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March 1, 2004

"You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villany..."
Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars

No, I don't think Obi-Wan was actually referring to Mos Eisley Spaceport when he uttered that famous caveat to young Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. I think he must have been referring to Sin City—Vegas—I honestly think so.

I'm writing this while sick, so please pardon any typographical errors or grammatical inconsistencies. I'm sick with food poisoning. It was the final bon voyage present from a well-intended (though in hindsight ill-conceived) weekend getaway to Las Vegas, Nevada. It was a bad weekend. I wanna make that perfectly clear at the onset of this narrative; so yes, the writer’s pen is slanted, and yes, it is slanted against Vegas.

Friday, February 27

The drive from LA to Vegas takes about 4 hours, hypothetically. But, let's be serious for a moment. The most direct route is across the 10 and up the 15. And to head to Vegas on a Friday afternoon and expect a smooth flow of traffic, well, I have to plead ignorant in that account. I'd say that next time I'll know better, but there won’t be a next time, so the problem kind'a works itself out all on its own. Needless to say, the 4-hour drive took closer to 6.5 hours to complete. We arrived at 7:30 pm. The skies were dark and the casinos were light up brighter than the brightest Christmas trees at the North Pole on Christmas Eve.

Atop the Pyramid casino a bright beam of light shone hundreds of feet into the sky and was visible for several miles in all directions. I admit to a feeling of enchantment upon having reached this bright, glowing city. Unfortunately, it's all an illusion. And let me make something perfectly clear--this is not a diatribe by an angry writer who was "taken down" by the house. I don't gamble. Never have. Neither does Di. We didn't drive to Vegas to gamble. Rather, we drove there to attend Lebowski Fest West, a celebration of sorts of the movie The Big Lebowski which starred Jeff Bridges and John Goodman, among others. More on that in a bit.

We pulled into The Imperial Palace hotel and casino which, from the exterior at least, seems as good a place as any to hang out (it was also the hotel where Lebowski Fest West was being held, so it seemed a logical choice for lodging).
The first problem occurred when we were given a smoking room. I'd booked a non-smoking room, but apparently, at the Imperial Palace such details are unimportant. Never mind that Di has asthma and that we both abhor cigarettes (yes, we are both pain-in-the-ass reformed smokers--sue us). We explained to the hotel clerk that we really really really needed a non-smoking room for health reasons. The clerk begrudgingly checked with her "manager." Tough nipples, they ultimately said. No non-smoking rooms at the inn so take it or leave it. So we took it. And it stunk like a six-week-old ashtray. And not all the amount of perfume or open windows could alleviate the smell of carcinogen-laced cancer even in the slightest.
Trying to roll with the changes, to borrow from REO Speedwagon (who, incidentally, were playing in the next town over), we headed out for a bite to eat at the Imperial's "royal" buffet.

One thing that you should know about Vegas and buffets--they suck. Prior to heading to this dreadful city I'd heard many, many people prattle on about the "amazing buffets" commenting that "the food is so good." Let me share with you a secret: It's not good. It's shit. You get "all-you-can-eat" shit for $9.95, but it's still shit no matter how much you pile onto your plate and regardless of the number of times you return to the "buffet" line. The buffets are particularly slanted toward the meat-eating populace. And while there were non-meat entrees and side dishes, in the end it all tasted like rat feces--which is probably why we are both sick now.

Following the "scrumptous" dinner, we headed over the movie-screening room for the "big screen" showing of Lebowski. However, the film wasn’t shown on a big screen at all; rather, a DVD copy of the movie was played through an overhead projector and on several television screens. The crowd was loud and raunchy, and it was a lot of fun listening as everyone recited the dialogue. The experience was pseudo-Rocky Horror, only without the props and without as much inspiration. Most of the audience members were at least slightly drunk, so after a while their comments became less amusing and more annoying. We left about mid-way through the screening and tried to freshen up a bit in our smoky room.

Around 10:00 pm we took a walk on the infamous Vegas Strip. The first thing you'll notice if you ever talk this sojourn is the tremendous amount of free porn that awaits you (I hear you shutting down Microsoft Windows and booking tickets to Vegas now...). There are dozens of men and women, mostly Mexican, who stand at the corners and distribute playing cards and magazines. The playing cards each have a photo of a different nude or semi-nude woman, along with a phone number and her rates. The magazines, likewise, contain page after page, photo after photo, of "hot young girls" waiting to show visitors a good time. The majority of this paraphernalia ends up on the sidewalk. There were at least several thousand "trading cards" on the sidewalk--handed to passersby and tossed onto the street moments later. Looking down at the sidewalk and seeing these images is kind of an assault on the senses. I'm not a prude and I'm not a snob, and I enjoy looking at a nudie pic as much as the average, heterosexual male. But seeing these trading cards kind of made me feel sick to my stomach--though quite honestly it could have been the wretched meal consumed earlier in the evening.

