The Vegas Buddy System

17 05 2013

After six months of retail labor, I turned in my resignation at the Grand Canyon, giving the proper two weeks notice.

“Make sure you leave on good terms,” my friend Thomas advised. “You might want to come back.”

I had serious doubts I would ever want to return to the Grand Canyon, as a worker that is. The isolation was severe and the pay was poverty level, but for this stage of my life the experience proved priceless. I was leaving much healthier in spirit and physical well being than when I had arrived. Nature had truly worked wonders. I was ready to return home and rejoin an old fight with much stronger legs. First, I would fly from Phoenix to Charlotte, North Carolina to meet David, who was a delegate at the Democratic National Convention.

David had carried on the political battles back in Florida while I cleared my head and regained confidence in the Canyon. It would be good to see him again. He was always supportive of my endeavors and his honesty is impeccable. David is honest to a fault.

But before I would see David and many other familiar faces from my politico days, I would take advantage of my independence, freedom and surroundings one last time with a trip to Las Vegas. The recreation center put together the trip, renting a bus and a block of hotel rooms smack dab in the middle of the famed strip. It was open to any Canyon employee who could get the time off and afford the experience. In total, about 40 of us went, half of which were Turks.

We stayed at the Flamingo, a modest casino hotel in an excellent location. It was near the end of the summer season and yet the pool parties were still raging across Sin City. Just weeks prior to our arrival, Great Britain’s Prince Harry had made tabloid headlines after being caught partying it up with some less desirables. In the new age of social media, the catch phrase “What Happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” no longer applied. On our trip were a few international students I had befriended after the guys from Singapore left. One, in particular, was a Macedonian university student named Bard. We had gotten off to a somewhat frosty start. I had overheard him skyping with his mother at the rec center and when he finished, I asked what language he was speaking.

“I’m from Albania. Do you know of this country?,” he answered.

I didn’t know Albanian, but I sure recognized sarcasm.

“Yes, I know of Albania,” I replied. Perhaps he was protecting his privacy, I thought, and at the same time insulting my intelligence. Whatever the case after a few minutes of small talk, Bard was on his way. He worked in housekeeping so we didn’t see too much of each other, only in passing at the employee cafeteria or at the general store. Despite getting off to a rocky start, Bard and I became closer for reasons I cannot fully divulge, but by the time the bus was motoring its way through the desert we were fast friends.

This friendship cemented itself as we wandered the strip, headed back to the Flamingo after an awesome night at the dance clubs. It was around 3 a.m. and the street workers — or ladies of the night if you will — were out and aggressive. Seeing two clean cut young men in good spirits, they were quick to pounce. Bard brushed them aside without a thought. He was an imposing figure, after all. Easily over 6-foot with buzzed blond hair and fluent in several languages — Russian, Turkish and English just to name a few. For this situation, “No” was universally accepted.

That’s when the girls turned their attention and charm tactics to me. “Would you like some company tonight, honey.” one of them asked.

Bard didn’t let me answer.

“Leave him alone,” he shouted. “He’s with me.”

The girls seemed surprised. I know I was.

Of course, Bard and I were not together. We shared similar interests, but not the same bed. And yet I was grateful for being with Bard that moment. I had given into temptation in moments like that before. One incredibly stupid situation in London comes to mind that I may write about one day despite my best efforts to forget. Stupid decisions are easy to make in Las Vegas. That’s why it’s best to go with the buddy system.

спасибо, Bard!

Skyping with Mom in Albania.

Skyping with Mom in Albania.


Leaving Las Vegas

5 02 2010

We didn’t eat well in Vegas.

I had begun to notice Jim didn’t have much of an appetite. He did, however, like clockwork down a full glass of milk each night. He always ordered it warm. Sometimes Jim would get pissed when the waitress failed to follow his special directions of bringing the milk after dinner.

This happened inside the Sahara’s first floor restaurant. It was a pretty shitty restaurant by Vegas standards. Horrible decor. The only cool thing about the place were these huge photos of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Junior and Dean Martin plastered across the walls. Dining, as it turned out, was one thing Jim didn’t do first-class in Vegas.

