I plan for Paris. Covid laughs.

Last fall, Paris went kaput. That is, my planned trip to my favorite city was scrapped with a muscular assist from the pandemic. Covid, that magnificent killjoy, effectively squelched the October vacation, along with so many of your precious plans to get out and live life freely and safely. 

Woe is me. I know this is a first-world, big-baby complaint, but actually I’m not complaining. The trip was doomed from the start, founded on chutzpah and delusion. The pandemic would pass by October. Right. What a dope.

But I couldn’t resist the $430 round-trip flight bought last spring and the airline’s policy of crediting the ticket if trips were cancelled by Covid. Considering how grim everything was, it was sort of win-win.

I used that credit yesterday when I decided, rather rashly as usual, to take another shot at Paris in the fall. It cost a little more money, but the price was still right. Eight days in mid-October, starting where I left off during my last visit in fall 2015. 

Paris is slowly stirring from its Covid coma, when life was hamstrung by onerous rules and restrictions that made visiting pointless, if you could even get into Europe. I’m banking on more normalcy in the next few months as cafes, museums and bistros cautiously unlock their doors. (Alas, Notre Dame remains closed to worshippers and tourists after the blaze of 2019.)

Notre Dame, fall 2015

Must-dos: Musée d’Orsay; Musée Picasso (essential); Musée de l’Orangerie; citywide cinemas (I always see three or four classic movies in Paris); Centre Pompidou; and the skull-crammed Catacombs.

This time, my sixth in Paris, I will skip my beloved cemeteries: the lushly rococo Père Lachaise and the more classical Montmartre and Montparnasse cemeteries, which together house the graves of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, François Truffaut, Susan Sontag, Edith Piaf, Chopin, Balzac, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. (Why visit cemeteries? Because they’re haunting and beautiful and, in Paris, they’re like strolling walks of fame for artists and intellectuals.)

Centre Pompidou, 2015

The Parisian foodie experience is paramount, and I have several places in my crosshairs: the peerless Frenchie; Michelin-star Le Chateaubriand; Buvette; and famed falafel joint L’As Du Fallafel in the Marais. For cocktails, it’s the vaunted Little Red Door — named one of the world’s 50 best bars for seven consecutive years — also in the Marais.

This all sounds super on paper, like most vacations do. The planning, the reservations, the advanced tickets, the accommodations (Hôtel Jeanne d’Arc Le Marais), the raw, giddy anticipation. But it’s a crap shoot.

I’m all in. I’m ready to split this burgh for a few days, sip wine on the Seine, see an old Eric Rohmer film, walk the Luxembourg and Tuileries gardens, skip the Mona Lisa, and be blown away by the city’s exuberant beauty. Again.  

I don’t know if I’ll actually get there. But I’m making a bid for it. For Paris, and for life. 

‘Girls Gone Wild,’ stripped to its essence

Back when I was a roving cultural reporter and movie critic for a Texas newspaper, I was assigned the dubious task of covering the arrival in town of the “Girls Gone Wild” crew at a local dance club. Pointing a throng of cameras at a small stage, the “GGW” crew cajoled local women to partake in a strip contest with cash and travel awards. No matter your morals — it’s complicated — I viewed this as a curious sociological excursion.

This is how the night went down, and how I put it into words …   

Lauren is not getting naked. 

Somehow, the bleached blonde with a toffee tan thinks that a girl can get wild without really getting wild. That in this day and age a girl can attain most righteous wildness by spurning the fundamental step of giving the public a peek. 

What gumdrop world is she living in? 

When the video cameras from “Girls Gone Wild” come to your town — and they came to Austin the other night — there are certain expectations, and every single one of them has to do with bare skin. The “GGW” cameras do odd things to young women. Naughty things. Namely, they inspire women to lift their tops and expose themselves, often while their tongues hang out sloppily. This is called wild. 

Not, says Lauren. 

“I will not be showing (anything). Absolutely not. No way. It’s called ‘Girls Gone Wild,’ not ‘Girls Gone Naked,’ ” says Lauren, who, like many in this story, withheld her last name. The 21-year-old with a leonine mane of yellow hair and jeans low enough to reveal lots of red silk thong works at a bar and is studying to get her real estate certification. 

“I don’t look down on any girls who are wild enough to do that. To each her own,” she says. “But that’s just not my style. You’ve got to leave room for the imagination, you know.” 

Thirty minutes later, Lauren was taking it off. 

