January 04, 2004
PROLOGUE. 2:00 p.m., December 29, 2003. I-15 Somewhere Between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
You work so hard just to get to a placeYou've been thinking of the ride from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, but it takes forever just to drive through L.A., and the outskirts of the city just go on and on and on. Finally the strip malls and construction sites begin to fall away and you're left with miles and miles of nothing, broken up by the occasional rest stop and tourist trap, and sure it might be ridiculous to wait in line for ten minutes to use a lonely urinal in the middle of countless acres of sand or stop by the Mad Greek's Diner and Alien Fresh Jerky shack in Baker, but you do because the billboards tell you to, and out there on I-15 the billboards are all you have. Past Barstow, past Zzyzx Road, past Baker...the road so flat and empty that when Primm finally appears up in the distance you guess how far away it is, and the answer is 15 miles, and even when it's three miles away it feels like you can just reach out and touch it. Finally the road starts to clutter again with signs and stores, and as the traffic thickens you can definitely start to make out pyramids and towers, and if you listen closely you can hear the sound of clanging coins and warming buffet chafing racks, and you start to wonder just how small a man's dreams can be yet still be crushed.
Wonderin’ if the catch is worth the chase
When I get to where I’m goin’, you know I’ll be stayin’
40 miles to Vegas and we all started prayin’
40 miles to Vegas and we all started prayin’
40 miles to Vegas and we all started prayin’
I been givin’ what the road’s been takin’
40 miles to Vegas and we all started prayin’
Day Six. December 29, 2003. Las Vegas.
Our rental car crawled its way up to the northern-most tip of the Strip towards the Sahara, the "Jewel of the Desert," home to Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Buddy Hackett, and now the two of us. We checked in and headed upstairs, where Keith had some silly idea about relaxing after the long trip and maybe ironing a few of his nicer shirts. At least that's what I thought he said, since I had thrown my suitcase on the bed and was already out the door before the suitcase stopped bouncing, mouthing vague promises to be back in about an hour.
So I headed downstairs towards the casino to scope out the joint. The Sahara is a pretty nice, old-school kinda place, lacking the super-glitz of the mid- or lower-Strip places, but pretty good for the buck. Besides, Keith and I had the rental car, so we weren't exactly stuck there. I grabbed some coffee, played a few hands of $5 blackjack, checked out the lay of the land, then headed over to the poker room, where I had a Corona and a good time talking with the other folks at the table, but might not have actually won any hands. Ah, well, it was early yet. I went back upstairs, waited impatiently for Keith to get ready, enjoyed our view (of the Stratosphere and downtown), and then finally headed out to get our first official Vegas meal.
Now, when I got back to civilization, I read something about a recent outbreak of mad-cow disease, but I didn't hear anything the entire time I was in Vegas, and I'm sure if it was serious they'd have let us know about it. Anyway, in the Time Out Las Vegas guidebook I had picked up at the Strand before the trip, I came across the following entry in the "Vegas on the Cheap" section, and had been reading it to Keith repeatedly as a kind of mantra:
Gold Coast: The Monterey Room serves a 24-hour Texas T-bone special for $7.95 that includes a 16oz steak, mixed green salad, cowboy beans, onion rings, potato wedges, garlic, Texas toast, and a frosty 12oz draught beer.Admit it: you want to head out there right now for that, doncha? So off we drove towards the Gold Coast, which is located off-Strip next to the Rio, and rushed in to hunker down on some steak. Now, the first thing we noticed is that the price of the special had actually gone up a buck since the book was printed, which was a bit disappointing. And we only ended up with about two each of the onion rings and potato wedges. But you know what? We were in Vegas, and I was eating steak and playing keno (for no good reason, except that the keno runner was kinda cute) and had a big smile on my face. And perhaps the extra dollar went for entertainment, as Keith will explain below:
Keith's Interesting People I Met in Vegas #1 of 4: Couple in the Coffee Shop.As do I, Keith...as do I. After the meal we went for a little walk around the casino, checked out their massive bowling alley, played a little craps and did not do well (by the way, I won't mention every time this happened, so periodically throughout the report insert the phrase "we played a little craps and did not do well"), then headed next door to the Rio, where I had never been.
