Sunday, August 26, 2018

One Hundred Degrees of Dry Heat

Ugh, not another trip to Las Vegas. Doesn’t he go anywhere else?

I’m sure it seems that way.

Consider yourself fortunate that I don’t have good friends in Duluth. (Which I am sure is lovely at this time of year...)

Yes, I abandoned Happy Valley and its 20+ inches of rain since the first of June for Las Vegas, to see my friends Tracy and The Other Rick, and enjoy a few days of sunshine and 100 degrees of dry heat. Sometimes you just need to be reassured that the sun really does exist and that you still know how to lose money in a video poker machine. This was one of those times.

Getting anywhere from State College is a two flight business for the flush and a drive to the big city and a direct flight for the thrifty traveler. I wasn’t feeling that flush, and so drove to Pittsburgh where I left my car—with the driver’s window (accidentally) all the way down—in section 17A of Extended Parking. I was fortunate my car wasn’t filled with water on my return!

As a thrifty but demanding traveler, I sprung for Early Bird Boarding on Southwest Airlines.  My $15 got me position B29, which sounded only slightly better than Boarding Group Z. After I tagged Southwest in a grumble tweet about my purchase, I was contacted by a very nice customer service representative who asked me to wait until the return leg of my trip and to let the company know how things worked out. If I wasn’t satisfied he offered a full refund. Yay Southwest!

I snagged an aisle seat next to a leathery couple--leathery as as in too much sun on the golf course rather than regulars at the San Francisco Eagle--who could not even offer up a hello. Not even one word. Perhaps I should to pay to upgrade my deodorant rather than my boarding position! 

Shortly after landing and changing out of my traveling clothes (i.e. compression socks), Tracy and I headed to the Las Vegas Premium Outlet Mall. It’s the site of one of my best Las Vegas experiences ever, buying green Ralph Lauren trousers embroidered with martini glasses and shakers for $9.95.

Like a heroin addict chasing a high, I return to the outlet mall every year looking for the perfect pair of party trousers. This year, I settled for garden variety khakis at the smaller-than-it-used-to-be Brooks Brothers. There’s nothing festive about them and they weren’t even close to $9.95. Oh well, maybe next time. 

Over at the Ralph Lauren store, party trousers were likewise nowhere to be found. However, Ralph was selling camo jeans with a matching fatigue jacket for well north of $200. Presumably they were someone’s idea of BDUs for Operation Checkbook Emptying.

Shoppers looking for a slim fit Polo shirt in size XXL were in luck—there were tons of those. I think the outlet stocked up expecting a Marfan Syndrome convention. Who else would want a slim fit shirt in a 2XL? Tracy found some things, and in a shopping first, a coupon Ralph texted me (it could have been Ricky, they're old, they might share a phone) saved Tracy actual money.

After our shopping adventure it was time for a little R&R around Tracy and The Other Rick's pool. The pool guy, an earnest fellow named Grant, came by to do whatever pool guys do—adjust the chemicals, skim out the crud, and so on. I asked if he’d ever fallen into a pool in the line of duty and he said no, but his phone had landed in the drink once. He mentioned the difficulty of finding a professional looking swimsuit with a pocket for one’s phone. (Ralph, if you're listening...can you whip up something...maybe in camo?) Grant had the good sense not to hear me when I pointed out that in porn, pool guys wear Speedos.

Saturday evening, Tracy, The Other Rick and I went to THE Steak House at Circus Circus. Yes, the THE is in caps. The (lower case) Steak House must be someplace else.

Circus Circus is a funny location for a nice restaurant because it’s a pretty darned low end place. In addition to its circus-themed casino (which smelled as if they pipe in extra cigarette smoke), there are midway games like skee-ball, throwing darts at balloons, and perhaps even a pick-a-duck stand. Except for the missing farm smells, it’s like an indoor version of the Centre County Grange Fair.

The place has its share of tacky tchotchke shops, selling every kind of Vegas branded trinket imaginable, including Las Vegas Raiders yoga pants where the logo gives gives new meaning to the term "red zone".

THE Steak House is like stepping into the wayback machine for a bit of “Old Vegas” fine dining. Don’t go there looking for any sort of nouveau nouvelle sous-vide free range non-GMO heirloom gluten-free ancient grains nonsense. It’s the sort of place where you expect to see Don Draper at the next table enjoying a Canadian Club and a Lucky Strike or three before dinner.

