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

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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Overrated travel spots? You decide.

Stumbling through the web today, my eye caught a bit of click-bait I couldn’t resist. Headlined “Overrated Places That Aren’t Worth Visiting,” and located at YourDailyDish, it appealed to my love of lists, penchant for snark and discriminating view of world travel.

A pithy, withering litany of 21 so-called overrated spots, laced with a pinch of snide drollery, the dishonor roll is little more than a light-hearted provocation for easily distracted web surfers. There are surely a billion such lists out there, better, funnier, more substantive, more informative. But this one, despite some dubious grammar, boasts surprising off-the-beaten-track locales that may raise eyebrows.

The list is pure meringue that you can’t take too seriously, and you can make a sport of comparing your impressions of a place to the shamings here. I, for one, can attest that Miami, Las Vegas and contemporary art museums earn their slots. The Great Wall of China, not so much.

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The list follows below. Each name is a hyperlink to its web page. (Caveat: the pages are larded with obnoxious yet easily dodged ads.)

  1. The Terraced Rice Fields in Vietnam
  2. Seasonal Waterfalls
  3. The Great Wall of China
  4. Manneken Pis in Brussels
  5. La Bocca Della Verità in Rome
  6. Four Corners Monument
  7. Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts
  8. Contemporary Art Museums
  9. The Confucian Temple of Shanghai
  10. Empire State Building, NYC
  11. Leaning Tower of Pisa
  12. Miami
  13. Niagara Falls
  14. Mount Rushmore
  15. Venice, Italy
  16. Las Vegas
  17. Statue of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen
  18. The Hollywood Walk of Fame
  19. Champs-Elysees, Paris
  20. Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
  21. Blarney Stone, Ireland

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