Ken and I were having dinner in the coffee shop at the Gold Coast. We had gone there for the T-bone special, which was all we talked about on the drive from LA. So sitting at the table across from us is a middle-aged guy with this really hot girl at least 30 years younger than him. Naturally, Ken and I started quietly debating what their relationship was. I thought they might be father/daughter, mainly because the guy wasn’t very well dressed (he was wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and docksiders with white socks) and if you’re going to go through the trouble of taking a hooker out to dinner, the least you can do is put on a nice shirt, dark socks, and maybe go somewhere a little nicer than the Gold Coast coffee shop. To not do so is just poor hooker etiquette. Ken, on the other hand, thought they had a “professional” relationship. While eavesdropping on their conversation (he was closer, though with his back to them, while I had the better view), he heard the man telling her something about his flight, meaning they didn’t travel to Vegas together. Also, Ken felt that she was much too hot to be his offspring. I wanted to just go and ask them what their deal was, but all of a sudden Ken got all self-righteous and decided it was “none of our business,” so we never did find out.
My former co-worker Rob would have known. He has a gift for spotting hookers. We were in Vegas for the NASCAR race a few years ago and he walked around the casino pointing out hookers, then he’d go up to them and pretend to flirt until they would ask to come up to the room. One time he pointed out a hooker sitting at a bar in the Luxor, and not a minute later she took a vial of cocaine out of her purse and started snorting it. I wish Rob had been with us.
Nothing too exciting happened at the Rio. We watched the free, elaborate, cheesy Masquerade Village show, which was definitely free. The only notable part came when I snagged one of the many bead necklaces that were thrown from the floats, and within literally milliseconds Keith demanded that I give it to a small child. Now, keep in mind that I actually wanted one of these necklaces, since the beads were little tiny dice, and that Keith has never given anything at all to a small child (dogs, sure, tons of stuff to dogs), but once I get anything he demands that I give it away. Which I did. To a kid who probably threw it out the car window the second he left the place. We were going to check out the nightclub, but we thought it was too early for anything to be happening, so we headed across town to the Hard Rock.
Now, I had been to the Hard Rock a couple of times, and while I always loved the design and layout and crowd, I don't think I had ever won a single bet there. Still, it seemed like a fine place to hang out for a few hours, and that it certainly was. Keith and I grabbed a few beers, played a few games, and watched dozens upon dozens of replicas of the exact same blonde L.A. woman walk past. We enjoyed our stay there so much that we ended up hanging out there the following night as well, which is a shame, since we could have headed over to the Palms in order to watch Britney Spears plan a spur-of-the-moment wedding to Jason Alexander. Maybe next time.
And how did we end up such a delightful day? Why, by heading downtown to the Golden Gate's San Francisco Shrimp Bar and Deli, where we happily downed their celebrated 99-cent shrimp cocktails and watched the snow fall gently across Las Vegas. Um, yeah...snow. First snow in Vegas since 1997...have I mentioned that we had the best weather luck this trip?
Day Seven. December 30, 2003. Las Vegas.
Sure, you can go through a trip to Vegas and do nothing but drink and gamble and eat huge amounts of food and hit the stripclubs and pass out and wake up and start all over again, and in fact, I've done that many many times. But I think I read somewhere that it might enhance the whole living experience to go and check out some of God's natural beauty. So with that in mind, Keith and I headed west, past large groups of stunned families playing in the freaking snow, towards Red Rock Canyon. And it certainly did not disappoint, as both Keith and I were quite amazed by the open vistas and beautiful blood-red mountains and canyons. Had it been a bit warmer and drier (and if the canyons featured a buffet) Keith and I certainly would have checked out one of the many hiking trails, but instead we finished the long driving tour and started to head back towards the Strip.
