Sunday, January 14, 2018

Sondheim Through Time

On Sunday, January 26, 2014, my family and I, two years into living in Las Vegas, with three years to go, went to the Stratosphere for free admission to the Stratosphere Tower, being offered to Nevada residents for that day. We had gotten there in the early afternoon, bypassing the long, snaking line of tourists waiting to pay to get in, with the intent of staying at least through the early evening, to see a Las Vegas sunset from that vantage point and how everything begins to come alive from that point. Knowing that, I decided to bring along the biography Stephen Sondheim: A Life by Meryle Secrest, writing about one of my heroes.

Today is Sunday, January 14, 2018, 12 days shy of it being four years since I started reading that biography (I remember this because my Goodreads account, on my Currently Reading shelf, still has the listing for that biography all the way on the bottom, with that date, the oldest listing I have on that shelf). Not that the biography was bad from where I stopped (All told, I read about 30 pages while we were in the Stratosphere Tower, distracted by the 360-degree view), but since then, it's been for lack of trying, distracted by other books, wanting to stretch out what I don't know yet about Sondheim, watching Six by Sondheim countless times, as well as DVDs of two productions of Company, the original staging of Into the Woods as well as the movie, Sondheim: The Birthday Concert and a few others. It's a lot more fun to see his work in action, which has been the distraction. But still, I want to know how he came up with all those musical treasures. I've given this long weekend over to reading about some of my favorite people, and books by some of my favorite people: Phil Collins, through his memoir Not Dead Yet; this Sondheim biography (I have Sondheim's own two books, Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat, and I might delve into those afterward), Armistead Maupin's memoir Logical Family, and possibly The Autobiography of Jean-Luc Picard by David A. Goodman and Uncommon Type: Some Stories, Tom Hanks' first book, all short stories centered on typewriters.

This particular Sunday is time travel in memory at its most head-snapping. I spent a good chunk of the afternoon today finishing Not Dead Yet on the patio of our apartment here in Ventura, in unseasonably warm weather. On weekends, when we're not out, Dad tends to watch marathons of The Golden Girls and while a great deal of it is well-written, I get sick of hearing it all the time. So to the patio I went, unfolding the sole brown lawn chair we have out there.

And yet, on that Sunday in 2014, I had a jacket on, even inside the tower because we were planning to go outside, to where some of the tower's main attractions were, namely Insanity, which dangles riders out over the Strip while furiously spinning around, and X-Scream, which plummets riders to the edge of its tiny track, and then rises up and pushes them back, doing it a few times. Next to the exit of Insanity is the best view of some of the rundown apartment buildings surrounding the tower. By that time, we had moved twice already, from the Valley Vista All-Age Mobile Home Park on Cabana Drive in Las Vegas, to the Pacific Islands Apartment complex in Henderson, all the way in the back, blessedly removed from traffic noise, but cursed by heavy smokers in the apartments above us and next to us, which seeped into our apartment. The complex did nothing about it because "everyone has the right to do whatever they want to do in their own apartment." However, after the remodels they did of the apartments as they became vacant, which surely cost them a pretty penny, I wonder how they feel about that now.

I started reading Stephen Sondheim: A Life when we had found seats in front of one section of this view, in the distance the screams of those bungee-jumping from the top of the tower (we got near to that area, too, and watched the process over and over and over. The ones who set up those were jumping were impressively precise. This wasn't a careless, cigar smoke-filled attraction. There were real lives involved in this and those employees were aware).

The view was overlooking Dad's school then, Fremont Middle, and this is where we would be for a while. Because of the offer, and the visitors in that long line coming up here, the tower was crowded, so you get seats where you can find them. And this was good enough. I was paying attention to what I was reading about Sondheim's childhood, about the indeed separate lives of his parents, but not as attentive as a fawning fan should be. Of course, it was the view, one that's impossible to see anywhere else like this in Las Vegas. I didn't imagine myself as Godzilla, stomping all over the city. I hadn't gotten to that point yet, when living in that valley became harder. I was just amazed at how far the concrete horizon spread. It didn't feel as crowded as Los Angeles looks from a similar height, but it was insistent. Bring in the tourists, let them leave, but try to pen in at least some of the residents because a great deal of them will still get away. As it was for us.

