Monday, September 24, 2012

Viva Las Vegas

If the great Italian writer, Carlo Collodi, were writing his classic story "Pinocchio" today, instead of sending all naughty boys to Pleasure Island, their destination would be Las Vegas. This is truly the adult playground of the world. Back in 1959, when Vegas was little more than a dusty, mob-run town, a now iconic "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign was designed by a 17-year old girl named Betty Wills for the Western Neon sign company. The sign is still located in the median at 5100 Las Vegas Boulevard South on "The Strip"  where it greets visitors to a now burgeoning tourist paradise. The town itself is like a surrealist landscape covered with gigantic hotels, glittering casinos, restaurants, girlie bars and a million palm trees. Elvis impersonators, faux showgirls, and cartoon characters walk the strip charging people to pose for pictures with them. Seedy looking characters hand out cards with nudie pictures on them advising where anyone who is interested can risk contracting the STD du jour. 

Our flight from Phoenix landed at McCarran International Airport on a Monday. Without looking at any signs, you would know the city you were in by the lines of slot machines in the airport corridors. We stayed at the Aria Hotel, a new hotel with over 4,000 rooms, which sounds immense until you learn it is only the fifth largest in town. Everything in the place was ultra modern. A remote control unit in the room operated everything including lighting, clock, television, room drapes, even the privacy sign for housekeeping. We sat there like two senior citizens trying to turn on the lights while the drapes kept opening and closing. The view of the city was breathtaking from the 25th floor, and we needed to pack sandwiches for the trip to the elevators. There are 16 restaurants in the hotel, most ridiculously overpriced. I was afraid my fumbling with the remote might cost us thousands in room service charges!

We saw two shows, a theatrical magician named Criss Angel at the Luxor, and a sensational version of Jersey Boys at the Paris. Being foodies and looking for any way to stay out of the casinos, we had some wonderful dinners and companion wines. The service in Vegas is impeccable since the whole economy revolves around tourism. Walking the strip at night is like being in a mile-long Times Square. The heat there can be daunting so walks are usually confined to early mornings and evening hours. They should get the folks handing out the nudie cards off the streets; it gives the Strip a "Midnight Cowboy" feel that I could have done without. When we finally did hit the casino, I played video poker as usual and hit a Royal Flush jackpot for $1,000 bucks which is highly unusual.

We also toured the Hoover Dam, an incredible engineering project that literally changed the landscape of the southwest. "Hoover Dam straddles the mighty Colorado River, which forms the border between the states of Nevada and Arizona. Considered to be the world’s largest dam and an engineering marvel at the time of its construction in the 1930s, Hoover Dam brings much-needed water and power to the Southwest. Damming the Colorado River created Lake Mead, a National Recreation Area managed by the National Park Service. A spectacular four-lane highway bridge arching across the Colorado River opened in late 2010 and carries traffic between Nevada and Arizona. The older two-lane highway across the dam could no longer handle the 14,000 vehicles that travel here each day. Below the dam, you can launch paddle craft for a trip on the Colorado River or take a guided river tour." (TravelNevada Website) 

Travel can be tiring but it does allow you to see our magnificent country. Las Vegas is a very intense place that sucks you dry (in more ways than one) but the sensation of being there is like going over the top of the highest hill on the Cyclone roller coaster. You hear those last few rickety-ticks and then plunge straight down, pinned to the back of your seat and screaming your head off. That pretty well sums up Las Vegas.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association  

Saturday, September 22, 2012

I Don't Think We're in Brooklyn Anymore

One of the best people I know in the world is my friend Phil. We grew up together on Somers Street in Brooklyn, living in adjacent houses with adjacent stoops. (To my amazement, I have learned over the years that some people are not familiar with the word "stoop". It is, I guess, an inner-city term for a flight of outside steps leading to the second floor entrance of a multi-family house. The stoop was a place to hang out on summer evenings and socialize with neighbors. It also provided the means to play stoop-ball, a city kid's game that could be played by one or more.) But I digress. Some years ago, Phil moved to Phoenix to get into a climate that would be more comfortable for his wife Margie's arthritis. Their daughter Claire and her husband Marc recently had a baby (Rosie) and we were invited to come out west for the baptism.

