The sunrises and sunsets are vivid, watercolor paintings come to life, each more breathtaking than the last. The brightness and hue and interplay between light and shadow so delicious, the inky blackness of night comes as a surprise. The days go from technicolor to noir in 45 short minutes, and then you’re left with just one naked bulb hanging from the ceiling.
I grew up in the woods but I wasn’t prepared for the all-encompassing darkness of the jungle. The canopy is so tightly woven together, starlight can’t penetrate; to see the moon and stars, I have to walk across the muddy dirt road that runs parallel to the sea, pick my way through rather treacherous palm roots, and step out onto the glittering black sand.
But that would mean I have to leave my mosquito net and, right now, two weeks into a several-month stint living on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, that is non-negotiable. A small white desk lamp is bolted to the side of the bed and its neck cranes around to point downward, giving me one solid yellow pool of light amidst the darkness. The double bed has room enough for me and all of my books so that, once the sun has set, I can spend the next few hours reading.
At the equator, the timing of the sunset doesn’t change at all throughout the year, and here it varies by about 45 minutes. It begins setting at around five in the evening while I’m living there, and in order to avoid the vast insect population that has made it quite clear that it’s their world, I’m just living in it, I tuck the mosquito net around the bed and read deep into the night. Those that are attracted to the light come over and hang out, covering the net in glistening black bodies and curving antennae.
I first read all the books that I brought, but then I have to fall back on the strange selection of books left behind by previous travelers. There’s a whole series of South African murder mysteries involving equestrians, a couple of political thrillers, and a collection of Stephen King short stories. They aren’t books that I would have ever chosen myself, yet I am transported from my small, glowing, jungle bed to Johannesburg, Washington DC, and Castle Rock, bouncing around the world and back all from the safety of my mosquito net.
In the morning, a rooster struts under my elevated house and promptly crows directly underneath my pillow (at least, that’s what it sounds like) as soon as the sun starts to climb out of the sea. He’s rather proud of himself and he doesn’t really care who knows it; the chickens follow him on his route around the little clearing, pecking and clucking and fluttering. In the light of the day, the jungle seems far less menacing, the insects almost friendly, and the warmth envelopes me. I make scrambled eggs on the tiny hot plate, do a round of laundry — this is always a must as my sink is so small, a load is really only two or three things — and hang them to dry. Then the sweeping begins.
Overnight, the insects have left detritus throughout the little house, and if you let it build up for just one day, the jungle will overtake it. The collaboration and efficiency of these insects are astounding; you can toss a banana peel out the kitchen window and it will cease to exist within a couple of hours. Cleaning is the only way humans can assert their sense of dominance over the wildlife.
Obese bees fly in throughout the day carrying small bits of wood and moss, whatever they can find in order to rebuild their tubular hives that line the walls. I have to knock them down with a broom each morning, and they spend the entire day rebuilding, only for me to knock it down again the following day. We’ve come to somewhat of an agreement as they’re able to stay in the hive overnight, but come morning, it’s time for them to go. You can hear them coming from across the clearing, their robust bzzzzzzzzzz providing an insistent bass note in the jungle’s music.
After breakfast and cleaning, I walk to the beach and run quickly over the graphite sand; it’s been baking in the sun since morning, rendering its surface into a makeshift griddle. Diving into the sea feels amazing, and even though it doesn’t actually happen, I imagine steam rising from my toes as my feet hit the cool waves.
Then it’s back to the house and to the hammock; the sway of it melds almost perfectly with the sound of the waves and, lying there, I’m floating. In and out of naps and reading and talking to my neighbor, Charlotte, out to walk her German Shepherd puppy Andy, and then it’s time for lunch — fruit and patties and a soda.
As the day moves on, slowly and aimlessly, I decide to head into town. I like walking along the beach to get there instead of on the dusty dirt road, and I listen to Massive Attack on my Walkman, Karmacoma writhing and guiding my pace. Birds coast by me and the wind is picking up, shaking the palms, cooling my cheeks. Some of the hot sand has gotten into my sandals and, for a moment, I consider walking on the road.
I arrive at the small bridge at the entrance to Puerto Viejo and make a left, walking along the water line. There’s a barge that’s stuck out in the middle of the tiny bay, and it’s been there so long that bushes and birds and grass have taken root. I need to get some groceries so I stop at the Chinaman — the store is technically called Manuel’s, but it’s run by a Chinese immigrant, so everyone just refers to it that way — and pick up a few items. With only a hot plate and humid weather, I don’t really cook much, but I do buy a lot of fruit.
I continue around the edge of town, talking to a few street vendors hawking their wares — necklaces and postcards, Bob Marley everything — and then I cut back through the center of town, heading back up the beach. I have to time my visit just right because the sun is setting soon and I don’t want to be caught out in the jungle in the dark. I don’t know this place like that yet.