There she was, on stage at country-dance warehouse Midnight Rodeo in South Austin, gleefully lifting her Girls Gone Wild mini-tank top for about 700 howling, whooping, screaming, yelling, barking, caterwauling young men, who were apparently seeing their first bare breasts. 

Writhing with professional panache and shooting a carnal glare at the boys, Lauren’s soft-spoken modesty melted, then hardened into Elizabeth Berkley in “Showgirls.” 

Woooo-yeeahh-owww! went the men. 

Ha! went the dozen women on stage. 

The women, ages 18 to 23, were competing in a “Girls Gone Wild” talent contest (is lap dancing a talent?), the winner of which will appear on a “GGW” pay-per-view event. 

The direct-order video company’s Austin stop was part of a 31-city tour that’s brought camera crews to San Diego, Philadelphia, Dallas and Lubbock. First prize this night was $100 cash and an all-expenses paid trip to Panama City, Fla., where the winner will take part in another “GGW” contest. 

It’s a common perception that in party, aka college towns, Mardi Gras has become a kind of open-air flash ’n’ flesh bazaar. Grunting young men proffer tacky plastic beads to greedy women, who gladly, if drunkenly, haul their tops over their chests and under their chins for impromptu peekaboos. The boys go wild. 

Joe Francis, the young multimillionaire who created “Girls Gone Wild,” decided several years ago to bring video cameras to these and similar spring breaky gatherings. Give the girls beads, make them go wild, tape it and sell it. 

“GGW” boasted more than $90 million in direct-response orders last year and the brand has become shorthand for “drunken-girl antics.” “GGW” trades in “normal people” and avoids pros and strippers, Francis says. 

Any young woman will lift her top for the low price of guaranteed male attention, he says. “You’d be surprised, man,” says Francis by phone from his L.A. office. “Every time I go out, I see a girl who I thought would never do it.” 

Joe, meet Lauren. 

“I know, I know,” says Lauren, holding her forehead like a kid who’s been caught breaking a promise. She’s backstage, being escorted by the “GGW” crew to the winner’s circle. Lauren won the contest. 

“It was the heat of the moment,” she explains. 

Sociology of a shirt lift 

“I’m not drunk enough,” says Crystal W., a bespectacled blonde in a white tank top. 

Tonight, she’s leaving the stripping to her peers. “I encourage them. If you have a beautiful body, why can’t you share it with everyone else?” 

Crystal’s friends have been wheedling her to do it all night. “Why do I have to go on stage to do it? I can do it for you myself. I don’t need that extra push. I do it for my friends all the time.” 

Crystal is a good friend. 

On the other side of the rambling, neon-splashed dance hall — where bar servers sling Day-Glo shots in test tubes and a guy named Robert is coaxing his girlfriend Stephanie to get on stage — giggle Amanda Brown and Melissa Dotson, 19-year-old University of Texas students. 

The brunettes are dressed in tight, slight outfits that would pass for loincloths in some cultures. They rushed to Midnight Rodeo when they heard about the event on the radio. 

“We’re lookin’ to be famous,” Melissa says. 

“We get off on it,” Amanda says. 

“We’re not doing it against our will in any way. Not everybody has to like it,” says Melissa. “We’re not porn stars. We’re 19, we’re experimenting, we’re having fun. We’re out there.” 

On stage, Amanda and Melissa gyrate, kiss each other and lift up each other’s shirts. (They eventually take second and third place.) 

The boys hoot with stadium-rock abandon. They slaver and yell obscenities. Their eyes bulge like bloodshot moons. The overall expression on their faces is something like this: !!!!!!!! 

Wes Parnell, a slightly slurring 22-year-old UT student, assumes the role of resident sociologist and human behaviorist. He speaks waveringly, but with confidence. He spies two young women registering for the contest. 

“Oh, they’re going to take it off,” Wes assures us. “They don’t have a choice. When they get up on stage and start drinking alcohol, they start doing things that they don’t know they’re doing. They love it, they absolutely love it. Girls start seeing what the guys think and the guys trick them into doing more.” 

There’s a study of what makes girls go wild waiting to be vetted for psychological illumination. We can listen to Wes, or we can drag in an expert in feminist media studies. 

That would be Mary Kearney, assistant professor of radio-television-film at UT, who explains, “There’s some recognition when you’re a woman in your late teens and early 20s that sexuality is a form of power for you. And for a lot of younger women, it’s the only form of power they have. They are told on a daily basis that their primary goal in life is to get male attention. So if they’re getting it by lifting up their top, so be it.” 