And that's when we saw...
Yes! Actual live wild donkeys! (Or maybe burros, though the woman at the gift shop said that there was no difference between the two.) As we reached the main road three wild donkeys wandered up onto the highway, causing quite the ruckus, as you could imagine. The picture above isn't of the donkeys we saw (though I guess it could be), but keep watching and I'll include the photo of me with the donkeys when Keith gets his photos back. I know I can't wait.
So we headed back to the Strip and enjoyed an excellent Japanese seafood buffet, which included huge amounts of sushi and freshly made crepes. It wasn't an "official" Vegas buffet, since they have branches in numerous cities, but it still ruled and was the best meal we had (except for maybe my three pancakes for $1.99 feast back at the Golden Gate later that night). We spent the rest of the day visiting various casinos, losing a few bucks here, winning it back there, losing a few more in the other place, and even meeting a few new friends...take it, Keith!
Keith's Interesting People I Met in Vegas #2 of 4: Drunk Guy at the Boardwalk Bar.Which we would have continued doing, except that the Boardwalk craps tables have all sorts of dumb rules about how high or hard you can throw the dice. Screw them, we'll take our five bucks elsewhere! As mentioned above, we closed out the day with pancakes and more Hard Rock, and fell asleep satisfied.
Tuesday afternoon Ken and I stopped in at the Boardwalk bar. The Boardwalk is the biggest dump on the south end of the Strip, but we were drawn inside by the 99-cent margaritas. So we sat down next to some guy who, in very slurred speech, started to tell us his life story. Apparently he was a construction worker from California who was in Vegas working on the building across the street from the Boardwalk. His big plan for New Years was that he and his buddies had a lot of beads and they were going to use them to “get girls to show us their titties.” He then gave us a detailed review of the Boardwalk’s cuisine. He thought the buffet was pretty good but if he didn’t have the $8, he would just go to the coffee shop to eat. Then he started talking about the NFL playoffs, and how he thought the Cincinnati Bengals were a great bet (which I’m sure they would have been, only they didn’t qualify for the playoffs).
By this point Ken and I are practically running away from the bar, and over to the nearest craps table. After playing a few rolls, we went to the bar at the other end of the casino for more margaritas, and there was the same guy talking to a woman who looked like she desperately wanted to get away. My natural instinct was to rescue her, but instead we took advantage of the fact that the guy was distracted to order another round and go shoot more craps.
Day Eight and Beyond. New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Parts East.
A much-deserved lazy morning, down to Harrah's to return the rental car, a stroll around the Venetian, over to the Mirage for a very long line to eat a not-that-great lunch buffet, and then it was back out onto the Strip. Keith had to head down to the Aladdin to cash in a few winning sports bets (sports was definitely Keith's moneymaker in Vegas), so he left me at the Bellagio to play a little poker. Unfortunately, as you could probably guess, the room was pretty packed, so I only got to play losing, hurry-up poker for about 45 minutes and again, no hands of note took place. I did have my one celebrity sighting of the entire trip, though frankly it's so obvious that I hesitate to mention it: yes, Ben Affleck was up in the high-limit area, if you can believe such a thing.
After that little non-adventure Keith and I began to make our way up the Strip towards the Sahara, where our guests for the New Year's were waiting. Emily had driven in from L.A. that morning with two of her friends: Dasha, who we had met back in L.A., and Helen, who Emily had unfortunately been hiding from us. It was looking to be a fine New Year's Eve, but Keith and I still had many miles to walk before the Sahara, miles filled with cheap beers and buck-fifty twenty-seven-ounce Jose Cuervo margaritas and Circus Circus games and prizes and worried glances at the signs promoting three-quarter-pound hot dogs for disturbingly cheap prices.
