Vegas Baby - From Birth

For those of you who have been reading about us traipse through the back alleys of Paris, and know us personally, you also know that this is the sort of thing we don't get to do on a regular basis. We had last been overseas in 2004, when we visited Italy while Nancy was pregnant with our daughter.  The photo is from that trip, in my thinner and hairier days. (I still wear that jacket though.)

Even with our new-found bounty of frequent flier miles obtained through several credit card offers, long-distance air travel is complicated.  We could take the kids if the seats are available, but we don't think they would be into long walks and art museums for at least another 5 years or so.

The alternative is to leave them here with family.  This is what we did, but it's an option we can only call on once every few years.

In any event, visiting France is a great experience.  But let's face it: they play football with a round ball, they didn't invent the transistor, and they didn't produce Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire, or if they did, it was in a language I can't understand nearly well enough to appreciate it.  The point is that it's the sort of thing we can only handle once in a while.

In real life, we have semi-flexible schedules and try to go on vacation (or work remotely) as much as we can, which means about 3 times per year.  We are much more in our element when we load the kids in the vanand drive, more often than not, to hot places, particularly deserts.  We have family in Arizona, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, and....

And So it Begins

Las Vegas has always had a special place in my heart.  I first visited Las Vegas at the age of 8 and felt something special.  I was with my parents staying at the Continental Hotel (now Terrible's) and watched my mom play nickel slots until she was asked to remove us from the casino.

Every week the sunday comics in the Los Angeles times featured an ad for Circus Circus, with absurdly low room rates, often below $20.  I knew they didn't offer those great rates on the weekends but I still thought my parents were nuts not to book such a terrific deal.  Alas, they are not vegas people, at least not in the same way that I am.

Four years later, my family flew to Las Vegas for vacation to stay overnight, where we rented a car and drove to the Grand Canyon.  In retrospect this was completely ridiculous:  We lived a 260-mile drive away, but my parents decided it was better to drive to LAX (which took over an hour back then before the 105 was built), park, get a shuttle to the airport, checked in, flew to Las Vegas, and rented a car.  That whole production probably took at least 7 hours, at least 2 more than driving, even back then when you could only drive 55.

Anyways, that was really beside the point, especially since they were paying and at the time I thought flying was pretty exciting.

We stayed overnight at the Hacienda, which was imploded about 15 or so years later to build the Mandalay Bay.   I was 12, and my sister was 10.  My parents gave us money to go out to dinner by ourselves and see a movie, while they went to see Jubilee.  We went to the Dunes coffee shop and had prime rib dinners for $4.95 each and thought it was one of the best dinners we had ever had.  Then we went to the movie theater across the street at Ballys (which may still have been called the MGM Grand at that time).  The theater had couches instead of seats, and we watched The Godfather, which was a perfect movie to watch in Las Vegas.

I remember waking up the next morning around 6:00 a.m. and looking north up Las Vegas Blvd., and had a beautiful view of the entire 5 miles of the strip up to the Sahara of the twinkling lights at dawn.  Nowdays you can see as far as the Excalibur, two buildings away.  This picture (someone else's) was taken from about where the Mirage is now, but it gives you an idea of how much smaller the hotels were at that time: the only building visible in the picture is the Desert Inn.

The rest of the trip was forgettable.  Something about a canyon and nature.  Maybe some horses.  Whatever.  (Actually, I'll admit Bryce Canyon was pretty spectacular, but I knew where I needed to be.)  I voted that we go back to Vegas for a few days but was summarily ignored.

I can't quite put my finger on what I found so exciting.  I think it's a mix of everything being so cheap - something I appreciated even as a child - along with it being a place where you can pretty much do what you want when you want, and nobody really cares or passes judgment, plus the impressive something-out-of-nothing in the middle of the desert quality.  I wasn't really welcome there, but even as a kid I knew it was my happy place.

Welcomed as an Adult (Age 19)

I didn't get back for another seven years, which felt like seventy.  In 1991, as a sophomore at Berkeley, I drove overnight with a few friends to see the Grateful Dead at the Las Vegas Silver Bowl.  It was the first time in my consciousness / attention that the Dead had played in Las Vegas.  I remember that weekend as one of the great weekends of my life.

