Made it to my motel room after the most turbulent flight I’ve ever been on. The crew gave us an inkling beforehand by hastily gathering up all the complimentary beverage cups before people were done drinking. The couple across the aisle from me had to chug their Coronas under the impatient eye of a fight attendant, who told them “yes you do have to finish it now. No, I’m not kidding.”
The further we descended, the worse the turbulence got. Being swatted around by wind as the runway got closer and closer was too jarring to watch through the window, so I focused on the half-finished in-flight magazine crossword puzzle instead. Someone once said that turbulence is always worse at the back of the plane. That’s where I was. We landed hard, but in one piece. There was applause.
The captain announced that for continuing passengers there would be an unexpected plane change, so please gather up your belongings and go to a different gate as soon as we pull in. In other words the landing was so rough that they had to take the plane out of service for an unscheduled inspection. It had been a particularly rough week for Southwest’s fleet of 737s; best to take no chances.
I check into my room and turn on the TV. The exceptionally strong winds are the lead story on the local news. A neon Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket has been blown off its mount and come crashing to the ground. Luckily, no one was hurt. The anchorman warns viewers to watch out for flying debris when outdoors.
Vegas. Normally I love new cities, but I’m already tired of this one. I have no business being here. I’m the guy with ear buds pressed into my skull, holding the venti coffee and navigating the tourist-gridlocked Strip between Starbucks and the Travelodge, trying to get back to the room to watch Netflix on my laptop. $3.73 for a venti coffee. That’s higher than airport prices. That’s Vegas. What am I doing here? I hate crowds. I like coffee. I don’t gamble or shop. I people watch, but not here. Okay maybe a little. I notice a lot of African Americans. I notice a lot of Americans of color. (“people of color”, “minorities”—these terms seem woefully inadequate for the 21st Century and are certain to date me as a 20th Century relic in this new America.) I notice lots of foreign visitors as well. I like that. For my own reasons, I still think America’s the most interesting country in the world, and I’m glad people still come here just to see it in person.
Vegas is a big city and the Strip is but a small part of it. It’s New Vegas, family friendly and full of diversions. In any other city the Strip would rightly be called the Strip Mall, because that’s what it is: M&M Shops, food courts (with airport priced Starbucks), sweatshirt racks, and high energy classic Top 40 blaring from tinny loudspeakers.
A few years back, the Disney Corp. created Downtown Disney, an adult-themed Disneyland adjacent to the main park in Anaheim, where alcohol is served and high octane rock and roll is pumped through the air. The goal was to extend Disney’s appeal to a more adult crowd.
Around the same time, to broaden their own appeal, Vegas decided to become more family friendly. The result is the Strip, a cartoonish landscape a lot like Disneyland but with dirty sidewalks, second hand smoke, and plenty of greasy losers skulking around the margins.
A generation ago, two places couldn’t be more different than Vegas and Disneyland. Vegas was started by East Coast mobsters. Walt Disney was puritanically Middle American (some would say “Nazi sympathizer,” an accusation I consider unfounded). But now Downtown Disney and the Vegas Strip present a seamless continuum on the American cultural landscape. A triumph of marketing.
Darkness has fallen outside my motel. The wind is still howling. Boisterous families are rushing to get to the shelter of their rooms on either side of mine. Tonight I’m going to Margaritaville to see a cover band.
It took awhile, three days to be precise, but I finally did warm up to Vegas. After my dozenth time walking up and down the Strip between the Travelodge and the food court, doing battle with the crowds of weekend warriors, I finally wised up and joined ’em with an open container, buying myself a 24 oz. can of beer since I didn’t have anything to open a bottle with except my uninsured teeth.
The open container did the trick. I was loosened up in Vegas. Now, instead of fighting the crowds I was feeling the love. In the rest of the Lower 48 outside of New Orleans, drinking in public requires paying a premium. Here, it’s the cost of a convenience store beer.
Now I get why people walk the Strip, and walk it so slow. You’ve got to have a buzz on to make it bearable, not only bearable but enjoyable. From there, it was simply a matter of getting to a pool.
That first open container is the gateway drug that unlocks the magic of Las Vegas. Suddenly, instead of trudging to the food court for more coffee I find myself poolside at the Monte Carlo gulping foot-long bloody marys and Corona chasers, thanks to generous benefactors who, unlike me, are gainfully employed.
Poolside. When was the last time that adverb ever applied to me? This is the first occasion that I’ve taken off my shirt outdoors since Dubya’s first term.
