalk in August. You can mark my words, I’m never renting from Budget again.

It was too early in the day to check into our hotel, so we loaded up the car and headed to everyone’s first stop on a trip to Las Vegas: Hoover Dam.

After a tasty lunch in Boulder City, we continued on to the dam and bought tickets for the $30 version of the 3:30 pm tour. This gave us time to watch the orientation movie, which was very reminiscent of Industry on Parade, the short documentaries on manufacturing that I remember from my childhood. Fiscally prudent taxpayers will be glad to know that the nice folks at the Bureau of Land Management did not waste money on fancy gizmos like a projector that focused.

After the movie, we still had time to kill before our tour, so we moseyed through the exhibit hall.

The exhibits and text panels, which are getting on in years, cover the history and building of the dam, and some basics of electricity.

Given the Tom of Finland imagery in some of the exhibits, I got the impression that the exhibit designer was Friend of Dorothy.

Why have a hunky construction worker hide his light under a bushel basket, or his heaving pecs under a shirt?

We tried to take a selfie as we waited but we only managed to prove that we weren't millennials by taking a bad photo. 

Right on time we met our guides John and Eric. John was a large-ish guy with a booming voice and overly waxed eyebrows. Eric was slight of stature, seemed a little Asperger-y, and had a voice that was someplace between problematic diction and a speech impediment.

We took an elevator from the top of the dam down to the room that holds the generating turbines. John explained how they worked and also pointed out the artistic touches, such as the inlaid terrazzo floors. There are more decorative touches than you might imagine. Interestingly enough, the dam was built well before the era when the Feds were required to incorporate art into public buildings.

After John was finished in the turbine room, our groups split up and we $30 folks went down a hallway into the bowels of the dam. The hoi polloi on the lower priced tour went to the gift shop, I think.

Both John and Eric threw out lots of incomprehensible statistics such as “The dam contains enough concrete to construct three Guggenheim Museums in each of the states whose names end in a vowel.” Or, “The dam generates enough electricity to take care of the needs of the Amish community forever. And that’s a long time.” The wacky statistic-oids flowed out of them like Niagara. All the water in Lake Mead would cover the entire state of Pennsylvania to the depth of one foot. Or was it l the concrete in the dam would cover Connecticut to the depth of one foot? In either event it’s lots of water and lots of concrete and both Pennsylvania and Connecticut will be in a world of hurts.

Eric did point out that no one is entombed in the concrete of the dam as the result of a industrial accident. Plenty of people died helping to build the dam, but none of them were covered up by concrete. I’d heard that before, but it seemed to bear repeating.

Eric told lots of dam jokes too. As in, are there any more dam questions? You only had to hear that one to want to put a gun to your head.

While there wasn’t a dress code on the tour, I couldn’t help but notice the woman with the sparkly phone case, sparkly handled selfie stick, sparkly sandals, and giant sparkly wrist watch. My guess is that she drinks only sparkling water. She might have been vajazzled too. I wasn’t going to ask.

About 15 minutes after I started to get claustrophobic in the depths of the dam—too many dam people asked too many dam questions--the tour ended. We took the elevator up to the top of the dam where we could bask once more in the bright sunshine and 1000 degree heat.

The tour is cool and I highly recommend it even if you can’t visualize using all that concrete to cover the state of Connecticut.

When the tour was over, we drove back to Las Vegas and checked into the quite nice if not super fabulous Westin Hotel. It’s near The Strip but not on The Strip. In other words, it’s close enough that we always had a view of the inappropriately dressed folks who make Las Vegas such a fun place to visit.

Friday’s dinner was at Lindo Michoacan, LV’s best Mexican restaurant. Our Uber driver was kind of terrible. Actually, kind of a lot terrible. However, a ride with him beat driving the rental car after having a couple of beers with dinner, having an accident, and dealing with Budget Rent-A-Car again.

The next day we were up bright and early for breakfast in a hipster joint in downtown Vegas, MTO Cafe. I don’t know if the restaurant was inspired by Sheetzes (home of the MTO) or the owners just thought it was a clever name. The place was stylish—the rest rooms were labeled Eggs and Sausages and the food was great. Our waitress, Rachel, made us feel right at home. Her recommendation of the hot Granny Smith donuts was right on the money.

We lingered over breakfast and so were just a wee bit late for our first stop of the day, the 9:20 am tour of the Boneyard at The Neon Museum.

As The Neon Museum’s website explains,

Founded in 1996, The Neon Museum is a non-profit 501 (c) 3 organization dedicated to collecting, preserving, studying and exhibiting iconic Las Vegas signs for educational, historic, arts and cultural enrichment. 

The Neon Museum preserved the lobby of the now demolished La Concha Motel (designed by Paul Williams) as its lobby, gift shop, and indoor exhibition space.

The lobby looks like a giant clamshell (concha is Spanish for “shell”) and is quite the bit of Googie architecture.

Most of the museum’s collection is displayed in the “Neon Boneyard”, an outdoor area behind the lobby. Lots and lots of old signs in various states of disrepair are arranged so that they create a path through the Boneyard. Some of the signs are for casinos, and hotels, but others are for stores and even a dry cleaner.