My grandmother, who was nuts in a lot of ways, had the same appreciation for Vegas that I did, if not more so.   She was a travel agent, mainly for the freebies: she went a lot of places but never really made much money.  She occasionally went to Nevada on junket bus trips, and out of the $15 or so in cash she would be given as part of the package, she would play her standard $2 in nickel slots and pocket the rest, in addition to just about anything at her table in the coffee shop that wasn't nailed down. Anyways, she booked us a room at the Sahara for $68 per night for two nights, a deal for a weekend in those days.  Shared, that amounted to $34 per person.

In that halcyon time, Vegas was a little more relaxed about allowing people under 21 to be in the casino.  The four of us - three guys and one girl - were at the nickel slots and a security guard walked up to us.  He asked the girl for ID.  She said she didn't have hers.  This was a lie; she had it, but it accurately stated that she was only 20 years old.  The guard politely said that she would need to leave, but then said to the other three of us to go ahead and enjoy ourselves.  She was about a year older than I am.

It was an interesting mix of people that weekend at the Sahara, in an era of significantly less understanding than today.  One of the friends I went with often recounted a particular scene that was emblematic of that weekend: a bunch of tie dyed hippies and an elderly Aqua-Netted couple on their nth martini sharing an elevator ride, each glaring at  the other, as if to say, "you are going straight to hell".

We had visited some other friends of theirs staying at the Stardust, and I recall thinking that the Stardust sign, still in its original incarnation, was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen, especially the twinkling purple.  I was 19 years old, and had followed the Grateful Dead to Las Vegas.  You can fill in the gaps.

The photo does not do it justice at all.  The font change in the mid-90s was an affront, and the closure and dismantling of the Stardust was a veritable crime against humanity.  What stands in its place today?  Literally nothing.

The concert was fantastic - one of the best in memory of the 30 or so I saw in the early 1990s.  It started at 1:00 p.m. and Santana opened.  Santana played for about an hour or so, and then the usual hour-plus intermission.  The Dead probably started around 4 pm, and it began to get dark by the second set.  There was a gorgeous lightning storm out in the desert behind the stage that evening.  I also remember that was the year that everyone was wearing neon painter's hats, even at Grateful Dead concerts.  We were sitting up in the stands, to the left of the stage, and I remember watching a sea of hot pink bobbing up and down to the music.

The show ended around 8 pm.  The Oasis Buffet at the Sahara did a fantastic job of scratching one of my several resultant itches at the time. After the concert, I think I ate about 9 pieces of fried chicken.   Even though it was only about 9 pm by then, I was so tired I went to sleep, while everyone else went out for the evening.

We went to the next concert again the following day, but it was much more mellow since we were going to have to drive home immediately after the show.

The Turn of the Millenium

I went to Vegas several more times in college and at least twice a year afterward.  Every year or so a new hotel would be built, starting with the Excalibur in 1991, the MGM Grand and Luxor in 1992, etc., so there was usually something new to see.  We never had much money - and to this day I still do Vegas on the cheap, relatively speaking - so we were always looking for deals and cheap gambling.  For years my favorite place to gamble was the Silver City Casino.  It was in a strip mall near the Peppermill restaurant.  They had a fun $2 game with fairly good rules.  There was no rating of players, but with every blackjack you would get a free deck of cards, and there were always the free drinks, which is pretty cool when you are in your early 20s.

For years, we could reliably see the Sunspots, the greatest band ever to have set foot in a Las Vegas lounge, perform at the Omaha lounge at the Plaza.  You haven't lived if you haven't seen them perform Music of the Night while wearing a half-mask.

In the late 1990s, I lived in Tucson, while I attended graduate school.  That was a 7-hour drive to Vegas - barely close enough for a spur-of-the-moment trip if you are single, broke, and relatively unscheduled.  I did this a few times, including once when we left at 6pm on a Saturday evening:

"What's going on tonight?"

"Nothing.  What about you?"

"Nothing.  Want to go to Vegas?"

"Yes I do."

We couldn't afford a hotel for Saturday night, so when we arrived around 2:00 a.m. we just gambled for a while and then after we ran out of money we hung out in the lounge at the MGM Grand.  The security staff rustled us awake a few times.  We got a room for Sunday night somewhere, maybe the Luxor, which was of course half the price of Saturday.  I played poker for the first time in a casino - terribly - and would have lost everything had I not hit four sixes on one hand, which I really didn't make the most of, but I got a $40 jackpot bonus.  We left at 7 am Monday.  Due to construction, driving home was slow, and I missed teaching my 3:00 homework Q&A session by about 45 minutes.

