Approaching Vegas, warily

New_York_New_York_Hotel_and_Casino_sm_i245v0.jpgThe Las Vegas trip I wrote about many weeks ago is fast approaching, and I have so many qualms about it — still — that I often refer to it as “madly misbegotten” or “crazy-stupid” or “a dangerously prolonged snap of full-fledged insanity.”

I wonder: What am I doing? Here’s what I’m doing: I’m trying Vegas on for size after a lame visit 20 years ago, when I was as green as a gecko, this time for two days and three nights, tiptoeing out of my comfort zone of Big City Cosmopolitanism (Barcelona, Tokyo, etc.) and making the plunge into trash, cash and neon splash. 

I’m going to the atomic-bomb-blasted Mojave Desert for some improbably fine dining, appalled and mouth-agape strolls through Disneyesque fake-scapes that perversely mimic Manhattan, Venice, Paris and Egypt, and possibly plopping coins into some one-arm bandits (I even know the lingo!), if they still exist. I hear coin slots are nearly obsolete in favor of tawdry video slots. But what do I know?

Not much. I picture myself getting up latish, say 9 a.m., and wondering what in the hell one does in Las Vegas at that hour, besides shake off the previous night’s debauchery. Breakfast/brunch buffets and gambling are what I’ve gathered. I don’t do either. Most of those bargain buffets are gruesome, Greco-Roman barf-fests and serious gambling’s for dolts and the delusional, so then what? I’m lost.

But not quite. To while away an hour or two there’s the curious National Atomic Testing Museum, which sounds about as festive as the Paris sewer tour I once took, without the fetid funk. I expect the grim and the grimy, hairy history and some shock (America did what?) and awe (kablooey!). HazMat suits preferably required.

More radioactive, hence something I surely won’t be doing, is the overrated-seeming Neon Museum, which currently is semi-colonized by electric signage designed by movie director, artist and Tiny Tim wannabe Tim Burton, whose films — “Edward Scissorhands” to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”; “Sleepy Hollow” to “Dumbo” — give me spontaneous cavities and slashing migraines. 

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The Neon Museum

Entry is normally $22 to walk about the corpses of old Vegas signage, but because there are emblems from Burton films the price is $30 and I’m not paying one extra dollar to see anything by Burton, kiddie clown and gothic goblin of make-believe, eyeliner ghouls and big-eyed bugaboos. (OK, I kinda liked “Beetlejuice.”) 

For true titillation, I’m eyeballing at least two thrill rides, something Vegas, knowing its lack of sticky attractions, has stuffed itself with. The Big Apple Coaster at the ridiculous New York-New York Hotel barrels around a towering simulacrum of Manhattan, Statue of Liberty and all, with hair-blowing, cheek-fluttering views of the Strip and a pygmy Empire State Building.

Atop the landmark Stratosphere tower is the delectably named Insanity, described as a “ride that dangles you 866 feet in the air and spins you around, all while forcing you to stare at the ground. A massive mechanical arm extends 64 feet from the edge of the Stratosphere, and spins you at speeds of up to 65 mph.” As near to heaven as one can get. 

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Insanity ride

Night falls. Instead of Vegas’ dazzling yet pocket-wringing Cirque de Soleil extravaganzas — I’ve seen a few in my day, all blaze and wonder — I’m opting for the famed Comedy Cellar which, I’m certain, will be a jamboree of mediocrity. (Discount tickets help.) There’s a lot of bad comedy out there. As the adage goes, dying is easy; comedy is hard. I have a feeling I’ll witness mostly the easy part. But that’s some of the fun of live comedy, he said wistfully. 

Onto food. Here’s what I’ve lined up, dinner-wise:

Bouchon — Sitting at the bar at Thomas Keller’s renown French bistro at The Venetian, I’m mulling the French onion soup (Soupe à l’Oignon) and Gnocchi à la Parisienne. (Or maybe the Poulet Rôti, or roasted chicken.)

Lotus of Siam — Regarded by some as the best Thai food in America, this cozy hotspot is also a bucket list destination. (I don’t have a bucket list, but I’m adding this to it.) Recommended are moo dad deaw (Thai-style pork jerky), a deep-fried marinated spicy pork appetizer, and khao soi, crispy duck on a bed of egg noodles in curry, with lime and pickled vegetables. I’m getting both.

Jaleo — At celeb chef José Andrés’ renown Spanish joint, jamón ibérico de bellota is dubbed “the most luxurious cured meat in the world.” I’ll take that and perhaps the José Experience tasting menu. Thank you.

That sounds like a lot of fun, actually. But face it, Vegas is really one elaborate rip-off, a con job, a losing proposition, a fool’s game, especially if you gamble. Even those thrill rides I mentioned: they’re $15 and $29 a spin. I just looked that up and I’m currently making new plans. I hope there’s a merry-go-round nearby.

Sin City clichés are only reinforced as I re-watch movies like “Casino,” “Leaving Las Vegas,” Albert Brooks’ comedy classic “Lost in America” and Elvis Presley’s camp classic “Viva Las Vegas,” in which he warbles:

Viva Las Vegas/With your neon flashing/And your one-armed bandits/Crashing all your hopes down the drain 

“Crashing all your hopes down the drain”? Coming from the King, I don’t know if I should laugh or cry. What I do know is care must be taken. I believe the slogan: What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

Which I take to mean, my money is filched in Vegas.

And my money stays in Vegas. 

Damn.

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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