Our guide, Wyatt--five Yelp stars for knowledge, enthusiasm, elocution, and charm--did a bang-up job of telling the story of the signs and of Vegas itself.

There were some folks on our tour who did not listen to the Museum’s recommendation to wear closed toe shoes and museum appropriate attire. While we were not treated to an industrial accident, one young woman in sandals and a off white, semi-diaphanous romper seemed to be more interested in taking selfies with the collection than listening to anything Wyatt had to say. Where do you even buy a off white semi-diaphanous romper anyway?

The Neon Museum does have an additional space that’s available for weddings, special events, photo shoots and whatnot. So, if you want to have a bris in Las Vegas, call the museum and make a reservation today.

Like the Hoover Dam, the Neon Museum is rates a Run Don’t Walk To This Attraction when you are in Las Vegas.

After the Neon Museum, it was time to head to another Vegas Landmark, the National Atomic Testing Museum.

The National Atomic Testing Museum—which is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution—tells the story of America’s nuclear weapons testing program at the Nevada Test Site.

The Nevada Test Site is about 65 miles from Las Vegas. It’s where the United States tested our nuclear weapons from the early 1950s through 2012. Though most tests were conducted underground, some were above ground. The mushroom clouds from those explosions were visible for miles around. These were treated as tourist attractions and Las Vegas hotels set up bleachers to that their guests could get a good look at the results of the weapons tests intended to keep the godless hordes from Mother Russia away from the craps tables and Vegas showgirls.

The museum has lots of interesting artifacts from models of bombs to the sheet music to the classic Tom Lehrer tune, The Wild West Is Where I Want To Be.

Mid the sagebrush and the cactus
I'll watch the fellows practice
Droppin' bombs through the clean desert breeze
I'll have on my sombrero
And of course I'll wear a pair o'
Levis over my lead B.V.D.'s

The Nevada Test Site was so important  to our Cold War defenses that it rated a visit from President Kennedy, presumably on his way to or from hanging out with his Rat Pack buddies (and Marilyn Monroe) in Vegas. 

Interestingly enough, while there was a docent, he did not tell us that if we’d dropped a 3-kiloton bomb on the Chips Ahoy factory that it would cover the entire state of Connecticut to the depth of one foot in radioactive crumbs as the Eric and Joe at Hoover Dam would have done. Instead, in the manner of Sargent Joe Friday, he just stuck to the facts. There were no selfie-taking visitors in a semi diaphanous rompers or Tom of Finland worthy mannequins toting big sacks of uranium. So, if those are what it takes to make your own personal Geiger Counter register on Fun, you should go elsewhere. 

If you are interested in visiting the actual Nevada test site, you’d better sign up now. Tours are already booked through July 2018. No sandals, shorts, cell phones, or semi-diaphanous rompers are permitted.

And how could we top a visit to the Atomic Testing Museum you might ask?  How else but with a trip to the Reef Dispensary!

Nevada legalized the recreational use of marijuana a short while ago. Just as the big billboards for Medical Marijuana (“Get Legal. Call 555-1212 Now” with a marijuana leaf standing in for the “O” in Now) are coming down, billboards for recreational pot “dispensaries” are popping up.

I wish that I could say that going to the Reef Dispensary were entirely my idea. But it wasn’t really. I was inspired by my hero, the sportswriter for The Wall Street Journal, Jason Gay. He wrote in the Journal about stopping by some “product” before going to the Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Conor McGregor fight in August. Thank you for the great idea, Jason!

We visited the Reef location on Western Avenue, practically in the shadow of the not-quite-on-the-strip Trump Hotel. Reef is in a large metal warehouse which just might be where they store the contents of the now defunct Liberace Museum. There’s a food truck parked near the door of the dispensary, in case shoppers get the munchies. I don’t think it’s Liberace’s food truck: it’s not covered in rhinestones.

According to its website, Reef makes it easier than ever to ‘enhance your Vegas experience” and notes that delivery is coming soon.

I’m of the age that thinks that legal-ish pot is crazy enough, but home delivery of legal-ish pot?  That’s really, really crazy.

We were met at the door by a guard who looked as if his diet contained nothing but lifting, tanning, and steroids. He had a white ‘stache and goatee that recalled the what-is-he thinking style of Hulk Hogan. He checked our IDs and let us into the lobby

The lobby was a small room, about 20 feet by 20 feet and filled with stanchions that guided the line as if we were at the post office or the bank. Directly ahead of us were two ticket windows where people bought medical marijuana. The folks ahead of us in line were unremarkable except for the crazy patron who was singing to no one in particular as if he were on something or being visited by the Holy Spirit. We waited in line briefly before showing our IDs again and being guided through a different door to the recreational department.

This room was also quite small. Perhaps the rest of building really is filled with Liberace’s costumes?!

We waited in a line of perhaps 10 people: with the exception of one guy, we were the oldest people there. An L-shaped counter ran along two sides of the room and a price list hung on the wall behind it. Seven clerks were behind the counter, stationed at iPads on a stick, the modern version of the cash register. Everyone was busy. Someone thought airbrushed paintings of busty comic book ish women smoking bongs counted as art. They would have been just the thing for the exterior of a van tricked out with a great stereo, shag carpeting, and beanbag chairs.