Fast forward to 2002.  I flew to Las Vegas with my girlfriend, as I participated for the only time in the CheapoVegas Solar System Series of Poker (take that, World Series of Poker).  We holed up at the Las Vegas Club with a perfectly decent room for a perfectly decent price, probably about $38 per night.  We were enjoying a drink at the Bellagio sports bar and began to notice it was filling up, with many people having only standing room.  We realized an NBA finals game was about to start, the Lakers against someone that couldn't beat the Lakers.

It occurred to us that a lot of people there might want to sit down for a while, and many such people had hundreds if not thousands of dollars in their pockets.

Nancy turned to the guys standing next to her and said, "You boys want to sit down"?


"It's going to cost you."

"How much?"

"25 bucks."

A moment later, a complete stranger slided 25 dollars into my hand.  I dragged Nancy with me out of the building as quickly as possible.  It wasn't until I got outside that I realized that she also was paid $25 for her seat.

I was pretty surprised that Nancy had the chutzpah to offer her seats for money in the middle of the Bellagio.  I certainly didn't.  After all, these were just seats at a bar, albeit soft leather ones, that we had happened to sit at before the bar filled up.  I can't imagine paying someone to sit in a chair that didn't belong to them, but for those two guys that might have been pretty small potatoes.  They might well have saved a lot of money by buying our seats from us instead of sitting at the tables.  I realized at that moment that she just might be a keeper.

Married with Children

2005: our first vacation with our infant daughter.  We learned a lot about parenting on that trip, and about vacationing while parenting.  In ten days we visited Arizona and Los Angeles to introduce the baby to family, and then four days in Las Vegas for ourselves.

We had booked three nights at the Orleans and one night at the Venetian, as a splurge.  However, the Venetian was the third night, not the first or the last, per the solution to my cost-minimization algorithm.  The Orleans was great, as it always is.  Some of our good friends had met us there.  We found that we were wasting a lot of time trying to figure out what to do and getting stuck in traffic.

Our big mistake was staying at the Venetian.  The room was gorgeous, as nice as any we had ever stayed in.  One thing you realize when you become a parent: opulence, elegance, and a million dollar view are no longer something you care about whatsoever.  The only thing that matters is minimizing the distance between the car and the room.  At the Venetian, it was at least a quarter of a mile walk and two elevator rides.  Plus we had to switch hotels, twice: once from the Orleans to the Venetian, and then back from the Venetian to the Orleans.  Sure the room was lovely, but after a shlep like that, we really couldn't have cared less.  

The baby cooperated as well as she could be expected to, but we began to understand the limits of what a baby can do, and what parents can do.  In particular, our plans to do X, Y, and Z in a day was a mistake.  We should have planned only to do X, and if we got it done we should have celebrated with champagne.  Also, the Wynn first opened to the public during that trip, and we made a huge mistake in trying to visit it on opening night, with a stroller.  We tried to navigate through the 20,000 or so people who wanted in at midnight, and got stuck with our stroller in the middle of the pack.  When we realized that they don't even let strollers inside, thanks to some unfortunate incident that Steve Wynn had with a stroller, we tried to turn around, but it took us about an hour just to get back to the Venetian.  Coming back, there were no cheap restaurants on our route.  Our hunger and frustration demanded that we succumb to a wallet raping at the Grand Lux Cafe, by the folks who brought you the Cheesecake Factory but decided that the Cheesecake Factory's prices were way too low.

By the mid-2000s, more and more of the classic hotels from the sixties and seventies were imploded to make room for resorts the likes of which the world had not yet seen.  For those of us low-limit Charlies, all of the strip and even some of downtown started to rise outside our price range.   Las Vegas was no longer a bargain hunter's paradise.  Fortunately, some of the offstrip casinos still seemed to welcome our pay grade.  The Orleans in particular became a go-to place to rest our heads due to its reasonable limits, good inexpensive restaurants, large rooms, and proximity to everything else we needed.  We have also had very good experiences at the Tuscany and the South Point.

To be continued.

1 comment:

  1. Doug,
    enjoyed reading the Vegas memories. I am planning to write down some of mine someday... If I remember by then....

    Doug Bennett


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