Thursday, September 09, 2004

Vegas ReDux: Saturday

So, after a long day of travel followed by a long night of inebriation, we awake Saturday morning. Too early. 6:30AM.

What the fuck is that noise?

The toilet is making this strange, rhythmic knocking/thumping sound. At first I think someone is knocking at the door, but no. It's the toilet. Pipes knocking somewhere down the line, resulting is this sort of muffled watery thudding sound. It continues long enough to become truly annoying, and then stops. We slowly drift back to sleep, making a mental note of this latest less-than-satisfactory moment at The Sahara.

Really wake up, ready to get up, at about 10. I got a tip from the girl at the half-priced tickets booth the previous night that their lower-Strip location (by the Harley Davidson Cafe) tends to have a lot more tickets than the one by the Riviera, particularly for shows that are Riviera-based, such as The Amazing Johnathan. Now, I'm A BIG Amazing Johnathan fan, and have wanted to catch his act live for years, so this is awesome news. Therefore, plans begin with getting down to the lower Strip, obtaining tickets, and then picking one of the behemoth resorts down there for a Champagne Brunch buffet thing.

So, off to the ticket place at about 11:30. Monorail is not working (shocking, I know), so first cab ride of the day down to the Aladdin. This cab driver is fairly non-descript, and chats on his cell for the majority of the trip. Wander over to the ticket place, jump the line (VIP passes for purchasing the previous night -- I feel so special...) and there they are -- Preferred Seating tickets! For the Amazing Johnathan show at 10:00 that night! For like $30 -- I'm thrilled. Preferred seating means, I assume, that Christine (who is legally blind, by the way -- I'll have to write about that sometime. She's pretty freakin' amazing) should actually be able to see the stage, the people on the stage, and maybe even what the people on the stage are doing! Tickets tucked safely away in my wallet, we head down the Strip, deciding to hit the MGM Grand Buffet's brunch.

On the way, we met a cool Elvis:

Ahh, now it really feels like Vegas.

The MGM Grand is astonishingly large. I mean, SOOOOO BIG. Quite opulent, with lots of statues and video screens and lights and whatnot. We wander around, suitably impressed, for about 10 minutes, and then realize we are fucking STARVING and it's time to eat. So we head on over to the Grand Buffet -- $20 each! Jeez, whatever happened to bargain buffets? But the food is incredibly tasty, and the champagne is actually good -- probably Korbel or a similar decent-quality, mass-market brand. We eat and drink a good $40 worth of very good food and champagne, and then move along to the Lion Habitat for something FREE.

Yes, FREE in Vegas. It exists.

The lions are gorgeous, and the habitat has this fantastic glass hallway that enables you to walk directly below the lions. A great, albeit brief, experience. Next, we're heading up to the Bellagio, to check out the Monet exhibit.

On the way, I was briefly terrified by this enormous clown face.

I swear it's still haunting my dreams, days later. Down here, we all float....

Anyway, Bellagio. Lovely hotel. I mean REALLY, REALLY lovely. Everything just drips with class. But, you know what? It just doesn't work for me, at least not initially. It seems to be trying SO hard to be SO classy. But come on Bellagio: This is Vegas, you're a casino, get the fuck over yourself, you know? There's just something about trying to do "class" on such an obscenely large scale that seems silly, and not in a funny way.

It reminded me of the scene in Ocean's 11, where Julia Roberts is making her "big entrance" and we're supposed to be sitting there thinking "She's just amazing! So graceful! The way she walks down those stairs!" And all I can think of when I see that scene is "She looks like a twelve year old trying to walk in her mom's heels. I'm amazed she hasn't fallen head first down the stairs.” Pretty, but awkward: Too long, too tall, just too ... much, and yet not enough.

That said, the lobby is stunning, the casino is lovely, the gardens charming and fragrant, and so on. We blow $30 to spend 25 minutes admiring 20 paintings by Monet. Momentarily satisfying, but ultimately leaves me feeling like I was taken. I mean, again: I'm in Vegas. I've been to some amazing museums. I've seen many Monet's in the past. And yet I blew $30 to see a few more. Why am I paying to do the same thing here when there are all these other Vegas-specific pleasures to be sampled? Kinda felt like I screwed a gorgeous woman, but found out when I was finished that she was an expensive hooker and I was paying for the privilege.

But well, that's a feeling I'll come to get used to, and to enjoy, in Vegas. Vegas makes you feel a lot like that, everywhere you go. But for some reason in the Bellagio, where they try SO hard to not seem like "those OTHER places," it felt especially disingenuous. It's like the hotel stridently declares "I'm not a WHORE, like those other girls. I'm a professional courtesan skilled in the ancient arts of lovemaking!"