The waitress working the Sahara diner was a shapely number, but she didn’t get our order exactly correct. In her defense, she was not an American. I noticed her accent and features and quickly popped the question.

“Are you Russian?,” I asked.

“No,” she firmly replied. “Romanian.”

So the Romanian took our order but did not stick around for any ideal chit-chat. She seemed way more concerned with cleaning off the nearby tables.

There was a decent amount of people in the restaurant. Some families, a lot of old people and booth full of hipsters laughing and having a good time over pancakes and scrambled eggs. One guy and two girls. All dressed just cute as a button and suddenly I felt jealous. Youth can do that you.

It was during our dinner that night that Jim revealed to me his brush with death some years ago. I can’t remember the exact details, but the condition landed Jim in the hospital and was severe enough for funeral plans to be made.

I had heard a version of this story before. Not from Jim, but from his close friend Holley. Holley is the mother of my ex-lover Warren. She was always there for her friends and, to this day, still is.

“Holley was there at the hospital the whole time,” Jim said.

As we ate, I couldn’t help but glance at the hipster table from time to time. I wondered what they thought. Were they laughing at me? So many times during this trip, I had been mistaken for Jim’s grandson. Jim, however, always made the correction which usually produced a puzzled reaction from the inquisitor. I’m sure he took it as an insult. Bill, the bellman, never asked. He knew this routine all too well.

When we finished our meal, Jim downed his glass of milk and we made our way to the cash register where an older black woman was ringing up the tickets. Unlike our imported waitress, this employee had a name tag on. Oddly enough, I can’t remember her name, but I do recall her home state of Arkansas, which was also displayed on the name tag.

Jim, also an Arkansas native, struck up a friendly chat with the woman, who, like Bill, remembered him from his annual visits. She was very polite and smiled at me. When we left, Jim made a crack about her wig.

“Bless her heart,” he said. “Got that wig on.”

I guess Jim could make that crack and not feel guilty. Takes one to know one.

“That’s why I keep coming back,” he said, turning serious again. “They make you feel like family here. You really get to know these people.”

That was the case as Bill came up to the room the next morning to help us to the car. We really didn’t need Bill’s help, but Jim wanted it. I was more than capable of pushing the cart down, but instead, Jim insisted on letting Bill do it.

So, together we loaded our bags onto the cart and Bill pushed it through the hall to the elevator and down through the lobby to our car. Once we were loaded up, Jim and Bill hugged and said their goodbyes. Bill seemed happy with the tip and he turned and shook my hand.

“Hope to see you again next year young fellow,” he said.

“Me too,” I replied.

The Author, Bill and Jim

KA = Peace

3 02 2010

On the way to the show our entourage turned into a herd. There was a funny moment on the escalator when a man got one of his shoelaces caught in the tracks. This caused a minor commotion, but most people just casually scooted by and continued their march into the casino.

One fella, a lumberin man dressed in suit and tie and holding the hand of a pretty young woman, commented on the situation.

“Sorry bud, if I had my knife, I’d cut you loose, but they took it at the airport,” he said before muttering under his breathe in my direction, “Tie your fuckin’ shoelaces.”

The closer we got to the theater the better the eye candy and I was glad to be wearing my glasses this time out. It had been a while since I returned a curious glance and outside the theater there was quite a few lookers.

As is the case with these Cirque shows, the experience begins as soon as you hand over your ticket. Getting to your seat is half the fun and thanks to Jim, we had really good seats.

“First class, Tough,” Jim reminded me, “It’s the only way to go.”

For this show, the theater was crafted into a ship. One of those colonial types with towering masts and dark brown wood paneling. As we proceeded to make our way down to the front, center section just a few rows from the stage, an usher stopped us and asked for our tickets.

He was dressed in a gladiator’s costume with a lot of fur and a painted face and he made a wisecrack about Jim’s leather jacket.

And then he turned to me, looked me up and down, and said…

“Argyle always works.”