Especially for middle-class white women, Kearney says, “This might be a chance for them to feel sexy in the moment, for girls to be wild. It’s sluttish behavior, and girls might be pushing the boundaries for themselves, to be like, ‘Ooo, I’m wild and crazy!’ Of course, they don’t really understand that it’s a pretty conventional climate for girls and women to be rebellious.” 

We return to the wisdom of Wes. “Girls have such low self-esteem, they need guys to cheer ’em on,” he insists. 

“I don’t have low self-esteem. I just don’t feel like being a slut.” That’s a brunette named Chanbra, who’s been encircled by several boys begging her to join the contest. One of them thrusts a cocktail into her hand. 

“It’s just for fun, just for fun,” says a guy. 

“I know . . .” Chanbra sounds breathless and confused. 

“Just do it. Please,” says another guy. 

“This is the third time I’ve been told to do it, and I’m not doing it. Sorry, y’all,” Chanbra says, and leaves. 

“Well, lost cause.” 

The call of the ‘Wild’ 

A petite young woman named Joanna bolts off the crowded stage mid-show and beats a hasty retreat backstage. She pulls off her cowboy hat and sighs with what sounds like relief. She was fleeing. 

“I couldn’t do that to myself,” Joanna says. “I’m not like that. I think it’s trashy. Looking at the crowd, I decided I’m not putting myself out there as a piece of meat. I’m shaking I’m so nervous.” 

Why was she up there then? 

She was egged on by friends, despite her protests. “I thought it was fun being part of the scene, and then it just got too far.” 

Away from male taunts and chants of “Show your . . .,” Crystal W. looks exhilarated. She wound up on stage flashing the crowd after all.

“I was naked! I don’t know why,” she gasps. “I can’t believe I did that because I come here a lot and I know everyone. Oh, my God.” 

Woodworth was persuaded by her friends, including Kimberly Hyde, who joined her on stage. 

“I’m just crazy like that,” Kimberly says. “It was a blast.”

It’s nothing new for her. She flashes her guy friends upon request. 

“Wanna see?” she asks.

Money can’t buy me love

When I was 14, gangly and clueless, a fellow teen approached me in line for the Big Thunder Mountain rollercoaster at Disneyland. She was cute, shy and giggly, and she slipped me a piece of paper the size of a business card. A shiny dime was taped to the card, which read: “Here’s my number and a dime, you can call me anytime.” 

Hot damn! 

(Less hot: I probably still have this ego-tickling keepsake. What a sap.)

(Lesser hot: The lass was surely carrying several cards around like a rod and reel, fishing for quarry at a teeming amusement park. The indignity.)

If only that’s how things worked in this era of high-tech, horn-dog delivery systems. To hell with Match and Tinder, just hand me your card with a proposition and I’ll take it from there. Prepaid to boot, though I’m sure a dime won’t slice it anymore. Tape a fifty-spot to it and we can talk. 

Though I prefer the above messaging — or, equally effective, the hand-passed mash note in Spanish class — I have resorted to dating sites, if only thrice, to make my intentions known. Each time was met with lavish failure. They just didn’t work out, making me a member of about 20 million date-site suckers.  

There was the young woman on Yahoo!, a dark beauty with cotton-candy cheeks, who advertised herself as an inveterate reader and energetic world traveler, only to prove she’s a deft fabulist and convincing embellisher. 

We met up for drinks and jabber. I asked what she reads and she said Harry Potter (watch my face drop). I press. No, just Harry Potter. We never discussed what I’m reading. Travel? She’s been to New York, once, with her mother. And Canada. The tryst was a bust. Even more so, as she’s a fiend for top-shelf vodka. 

Later, I tried trés-hip hookup hotbed OkCupid. I contacted two women. My gentlemanly overtures — the meek shall not inherit the earth — fetched zero responses. I had no idea what I was doing. Still, I was crestfallen for about 17 minutes.  

I believe in fate, kismet, stuff happening for a reason. Actually I don’t, but stick with me. I had a distant, tormenting crush on a woman who worked at the local arthouse cinema. She didn’t notice me. 

One day, at my favorite outdoor cafe, I spotted her (alone, gripping a Hermann Hesse paperback; be still my beating heart). As if the heavens split, she saw me and we exchanged incandescent smiles. I wish, right there, I had a business card that said, “Here’s my number — just call me!” 

Forget the goddam dime. Life is cheap, and short; love’s even cheaper, and shorter. Loose change has no place in this picture. (I later learned that this melting vision, named Laura, didn’t own a cell phone, just as I didn’t. I should have handed her the card with a roll of quarters and a money order.)  