Honey, either way you look at it, you're taking people's money and fucking them. Just because you're not cracking your gum while you settle the bill it doesn't change a thing. No judgments here, but PLEASE get OVER yourself.

Stop to play some video poker at the bar .I order a G&T (which had been comped everywhere else I'd gone when I was playing at the bar), Christine orders a Pepsi. the bartender charges us $12. That’s $8 for the G&T, and $4 for a fucking glass of soda. AND we're gambling. I could have handled having to pay for the G&T, but apparently we're not playing high-enough stakes to get free bubbly sugar water from these fuckers. That does it: My impression of the Bellagio is complete. My money and I will be going elsewhere.

On that note, we cab it back to The Sahara to figure out dinner reservations for later and grab some down-time. After briefly considering going really high-end (The Eiffel Tower Restaurant overlooking the Bellagio fountains, Aureole, maybe Circo) we decide to conserve funds a bit so we can do another nice place the following night and settle on Il Fornaoi at the New York New York, which LOOKS really nice. Plus, being New Yorkers at heart, we can't wait to hit NYNY. So, the evening plan is set: Il Fornaio at 7, Amazing Johnathan at 10, some gambling in between. Good to go.

Fast-forward: Cab to NYNY (retired New York City cop and world-class bigot at the wheel. Entertaining in a "god, are ALL retired cops such fuckin' casual bigots?" sort of way. Arrive at NYNY and gawk for a bit. LOVED this statue of Lady Liberty a la Marilyn:

Then it’s time for Il Fornaio: NOT what we expected. Loud, trattoria-style place. Nice waiter, decent bottle of wine, OK appetizer, aggressive sniper-photographer, absurdly fast table service, intrusive busboys, unimpressive entrees, unhappy diners, unpleasant experience. Brief chat with the manager (a nice-looking but oblique and obsequious gent with this silly little jet-black soul patch the size of a No. 2 pencil eraser on his chin -- I couldn't stop staring at it when I spoke to him) gets about 25% of the bill erased, making me feel less angry but leaving me just as hungry.

We depart Il Fornaio, slightly ruffled. This was supposed to be a romantic evening. We are dressed for a romantic evening. But so far, it's been like family night at The Olive Garden. Looking to shift things in a new direction, we head to the Taxi Ride roller coaster, which looks fantastic. It takes a good 10 minutes to walk there, but we have a solid hour of time before we need to get up to the Riviera, which is only like a mile a way, so we're not concerned.

We arrive at the roller coaster, discover that they want $12.50 per person to ride it, and choose to forego this particular pleasure. We'll just head over to the Riviera early.

So, off we go in yet another cab (quiet gentleman of middle-eastern descent). Not really paying attention initially, we realize slowly that ... well, the cab isn't really moving all that much. Las Vegas Blvd. is completely clogged with cars. Saturday night, Labor Day weekend, plus they got a lane shut down about halfway up the blvd. for construction. This is trouble.

Long story short: 40 minutes in the cab, to go about a mile. But, with all the walking we'd been doing, and with the nice pointy shoes we were wearing, walking up the Strip was simply not an option. We arrive at the Riviera 10 minutes later than we were told to, in something of a panic, but are assured by the girl at the box office that we are fine, seating hasn't started yet, etc. Head up to the theater, both of us desperately trying to lift our moods after the awful experience at NYNY and lengthy frustrating cab ride, trying to figure out some way to salvage the rapidly diminishing sense of romance the evening has left. Christine opts to sit, I opt to drink and shrug it off. Besides, we're seeing the Amazing Johnathan, have great seating (PREFERRED seating!), so what could go possibly wrong?

Ahh, grasshopper. You learn so slowly.

You see, there's General seating. Those are the shit seats in the back.

And then there Preferred seating, which is ... in the middle.

The good seats are the VIP seats. They're up front, close to the stage. And where we get seated is so far from the actual stage that Christine couldn't see what was going on, even if there wasn't a 9-foot-tall man seated in front of her, trying very politely to slouch as much as possible but still remaining about as easy to see around as an antique French provincial armoire.

That's it. This evening has officially become a disaster. Christine is literally close to tears at this point.

Thinking quickly, I decide I need to do something, ANYTHING. I get up and ask to see the manager, and play the pity card. My wife, I explain, is legally blind. Very poor vision. And I bought these preferred tickets thinking they would get us close enough to the stage so she could see, but I was wrong, so wrong, so very very wrong (at this point I’m babbling and literally almost begging). It's all my fault. She can't see a thing. Please, please, please help me. I'll pay, I'll beg, I’ll wash your car, I'll do whatever you want, just PLEASE help me salvage this terrible evening.