Having been fashion critiqued, we made it to our seats and waited for the on-stage theatrics to begin. It wasn’t a sold-out show, not by any stretch. This was a week night and Vegas was hurting.

The seats to my immediate left were occupied, however, by a lesbian couple from Wisconsin. A softball coach and a school teacher and I enjoyed chatting them up.

They knew about Panama City because the school teacher, turns out, was also a motorcycle enthusiast and had been to a rally on the Beach before. Small world.

I have never been to Wisconsin, but I knew enough about the Green Bay Packers to further the conversation. Jim, sitting on my right, said hello to the gals, but that was it for him. He was ready for the show.

The lights dimmed and soon we sat in marvel at the Cirque. These actors were true performers, physical specimens indeed and many displayed unbelievable athletic moves.

It’s hard to describe what we saw that night. People were dancing, sparring, running, jumping and swinging. It wasn’t in 3-D. It wasn’t animation or a game with rules and scores. It was better. It was real and it was amazing!

Without a doubt, the Cirque was a major highlight of my trip with Jim and symbolic in many ways. Tomorrow we would began the long drive home, back to Panama City.  I was glued to my i-phone as we left the theater, tweeting about the entire night.

“KA had a peace message,” I typed to my Facebook friends.

Minutes later, as we sat on the monorail and puttered along the Strip, my inbox screen lit up with an email from a long forgotten address.

“Yes, it did,” it read. “Good to see you again.”

To this day I have no clue — no earthly idea — who sent that email.

Capable Shoulders

Lions, Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

22 01 2010

Sometimes, with all the light, you can’t really tell what time it is in Las Vegas.

Breakfast would be a banana, some yogurt and a warm cup of Joe inside the Sahara’s coffeeshop. As we waited in line, I noticed an attractive African-American woman standing behind me. She wore a tight T-shirt promoting not only her athletic figure, but the pop/rock band The Killers as well.

Conversation starter indeed.

“Love the Killers,” I turned and said.

She smiled and said she was a fan as well.

“I saw them in concert in L.A.,” the woman said. “It was really laid back. Did you know they were Mormons?”

I had read something to that effect. Regardless, The band’s album, “Hot Fuss,” with that catchy little tune “Mr. Brightside” is what turned me on to the Mormons’ sound. “Hot Fuss” had been my anthem in London during the summer of 2007 before a hooker swiped my MP3 Player.

But that is another story. For another time.

Jim didn’t speak to the woman. He ordered coffee and found us a table.

I went looking for cream and sugar and the Killers’ fan followed.

“It’s my first time in Vegas,” I gleefully revealed while dosing my hot cup of Joe with Splenda.

“Oh really?,” she said. “Well, you gotta see the lions.”

The lions were at MGM, a short monorail ride from the Sahara. The monorail in Vegas has a similar interior as a subway car in New York, only much cleaner and not nearly as fast.

We planned to ride the rail to some of the other casinos and pick out our entertainment for the night. On last year’s trip, Jim had booked tickets to see Bette Midler well in advance, and Gabe didn’t dare sleep through that.

This year we’d scout our options on site. It was a rare unplanned move for the ol’ engineer.

We got off the monorail at the Paris-themed Harrah’s casino and were immediately greeted by people wanting to give us tickets to some of the weekend shows. Jim politely turned them down. Our itinerary placed us back in Dallas by the weekend.

We did, however, pay a visit to the replica Eiffel Tower, which came with a nice view of The Strip and souvenir photo. The real Paris seemed like a distant memory for me. This was more like Epcot at Walt Disney World — with glitz and gambling.

Jim wanted to visit the Luxor next, which required a short walk. The Luxor is a pyramid design and the sun reflecting off can be very strong during the day. Not many people were out on the street at this hour, but there sure was a lot of cabs lined up outside.

We found the nearest bar and ordered a round of bloody marys. The bartender gave us a lot of time and recommended some of the ‘Cirque’ shows. We decided on ‘KA’ at the MGM and walked down to buy tickets.

To my surprise, Jim spared no expense on our seats.