But eventually we did make our way back to the Sahara and up to room 654, where we met up with old friends and new, put together a complicated set of plans for the evening that we never even came close to following and which I'm not even going to bring up again, performed our various three-to-five-part moisturizing procedures, and headed out to Emily's Honda Hybrid to ring in 2000-Freaking-4! [Emily: "Ken: would it be too much to ask that you mention how HOT everyone, including you, looked? I mean, come on — in the name of good journalism."] Excellent point, Emily. It should definitely be said that all five of us looked extremely damn good. I was wearing a festive but not overbearing reddish shirt and Keith was decked out in some sleek black duds. Emily looked great, as always; Dasha had that tall blonde thing working to perfection, and Helen was quite fetching in a stylish ensemble and a devilish gleam in her eyes. In short: we were quintaswanky.
Now, Keith had the theoretically good idea for us East Coasters, current and transplanted, to head over to New York New York by 9:00 to ring in the New York New Year (for the record, our two guests for the night were from the Midwest and West Coast, which we celebrated in turn). Now, had we been able to get there by 9, it probably would have been a great idea, but as you can imagine, traffic was a little heavy on the streets surrounding the closed-to-vehicles Strip, so we have no idea if they did anything special. Still, we wandered around the place and had some fun and frosty drinks, and Emily met up with an old friend of hers, so it was all good as we decided to try our luck further down the road.
We walked down to the Luxor to regroup but nothing too thrilling was going on, so after a few minutes we took the tram down to Mandalay Bay where, if I remember correctly, somebody had heard from somebody else that something interesting might be happening. And it sure as heck was! [Emily: "Two-and-one-half words: go-go dancers."] We hit the main lounge to sit and watch the band, enjoy a beverage, and maybe dance a little (and yes, folks, I danced). We went to look for seats, and...well, take it, Keith!
Keith's Interesting People I Met in Vegas #3 of 4: Brent from Staten Island and His [we think] Wife.Keith pretty much has the story right, at least as I remember it, except that the woman might have been Brent's girlfriend, and I had only asked if we could have the chairs to use at the next table, and then jokingly sat down with them (at least I thought I was joking; Brent seemed momentarily horrified). [Emily: "When I arrived to police the area, I was forced to ask, "He's not bothering you, is he?" They were quite gracious, and had curiously un-horrible accents for Staten Islanders."] I didn't actually get to have much sushi as I was busy dancing and tracking down chopsticks and taking part in a strange conversation with a group of extremely well-dressed Europeans.
One of our several stops on New Years Eve was at Mandalay Bay. We had been walking around for a few hours and thought it would be nice to sit down in their lounge/sushi restaurant and have a drink. Emily, Dasha, Helen and I found a table in the back corner of the lounge, but when we turned around we saw that we had lost Ken. A few minutes later I heard him calling my name from a few tables away, from a different level of the lounge. He yelled that he had met some people who were going to share their sushi with us. I wasn’t sure how to process such a strange sentence, so I ignored him and went back to my drink. Let me just say that most people, when offered free sushi by complete strangers, will say thank you very much, but politely decline. Ken Goldstein is not such a person. He returned to our table a short time later carrying a full tray of sushi, including tuna, shrimp, California rolls, and one of the best spicy tuna rolls I’ve ever had. Apparently, Ken had seen a few empty seats next to where Brent from Staten Island and his wife were sitting, and not realizing that we had already found a table, asked if we could sit with them. Brent from Staten Island and his [we think] wife, who were finishing their sushi dinner, said yes. Details of what happened next are a little sketchy, but what we know for sure is that they had some leftover sushi, and Ken ended up with it. While Ken denies ever uttering the phrase “Hey, you gonna finish that?” those who have known him a long time remain skeptical.
Anyway, the sushi was finished, the dancing was danced, and the hour was growing close to midnight, so we all went out towards the Strip to see the fireworks. Now, one part of the evening that is particularly hard to convey is the sheer entertainment provided by the large numbers of roaming drunk folks. For example, the wait at the tram stop between the Luxor and Mandalay Bay was made particularly enjoyable by the three drunk gals who were dressed up, out to party, and apparently determined to have at least one of them throw up in every casino on the Strip, but in a fun sort of way, ya know? As for another group that brightened the last moments of 2003...take it, Keith!