And the manager said ... "Sure! Check back when the show starts and if there are any VIP seats remaining I'll move you guys there." And at show time, there were 2 seats with an unobstructed view, second row. We moved, I passed the manager a twenty (the best $20 I've ever spent) and a last thank you, and sat down. The seats were amazing, and then Christine gave me one of those "oh shit, you are my HERO" looks -- we guys will kill puppies to get those looks from the women we love, you know -- and the show began.

Now, if you've ever caught Amazing Jonathan’s show on Comedy Central (used to run all the time, when they had "Lounge Lizards" on the air) you know this guy is insane. A riot. And the show is great. But he picked this very old, fairly infirm, and rather odd elderly man as his volunteer/victim for the first half of the act.

Unlike most acts, where people are dragged up on-stage for about 5 minutes and then reeleased, when AJ has a volunteer he keeps him on stage for about 20-25 minutes, really working him. But this guy literally had to be helped onto the stage, by the performer. And he was weird: kept making comments and going off on tangents when AJ would ask him things or set him up for the gags. You could tell right away that AJ was getting uncomfortable with his choice, but he was stuck. Jokes he always does were getting dropped or flopping left and right (Example: He always does this bit where he drops the victim's $20 bill on the floor, and when they guy goes to pick it up he gets behind him like he's ass-fucking him. Problem was this geezer couldn't bend over to get the cash, so instead there was a beat, and then AJ grabbed the bill and continued).

By the time he finished with the guy, you could tell AJ was a little freaked/pissed off. A lot of his typical little laugh-getters had flopped or been skipped, his timing was off, the guy kept interrupting him and stepping all over his bits, just a bad scene. He had to help the guy down the stairs so he wouldn't fall and kill himself, ferchrissakes. Not a good choice.

But the rest of the show rocked and we laughed out ASSES off. Some new material I hadn't seen before, which was cool -- about 2/3 of the show is his "classic" stuff, which is cool, cause it's funny as hell, even after seeing it 10 times. Got an autographed headshot and a pic with AJ and Psychic Tanya (his assistant/wife -- funny lady).

So at this point, Christine is pretty much done for the night. Things finally went right, and -- being the wise woman that she is -- she chose to cut her losses and call it a night. I, on the other hand, decide that the night is still young, there's things to do, places to go, money to lose, and so forth. So it's back to the Sahara (another cab ride -- whoopie!), where I get her safely back to the room, and then decide to check out the Star Trek stuff over at the Hilton. I mean, it's about 12:30 on a Saturday night in Vegas -- I'm sure the place is still shakin', right?

So, back into yet ANOTHER cab (this guy was a lunatic -- really made me kinda nervous. When I told him I was in from Austin he began quizzing me aggressively about Texas history, and then went onto a political rant about Bush, Kerry, and how they're part of the same problem, we have no real choices, this country is destroying us all, "we'd be better off dead" -- that's a quote. I've seen far too many grindhouse horror movies to not get a little edgy when freaky cab drivers say shit like that) and head on over to the Hilton to indulge my inner geek.

Well, apparently the Star Trek Experience is a bit... played out. It was shut down at 10:00 or so (including the bar/restaurant/casino that is modeled after Quark's Bar from DS9, which really surprised me) and the adjoining sci-fi themed bar/casino was totally, completely, absolutely, depressingly dead. I mean, look at this place:

This is at about 1:00AM on a Saturday in Vegas. I swear, you could hear crickets, and they were snoring. No Klingons, no cool models/props, no Star Trek experience to speak of. 100% suck. So I grabbed a drink at the bar, quaffed it with purpose, played some video poker, and headed home. But I walked this time, the better to avoid Charles Manson: Cab Driver.

And as I sauntered drunkenly into the tobacco-encrusted casino at the Sahara, angry and depressed about the whole Hilton Adventure, I realized that all I wanted was food and bed. Grilled cheese and fries to go, please, and up to the room to carb myself into a coma.

For those who are curious, our current cab-ride tab is somewhere North of $125-150 total.

Next Chapter: Sunday. Hangover, goin' downtown, winning and losing, "you must make the dealer angry!", very-much-not-white tigers, dirty dancin' with Beyonce, some romance and flat-out fun (finally!), $2000 boots, enormous margaritas, and more tacky songs with beautiful aquatic accompaniment.

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