The day Michael Jackson died, I was in Las Vegas. At a stoplight on the Strip in my shiny red ‘96 GT convertible, with neon looming above and to the sides and closing in and a peerless sunset and paper moon looking down on it all, triumphing over the debaucherous display of man-made monuments to excess. It was the most festive stoplight in America.
Overhead in Old Vegas, on Fremont Street, the lights and video display featured a Michael Jackson hairdo retrospective; and back on Las Vegas Boulevard, for days, speakers blasted “I’ll Be There” and “Billy Jean” while boulevard -goers walked from one beer special to the next. I joined them.
There are shockingly cheap drink specials in Las Vegas, and absolutely everything sounds refreshing in July. I didn’t come to Vegas for $.99 Foster’s Oil Cans, nor did I come here to commemorate the life and times of MJ; although if one were to make a pilgrimage of that sort, Vegas would be the place. They said that while Michael never played a ticket venue in Vegas, it was near and dear to him. I’m surprised Neverland wasn’t in Las Vegas, actually, squeezed in next to Excalibur or adjacent the sirens of Treasure Island. I wonder if anyone would have even noticed.
I’ve been here for some freelance work, for 3 weeks, and my car and I are enjoying getting lost, making illegal u-turns and the ability to refuel ourselves (mostly me), 24 hours a day. Because in Vegas, there’s always something open. I’ve often thought Aspen could indeed change its name to Utopia, if only it boasted a 24-hour restaurant.
The thing about Vegas is, people actually live here. And not only are things open, but there are choices. There are internet cafes and car washes and Office Max’s and Guitar Centers and every ethnic cuisine under the sun, a lot of it under $10. There are dance studios and really cool swimming pools with live DJs and 8,000 different coffee shops and there are tanning beds - and I need to stop the list here for a moment: Why are there so many tanning salons in the middle of the desert?
I found myself in a casino after a concert - imagine that- and a Murder Burger waved to me, at 3 in the morning. Turkey burger, large curly fries and tall strawberry milkshake, $8.99. Now I’m sure I could have found cheaper had I hit the streets, but I didn’t have to; the streets come to you in Vegas.
I went to the Sand Dollar Lounge to hear some local music from the Lazystars, on a Tuesday night. Lots of smoke, lots of Keno, and the band warming up with random verses of Thriller and a prolonged drum solo, ala Garth in the music store. I was really hungry and bars in Vegas don’t serve food; there’s a law against smoking around food, even in Nevada, believe it or not. But here’s how those clever barkeeps keep it real, and keep randoms like me in their barstools.
Jenna the bartendress presented a notebook full of take-out and delivery menus. Much to my delight, I could get anything delivered, any time of night. No delivery charge. No minimum amount. No need to leave the barstool. Apparently, if a customer gets food delivered, the bar isn’t responsible for actually serving it so no harm no foul, grateful patron and perfect bar scene.
Way to problem solve, Vegas.
Bars have their own feng shui. You can sit on the barstool but you can’t really rest your elbows on the bar because there’s a Keno machine where you’d normally put your beer. It was just shy of midnight as I waited for my dinner, but I wasn’t the only hungry one. The guy next to me had ordered a large pizza; we both moved over to the cocktail lounge, he with his score and his friends, I with my Pad Thai (there’s no way that would fit around the Keno machine) and thought happy Vegas loving thoughts. The band hit their stride, sounding dreamy, hopeful, with a bit of glam thrown in, much like another native Vegas band, the Killers. Contented, I broke open my fortune cookie.
I think the Chamber of Commerce should dedicate a whole commercial campaign to the 24-hour delivery of late night munchies to blues clubs; in fact, when this sort of thing happens in Vegas, it shouldn’t stay there. The rest of the world should know about it.
I’ve taken to exploring, perusing the Las Vegas Sun online and checking out the editor’s pick of the night; the poker tournament at the Rio didn’t really grab me, nor did the Naked Men, Singing! billboard just off the 15. Don’t judge me.
But I was planning on hitting Martini Madness at El Cortez, because it sounded so well-put together and so available, every day from 5-7 p.m. The editor hasn’t actually made it his pick of the day, but sometimes you need to think for yourself. Besides, what could be bad about $7 Gin Martini specials in the middle of the 104 degree afternoon?
Actually, gin martinis are confusing enough at room temperature. But the real reason I gave martini time a miss was more disheartening. I wandered into the El Cortez one late night on a random walkabout, and while it’s one of the oldest landmarks in Vegas, if you want to disappear from your life and leave not a trace and hole up somewhere where no one would ever think to look for you - the El Cortez is your kind of place. Not in a romantic, wistful, western movie kind of way, but in a, “all hope is gone and I might as well start chain smoking and stare blankly into the haze which I and my fellow 24 hour gamblers have created,” kind of way.
I’ve enlisted a new friend, who is also new to town; he has about a week on me, so I defer to his local prowess when planning my jaunts. He spun some yarn about the Fremont Street Experience featuring fried Twinkies and Oreos, hot dogs and street dancers and free mardi gras beads, right in the heart of Old Town. It sounded like an urban legend, a mirage in the midst of downtrodden neon signs and downtown buildings but there it was, a bargain oasis of fun.
I forget how good fried desserts are. There was a 45-minute wait for the fried Twinkies when we first arrived; but Dan was not deterred. We watched the Summer of 69 Janis Joplin cover band, we saw Michael’s childhood afro emblazoned in lights on the ceiling, we read the historical makers and learned that neon was invented- discovered?- in Paris in 1910; just another reason to curse the French, I suppose. We saw the Vegas Vic sign that first beckoned early dreamers to Las Vegas many paper moons ago and then - Dan timed it perfectly. He eased right up to the fried Twinkie line and managed to get the last one of the night, before they turned the fryer off.
And because I’d forgotten how good fried desserts taste, I didn’t order one in time and he only gave me one bite and now I can’t cross fried Twinkies off my Vegas to-do list.
I have to go back.
Besides, I need to cash in my $3.75 cent voucher. My only coup de slot machine and they deprive me of the sweet sound of quarters flowing into the tray! Vouchers just don’t feel like Vegas.
But Michael Jackson did. 88.1, the latest soul station- “Where it’s black history month all year long”- was rolling through a Michael Fest. I dropped Dan off and decided to keep driving, out to the ends of town, maybe a desert stretch or two. 1:53 a.m. on a Wednesday in July, no breeze even with the top down, warm and still as the residual heat from the day hovered all night long. The DJ worked his way through some Jackson 5, young Michael, even We are the World, and into P.Y.T. Then, I heard the opening strains (or pains) of Dirty Diana, evidence that the DJ no longer really cared and was blindly grabbing any Michael he could find. I pulled another illegal u-turn and headed back towards the neon beacon. Much like the Mormon Church in any Utah town, all roads lead toward the light in the middle of the desert.