I was paralyzed, besotted, nerves ajangle. So close, I thought. Make a move, putz!

I shot her a few more smiles, and, helpless about what to do next — approach her? sure! — I got in my car. As I pulled away, we made final eye contact, smiled and waved at each other. I ached with yearning, dramatically misty-eyed.

That’s because this was the classic, tragic missed opportunity. And yet with some tactful sleuthing, I figured it out: I discovered her name, got permission to call her (trusty land line), and soon wound up at her place watching “About a Boy” on VHS. We were a solid couple — books, travel, beer — for more than a year. Not an epoch, but enough time for the earth’s plates to shift.

Success, without a dating service, without a dime taped to a brazen call-me card, without exaggerated CVs and eye-fluttery flirtation — it happens. And it’s the only way I’ll play the dating game. Chance, fate — I don’t believe in them. But sometimes, rarely, it all falls into place. And I cherish that, for it’s no dime a dozen.

Easter not so easy

We rummage about the day, seeking a good book, ambient pleasures, deep meaning (why is that dog squatting so?), and a fine, frothy whiskey sour. The last first, please.

The days are long, the books are long — like the 600-page Mike Nichols biography I just polished, with joy — and the drinks are long, or, more precisely, tall. Either way, pour. Now. 

Temperatures are amping to the mid-60s, heralding spring’s ominous simmer and summer’s damp, gaseous inferno, both of which, I need not tell you, I abhor. (I only partly exaggerate when I say my favorite utterance is brrr. My second favorite: “I’ll get that.”) 

For some, who I will surely offend, today is all about the embarrassing folly of Easter (Jesus, the great escape artist — a Holy Houdini!), celebrating that boulder-rolling feat of celestial sorcery so magnificent it befits a children’s picture book, ages 2 to 5. And, somehow, the whole zany thing — the tomb, the missing body, the resurrection, the Holy Spirit (insert spit-take here) — boils down to Cadbury’s ooze, Peeps’ chews, synthetic grass and ham. 

What would Jesus do? Probably puke, like most of us.

So hallelujah. Now onto cursing: It’s a sunshiny Sunday, blue and bold and obnoxious, just what everybody delights in, because isn’t life one grand fairyland, dusted in gold, roofed with rainbows and burbling with birdies? 

Actually, it is pretty nice out, for now. I just dread when the sun-worshippers get greedy, Mother Nature listens, and everything gets hot and ruined. (Dear October: Step on it.) Look, get your unflattering beach garb, go to the tropics and leave the rest of us alone. 

Travel. Now? Right. I should be in Paris. But while I’m freshly vaccinated for Covid, France is redoubling its pandemic shutdown. The place is a festering contagion and no one’s going in or out. I bought a flight to Paris in March 2020 for an October trip, and we know how that ended. We sit. We wait. We read 600-page artist biographies. 

Or we read (and re-read) short story collections, like Joy Willliams’ delectably edgy “The Visiting Privilege,” Tobias Wolff’s comfort-foody “Our Story Begins” and the tough, granular realism of Richard Ford’s “Sorry for Your Trouble.”

Art saves. Sort of. I have a birthday coming up and no book of short stories will blunt the bite. Yes, I’m at the point when birthdays make you scrunch up your nose. I’ve been doing this for years; the last time I actively celebrated my birthday was age 13. I believe in getting older as much as I believe in Christ’s Penn and Teller routine in the desert. 

Started as a random riff, this is turning out to be my annual jeremiad about changing seasons, warming and wilting. This week I add a year, perhaps finally becoming an anachronistic artifact, shriveling like a vampire in slashing shafts of sunlight.

I need a flotation device in this sea of self-pity. More to the point, that whiskey sour is sounding pretty terribly perfect right about … now

Tales of a teenage screw-up

I got busted a lot as a teenager, twice by the law, but mostly by my parents, who were, in hindsight, exceedingly levelheaded but had their limits when it came to teen tomfoolery. Especially the smart-ass kind. 

Lessons learned: Don’t lie. Don’t smoke pot in the house. Don’t back-talk like Judd Nelson in “The Breakfast Club.” And don’t sneak out at night and sleep in some kid’s tree fort with your girlfriend. Just don’t.

That last one burned bad, because the punishment fit the crime. Not only was I grounded for two weekends, but any chance to see Ozzy Osbourne in nearby San Francisco was promptly jettisoned. 