This Sunday, in 2018, I began rereading the beginning of the biography on our first patio, on the left side of our apartment (the one on the right side of our apartment gets too dirty too quickly, with pigeon feathers from those nesting in the crevices that the roof line of these apartments offers, as well as the pigeon shit that falls onto the patio from up there. This complex is none too quick to try to rectify the apparent health problem that could result from that), a corner view that faces part of Telephone Road, as well as a view of those walking on the sidewalk across the street, in front of the Peppertree Condominiums. When the temperature is as warm as it was today, and the wind is wispy and just a little bit talkative, it's perfect. Yesterday had the best weather we've had in five months of living here, and today was just a bonus.

It's quite a distance from trying to grab seats wherever they became available in the Stratosphere Tower. This town is much quieter than Las Vegas could ever hope to be in certain parts, so besides why I started the Sondheim biography this weekend, it's also the perfect atmosphere for it. I can concentrate here. I'm not distracted by any such view, nor any potentially drunken souls (none of that either where I live), nor any constant clamor to buy souvenirs (I had my fair share even while living in Las Vegas. I had two t-shirts listing the names of all the casinos on and off the Strip, myriad sets of playing cards, and I still have my Cosmopolitan t-shirt from before the faceless new owner, the Blackstone Group, killed off its confident, artsy spirit). Sure, walking around the inside floor of the Tower and outside where those rides are is not exactly the best place to be reading a significant biography of Sondheim. I know that. But for that many hours, usually seeing what there is to see in less than an hour and then picking out what I like the most to spend more time with, it just seemed reasonable to bring a book in case there was a stretch of time that I wanted to say that I had read a little something in the Stratosphere Tower. I might well have been the first person to bring a book there, knowing the tourist value of the place. That always worked better at Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat at the Mirage, where it became my tradition to bring Paper Towns by John Green with me to read (I wasn't as into the place as Meridith was because of the dolphins, but I loved that relaxed atmosphere that encouraged visitors to sit a while if they wanted and worry about nothing), but here, why not have the chance to sit in front of one of the windows offering that expansive view, read for a bit, and have that view to look at for a while. I think it could elevate a great many novels.

I know that's not what Las Vegas is for, for pretty much everyone who comes to visit. In fact, it's not even what it's for for most of those residents. But for me, it was just to have a moment of artistic accomplishment in front of me in the way of that biography, to read about how someone else did it. I don't have the same ambitions as Sondheim, although I do want to write a few plays, but my admiration for him is boundless.

And here, in Ventura, it feels like a universe away from Las Vegas, and that's how I like it. There's more time in this town to simply be, to explore whatever you feel like in books, in being on the beach, in strolling downtown, whatever you can think of. Vegas always threw everything at you, all at once. It wasn't as frenetic as Los Angeles, but if it wasn't work you were worrying about, it was the weather (it was frigid that January, hence the jacket), or when to go food shopping (especially in the summer at 110 degrees, when you had to go as late into the night as possible so the milk would last until you could get it home), or the cigarette-smoking neighbors on their patio whose smoke always drifted right to where you could walk out into the rest of the neighborhood, and so much else. This town is better for the rest of Sondheim. I can read about his life more seriously here.

Perhaps one of the reasons I hadn't read much of the Sondheim biography that Sunday in 2014 is because it was the one time in what became five years in Las Vegas that the city felt completely calm to me. I could look at it from above and feel like maybe, just maybe, I could manage to live here. Of course, that was before the cigarette smoke in our apartment got worse, and before we moved a few more times within Henderson. But for that one day, it was possible, although I do think it was the first time I had seen any city from such a height, 1,149 feet up. It even made Las Vegas seem reasonable. Seem. The reality never matches it. It's at least better here.