We were glad to go just to see old friends and to meet Rosie. We were planning a trip to Las Vegas anyhow and decided to piggy-back the Phoenix stop onto our itinerary. Our travel agent booked us into the Arizona Biltmore Hotel, the grand dame of Phoenix Hotels. Frank Lloyd Wright served as the consulting architect, and the Arizona Biltmore remains one of the only existing hotels in the world to benefit from his influence. Now owned by the Waldorf Astoria chain, the property is opulent. Set amidst the desert landscape of palm trees and cactus, the hotel offers every amenity one could want. There are also private estates on the grounds, but in spite of their grandeur, they had no stoops. Our room was on the second floor overlooking the pool. I didn't pack a bathing suit since I have a deal with all hotels in which they reduce my room rate in exchange for me not appearing at poolside in a bathing suit. Fair exchange.

We raced around seeing as many museums as possible. When I say raced around, I mean as fast as one could go in 100 degree heat! ("But it's a dry heat" is every Arizonian's programmed response.) Although it's not New York, Phoenix has a full range of cultural activities. We also learned a lot about the native-American people who thrived in the area for centuries before the white man arrived to screw them over. We did some antique shopping in one of the many kitchy markets that sell everything from arrow heads to Moose heads. There are also a ton of restaurants and we made sure to hit as many as we could. One disappointment was breakfast. At the Biltmore, breakfast could run into thousands of dollars, so we climbed into our rented Chevy Impalla and hit the streets. Don't look for a diner in Phoenix...there are none. We settled for bad bagels in a coffee shop run by an Asian woman. Yechh.

The baptism itself was wonderful. Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Tempe was not quite like the church of the same name in Brooklyn. The church itself was modern and sunlit. The choir, complete with instruments, could have given that Mormon Tabernacle bunch a run for their money. The words of every hymn were projected onto the walls of the church so there was no excuse for not singing. There were three babies being baptized that day, so every once in a while a loud baby yell would break the silence of the service. Rosie took her baptism like a trouper, allowing the holy water and oil to usher her into the ranks of Catholics in good standing. The homily, I'm sorry to say, was as monotonous as the homilies we get at home. The Asian priest had written it all out, but kept losing his place. (Sorry Lord, just tack on a few weeks to my Purgatory time.)

It was wonderful seeing Phil and his family again. Some connections are so strong that neither time nor distance diminishes them. Seeing the smile on Phil's face and getting to hold little Rosie made the five hours sitting in a cramped airplane seat seem like nothing. Tune in for part 2 of our vacation "Viva Las Vegas" appearing soon.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association  

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Last Rant of Summer

I never cease to be amazed at the places people will sit down and eat. I saw a man sitting on a bench at a NYC bus stop eating a full Chinese meal. I guess the stench of old urine adds greatly to the enjoyment of General Tso's Chicken. Eating on the subway is another disgusting habit. Nothing I enjoy more when riding the subway than to watch some slob shoving his souvlaki sandwich into his mouth while the juice runs down his chin onto his stained t-shirt. Maybe the best (worst) example of this is a guy who came into the men's room at work while I was washing up. He took his egg sandwich and coffee into one of the stalls and proceeded to eat his breakfast while getting rid of his dinner. I think we have a winner.

I am all for personal freedom. As long as it's lawful, people should be able to do what they want, no matter how stupid. Some activities, however, do give me pause. While driving my wife to work in upper Manhattan twice a week, our route takes us through Central Park. The park is a beautiful spot, but not before daybreak. I see young, unescorted women running on the dark roadways every time I drive through. Thankfully, most will come out unscathed, but every once in a while I read about some horrible attack and I think to myself, why? Of all the places in New York City, why would women, or men for that matter, run through a dark, tree-lined park. Might as well wear a t-shirt that says mug me, or rape me, or murder me. 

Facebook is a wonderful site. As a "social medium" it offers an easy way to keep in touch with family and friends. Picture sharing is great too. I do find some of the things people post surprise there. For example, if I see one more adorable puppy with some sappy saying, I will puke. I also hate people pouring out their innermost feelings about their personal much they love their spouses, how brilliant their children are, or just how wonderful their lives are. Spare me. Finally, the rash of "inspirational" quotes that people who have nothing original to say feel compelled to share. If you well up when some dopey saying tugs on your heart strings, stitch it on a freaking pillow instead of plastering it all over Facebook.

This next one makes me sad as much as angry. Before every sporting professional activity they usually play the national anthem. We used to sing it in school, but it has become politically incorrect to display any sense of national pride or patriotism these days, so they stopped doing it. At the games, most people will stand, remove their hats, place their hands over their hearts, or show some sign of respect for our nation's flag. There are people who take no notice. They keep hollering and shoveling nachos into their pie holes as if nothing was going on. I feel as though too many people are taking America and its freedoms for granted. They need to spend six months in some third-world hell hole to remind them how lucky they really are.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association