I didn’t know my parents had discovered my tree fort escapade when I excitedly showed them the newspaper ad for the show. Seethed Mom: “You have the balls to ask us if you can go to a concert?” I crawled to my room, chastened, shut down. Did she really say “balls”? I thought.

Of course, months later, I sneaked out again to meet a girlfriend late at night — at a golf course of all places — so you can call me a recidivist, or, more accurately, a bonehead. This time I wasn’t caught. And this time I didn’t sleep over near the ninth hole. I pedaled my Mongoose BMX back home and was tucked into my twin waterbed (which was way outdated even then) before dawn. My antics were par for the course.

And then the fuzz found me. Senior year of high school. Four guys in a beaten brown Pinto parked on a hilltop in a suburban housing development. Drinking beer, puffing pot. Red and blue lights. Two of us cited for weed, me and my friend Mike, by one Officer Burt, whose notoriety for chasing down teen scofflaws was legendary and feared.

The upshot: I spent a weekend on a modern-day chain gang, minus the chain, digging up shrubs on street islands in the blazing sun, wearing a reflective vest. (I can’t believe I’m telling you this part: At lunch, three of us peeled off and lit up. Seriously: bonehead.) 

Not only was I cited for marijuana possession that night, I was also hit with underage alcohol possession — a little boo-boo I soon repeated. (Bone. Head.) I was doing 42 in a 30 zone when I was pulled over. Unfortunately, on the backseat I had a cooler containing a six-pack. “What’s in there?” asked the unflappable officer. I was more saddened that he confiscated my beer than getting a speeding ticket and a yet another citation. 

But I shouldn’t have been, because that second offense landed me in what’s casually called alcohol school, which is really a series of weekly night classes for young drug and booze offenders. I had to go for a month.

Busted. Again.

The “teacher” was one of those self-consciously hardened scared-straight types, scowling and threatening like he wanted to beat holy hell out of each of us loser drug-addict criminal hooligans. Too bad for him he was about 5’5” and 110 pounds. Still, it was a sobering lesson in naked unpleasantry. 

As vigilant as Mom and Dad were, they were curiously unruffled by my run-ins with the law. I don’t even think I got grounded for either citation (no, wait, I’m sure I did). They certainly weren’t shocked or affronted. I vividly recall presenting my pot possession ticket — a folded-up yellow carbon copy — to them that night and confessing my sins in full. And I recall utter calm. And I recall getting high after they went to bed. 

The teen mind boggles. Restless and wild, it pushes, tests and risks in a haze of addled morality. Often, it knows not what it does. It’s stubbornly stupid that way, and the learning curve is steep. Maturity comes at a price. See you on your next tour, Ozzy.

I found ways of getting grounded with almost self-flagellating consistency. Because Mom was around more and shared my fiery temper, most of my domestic devilry featured face-offs with her. It was never pretty and nothing to be proud of, particularly since I almost always lost. I once overheard my Dad telling my Mom that I was a “problem child,” which happens to be the name of a pretty good AC/DC song.

So I was a poor pupil in the School of Not Getting Busted. But I straightened out. Mostly. I was something of a voluptuary in my 20s and 30s, a confirmed singleton with a penchant for potent potables and an imperishable wanderlust that still whirls me around the globe. Encounters with cops dropped to nil and a safe and sane credo was duly adopted. 

I’m still a bit bonkers — where’s the fun in going totally straight? — but I’m no longer foolishly unruly. That’s kid’s stuff. And despite some good memories, I don’t miss it at all.

OK. That’s pretty much a lie. So ground me.

A day like any other, pretty much, kind of

Stuff that happened today, May 4: 

People reflected with distress and solemnity on the 50th anniversary of the Kent State massacre (war protesters, good; guns, bad). I ordered a pair of green shorts (yes, I said green). Dave Eggers, possibly my least favorite writer, penned a typically cutesy op-ed in The New York Times (vigorous head shake). Netflix announced that Nicolas Cage will play Joe Exotic from “Tiger King” in a new scripted series (pinch me). And the most spastically overrated novel of 2019 won the Pulitzer Prize (please, jurors, stop doing this). 

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Cage uncaged

What a day. But not really. Shit happens everyday, mostly minor and minuscule, a beige streak of the routine and quotidian, particularly these strange stay-at-home days. (I’m talking about ground-level life, of course, not the huge, horrible pandemic picture, whose enormity transcends the lines of this scrawny blog.) 