Keith's Interesting People I Met in Vegas #4 of 4: Drunk Girls in Mandalay Bay.I should point out to Keith that they were walking along with us out to the Strip, and at one point I think the little lost one said that she'd kick my ass if I touched her boyfriend, but then they ran ahead and were truly lost to us as the clock wound down to 12:00:00. Ah, those last few minutes before midnight were truly delightful, with friendly strangers screaming random things like "I love your dad!" to the cheers of the crowd (Dasha especially loved this cheer). Getting into the spirit I would periodically scream out the time, and occasionally the weather, to the joy of the crowd.
At around 11:30 we left the sushi lounge to head over to the Strip for the midnight fireworks. Emily, Dasha and Helen stopped off to use the ladies room [Emily: "FYI: the amount of projectile hurling taking place in a Vegas casino ladies room on New Years Eve is truly unimaginable. 'Nuff said."], and while Ken and I were waiting, we were approached by a group of three women. In the funniest exchange I heard all week, one of them asked, “Hey, can you tell us how to get outside? We’re not from around here.” Not missing a beat, Ken responded, “You mean you’re not from Mandalay Bay?” Before she could answer, her friend started telling us how she had broken up with her boyfriend only an hour earlier. Ms. Sensitivity had apparently also broken up with the same guy on Valentine’s Day and Christmas Eve. By the time she finished with her story, the rest of our posse had returned, and we joined the mob of people headed toward the Strip. We were walking in the general vicinity of these girls, so we got to enjoy their witty banter along the way. At one point, the girl who had just broken up with her boyfriend asked, “Where are we going?” and her friend, the one not from Mandalay Bay, answered, “We’re going to the fucking Strip, Julie! Just shut the fuck up!” We lost sight of them a short time later, and didn’t run into them the rest of the night. I’ll probably never see Julie’s friend again, but I think I love her. If you’re reading this, please contact me care of The Donk.
And then 11:59 came, and we counted down the last few seconds of the year, followed by numerous firework displays and the joyous singing of the parts of Auld Lang Syne we could remember. The evening went a bit downhill after that, as we all became trapped in a dead-end gated area of the Strip/Trop intersection, then we couldn't get out of the packed MGM parking deck and had to go leave the car and go back inside for a late dinner. I was doing okay, but some of the group had grown a bit punchy. [Emily: "To my eternal shame, it was at this point that I decided that the lovely, affable-to-a-fault Keith Fernbach was in fact the anti-Christ. Suddenly, blame for all the evening's foibles seemed clearly to land at Keith's feet, and if the finger-pointing got a little out of hand, well, all I can say is...you should have heard the name-calling. Keith is clearly the nicest guy in two shoes, but...in an exhaustion-fueled flash it seemed that his quiet cheerfulness was in fact a shabby front for the pure evil in his soul. Before I disintegrated into hysterical giggling, I think Keith was beginning to feel about as paranoid as a Jew at Disneyland."] In any case, we somehow made our way back to the Sahara where we all collapsed within seconds.
The next morning, Emily and Dasha took off for a luxurious spa and massage at the Venetian, and I woke up before Keith and Helen and decided to head downstairs to the casino. As you might have noticed, this wasn't a particularly heavy gambling trip for me, as Keith and I rarely spent more than 10-15 minutes at a table. But if my calculations were correct, I now had about an hour to win back my food, drink, and gambling cash money for the trip.
