Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Real Energy of Las Vegas

It was only 100 degrees here in Las Vegas today, yet the sun and the heat were boring down like the 112-113 degrees it will be in the next few days. Not only does this hellish weather obviously not meant for those who grew up with ocean breezes sap one's energy and sometimes will to live (even with enough water and Gatorade to keep the body cool, it's still exhausting), but it also plays havoc with one's memory. You try to remember other summers here and think that something in particular happened last summer, but it could very well have been two summers ago.

I think about Sunset Park, just before the back end of McCarran International Airport, across from a McDonald's and Egg Works, where, even if it's breakfast time, they'll offer you cocktails or beer without hesitation. It works for those who have been deep into Las Vegas for far longer than we've lived here, who might even be functioning alcoholics, but not for us. Never for us. It's one thing about this valley that we've never forgotten, to scoff at it sometimes, to laugh about it, and also to see even further that this isn't our place. This will never be our place.

I've been to almost all the casinos on the Strip. I've seen so many of them change. The Cosmopolitan that I loved was destroyed by new ownership, changed to represent bland cool, as those powers that be see it. The biggest news coming from that resort lately is that they're expanding the convenience store on the first floor. The playlist heard throughout the casino and upstairs through two floors sounds like nothing more than what you would find on your daily FM station.

I've also seen the conservatory and botanical gardens at the Bellagio, way off the lobby, become less than it used to be, with what looks like budget cuts. The lavish holiday displays they used to do with such beautiful flowers wasn't as awe-inspiring last year as it has been in every year past. Part of the result, most likely, of MGM Resorts charging for parking, even residents. Because by charging for parking, expectations are raised. If we have to pay $10 and over to park in the garage, then we damn well better be treated to an unforgettable experience. Seriously. This is not only our time now, this is our money. And yet, when we went to Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden & Dolphin Habitat at the Mirage (also run by MGM), during the time that Clark County School District teachers and employees were admitted for free as part of Teacher Appreciation Week, it was the same kind of feeling. We had been there so many times and there were many guides lining the dolphin pools and in the zoo. Even with the cold, sometimes-driving rain that demanded an audience, that chased many guests away, there were fewer guides than there should have been. The dolphin pool at the far end, near the entrance to the zoo part, was closed off for remodeling. Remodeling remodeling? Or just because they can't feature both at once, with budget cuts again? We don't know. But it no longer feels like those who run Las Vegas get it. People are coming from across the country and around the world for experiences that they can't get where they live. To close down and tear down the pirate ships at Treasure Island for more shopping is not what it's about. The crowds that are coming in for the Electric Daisy Carnival this weekend know what it's about. They're coming to gather for a once-in-a-lifetime experience that represents who they are, what they believe in the sanctity and spirituality of their music, of their lifestyles, to be with people who are as ethereal as they are, as free and light and energetic. Like the Carnivals in years past, this will be an experience they likely can't get where they're from. That's what Vegas was about for at least our first two years. True, it could be that with every bad experience we had with apartment complexes and the school district, in hard living and jobs that were hard on us by dint of the complete disorganization and uncaring natures that populated the district, that it colors the rest of our time here. But lately, it feels like Vegas thinks it's obligated now only to give just enough, but not continually interesting experiences anymore.

It's always been hard to find those experiences here, even beneath the stress of bad apartment complex management and unnecessarily taxing jobs (I can't be entirely sure, but I hope back in Southern California, especially the area we're moving to, that people are actually willing to work together and not stomp on each other just to get to the imaginary top of the heap where they believe they'll have a better view and far more benefits). And when you do find them, you're never sure how long to hold on to them because there may be an experience equal to that not too long after, or maybe that's it.

Applying those experiences to your daily life, trying to make it better by remembering the sheer joy you felt during them, that's hard to do because what's been awful in air conditioning units breaking down, indifferent administrations in schools, smokers all around you with the smoke seeping into your apartment (our first year in Henderson), maintenance personnel that doesn't bother fixing anything you ask the front office to look into, upstairs neighbors that are noisier than humanly possible, completely pounds you into the ground. You're just trying not to wonder what the hell that loud bang was upstairs. Probably that little kid running into the kitchen again and deliberately not seeing the cabinets yet again. I'm just guessing on that one, but it's been that way over and over.

