Thanksgiving in Vegas

I think it’s safe to say that Las Vegas is just not my kind of town.

I don’t gamble. I don’t eat five dollar steaks if I can help it. I don’t go to strip shows. And I like my Cirques a little more Solo then the multiple Soleils currently on tap here.

cirquesSeriously:  There are a DOZEN Cirque de Soleil shows on display at different hotels here in Vegas. That’s more Cirques than there are “Fasts and Furious.”  (Which is the proper plural for “Fast and Furious” by the way.)

I mean, I know it’s been said before, over and over again but- the whole place is just…a little too much.  The glitz. The tinsel. The ostentatious casino facades.  And dear lord, with the flashing lights.  An epileptic wouldn’t last five minutes here with all the flashing.

welcome-to-vegaIt is, without question, one of the least enticing places on the planet for a guy like me.

So…how did Milo and I come to spend Thanksgiving in Sin City, of all places?

Funny you should ask…

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

As I am sure I have mentioned previously, my wife has lots of family here in California. She was born here, for one thing, and her roots go back several generations.

cali-mapSara’s mother, for example, was born and bred in L.A. and currently lives in San Francisco. Not only that, but she’s got a bunch of cousins, aunts and uncles scattered all over the West coast.  (Her Aunt Caron and Uncle David- lovely people, by the way, salt of the earth- live in the single worst-named suburb in the country, the thoughtlessly named….Placentia.  Say it out loud.  See?)

So, naturally, when David and Caron asked what Milo and I were doing over the Thanksgiving holiday, we of course said, “Nothing,” assuming that we would be invited to their house or some similar, close-by venue to gorge ourselves on the big day.

Nothing doing.

vegas-1“Fantastic!” they said, “You’ll have to join us at our time share in Las Vegas over the holiday! We’ll have so much fun!”

At which, as you can imagine, my heart sank.

Three days, perhaps more, in Vegas.

Over Thanksgiving.

In the middle of the desert.

Probably watching football.

Lord in heaven, give me the strength.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Fearing the worst, but hoping for the best, Milo and I enthusiastically agreed to go.  Family first and all that.

And thus the plan was set:

welcomeMy mother-in-law, Marilyn, would drive down from San Francisco (stopping along the way to pick up Caron and David’s daughter Courtney), grab the two of us in L.A. then speed across the sandy wasteland for a big family reunion in Vegas on Tuesday night with a bunch of in-laws, cousins and tangentially related folks, many of whom had either never met or hadn’t seen each other in years.

That was Tuesday.

Then, Wednesday night was reserved for a party at Caron’s brother’s house.

Thanksgiving would be at Caron’s cousin’s.

The rest of the time…we would be on our own.


Through Saturday.

That meant about four and a half days to not gamble, throw money at strippers, watch Cirques de Soleilseses (the proper plural, by the way) or do the things that are generally expected of Vegas tourists.

Are you kidding?  This town was going to love me.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Everything went exactly According to Hoyle for the drive into town and we managed, through some miracle of coordination, to meet up at the same time at this gigantic buffet dinner at the Main Street Station casino in North Vegas.

casinoNow…I’m not much of a casino guy, but having been raised on James Bond films, I always pictured them to be semi-classy affairs, with sharp looking dealers expertly flicking cards to tuxedo-wearing, scotch-swilling intelligence officers as super-sexy, elegantly dressed double agents hover behind their billionaire, villainous husbands until the British agent finally wins the mega-jackpot (or whatever it is they win) and they say things to each other like “I see you’ve played this game before, Mr. Bond” and “I don’t care what the limit is, I’d like to double my bloody wager!” and stuff like that.

So imagine my surprise when I strolled into my first casino and the thought that hit me right away was “Oh, wow.  It appears that I’ve walked into a giant, soggy, flatulent ashtray.”

shot-machine-realClassy?  Not exactly.  Unless you consider forlorn looking truckers in soiled baseball caps bent crookedly over slot machines with cigarillos sticking out of their mouths, pushing video poker buttons over and over again like it was their freakin’ jobs to be classy.

Because if you do…this was a Master Class in Class, baby.

Part of the reason for the unconscionable stink is the fact that Las Vegas is one of the few places left in America where it is still okay to smoke indoors.  The casino proprietors allow this for two reasons:

  1. If they forced you to smoke outside, you’d have to occasionally stop gambling and go outside to light up.  And they really want you to keep gambling.
  2. There is no #2.  If you’re not gambling, you might as well be dead to them so…hey, smoke up, Johnnie!