I did the Vegas stuff over the next 24 hours. I played games of chance (at the children’s arcade in the “New York, New York” casino). I took in a show (Penn is much, much larger than Teller in person). I sampled the buffets, filling my gullet with body parts from creatures that I had never eaten before and that never did me any harm—crab legs, quail filets and kobe beef. Land, air, and sea creatures all sharing one platter. In Vegas, that’s called appreciating nature.
Everybody’s got an act in Vegas, even the shuttle driver who took me to the airport for the flight back to Oakland. Once the minibus is loaded, he starts into his material and doesn’t stop until we get there. Sample: “My wife is so bad at cooking she uses the smoke detector as a timer.” He seemed surprised at the dollar-bill tip I handed him at the end of the ride.
13,000 feet above the desert, window shade down, into my last bloody mary of the long weekend. The platinum blonde moll seated next to me is all glitzed up in clunky jewelry and Joanne Worley mascara. She orders a double.
Up here on the plane I have rediscovered the Lonely Planet Las Vegas book that I checked out of the Berkeley public library before leaving and which remained in the bottom of my backpack until now, totally forgotten along with the pretensions of a daytrip to the Hoover Dam and an educational visit to the Pinball Museum.
We encounter another bout of turbulence. The stews have been requested to take a seat. The smell of gin and unbrushed teeth wafts through the cabin. I open up the window shade and there is snow below, which could only mean we are crossing the Sierras. The guy in front of me has spilled his drink. I’ll find out how much of it got absorbed into my carry-on (which is stowed in front of my feet below his seat) when we land. The sticky residue of bottom shelf alcohol would be a wonderful souvenir of Sin City and proof that what happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay there.
This is a rundown of the cover band I saw at Margaritaville. My host for the evening was a hard-working business traveler who is also a fine cover band frontman in his own right and has seen more than his share of lounge acts over the course of his travels. He reckoned that this band was one of the best. After seeing the show, I agreed. I took notes during the performance. Here’s what I got:
- Fredo on keys
- Bobcat on bass
- Breaking Bad on guitar
- And the frontman doesn’t look like a musician at all.
(That would be Fredo from the Godfather movies, Bobcat Goldthwaite, Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad, and a frontman that my host and I both agreed looked like anything but a musician.)
We stayed very close to the bar the whole time, and as such were in perfect position to watch people come and go. The Margaritaville crowd that night consisted of Gene Hackman-looking conventioneers and a menagerie of blondes.
Blondes who looked like Cheryl Hines; blondes who looked like Jenna Bush; blondes who looked like Jane Krakowski; blondes who looked like Nicole Ritchie, Laura Linney, Linda Tripp, Tipper Gore, Chris Farley, Meg Whitman, Tabitha from Salon Makeover, Tabitha from Bewitched, Nancy Cartwright, John Madden, a Jodie Foster lookalike double fisting gin and tonics; and some blondes who didn’t look like anyone at all. There was a brunette with Betty Page bangs who ordered a margarita pitcher from the bar, stuck in a straw right there and started sucking.
The set list:
- Gimme Three Steps
- Pride and Joy
- Southern Cross
- Hurt So Good
- Overture/Long Time (by Boston)
- Roadhouse Blues
- Desperado (The bass player sat this one out and yawned during his backup vocals.)
- Some Def Leppard song
- Long Train Running (On this one Bobcat the yawning bass player has transformed into Sam Kinison.)
- Get Down Tonight
- Walk This Way
- Can’t Get Enough of Your Love (the Bad Company song, not Barry White. My host and I concur that the band could and should have upgraded this selection to “Rockin Into the Night” by 38 Special. Bobcat agrees with us; he’s back there with the drummer, yawning again.)
- Sweet Child
- Crazy (Seal, not Patsy Cline)
- Round and Round (Bobcat puts down bass and becomes pure frontman on this number)
- The Joker
- Kiss (the Prince song, sung by Fredo the keyboardist in an impressive falsetto)
- Play That Funky Music (The song that this band was born to play. Bobcat fronting, of course.)
- Don’t Stop Believing.
- Your Love (aka “I Don’t Want to Lose Your Love Tonight” by The Outfield.)
- Jessie’s Girl.
- I Wanna Rock N Roll All Night
- Some Bon Jovi song.
(At this point, my notes become illegible and I soon stop keeping track altogether.)