Today’s pedestrian episodes: I suffered continued undiagnosed abdominal issues (no, not the appendicitis, but perhaps more painful), the dog shat on the floor, a book of poetry I bought gravely disappointed, and the afternoon temperature dipped from 70 to 58 degrees over a couple hours, to my delight. I re-read an exceptional book of essays called “Off Ramp” that I recommend exuberantly. I exercised, mildly and miffed. I did the daily email boogie, writing and replying. I ate cucumber with hummus and sipped wine.

That was Monday, May 4, scrunched into a knotty ball. Not spectacular, not awful.

But lookie: The future holds quivering thrills.  

Tomorrow, May 5, is front-loaded with celebration: Cinco de Mayo, National Teacher Day and (oh, totally) National Hoagie Day. This motherlode of tippling tequila, a paean to pedagogues and bib-wearing sandwich snarfing is holiday-worthy. Where’s the confetti?

And yet the following day, May 6, pulls everything back into focus. Wednesday, according to the Fairy Godmother of special days, exalts National Tourist Appreciation Day — which reminds us: whoever’s a tourist on this day, in this moment, is a fool.

And, more poignantly, is National Nurses Day, which “provides recognition to nurses for their contributions and commitment to quality health care and brings awareness to the importance of nurses in the care, comfort and well-being of all of us.”

Now that’s a day worth honoring, one that’s not like other days, far outshining the banality of the white box on the calendar. And one that can kick your guts out, in the best, most inspiring way.

Sin City vs. Sin City

Let me say, between America’s two premier party towns, New Orleans kicks Las Vegas’ gilded, ersatz ass, that Emerald City conjured from desert pixie dust into a flashing mirage of gambling, chintz and sloshing oceans of open containers. 

Scripturally do I believe this: New Orleans, jewel of the Deep South, stomps Vegas, that spendthrift voluptuary of the West. I’ve been to both cities and can vouch for the Big Easy’s superior party bona fides, its inebriating beauty, gnarled history and lavish multiculturalism. On all counts, Vegas is bereft, a kind of gimcrack DisneyWorld to NOLA’s organic abundance, its French-kissed joie de vivre and bon viveurs, its patina of worldly class.

It’s mossy swamps vs. desert scrub. Beads, boobs and Bourbon Street vs. chips, glitz and the Strip. Indelible musical heritage (blues, jazz, zydeco) and culinary complexity vs. karaoke and Guy Fieri. It’s the rich mythology of Mardi Gras and voodoo vs. the dancing Fountains of Bellagio and hokum-pocus of Criss Angel.

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Neither’s perfect. Both burghs are powerful magnets for slavering douche-baggery, cruising sidewalks nursing two-foot-tall girly drinks. (The rank cluelessness of these swaggering alpha males is adorable.) Both often display the collective mentality of a pimply 17-year-old boy (repeat: boobs) or a tequila-tottering bachelorette queen. Liquor rules. And there are no rules.

Having just returned from Vegas — where I won a whopping 50 cents at an airport slot machine and walked away with a spring in my step (I beat ‘em, by gosh!) — I can attest to the town’s vacant neon soul. It’s plastic, garish and grubby. It’s all facade, robbed of emotion — unless Christopher Cross, recently serenading the Strip with cloying power ballads, warms the cockles of your heart.   

And yet, like millions before and after me, I liked it. Truly, if not excessively. The booze, the vulgar resorts, the cacophonous casinos, a solid comedy show, my slick yet cheap hotel, some world-class meals that rival New Orleans’, fine weather and endless people-watching by turns transfixing and obnoxious. 

It was my second time in Vegas, and on this trip I learned how to enjoy myself by doing a little research and a lot of relaxing. Not poolside relaxing, but a mental, non-judgmental kicking-off of the shoes. I let Vegas do its Vegas thing.

Which is quite different than the similarly storied New Orleans thing. I’ve been there twice, on my 21st birthday and a hasty two-night stay during a Southern road trip about 15 years ago. I typically prefer a different kind of city — Chicago, Kyoto, Istanbul, Florence — but NOLA exudes a neat Big Little City vibe, like Charleston, South Carolina, or Austin, Texas. 

It’s southern to the core, twangy, tangy, congenitally ecstatic, weird and wonderful and proud of it. It’s one of those towns that always wants to get it on. (Though I’m not fond of strolling, badgering brass bands that strain to suck you into their high-stepping, hand-clapping, nightmarish street parties.) 