With tickets in hand, we made our way to the lion exhibit, which was enclosed in glass, just a few feet away from the slots. Some of the trainers were giving a lecture as people huddled near the glass. The lions, turns out, like a lot of folks in Vegas at that hour, were naping.

After seeing the lions, we returned to the Sahara to get spruced up for the big show. Jim decided to revisit a video poker bar downstairs, while I put on my best attire for the evening — the good ol’ Burberry wool sweather, v-necked of course, with a skinny tie to go with my skinny jeans, glasses and a dab of lotion in the hair.

It was a total opposite look from the Canyon, when I donned by best frat boy uniform, and for good reason — This was Vegas. Time to shine.

That night was the first night I really plugged into Twitter and the I-phone never left my hand for very long.

Before meeting up with Jim downstairs, I did a few push-ups so as to fit snugly into my sweater. It was a chilly night outside and Jim wore his heavy coat.

Showtime for ‘KA’ was still two hours away when we left the Sahara, but the real fun had only just begun.

Here Kitty Kitty

Here we come Vegas!

20 01 2010

We left for Las Vegas early the next morning. I did not bore Jim with the details of my Canyon excursion with Stallone. It really wasn’t that enlightening.

We loaded up the car ourselves and paused briefly for coffee in the lobby and I dropped a few postcards in the mail.

The Hoover Dam was our next stop and it would be a special one. Jim, the engineer, marveled at this true testament to American might. We both took a lot of pictures.

Dam Right

“You couldn’t build this today, with all the environmentalists,” he noted as we walked through the inner-workings of the Dam.

The Dam was built during the Great Depression and although it was not in my lifetime, the Great Depression felt very real. To construct this monster wall, the Colorado River was diverted. It was sheer power.

Many men lost their lives during the project. Many others were provided work and in turn were able to provide for their suffering families. It was a government program.

During our visit, Lake Mead was nearing a record low. Water is still a major commodity in the desert and ‘Bling-Bling’ Vegas requires a lot of it.

From the Dam, we made the short drive to Vegas, which would be our turning around point. Jim didn’t care to go any further West, despite the allure of California.

That was fine with me. I had visited the Golden State several times before. On my last trip to Los Angeles, I almost missed my return flight, having skipped out on a journalism convention and gotten bogged down in the  West Hollywood club scene.

Fast forward a few years and I was about to make my first-ever visit to Las Vegas…Sin City. Temptation was everywhere. Gambling, hot girls, muscle studs, booze, drugs, tattoo parlors…the works.

We would stay two nights at The Sahara. It’s an older casino, but still an anchor on The Strip. Jim had been coming here for decades and was on a first-name basis with many of the staff.

Bill, the bellhop, gave Jim a big hug and warm greeting when we arrived. A black man from Mississippi, Bill was close to Jim in age and you could tell they had a special bond. Jim’s arrival seemed to boost Bill’s spirits, although he was quick to bemoan the local economy.

“They’re dealing 50-cent blackjack in some of these casinos now,” Bill said.

Once settled in the room, Jim handed me a twenty dollar bill and told me to have fun gambling. I held my own on the blackjack table for a few hours and disciplined myself to leave with money in my pocket.

Just walking through the casino was entertainment enough. The rodeo was coming to town and the Strip was beginning to take on a decidedly Brokeback scene. Toby “I Should’ve Been a Cowboy” Keith was scheduled to perform that week.

Wanting to make the most of our one full day in Vegas, we retired early that first night. As we bunked down for the night, Jim asked me about a trip to Key West with R.C. and Bob — a trip I had made about four years ago. R.C. and Bob, God rest their souls, are no longer with us.

“I’ve never been to Key West,” Jim revealed.

“It’s nice,” I replied. “A lot different than Miami…you’d like it.”

“I’m sure I would,” Jim said.

On that fateful drive to Key West, I remember R.C., a jolly man who could pound vodkas with the best of them, describing South Florida as “God’s waiting room.”

I got the feeling Jim wasn’t ready to make that trip just yet. No sir. Vegas was on deck.

And we were ready.