As the minutes ticked by we walked along the Strip, ignoring the porno barkers, and popping into the various casinos. Two things that potential visitors might wanna know: 1. The casinos never close. 2. The bars never close. (Again, I hear a lot of you packing your bags, and if this sort of thing is your "bag, baby" [to borrow from Austin Powers]), then you’ll probably love Sin City.

The Vegas architects have done an astounding job transferring a once barren area into the brightest city on earth (and I use the word "brightest" only in reference to the number of light bulbs per square inch, not as a statement regarding the intellect of the average visitor). There is a miniature New York, a miniature Egypt, a miniature Paris complete with a functional Eiffel Tower, a miniature Rio, a miniature Camelot, etc.). No expense has been spared in making the exteriors of the palaces look enticing to the eyes and wallet. Cha-cha-cha Ching! The primary recreational activity among casino patrons are the slot machines. There are poker games, roulette wheels, black jack, and craps, but the slots are king. And it doesn’t matter whether you are wealthy or poor or somewhere in between. The architects of Vegas have devised slot machines for persons of all income brackets. There are penny slots, nickel slots, dime slots, quarter slots, dollar slots, and five-dollar slots. So, even if you only have a few bucks, the machines are ready to take it. Most of the folks who play the slots are older (if I had to wager a guess, I’d say the average player seemed to be in his or her 50s). Most are drinkers and most are smokers. They sit and smoke and play and drink and spend. And once in a while you can discern the sound of change being dispersed from a machine and see an expression of joy at having won back some of what has been spent. But not often. Not often at all.

Eventually, we returned to the Imperial and our smoke-filled room. Although we tried our best to sleep, it was nearly impossible. We kept the balcony window open, which made the temperature within our room almost frigid (the room's heater conveniently did not work). By 6:00 am Di was on the phone with the manager demanding a new room. We were told that a new room would be ready by 2:00 pm. Di asked that we not be charged for the first night--a request that seemed reasonable to me--as she'd been up all night breathing into an asthma inhaler and coughing more often than not. The voice on the other end of the phone explained that a refund would not be possible but that he would gladly give us coupons for a free buffet meal.

Saturday, February 28

Around 8:00 am we took a walk along the strip once more. There was no point in remaining in the smoky hotel room as we were both feeling sick from the noxious air. At 8:00 am the casinos were already full of gamblers. There were beers and hard drinks in virtually everyone's hands and cigarette smoke and cigar smoke filled the otherwise clean air. Pretty girls wearing not much more than stockings and high-heels walked along the casino floors and handed out free drinks to all—keep them drinking and keep them playing.

We headed toward the Stardust casino and Circus Circus (you guessed it, a circus-themed casino). Like the suckers we are, we sought to get some food in our bellies. The line at the Circus Circus buffet was rather long, so we opted for a couple of Krispy Kreme donuts instead. Incidentally, Vegas seems to equate Krispy Kreme as the Elvis or Sammy Davis Jr of donuts. There were actually hotel and casino marquees (like the one outside Circus Circus) that proudly boasted "Krispy Kreme Donuts Available Here!!!" I mean, it's just a donut for cryin' out loud.

We took a shuttle trolley to the casino Camelot and ate at the Camelot's Royal buffet. While we were standing in the buffet line a woman who was ahead of us suddenly cried out, "Is anyone here a doctor!?" Apparently her dining companion had suffered some sort of malady while loading up his plate. A paramedic eventually arrived and we deduced that the victim (who was conscious and was handed a glass of orange juice a few minutes after the collapse) had undergone some time of diabetes-related collapse. You would think we might have interpreted this as a sign from on High. No. Of course not. We loaded up plates and ate and ate like good little food robots (or "fobots" as it were).