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Here’s where I say I’m heading to New Orleans for a few days next month, a week after the big, beady, booby bash that is Mardi Gras. (There’s more to it than that, of course, but it looks like a psychedelic bad trip from here, never mind all the deep-dish tradition. Explains journalist Chris Rose: “Mardi Gras is the love of life. It is the harmonic convergence of our food, our music, our creativity, our eccentricity, our neighborhoods, and our joy of living. All at once.”)

I have plans, none of them fantastically original. While I’m strenuously avoiding Pat O’Brien’s and its barfy Hurricane cocktail (been there, done that) and skipping the gorgeous green gatory goo of the swamps (done that, too), I will get lost in the pastel, fern-festooned, bar-clogged French Quarter, cruise the murky Mississippi on a Twain-ish paddlewheel steamboat and stroll famed cemeteries, those crumbly cities of the dead. 

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My bad, but I’m eschewing the heralded art and World War II museums for the morbidly unhinged Museum of Death, and I will duck the city’s voodoo jive, most of which is about authentic as the eye-rolling “ghost tours” haunting the area with the spookiness of a ghoul out of  “Scooby-Doo.” 

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One of the nation’s finest food capitals, crackling with heritage, race, culture and love, New Orleans is synonymous with smorgasbord, from beignets to Po’ Boys, crawfish to jambalaya. Here’s where I’m going, to name a few: Peche (seafood inspired by the Gulf, Spain and South America), Cochon (Cajun and Southern cooking), Gris-Gris (Southern eats) and NOLA (a fusion of Creole, Acadian and Southern cuisine with global influences by local legend Emeril Lagasse).

For music and drink there’s the obvious, like world-famous Tipitina’s. I’ll skip it for the hip Bacchanal Wine, a laidback music-food-vino joint in the Ninth Ward that some regard the best bar in the city, if not the world. I also plan to hit popular jazz club The Spotted Cat, a cramped, sweaty spot where those damn brass bands, blaring with cheeks ballooned, may get to me yet. 

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“America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

 Tennessee Williams

Reading, a loner’s sport

I read in bars. It’s spectacularly geeky behavior, but as I often haunt bars alone, white pages peppered with black typography make excellent company. If it’s early and bar seating is available, I’ll even brazenly crack my laptop at a corner stool and read and write. I haven’t spilled a drink on the laptop yet, knock on formica.  

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I don’t know many loners (why is everyone so umbilically peoplely?), so my bar-book habit isn’t totally understood. Once, while I was relaxed and swimming in words, a colleague razzed me for reading The New Yorker in a neon-drenched corner of a Texas dive bar. I told him to buzz off and returned to an exceptionally chucklesome Shouts & Murmurs. Not exactly high drama, but the point is: Some just don’t get it. 

And I get that. If I wasn’t such an insatiable reader — I bring reading material everywhere (I even read a book on line at Disneyland) — I’d regard someone with a book and a beer in a bar as exotic, or sad, possibly pretentious. “Reading a book seems to say: ‘I’m going to be here all evening, drinking this one light beer, so please rescue me from a lifetime of loneliness before I go home to the cats who will someday eat my corpse,’” quips The Daily News.

Funny. But what that misses is what a bold gesture reading alone in public is, and not a piteous one. Bar readers know they appear out of place, irretrievably nerdy, kind of lame. But they also know what they’re doing: enjoying two of their favorite things — words and wine; Tom Wolfe and Tom Collins — in a refuge away from home, where, despite the hermetic aspect of the reading experience, one is still surrounded by the healthy buzz of other beings. The book (or magazine or newspaper), after all, can easily be put down — unlike phones with most people, who are truly and perversely debilitated by their devices. 

“The person at the bar reading a leather-bound copy of ‘Great Expectations’ isn’t pathetic,” Thrillist avers, helpfully. “They’re mysterious and brooding and potentially full of more intricate webs of life-challenging secrets than a YA section at Barnes & Noble. All this is diminished if you are reading from an iPad. Or anything by Dan Brown.” (Those last two lines are funny because they’re true.)

And yet another critic of sipping a White Russian while nipping some Dostoyevsky on a barstool calls reading in bars a “standoffish, even hostile gesture. It signifies that you have little interest in celebrating or commiserating with your fellow patrons.”

So what and boo-hoo. And anyway, that writer’s observational faculties are comical at best, foolhardy at worst. A “hostile gesture” — reading? Maybe if you’re poring over “Mein Kampf,” “Dianetics,” or “Fifty Shades of Grey.” But a book can be an invitation, a conversation starter (especially if you’re reading any of the above titles). And it beats people-watching or glazing over the Times Square spread of LCD TVs. 

