Friday, February 25, 2011

Vegas...A Strange Place

I always said, with smug conviction, that I would never find myself in Las Vegas unless I found myself married. A rebellion to both acts really because I planned indefinitely to do neither. Some of my friends knew of my opinion on the matter of Vegas and cared enough to plead the city’s case, usually using the fact that I love food to argue their point, they knew debauchery would not appeal to me. But I always answered that while its true Vegas is a food town, it’s also true that most of the world famous chefs who open restaurants there, open world famous restaurants in other way cooler towns. Why not go to New York or San Fran or Europe instead?

Honestly, I think of Vegas as a massive and wasteful tourist trap out in the middle of an area of the country no one cares to be otherwise. It represents all that I dislike about human sprawl and wealth. And this is exactly what I was thinking almost three years ago while listening to a beautiful girl I had just met go on and on about her recent trip there and what a fabulous time she had and that I just had to go. It was the first of many conversations to come, but because it was the first, I held my tongue in hopes of seeing her again. I did and was very happy with my silence. We got to know each other, got to date each other and now we’re stuck with each other. And when we signed the paperwork to be on the same phone plan a few months ago, I considered us married to one another. She didn’t think that was funny, but she didn’t disagree.

My wife, like many do, cares deeply about birthdays and it so happened on her 31st she was to be in Las Vegas for a work conference. When I learned this, after months of racking my brain for a gift idea for one of the best gift givers I’ve ever met, I thought the karma was far too strong for me to ignore. I resolved then to go to Vegas, to meet the woman I loved there, it was my gift to her and only her. There was some protest, first in my head and then from her, but once we both became comfortable with the idea that I would to do something I so openly never cared to do, she looked at me and knowingly asked, “What are you going to do there?” She knows me, my likes and dislikes, it was a good question.

I set out to do some research, queue previously mentioned friends, and learned that Vegas is a town of vices. Its why everyone I talked to about my going there told me I’d have a blast, but wouldn’t be able to stay long, an overnight kind of place if you will. That said I have many vices, but only one that I care to indulge these days. It surprises me sometimes and others all the time, but I recently developed an addiction to sports, and it just so happened that Vegas is the most ideal place to be if that’s the fix you need. I then realized I actually wanted to go to Vegas, for sports and for the first time in my life gamble on sports. And I wanted to be well fed, as I always do. I want I want to go to Vegas.

So the time came for me to do so, and after I three times completed the list-of-things-to-do list my girlfriend had conveniently duck tapped to the door, I jumped in a cab, a married man heading to Vegas. The cab driver was a cool dude and the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations played in the background, which made me very happy. I started to feel a strangeness by the time I got to the airport though…for a long time, I’ve been traveling with someone very dear to me and now I was doing it alone, it comforted me greatly that it was to meet with her. The flight there was un-memorable besides meeting a pampered beast in the security line, dogs should be allowed to do everything we do in my opinion…

I arrived in Vegas and was efficiently ushered into a cab. A resounding theme I later learned, if Vegas is anything, it’s certainly an efficient town. I told some uniformed staffer I was heading to the Bellagio and seconds later was. I walked into the hotel lobby and was, as I usually am, drawn to the bar and the live music, where I waited to meet my girl. I ordered a beer and immediately learned I shouldn’t do so in that town, based on both selection and price. My lady arrived, we embraced as the piano played, caught up under the soft lights of the surprisingly intimate space, watched people and proceeded to embark on our adventure into this strange world.

Staying at the Bellagio made me feel like Frank Sinatra, it’s a cool place to be. A well-known place and for good reason, you are treated very well there. Instead of the bustle of the strip, our room faced the hustle of the highway and the starkness of the mountains, a better view I think. We tried to venture out, but the time wasn’t right, I’m not sure if it ever is in that town…We stayed in and ordered room service. And as I ordered some soup and some such pasta, I thought it would be good to test the kitchen of such an expensive place to stay. The food didn’t blow me away, but I have to admit, it was by far the best I’ve had delivered to me in a hotel room, it impressed me. However, it wasn’t until the next morning until I found the most impressive feature at the Bellagio, the drip-only-express-lane in the coffee shop. I’ve always hated waiting in line while people ordered non-coffee drinks at a coffee shop, not that there’s anything wrong with that, and I always thought a separate line for coffee drinkers would be awesome and it was. I told the barista as much and was told no one ever notices the sign, I looked at the other line and it was around the corner…it gave me a strange feeling. In an effort to save some money, we left the Bellagio to stay at the Venetian, but I know now we shouldn’t have.

Our suite at the Venetian required a map to find, every corner looked the same, and Italian and dark. It was divided into three parts, a lounging one, a bedding one and a bathing one, all of which were equipped with flat screen TV’s. And after we finally figured out that the curtains moved by motor instead of by hand, we saw that it looked out onto half of the mountains and half of the bleak backside of the industrious hotel, a far less appealing view than before. We left it to venture out for the first time together in Vegas, but I stupidly and stubbornly wanted to eat first. We lunched at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon, which was, as many things are, conveniently located in the hotel. Despite the somewhat rude and very spacey staff’s best efforts, we ordered tuna salad topped with boiled eggs and thinly sliced radishes, on a bed of lettuce and crusty buttered bread, sprinkled with chopped herbs and dabbed with olives next to a pile of salt and vinegar chips. It was simple and good and good for us, this place was starting to get to us. We shared it and a bottle of cheap wine I had bought up the hallway at a hotel convenient store, which was also good.