Our waiter introduced himself as Richard. The Other Rick and I introduced ourselves as Richards as well. So, a three Dick night. Yes, I chuckled.

The food lived up to its billing. The wedge salad was the perfect old school accompaniment to a big honkin’ steak. When Richard brought my steak, I was reminded of the scene from the credits of the Flintstones where Fred Flintstone orders ribs at the drive-in restaurant and they’re so big that they tip over his car. My steak wasn’t just huge, but it was also cooked to perfection…over a wood fire, no less.

THE Steak House isn’t for the faint of wallet, but the food was fantastic.

Sunday was time for more R and R, lounging and loitering by the pool and whatnot, enjoying the 100 degrees of dry heat.

Late in the afternoon, we morphed into looky loos and visited the model homes on the other side of the wash/gulch/draw/arroyo or whatever that vacant depression of desert behind The Other Rick and Tracy's house is called.

From the backyard the site looks completely inhospitable and an utterly crappy place to build houses, but then again, from the point of view of an Easterner, the same can be said for about 99.9% of Nevada. 

We put on our moderately good bib and tucker and arrived there shortly before the end of business hours.

According to the builder’s website:

… Blackrock, is an elegant, gated community featuring Pulte Homes’ most popular collection of one- and two-story homes in the valley. Featuring a contemporary architectural style that has become native to the neighborhood, homeowners will enjoy the privacy of the rugged natural setting, next door to Green Valley’s entertainment and retail district.

I didn’t see any evidence that the development’s “contemporary architectural style” had become native to the neighborhood, and I have an actual college degree in architectural history.

We stopped at the builder’s HQ, picked up the brochure and walked next door—a distance of perhaps four feet—to see our first model home. La Vista, Tivoli, Cesena, and the Vittoria awaited our inspection. Obviously these homes were named by the Italian cousins of people who name colors for J Crew.

The model homes didn’t look a thing like my house, or even a thing like any house in State College. They looked like a Pottery Barn catalog. Or at least what a Pottery Barn catalog looked like when I used to get a Pottery Barn catalog.

Each home was decorated in in blacks, browns, and grays. Perhaps they are expecting an influx of Amish? What little color there I saw was relegated to the occasional children’s room.

The builder thoughtfully placed what museum professionals would call “didactic materials” (i.e. labels) on certain features of the houses so that you would know how special they were.

The plain, ordinary closet was Storage: Out of sight, conveniently close, immediately differentiating it from a storage unit across town.

The extra special closet was called the Life Tested--Registered Trade Mark--Dream Closet. This dream closet was not someplace where you hide your sexual orientation, that stack of romance novels featuring Fabio on their covers, or the fact that all of your relatives voted for Donald Trump.  No, the Life Tested Dream Closet is a Walk-in closet with ample shelving.

Frankly, my Life Tested--Registered Trade Mark--Dream Closet had better include a lot more than ample shelving. I’m thinking shirts with collars that never fray arranged in perfect Roy G Biv order, 32” waist trousers that still fit, and a sock drawer arranger who will come on schedule, like Grant the pool guy, to ensure that my dress socks, argyles, Smart Wools, no-shows, and miscellaneous socks stay arranged by color, length, expiration date, and so on.

Most of the houses had bathrooms as big as my bedroom and kitchens made for something other than cooking. I guess they’re designed for meetings since the kitchen island was now the Executive Kitchen Island:  Larger, for more room around the natural gathering spot.

There was the occasional agricultural-industrial complex Barn Door, which offered to Keep Your Style on Track with this Eye-Caching Space Saver, presumably saving all that space wasted by the Executive Kitchen Island.

If you have Frenchified nether regions, move elsewhere. Blackrock is not a bidet friendly development! If your daily ablutions include a Euro-wash “down there” while you watch Jerry Lewis clips on your iPhone, you are flat out of luck.

Prices at Blackrock start at $485,880 for the 2,100 stripper square foot Stella model. That means no white wall tires, no factory air, no am/fm 8-track tape deck and no Life Tested--Registered Trade Mark--Dream Closet. Your building lot, of course, is not included. Blackrock’s pricing brings to mind Captain Kangaroo’s disclaimer about Schwinn bicycles: Prices slightly higher in the west and the south.