Unless it’s you and your child cuddled in bed, or an author appearance at a bookshop event, reading’s a solitary experience. A book, a beer and I. That’s why I’ve never understood the allure of book clubs (note the smooth segue to our next topic), those small-talk nightmares all about chit-chat and socializing and rarely about the book selected by an unreliable committee.

I already have a long list of books I really want to read without being assigned something I might kind-of sort-of want to read in a circumscribed period of time. In other words: homework.  

“Nearly everyone who’s been in a book club has a bone to pick with them,” writes SFGate. “Big personalities dominate the discussion. You’re expected to read a thousand-page brick in a single month. The books you pick are too literary, or not literary enough. Janice didn’t pitch in for wine and cheese.”

So there is this: As part of a verifiable “introvert revolution” springs the Silent Book Club, an actual book club often called “Introvert Happy Hour.” It started in San Francisco eight years ago with two gal pals reading together in a bar. It now boasts 180 chapters worldwide. 

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“The concept is simple yet revolutionary: Members meet up at a bar, a library, a bookstore or any venue that will host them. Once the bell rings, silent reading time commences. After an hour, the bell rings again,” NPR writes. 

“Other than that, there are no rules. Liberated from the orthodoxy of traditional book clubs, participants can bring whatever they’d like to read and chat about anything, before and after the designated reading time.”

Yes, but, it’s still a club, and I’m not partial to organized bodies, be it team sports or religion. So this one, despite its fresh, sensible rules, will have to be a pass. I simply don’t understand why strangers feel the need to congregate and read together. 

People are needy things, squeezed by social pressures and expectations, FOMO (fear of missing out) syndrome, and other insecurities. For me, loneliness isn’t the goal; solitude is. I extract myself from others for a while, book in one hand, beer in the other. Call it eccentric. Call it snooty. I call it peace. I call it bliss. 

Betting on Vegas

Twenty years ago I went to Las Vegas for the first time. After one night and a day and a half in which I crammed in a jolting rollercoaster ride, some dreary slots action, a few free casino drinks, one mediocre buffet and an excursion to the breathtaking Hoover Dam, I was deliriously bored. The plan was to stay two nights, but I cut out early. Whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. For the most part, it can keep it.

So now, as I mull a few days in Vegas, apprehensions flare. I’m not entirely sure what the desert playground might offer me, even as I am older, wiser, my perspective expanded, evolved, more eclectic. Yet my curiosity about this capital of gilded debauchery has blossomed. The city’s dining has radically improved, flights are affordable and good hotels are crazily economical. My wanderlust, post-Japan, is in full swing. I need a quick fix. Something cheap, fast and out of control.

strip_b86ddbea-3add-4995-b449-ac85d700b027.jpgVegas is one of the last places friends and family would expect me to visit, like a concrete Cabo, a bacchanalian bender full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  

Yet it’s culture of a kind, unfiltered Americana, grubby and glamorous, crass and class, streaked with electric rainbows, trading in hedonism, peppered with amusement-park thrill rides, gaudy stage shows and two-bit wedding chapels. It’s loud, bright, obnoxious. I see in it something of a sociological study. I see writing fodder. Notes will be taken.

I’m not a gambling man (a grumbling man, yes). The only card game I know is blackjack, but I’m too reserved to sidle up to a table and play with strangers in the open. (Even though I did so once at Lake Tahoe and hit 21 three times in a row, winning a staggering $30. I was young.) 

Vegas platitudes pile up with ease. I forever associate it with frat bros and bachelor parties, lushes, heedless gamblers, the easily amused. It lacks soul, teeming with tourists doing a hollow shuffle, an empty hustle. I love lights, but there’s no beating heart beneath the blinking wattage. The blinding bloat lacks depth; it’s all sheen.

Still, I plan. And as I dig, the more intrigued I get. I’m going to go all in, play by Vegas rules, go with the flow, insert your own cliché here. I’m making reservations for Jaleo, Jose Andrés’ acclaimed Spanish restaurant, as well as Andrés’ Vegasy carnivore joint The Bazaar. I will hit a rollercoaster or two (of course; I’m loopy for a good, crap-your-pants coaster), see a brassy show (sans magicians), play a few money-sucking slots and maybe check out The Neon Museum.

Though I’m planning a short trip — I think I can get my fix in two days — I worry I won’t be able to fill the time with the kind of cultural nourishment I crave in my travels. I have to adjust my expectations, lower the bar and hope I’ll be pleasantly surprised. Usually I know mostly what I’m getting into in my journeys. This one’s a gamble. 

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