Happily, we were not there to gamble.  We were there to meet the family, catch up with long-absent and/or unknown relatives and feast at the buffet (which was mercifully upwind).  And so we did.

Main Street.jpgThe fare was about what you’d expect from such a place.  If there was a theme to the buffet, it was “Food From All Over the Damn Place.”  There was fried rice and egg rolls. Barbecued ribs and corn.  Every conceivable variety of chicken, from broiled to fried to orange.  And enough pizza and pasta to feed an Italian battalion.

For my part, trying to stay on my as-little-carbs-as-possible diet, I was thankful for the very impressive carving station and did my fair share of damage without venturing into the super-deep-fried, sugar-slathered booby trap foods that lay crouched in their various chafing dishes, ready to strike.

The extended family, all told, numbered about seventeen that night and we put a tidy dent in the buffet but really…the lion’s share of the evening was spent catching up, horsing around and marveling at each other’s dessert choices (“Did you really put soft serve ice cream on that cheesecake?”).

Buffet.jpgAnd that’s the magic of family gatherings, really.  The food was fine, but the company was what made it a truly wonderful night.

As the evening continued, I finally began to relax.

Because maybe, just maybe, where we were- here in the middle of the World’s Most Decadent City™- didn’t matter.

Maybe, just possibly…

…it was who we were with that made all the difference.

Jeez, you think I’d have figured that out by now, huh?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Now, when you’ve got an afternoon to kill in Vegas and you don’t pull slots, play cards or shoot craps…what do you do?

Well, if you’re smart, you pay a visit to the “Pinball Hall of Fame,” that’s what you do.

pball-hofInside this extremely non-descript building, there is an entire warehouse full of the very best pinball tables ever created and range from 1950’s classic old-timey tables to modern, double-decker, multiple-flipper tables with themes from every movie and television show of the past forty years.

Well, okay, there’s not a “McLaughlin Group” table but…almost every other TV show.

hof-oldThe entire family loaded up with quarters and spread out to try out their body-english skills.  I hit a few tables to try them out, but found myself returning again and again to what I consider to be the best-designed pinball table of all time:  the T2: Judgment Day table from 1991.

t2-pinballIf you have to ask what makes this particular table so great, you have clearly never played it.  Just take it from me that the design, the feel, the look and the action of the game (plus Arnold Schwarzenegger’s occasional interjections- “You’ll be back” and “Get out!” among them), makes this is the most satisfying body table game I’ve ever fed Milo’s college savings into.

After we had emptied our pockets into our respective machines, it was off to dinner, hosted by Caron’s brother and wife, Gary and Terri, who held this gigantic fete at their suburban Las Vegas home.


“Stay away from my house!”

Getting into the neighborhood was a feat, as we had to go through the kind of security normally reserved for the White House, but we later learned that this was because their gated community also housed folks like Nevada Senator Harry Reid and uber-celebrity Paris Hilton.

Though, presumably, in different houses.

Dinner in their palatial home was perfect, the hospitality warm and the food first-rate, though we were all very conscious of not stuffing ourselves, in anticipation of the great feast day to come.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Before turning in for the night, Milo and I decided, along with mother-in-law Marilyn and cousin Brian, to wander over to the nearest Vegas Strip casino to see what all the fuss was about.  We had, up until then, only set foot in one of the presumably “off-brand” gambling dens to the north of the city and wanted to see what an old-fashioned, high-end place really looked like.circus-circus

The nearest place to our hotel?  The legendary “Circus Circus” casino, where, if you’ll remember, a nice chunk of “Diamonds are Forever” was shot, with Sean Connery and Jill St. John (with Charles Gray as Ernst Stavro Blofeld!).

If all you know about “Circus Circus” is what you learn in the movies, then you know that it is this fun, crazy, (spoiler alert) circus-themed casino with elephant acts, acrobats, jugglers, clowns and the like appearing high above and all around the tourists as they play cards and pump coins into the slot machines.

Fun for the whole family!

diamonds-3Well…maybe once upon a time.  Now?  The “big top” has been replaced by a giant, indoor amusement part and the “circus” portion of the casino has been reduced to a tiny stage on the hotel’s “Midway” where, at half-hour intervals, they trot out a performer or two to juggle, perform a poor imitation of a high-wire act or clown around with the assembled, sweaty mob while trying desperately to look happy to be working.

unicycle-girlWhile we where there, two Asian girls on unicycles performed a bowl-juggling routine and, I swear, it looked as if they were doing everything they could not to burst into tears at any moment.  (Clearly, whoever kidnaped them overseas never told them that life in America could be this sad.)  Their act was essentially to loop around the stage on their oversized unicycles and flip bowls onto each other’s heads from their feet.