OK, maybe I would like to live at Blackrock. But I’d need to have some work done—lipo, some Botox, dye job. And then I’d need new clothes (black, browns, and grays), new furniture, (black, browns, and grays) and new whatnot (guess what colors?), not to mention a new car. Nothing but a Lincoln Compensator, as big and as costly as an aircraft carrier will do. Alas, there's another Vegas dream with little chance of coming true!

After a post-tour dinner, we once again braved the 100 degrees of dry heat and went to The Neon Museum for its show Brilliant. If you have not been to The Neon Museum, the next time you’re in Vegas, go! It’s great.

The museum presents Brilliant in its North Gallery, a collection of unrestored signs that’s across the street from the main body of the museum. Though none of these 40 signs actually light up, using a technique called projection mapping, light is projected onto them so that they look as if they’re lit. It’s way cool.

The signs do their thing to a soundtrack of Vegas icons Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Liberace, and so on. And it’s great.  Except for one thing. The next to the last song is Elvis Presley’s Viva Las Vegas! followed by some more modern, endless, instrumental crap. Perhaps if I were younger I'd know the tune. But I'm old and I didn't have a clue. Hey Neon Museum, end the show with Viva Las Vegas! Always leave them wanting more!

After the show, as audience members mill about looking for that special Instagram moment, the museum projects a short slide show about the history of Las Vegas and some of its more interesting cultural milestones. Definitely stick around for that.

The next day I rented a car and drove out of town to see some stacks of painted rocks in the desert. Yes, I paid an obscene amount of money to rent a car at the hotel so that I could go out into the desert to look at painted rocks. Guess how hot it was?

However….these weren’t just any painted rocks. This is a public art project called Seven Magic Mountains, which translates into plain English as Seven Day Glow Phallic Symbols Out in the Middle of Nowhere.  The work was created by a Swiss artist named Ugo Rondinone. The phallic symbols, I mean magic mountains, are stacks of “locally sourced” rocks painted in presumably non locally sourced dayglow paint. The stacks of rocks are roughly 30 feet tall; they’re scheduled to be on display for two years starting in 2016, so run, do not walk, to see them.

The work was funded by the Nevada Museum of Art and the Art Production Fund, though if you drill down on the website, you see that its sponsors also include Aria, a Vegas hotel/casino; Banana Republic, the clothing store in better malls everywhere; Warhol Superstar, Jane Holzer, and Nevada’s top highway builder, Las Vegas Paving Corporation. Strange bedfellows indeed.

According to the work’s website, the artist, Ugo Rondinone, was born 1964 in Switzerland but now lives in New York. (I’d like to see him get those big rocks in a New York apartment!)  He has “long embraced a fluid range of forms and media” which “creates the conditions for an expansive emotional range”.  Presumably if I were to be more fluid in my embrace I would have more than a limited emotional range. Yet another thing to work on in therapy!

The website goes on to say that Rondinone’s work is “recognized for its ability to channel both psychological expressiveness and profound insight in the human condition and the relationship between human being and nature. Referring concurrently to the natural world, romanticism and existentialism, his works encapsulate a 'mental trinity' that has underpinned his art for more than twenty years.”

That’s pretty much what I thought too.

So in my rented RAV4, a car which I’ve never liked since I didn’t know if it's pronounced RAVE 4 or RAV 4, I headed south on Las Vegas Boulevard, past Caesar’s Palace, Bellagio, Mandalay Bay and even the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign. I drove past an outlet mall, some locals casinos, plenty of discount liquor stops.

But I didn’t go as far as Exit 12, the home to the World’s Largest Chevron Station.

Before too long I could see some fluorescent dots in the distance. As they grew larger I could see that this was the place. There was no mistaking stacked locally sourced boulders painted in non locally sourced colors.

I pulled off into the parking area. There were about 20 cars there. There was no ticket booth or gift shop, but it was obvious where everyone was going.  What few signs there were seemed to be directed at gophers; they were smaller than license plates and at ground level. There was a dirt path that led from the parking lot to the rocks, which were about 100 yards away.

Even on a Monday morning at 11:00 am, in 100 degrees of dry heat, there were about 40 people there. They were mostly photographing each other or taking selfies. I didn’t see anything that looked like a human or animal sacrifice and if anyone was praying or taking celestial observations, I missed it.

I saw people jumping up and down for the camera, a few serious poses, and others trying to look alluring. I didn’t see any guys whip it out and try to add an eighth magic mountain to the tableau. Perhaps I just picked an off day. Who knows?