I headed over to an empty blackjack table and pulled out a hundred-dollar bill, getting some reds and greens. I think I lost the first hand but then won a few in a row, giving me a chance to increase my bets. On the next hand I was dealt a ten against the dealer's eight, and when I doubled down and hit a nine against the dealer's 17, I had made back $100 in about five minutes. There was a seat open at the $4/$8 Hold `Em table, so I handed over that $100 and hoped for the best. On my first hand (I wasn't involved) a guy in a cowboy hat had played a 2-3 and watched the flop come A-4-5 to pull down a sizable pot. "I'm feeling lucky!" he screamed as I looked down at my next hand to see pocket Jacks. I raised, got two callers, and was then three-bet by Cowboy Lucky at the end. There were about five of us in for the flop...J-8-3. Perfect. I did my best Olivier pained look and checked to the Cowboy, who bet the flop and the turn (I check-raised), and then raised me on the river when he hit an Ace and proudly showed his Ace-King. Um...thanks, Sir. I was still stacking those chips a little while later when I was dealt pocket Kings, and though somebody else had called me with J5 and flopped two pair, running Queens counterfeited him and gave me another monster pot (which was a shame because he was a pretty good guy who had a lousy 2003, but them's the breaks when you call my raise with J5, not to mention when you scream at the dealer "Great, another river that screws me!" after you're counterfeited). A little while later I raised with Ace-King and folded when I hit nothing on the flop, but I had miraculously managed to get myself back up to the break-even point in about 45 minutes. And sometimes, breaking even can be sweeter than winning.
Following that, there was just one more bet left to make...the official Come Crap with Ken: An Illuminated Donkey Travel Buddy Contest! And just like my last big contest, it was a huge disappointment. My come-out roll was a tiny little five, meaning that I would be playing for...beautiful Jahna D'Lish of New Jersey! Would she win the cash or the cheesy prizes...yeah, you guessed it: cheesy prizes. I rolled a four and then sevened out, meaning that Jahna gets some fabulous Vega$ prizes, which was especially disappointing considering that I was going to give her Vega$ stuff anyway. Oh well. Her gift's in the mail. If anybody else wants some matchbooks or other little things just e-mail me your address and I'll send it out.
And from there it was just counting down the minutes and miles until home. We moseyed around the north Strip until Emily and Dasha came to pick us up, then made that long (slightly more crowded) ride back across I-15. Some beautiful mountain scenery to be sure, but mountain scenery with only an airport at the other end, not a wonderland of fireworks and shrimp cocktails. There were a few ugly moments on the way home — like Keith's difficulty with the Wendy's service staff and Helen snapping at one too many of mine and Emily's Gift of the Magi analogies — but it had been a tiring few days and it all soon passed. [Emily: "Two points of interest: 1) the world most kickass, belly-hurling roller coaster ever, at the Nevada State line, which I apparently asked us to stop at; and 2) A surrealistically unsuccessful fast-food experience in a truckstop Wendy's, somewhere deep in the bowels of San Bernadino County (Leading the Nation in Garage Meth Lab Explosions, Since 1990!) Keith's order took about 15 to 20 minutes to complete, and while watching various things twitch and throb across the vast expanse of his neck and forehead, I had a revelation: Keith's not evil, just diagnosable — I was ready to tell the cops that he'd been a loner, kind of a rebel. But his food finally arrived, and we left without reportable incident."] Emily dropped off Helen and Dasha and then headed over to LAX, and from there it was all a blur until we were spit out in LaGuardia. Ah, New York and New Jersey...cold, gray, overcast...and home.
And in closing, one final word from our amazing host for the week, Emily Simon: "I miss Ken Goldstein. I miss being able to follow one of his constant Catskills-style wisecracks with 'Ken Goldstein — he's here all week!' And mean it! I miss having him look at me, shout 'Emily Simon!' and wrap an arm around me. I miss his tender flesh glimmering in the twinkling disco light, brightening the darkness of Club Chub. I miss arguing about who's going to sleep where in my tiny bungalow house and Vegas hotel rooms. Most of all, I miss the constant driving, eating, and renditions of 'It's Hard to Be a Jew on Christmas.' Honestly, I can do without that Fernbach kid, but Ken Goldstein...there's a friend for the ages. Come back soon, baby. I'll leave the air mattress blown up for ya."
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