What it used to look like.

At least, that was the plan.  And, for the most part, they did just fine.  But, as will happen, they would occasionally drop a bowl or two.  At which point, their craggy, pasty-white old helper would shuffle out onto the stage, scoop up the bowls they dropped and hand them back to the performers who, with determined, joyless looks on their faces, would go back and repeat the move until they got it right.

No matter how long it took.

circus-circus-2I got the distinct impression that if they didn’t eventually complete each move correctly, they would be roughly tossed back into their cells under the stage to think good and hard about what they did wrong.

It was, to say the least, a very depressing experience.


The circus.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The next day was Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, and to prepare for the coming gorge, I got up early, strapped on my running shoes and went for a trot up the strip.

vegas-by-dayVegas by day is decidedly different than Vegas by night.  Not that it is any less gaudy or ostentatious, but without the shadows and with the sunlight pouring down to reveal just exactly how much greasepaint has been slapped on the old whore, it is hard to disguise what the place really is.

Here’s what it’s like to watch people walking along the Vegas strip.  It goes like this:

vegas-touristsTourist…Tourist couple…Tourist family….Casino employee handing out flyers…Tourist couple…Tourist….

….complete and utter disaster of a human being vomiting into a fountain…

…Tourist….Tourist couple…

….nightmare person staggering through life as if on fire…

….Tourist family…etc.


Vegas.  Not Disney.

See, Las Vegas is almost exactly like Disneyland- the crazy buildings, the elaborate fountains and decorations, even rollercoasters, games, attractions and- no lie- Mickey and Minnie-type characters strolling down the street.  It is as close to Disney as you get in America outside of Anaheim and Orlando.

The big difference?  There’s no admission charge.  Anyone can walk in at any time.

So you get thousands and thousands of tourists….and the absolute ruined, sad and decrepit dregs of society.  All in the same, glitzy, stinky, crazy

Most of whom are either in the process of spending/losing tons of money or wandering helplessly from place to place begging for enough to eat because they already lost whatever money they once had. (There is an ENTIRE sub-culture of people who live in the tunnels under Las Vegas.  No kidding.)

So let us all give thanks, shall we?  Because there but for the grace of God go we.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

After my run, but before dinner, we had some time to kill so Brian and her sister Cortney and I made our way back up to the strip to see just what the inside of a real high-end casino looked like.venetian-2

We had laid eyes on what an old-school strip casino was like.  What were the new kids doing?

We soon found ourselves in the Venetian, the Italian-themed hotel/casino with a (surprise!) Venice theme that they were not going half-ass their way through.  Thus, the exterior of the place is an almost exact replica of the Doge’s palace.  The tower from the Piazza San Marco looms over the entrance.  A full-on reproduction of the Rialto Bridge (except with- I kid you not- moving walkways running the length of it) whisks you inside where you can board a gondola on their indoor canal and ride from end to end on their simply massive indoor waterways.venetian-1

What “Circus Circus” lacked in cleanliness and jaw-dropping architectural accomplishment, the Venetian made up for it in spades, clubs, diamonds and hearts.

Impressive?  No doubt.  There was only one downside, really:  It wasn’t the real thing.

Sure, it looked real.  It seemed authentic.  But it wasn’t.  Not even close.  It was like looking at a football sized painting of the Mona Lisa.  Yes, it was gigantic and you wonder how in the world someone managed to make something that astonishingly huge and amazing.



But it (a) wasn’t the original and (b) it absolutely cheapened what it was clearly trying to celebrate.

We nodded our heads, acknowledged the effort, money and artistry that obviously went into the place…

…and then we got the hell out of there.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Thanksgiving was everything it was supposed to be:  turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, great company, football and pumpkin pie.

tgiving-1Aunt Caron made a salted caramel confection-thing that completely wiped out my run of earlier in the day, the beer and wine flowed like….beer and wine are supposed to flow and a delightful time was had by all.

The original plan had been to try and take in some more of what Vegas had to offer that night, but the combination of our respective food comas and our experience at the Venetian scotched that plan.  We turned in early and got up with the roosters to take in a little Las Vegas

Because it turns out..there is actual history to be found if you just go and look for it.

During the drive from Los Angeles, I couldn’t help but wonder aloud why Las Vegas was situated there, of all places.  Over four hours to the nearest large city, it is just a little bit more inconvenient to get to then it should be.  So why in the world put it there?