One of the funders called the work “a modern-day Stonehenge” and pointed out that it “has its own sense of purpose and spirituality”

OK, a modern day Carhenge, maybe. I’m not sure I’d go as far as Stonehenge, even the faux Stonehenge in Odessa, TX. And what’s with the “sense of purpose”? Since when do inanimate objects have any senses at all?

I enjoyed the Magic Mountains, but my enjoyment came from watching the other folks take pictures, point and yammer, and try to make sense of a bunch of locally sourced boulders painted in non locally sourced day glow colors on a you know how hot day in the desert outside of Vegas.

One of my favorite bits was the Seven Magic Mountains' mini me of locally sourced pebbles--in their natural hues!--that someone had created at some distance from the rock totems. 

I wondered if the form of the thing mattered at all. Would any bit of giant photogenic stuff dusted with some art history hokum drawn a crowd?  I think so.

Was it a religious experience for me? No.

Sure, I loved it, but had a driven a few miles longer, I would have loved the World’s Largest Chevron Station. I'm fickle like that.

But I'm glad I went. I needed a new selfie anyway. 

I skipped the chance to go on to the World’s Largest Chevron Station, so after my world was rocked, I headed back to the hotel pool.
When I went to the john instead of peeing in the pool, I learned about Russ von Hoeslcher’s Independent Crypto Currency Group. Someone thoughtfully left his already even highlighted card at each of the urinals.

When I think of the word Crypto, its surname is Commie. That’s right, I’m a child of the Cold War.  Duck and cover, y’all.  Somehow, I found the intestinal fortitude to pass on the crypto currency even though it could be so big that a modest investment might allow me to move into Blackrock, rich enough that I could demand that they install an Executive CEO King of the World Bidet.

That evening Tracy and I went to Caesar’s Palace to see Absinthe, a comedy/variety show in the Spiegeltent on the Roman Plaza.

Wiki tells me that a spiegeltent is a wooden and canvas tent, decorated with mirrors and stained glass that is used as an entertainment venue. So, it’s a little different from the less tent-ish mirrored wretched excess that makes Las Vegas fun.

According to its website the show was recently named “the #1 greatest show in Las Vegas history”. Leave no superlative unturned, it goes on to claim that the “ridiculously talented and sexy performers from across the globe mix outrageous comedy with jaw-dropping feats of virtuosity and danger.” 

This I had to see.

The Other Rick scored us VIP tickets with a complimentary bottle of bubbly. Even though I have sworn off champagne since my experiences at the Beaux Arts Balls of 1977, 1978, and 1979 (call me a slow learner!), I filled my flute right up. Repeatedly. As my mother used to say, "When in Rome shoot Roman candles!"

Absinthe is a variety show, with an emcee, his sidekick, and a bunch of brief acts by jugglers, trapeze artists and so on.

The emcee, known as the Gazillionaire, and the sidekick, aka The Green Fairy (a nickname for absinthe), have a hilarious comedy act that includes teasing every possible cultural group in the audience not to mention plenty of references to every kind of bodily function nice people don't talk about at the dinner table, not to mention, yes, circumcision. If there’s a less PC show in Las Vegas, I can’t imagine what it would be.

I laughed until my stomach hurt and then made a note that if we ever have a family reunion in Las Vegas, I’m getting everyone tickets. It’s a very Bryant kind of an evening, kind of like Cards Against Humanity with a side order of The Ed Sullivan Show, only more so.

It’s not just the comedy that’s great, but the variety acts are topnotch too. They perform on a tiny stage—it’s 10 feet in diameter—and right in front of you too—no one is more than 11 rows from the action.

There is a wacky juggling act called Life on Mars, a group of buff Slavic tumblers, and a pair of gymnasts dressed as English bankers who perform to a soundtrack of Handel. There are twins who tap dance--yes, tap dance!--unlike anyone you've ever seen.

Then there’s David O’mer, dressed only in a pair of jeans, whose props are a footed bathtub filled with water and rope hanging from the ceiling of the tent. He actually is all that and a bag of chips.

OK, the copywriter was correct about the ridiculously talented and sexy performers. Run, do not walk. to see Absinthe.  
I was still chuckling two days later when I flew back to Happy Valley, thinking about my next trip to Vegas. I don't have any plans, but Miss Diana Ross beckoned to me from a poster in the hotel elevator. She'll be performing in Vegas in a few months. She's 74...she can't possibly look like that...or can she?

If I take the plunge and book a ticket, you'll be the the first to know.

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