Our hunger satisfied, we made our way to the mall to shop, and learned that if you want to walk somewhere in that town, it’s a bit challenging and a bit fun at the same time. People there walk with no real purpose or direction, they slowly drift around, like large lost ghosts. The challenging part is that there are so many of them, the fun part is trying to pass them up. Once at the mall I left my girl, I shouldn’t have, to head to Emeril Lagasse’s sportsbook determined to make money betting on sports and if I didn’t, at least eat some good grub. I needed a drink though, but definitely did not want to pay for one, and then I remembered the convenience of the store in the hotel and subsequently learned of the best feature at the Venetian. In the lobby, at some store I can’t recall, they sell bottles of wine rejected from Bouchon at wholesale prices. I bought a normally $70 bottle for $20, opened it in my room, poured a glass and walked out the door bottle in hand. I’m not sure why they rejected it, but aside from some effort in getting the cork out, it tasted good enough to me.

On my way to the sports book I started to notice literally hundreds of signs telling me how to get there, and once I started reading them, found it quite easy to get around in Vegas, in fact, everything’s easy in that town and that’s the way they want it to be. If you get lost, look up, if that doesn’t help, ask one of the seemingly millions of helpful staffers, a manager of whom I spoke to along the way and told of my observations. She promptly and nicely replied “Of course its easy! But you read the signs, you’re special”. I remembered the sad little sign in the coffee shop that no one read but me and felt special. Vegas makes you feel special, which is kind of a strange feeling.

I made it to the sports book and went straight to the bookie to place my bets, one on a basketball game that was just about to start, one on a football game the next afternoon that I could watch while shopping (there are bars everywhere there) and one two afternoons from then that I could watch in the comfort of my own home, all of $20 value. I picked a spot with a big leather chair, leaned back and enjoyed thinking of nothing but the human game of chess massively displayed before me and drank my bottle of rejected wine. I later learned I wasn’t supposed to be there without reservations and wasn’t supposed to bring my own drink, but I didn’t mind paying a corkage fee and I’m not a troublemaker so they let me stay. By the second half, my lady was done shopping and on her way to meet me. I knew she’d be hungry cause I was, so I ordered a side dish of the cheesy bacon fries cause I know what Emeril does best. She showed up looking like a super model in a brand new pair of knee high, seriously hot leather boots, curled up next to me in the chair and we ate the cheesy starchy goodness. And as I watched the game, she feel asleep next me, I felt high on life, so high in fact, she had to remind me as we left to collect my winnings.

Back at the hotel, we were tired, and even though we tried, couldn’t think of leaving it. So once again room service was in order and once again very impressive, only this time we ordered every side option to our main dish in an effort to put the service to a better test. We awoke to a ghost town, by this time everything started to seem odd and strange and very annoying, the people the place. I noticed time was hard to tell in Vegas, especially at the Venetian for its lack of windows. At one point, in anticipation of a game I had bet on, I had to ask someone what time zone we were in, neither of us was surprised by my question, nor its lack of answer, neither of us knew…

We left the town of Venetian and headed back to the town of Bellagio, a brighter and livelier one, to try the pastries at Jean Phillipe’s, supposedly the best in town. Once past the wall of people posing for photos in front of a massive chocolate fountain, we saw they were certainly the best looking, delicately designed miniature scenes of sugar and dough. Its hard to eat, or should I say destroy something so beautiful, but necessary because you paid for it. We did our damage to them as best we could in front of the fountains of Bellagio and while we debated our next step, the star spangled banner burst surprisingly and loud from strategically placed speakers and the fountains burst impressively into a huge and beautiful dance with them. We knew about the fountain show from movies but had never seen it nor cared to up until then and I can truly say it is the best show in town, and free and frequent. To see bursts and streams of water behave that way, so choreographed and flawless is a sight to see for sure.

We decided to stay put and set up camp for the next show. We slumped down on the pavement, lazy from the sensory overload of being there and watched people go by. We bathed in the sun, feeling comfortably like rejects, like the rich cynical hipster kids sitting next to us, like the bottle of wine I drank, and waited for each new and immensely entertaining show to happen. And when it did, we felt the spray from it cool our sun burnt skin, while the water danced to beautiful music, the best part of the whole trippy trip I’d say…

It was almost time to leave and we were definitely ready to, but not before a quick shop, a quick bite and a quick peek at the game. We shopped a bit and had a late lunch at Holsteins’, a burger joint in the vicinity. The burger was almost as badass as the lobster truffle mac and cheese, as was the service, but by the fourth quarter the game was over…

The cab driver to the airport told us to buckle up as we got in and he meant it. He was my kind of driver, aggressive and laid back. We were thankful he hurried us away from such a strange place, and I was very thankful to learn he was way into sports. Once he realized that was cool with me, he changed the station on the radio from pop to espn, and we listened to it for the duration of the trip, loud when on air, soft during commercials. Like I said, my kind of driver.

We sluggishly made our way back to Denver and the real world and came home to a house with no dog. We knew she was safe and comfy at her grandparents’ house, waiting to be picked up the next day, but her absence still felt strange. We had made it back from Las Vegas though, unharmed and wiser. We learned a lot, mostly that we’ve changed a lot since we first met, because of each other and for the better. We’ll go back one day and for only one day, when she needs to shop and I need sports and when we need to get away from reality. Being a gambling man though, I bet it won’t be for a while…oh, and I won $20.

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