Naturally, there was a reason.  And the reason..was natural.

old-las-vegasTurns out that Las Vegas means…The Meadows.  Because at one time, there was a natural spring in the middle of the desert that was used to irrigate the small crops the natives grew there and it was the perfect place for people on their way through to water their livestock and re-provision before heading to points West.

So…the Mormons, being the enterprising souls that they are, set up a settlement there, built a little adobe fort and set about converting the local natives.


Who wouldn’t want to live here?

But it didn’t take.  The place was too remote, too expensive to run and the climate was just brutal.  So they abandoned it.

Next, the ranchers moved in.  They tried to raise cattle there (because of the availability of the water) and tend a few crops to keep the place viable.


“We hate this place!”

But it didn’t take either.  The cattle business wasn’t profitable enough to make it worth their while and no one particularly liked living there.

Next…the miners moved in.  Lead had been discovered in the surrounding hills and when you have mineral wealth, you have a boom town on your hands.

Hey, guess what?  It didn’t take.  The mines were crap and no one liked living there.  So the mines went bust too.  Even the manufacturing boom of the World War I era only caused a tiny burst in activity in the sad, pathetic little town of Las Vegas.


“This place sucks!”


Finally, in 1931, the State of Nevada decided to legalize gambling there.  And a string of little, tiny, but immensely profitable mini-casinos cropped up and business started to take off.

Soon afterwards, a slick, visionary, out-of-his-gourd gangster named Ben Siegel had the idea to build a full-on resort and casino and turn it into a gambling mecca.  Siegel went overboard with the project (and was rubbed out for getting in over his head), but the casino he built- the original Flamingo- was the canary in the diamond mine of what was to come.flamingo

Within half a century, Las Vegas went from podunk, backwards, middle-of-nowhere watering hole…to the biggest tourist destination in the country.

Good on ya, Bugsy, ya crazy bastard.  Too bad you never lived to see it.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

So we visited the old Mormon Fort (a replica of which still stands), watched a mini-documentary about the founding of the city and the struggles of those who built the town into what it was, then went to the nature preserve nearby to take in the wonders of the local flora and fauna.  Which was very impressive.old-mormon-fort-2

We were about the only ones there.

Everyone else in town was busy doing what they were expected to do while in Vegas.  After all, this is an industry town.  And that industry is:

Sucking money out of your pockets.  And they are very, very good at it.

Because the real genius of Las Vegas is not that the people who run the place were able to craft this enormous, highly profitable, booze-soaked megalopolis in the middle of the desert.  Yes, that was smart.  But that wasn’t the genius move.

vegas-kids-4You know what these brilliant people did?  They performed an honest-to-God miracle.

They turned it…into a family destination.

Yeah, you can go to Vegas for your bachelor party or for a crazy weekend away from the wife and kids.


“I lost all our money!  Wheeeee!”

Or…you can bring the wife and kids with you.  Let the young ones to on rides and see shows and experience all the wonders of Europe without actually going to Europe.  I mean…why spend the money to go all the way to Paris when they’ve got a one-third size replica of the Eiffel Tower right there, next to the one-third size Coliseum, the one-third size Statue of Liberty and the one-third size Trevi Fountain?

Plus…you don’t have to learn a new language!  You can go from Paris to Venice to Rome in less than an hour and not hear one foreign word.  How awesome is that?

vegas-kids-2So bring the kiddies, bring the wife, bring the parents…and bring a shit-ton of moolah. Because you’re not walking out of here with a full wallet, pal.

You’re just not.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

We arrived back in Los Angeles on Saturday afternoon after another mercifully uneventful ride home.

vegas-goodbyeI had managed to spend five days in Las Vegas and had not lost a single dollar.  I had taken in all the sights I wished to see but did not fall prey to the green eyed demon.

Was I tempted to sit down and try a hand or two of blackjack?  I was.  But I resisted the siren call of the games of chance.  Why?

Partly because I’m broke, sure.  And partly because the looks on the faces of the other people around those tables did not exactly scream “We’re having a wonderful time!”.

It isn’t like the ads on TV.


What they show.

But mostly, I think the reason I stayed away from the games was:  I knew the truth of what I was looking at.  I knew the deep-down secret of Las Vegas and, as a result, was able to turn away from the lure of the casino.

I knew that, at the end of the day:


What it is.

The house always wins.

After all…those big, crazy looking buildings didn’t grow out of the sand all on their own. They were fed and watered with the pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters and hard-earned dollars of people exactly like me.

Well…people almost exactly like me.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s