While consuming a bunch of crap, we flipped through a street map and noticed a small advertisement for something called "The Fantastic Indoor Swap Meet." I probably shouldn’t have believed the hype, but there was nothing much to do on the Vegas strip aside from gamble, eat, or watch overly priced dance revues, so we decided to give the swap meet a try.
We hailed a taxi and were taken to the swap meet, which was many miles away from the strip. And while it was apparently voted the “best swap meet in Las Vegas,” we found it to be neither "fantastic" nor "swap meet-ish." It's basically a bunch of junk being sold by a collection of down-on-their-luck-what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here-in-Vegas-please-buy-some-of-my-crap-so-I-can-pay-this-month's-trailer-tax" sorry-ass sons of bitches. I’ve visited garage sales with more interesting goods. After a few minutes we realized we’d wasted our time in looking for a diversion and so decided to high-tail it back to the hotel. It was nearing 2:00 pm and we hoped our non-smoking room would be ready. The cab ride back to the hotel was enjoyable; our cab driver was a young man from Columbia who’d been in the US a few years. Most of the cab drivers we spoke with were quite nice, actually.

At the guest services desk of the Imperial, we asked to speak with the senior-most staff member. We were soon greeted by a "Mr. Davis," a one-eyed hombre who looked right at home among the seedy, bad-smelling patrons of his hotel. Although the customer survey card of the Imperial clearly regards "Customer service" as a top priority, I should have stopped to realize that the comment card doesn't describe the type of customer service that is a priority. Clearly, however, any one of these adjectives would have served as a sufficient descriptor of the Imperial’s customer service: shitty, lousy, non-existent, crap-tacular.
We were not trying to scam this hotel. We only felt that the hotel’s management should have refunded our first night’s stay. You don’t put a person with asthma in a smoking room—this isn’t rocket science here. However, Mr. Davis would not issue a credit for the prior night's unrest. He stated that "all hotels overbook. There are no guarantees when making a hotel reservation." He was unwavering in his argument. The hotel was sold out on Friday night. How could he possibly refund $74.00? It would clearly bankrupt the struggling, sold-out hotel. Mr. Davis did, however, offer us a free meal at the crap-a-licious buffet--we declined.

As we returned to the smoky 10th-floor room to gather our already-packed bags, we noticed an interesting sign on the wall next to the elevator. It read, "THIS IS A NON-SMOKING FLOOR." We took a photo for posterity and legal purposes and headed to our new room on the seventh floor.

The room on floor 7 was much nicer and was, in fact, devoid of the smell of smoke. But the damage had already been done. We were both stressed and tired from lack of sleep. To make matters worse I experienced a nifty lower-back ache that all-but killed our chances of attending the second night's Lebowski Fest West activities--namely, a night of bowling at the Sunset Lanes.

So we blew off bowling and headed to the Rio casino. It was among the nicer of the casinos, though it still reeked of beer, cigarettes, and foul-smelling cigars. We ate at the Rio's seafood buffet, which consisted of lots and lots of crab legs, lobster tail, etc. Later, we headed back to the hotel Imperial and got some much-needed sleep.

Sunday, February 29

To say that we were anxious to leave the city of Vegas would be an understatement. We quickly packed our bags, checked out, and headed toward the elevators. The elevators at the Imperial (those that do work) work very poorly. Average wait for an elevator was upward of 10-to 15 minutes. In addition, the stairwell doors on the 7th floor were locked (God help anyone if a fire should break out). Finally, we made it to the parking garage and found our car. We hit the open road, feeling more and sicker as we drove away. Midway between Vegas and LA is a small town--well, they're all small towns, but this one in particular had a bunch of restaurants. We decided to stop for a bite to eat. Just something light like a grilled cheese sandwich. So we stopped at this restaurant named the Harvey House. Now, I don't expect much from today's restaurants, particularly those that are located in the middle of the negative zone, but I'd have expected they'd be capable of taking bread and cheese and forming these items into the resemblance of a grilled cheese sandwich. I was, however, mistaken. So I offer this quick recipe for the chef at the Harvey House in hopes it will help him or her in future cooking endeavors:

Grilled Cheese Sandwich

Place small pad of butter into a skillet (medium heat). As butter melts, place a slice of bread onto skillet. Flip bread over after a few seconds. Add a few slices of cheese onto the bread. Place a second slice of bread atop the cheese. Cover and turn occasionally until cheese has melted and bread appears toasted. Serve.

All sarcasm aside, I’m not sure where we got the food poisoning. It could have occurred at either Rio, Imperial, or Camelot, or at the Krispy Kreme booth. I have no way of knowing where it occurred but it did occur and we are feeling its effects.

Vegas has something to offer to everyone. If you are into gambling, naked women dancers disguised as "performing arts," or free alcohol (if you play it's free, otherwise you pay), then it's for you. If you're looking for any sort of real culture, visit LA. It might not be perfect, but it's a hell of a lot more enjoyable than the black hole of Nevada.

Next: Some new fiction, maybe.

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