We weren’t in line long before it was our turn to talk to Briana, our personal Reef sales associate. She was an attractive 20-something African-American woman with a smile as big as the Stardust casino sign at the Neon Museum. She wore gold earrings that were larger than coasters. You could not miss those things! They were in a modified Greek key design; my guess is that a pot smoking architectural historian had given them to her.

Briana was a great ambassador for Reef, which grows and processes pot and also buys it from third parties. Briana told us that there were three basic types of pot available: flower, concentrates, and edibles; and lots of varieties of each type. She said she’d tried them all. On the counter in front her iPad there was a large array of clear jars with perforated lids so that we could sample the bouquet of any variety before buying it. The only variety name I remember was Elmer’s Glue. I didn’t think it smelled at all like Elmer’s Glue.

We asked a bunch of questions—M. is especially good at that, and Briana answered them all cheerfully. We were pleased to hear that she has lots of customers who are our age. I decided on some sour apple flavored gummy chewy things. I thought about a chocolate bar, but could see it melting all over our KIA Optima POS rental car. At no point did Briana describe any of the product as “really good shit”. Clearly Cheech and Chong do not do train the sales staff at Reef Dispensary.

I forked over the cash and Briana put my purchase in a heavy white plastic zippered envelope. She explained that Nevada law requires purchases to leave the store in opaque, smell proof bags.

This would make an excellent clutch, I said.

Briana chuckled.

As we left Reef dispensary I remarked on how pleasant the experience was there compared to Budget Rent-A-Car which is being operated by a partnership of The Spawn of Satan and Jared Kushner.

After a quick lunch at Sonic, we headed out to Red Rock Canyon, to enjoy some of the majesty of Mother Nature.

At Red Rock Canyon, which is perhaps 25 miles from Las Vegas, you can enjoy the scenic beauty from the car as you drive through the park. This is just the kind of scenic beauty I like during the time of day when a nap seems like a good idea. Red Rock Canyon would be a good place for a hike too, if the weather were OK, I’d brought the right shoes, and I actually liked hiking. It really is worth a visit. Just go to the Neon Museum first, OK?

After Red Rock Canyon we had time to freshen up before Uber-ing it over to Wynn Las Vegas for my friend Tracy’s birthday party, the reason that brought all of us to Vegas in the first place. It was a fab time. There were old friends to see and new ones to be made, a groaning board of tasty Italian food, and freely flowing red wine.
By the time the dessert tray came around I couldn’t have eaten one more bite had my life depended on it.

I took a break from the party to play a little video poker I managed to turn my $20 stake into $21 before hearing my father say, “Who do you think builds those casinos? Not the winners!” and then promptly cashing out.

There was plenty of time to enjoy—if that’s the right word—the fashion show that’s the Wynn’s casino. As there always are, there were lots of women who apparently don’t own mirrors. Too short, too tight, too breasty was the order of the evening. Some of those dresses weren’t fashion, they were feats of engineering worthy of Santiago Calatrava.

In the men’s department, it was the World Series of the that old game, “European or Gay?” I think European was ahead by a large margin, but you didn’t need to open Grindr on your phone to discern that some of the guys were gay. And of course, there’s the occasional two-fer, European AND gay as well. The place wasn’t exactly a hotbed of Brooks Brothers shoppers.

Our final day meant a visit to the iconic Las Vegas sign where we one again failed at the whole selfie business.

Afterward, we chowed down at a hipster breakfast joint followed by a walk through old Las Vegas and the Fremont Street Experience, the home of really bad street performers. If you are going to send your eight-year old kid out dressed up like Michael Jackson to work as a busker, you should at least make sure he can dance, right? I laughed at the panhandler whose cardboard sign said that he needed money for a penis enlargement operation. But no, I didn’t give him money.

We made a quick stop at the Carroll Shelby Museum to check out the cars before heading to Rick and Tracy’s for a pool party, and then back to the Wynn to see Le Reve, the big show there.

Le Reve (apparently French for The Dream) is about an attractive woman who has a conflict in her dream between love, played by a hot guy in a puffy shirt and black trousers, and a bad guy, played by a hot guy in red and black. It’s theatre in the round, and the stage is a pool, except one with platforms that come out of the water and then submerge, which is especially helpful when the divers take an 83’ plunge from the top of the rigging into the pool. It’s not just platforms that emerge and disappear, fountains and lights do so as well. There are 90 minutes of synchronized swimmers, divers, dancers, magicians, and aerialists, and perhaps most importantly, bulging muscles in wet spandex. There are giant fabric flowers, fog and rain, and, for good measure, the surface of the water catches fire.

Some of the male performers make underwear models look like the last person picked in gym class and the women are equally wow. The word breathtaking doesn’t begin to do it justice.  Even if I’d eaten all of the gummies at Briana’s work station and nibbled on pot-laced chocolate bar or two, my dreams would not have been this exciting.

But hey, that’s Vegas for you!