Really, all you can do is remember those experiences in passing, during an idle moment. Something to smile about before you have to get serious again in order to make it through the next day. And now that it's summer, with this goddamn heat? Those memories only get one cool in just being able to think about something else for a while, not to mention dunking one's head in cold water like Jean Smart at the beginning of that season of 24.

But I digress in an alarming fashion. Summer is indeed here, though not too much longer ahead of our move to Ventura, and I've been thinking about the real energy of Las Vegas that I saw only once but have never forgotten.

I think it was two summers ago. We had stopped at that McDonald's at Sunset Park, below McCarran's flight path, to the effect that I could see the treads on the tires of a Southwest 737 about to land. It was well into the evening, almost into the night, and it was a relief that the heat was finally laying off. A little bit.

I don't remember what we had gone in for. Not ice cream, because we would have had that right away. I think it was something Meridith wanted, or maybe Mom wanted it. Or, no, maybe it was something that Dad was getting for lunch for the next day, after his daily stint teaching summer school. Or breakfast, maybe. Maybe he was getting his sausage biscuit for the morning.

Either way, I know we were there for something. And I was looking out the side door, which faced the basketball courts at Sunset Park. They were packed more than I've seen any local basketball courts packed back in Florida, and in Santa Clarita, north of Los Angeles, where we had lived for nine years before moving to Las Vegas.

Summer hell here drives everyone inside. You don't play basketball under a napalm sun. You don't do anything. You find shade. You find water. You find a TV and you park yourself there practically all day, in air conditioning that works. Fortunately, in this apartment, it does, and it's running well right now.

At night, well, just watch out. Every street in Henderson, in the local enough parts of Las Vegas are packed. People need to get out. They need to go grocery shopping, they need a beer somewhere that isn't their living room, they need dinner out. And some need basketball.

Those guys I saw playing through that side door, at the exact time the 2015 NBA Finals we're going on, were phenomenal. You could have taken those guys on those courts, in those exact teams, transferred them to the NBA intact, and you would have had players on the level of LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and others. Or, if there was money to be made in broadcasting streetball, you could have created a brand-new league right then and there. There was blocking that clearly had been planned in the air-conditioned confines of where they were living while they were waiting. They wanted these games badly, being cooped up all day, they were ravenous for it. They could taste it. And when it was time, they were there! They were alive! They were giving it everything they had and still more than that.

Two of the guys from the court came in while we were waiting for our order, and they were dressed for it. They had the shorts, the shoes, and they looked like the kind who hadn't quit after their first game. They looked like they could go four games before a break.

That's the way of this valley, though. You have to find the one thing that drives you and burrow into it deeply so that perhaps you aren't so affected by everything else that might tick you off or make things harder for you here. It's easy if you have a job that feeds right into the various industries that fuel Las Vegas. For example, when my family and I lived at Green Valley Country Club, one of our neighbors was Dave Browne, one half of The Black Donnelly's Dublin, who are on Facebook, and who perform fairly regularly at the Ri Ra Irish Pub at the Mirage, when they aren't touring the rest of the United States in such places as Newport Beach, California, Costa Mesa, California, Middleton, Delaware, and Lake Havasu City, Arizona, to name a few. He and his wife have Las Vegas as their home base and he travels from there and returns. When you've got your guitar, and you're damn good at it (even to the extent of making a Guinness World Record...look it up), you don't have to worry as much about the interior matters of Las Vegas.

But tonight, I'm thinking about those basketball players at Sunset Park. The temperature's only going to get worse in the next few days, but I've no doubt that they'll be out there after dark, playing hard, playing passionately, playing for that one moment that they've waited for, planned for, and thought about all day. To me, they are the real energy of Las Vegas, but seldom found. I want to find that more regularly in Ventura. It probably won't be as out loud as that, but just to know it through its booksellers, through the food at those diners we've heard a lot about, through the strawberry fields in nearby Oxnard, I want to be surrounded by it. Once every few months is not enough, despite its sheer inspiration.

(This post brought to you by the near-deliriousness of vicious summer heat, even with enough water, enough Gatorade, and trying to hide out deep enough in the coolest recesses of a Henderson apartment.)

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