The sun is just a small shard hovering on the horizon as I step through the small patch of jungle and across the dusty dirt road and into the clearing where my house is. I put all of my fruit in the small bar refrigerator — otherwise, it won’t be there in the morning! — and I rinse off my feet. I change into my pajamas, reach for the lightbulb’s string, pull it quickly and then sprint across the room, jumping into my bed. I tuck the mosquito net securely around me, then reach through it and turn on the small desk lamp. As I open the night’s reading selection, the net reverberates around me, as something rather large falls on it. I look up and see the shadowy outline of a small scorpion above me, its legs scrambling in confusion as it attempts to gain purchase on the malleable surface of the mosquito net. I watch it as it finally gets its bearings, then scurries to the other side of the net, well outside of the puddle of light the small lamp provides. I panic slightly, but then take in a deep breath, settle into my pillow, and head to Castle Rock.
We get up each morning, pull on sandy swimsuits and stained shirts, grab our makeshift toys — comprised largely of old yogurt containers, straws, and plastic fast-food utensils — and run out to the beach. We can’t remember the last time we bathed in something other than the ocean, and that’s just fine.
The beaches are relatively empty; the unseasonably cold 70-degree summer that is far too chilly for the native Californians is downright balmy for we Washingtonians. Last week, we had Disneyland all to ourselves for a few hours: A late afternoon downpour drove the less rusty away, so we ran around the saturated park, splashed in lakes/puddles, and rode The Pirates of the Caribbean at least 7,397 times.
On our way home to Washington, we stopped at this dank little motel in one of my mother’s childhood hometowns, Laguna Beach. An overnight stay has turned into much longer, maybe a month, with my mother rarely coming out of the tiny bedroom at the back. When she does, she is bleary-eyed and somewhat removed from us, as if she’s in a parallel universe, contending with other children, other husbands, other families, and she doesn’t have the ability to be in both places at the same time. Her interactions with my father are strained, her refusals to leave visibly frustrating him.
But for me and my brothers, our new beach life is amazing! These aren’t the rocky, jagged beaches that we’re used to, over which we must always tread gingerly so as to avoid the wrath of a billion barnacles. No, these are soft, sugary beaches, made for running, wrestling, and sculpting sandcastles. My brothers and I spend all day on them, occasionally heeding my father’s calls for us to come and eat whichever fast-food fare he’s procured. Our days are filled with scrapes and surf and sun, and this is our life now. We are beach children.
Until we’re not. One day, we wake up, find that our father has packed up everything, our mother shoos us into the Toyota van, which we’ve nicknamed the MoonBuggy, and we begin the long trek back to chillier, rockier shores.
My mother and I are having one of our extended weekends together; it’s rainy, of course, and she’s come over to Seattle to visit me. We’re holed up in my townhouse, the light filtering from the upstairs loft barely making a dent in the rainshadows, the old electric heater firing up like an incontinent jet engine every now and again. We sip wine as she recounts tales of her rather complicated childhood.
“So the only house we lived in for more than, oh, six months was this one in Laguna Beach–”
“I love Laguna Beach!” I cut her off with a joyful squeal. “Remember when we were there when I was a kid, and we ended up staying for a whole month?”
“Yes, I remember. But it was only a week, Katherine.”
“Well, whatever. It was such a great summer, with Disneyland and swimming every day, I loved it.”
“Yeah, well … I remember it differently.” She takes a sip of her wine. “You know, that was the summer that I told your father that we might have to divorce.”
My parents have been divorced for decades and had lived somewhat separate lives before that, so the revelation of divorce wasn’t surprising; but her telling me that she had been thinking about it since that summer, so long ago, was.
“Really? All the way back then? Wow.”
“Well, I didn’t know what to do. You know, I was the Relief Society president and I was just really burned out. I couldn’t face going back to Washington, going back to the church. I hated it; it wasn’t me anymore. It was so different in California than here. You know, when I joined the church, it was all hippies and the seventies and so a lot of the Mormon stuff was what hippies were doing — making their own clothes, growing their own food, canning everything, you know, all that back to the Earth stuff. But in Washington, it was just old farmers and they were really conservative so, after several years of it, I couldn’t stand it.”
“So that’s why we stopped going?”
“Kind of. Well, I told your father that I couldn’t go back to it, that if he needed me to be the Good Mormon Wife that I couldn’t do it anymore and maybe we should get divorced. But he agreed that we could go back and that maybe I could do less. He didn’t agree to us not going at all, though.”
“Yeah, because I thought that happened a few years later. But I always thought it was because of the sock thing!”
She laughed. “No, not just the sock thing.”
There is no cable television on the reservation; there are only six channels: The ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS affiliates and two unaffiliated local channels that play reruns of sitcoms from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. When the weather gets bad, the antenna goes out and so then we have only static.
In our rural community, most of what we learn about American culture comes to us from the television; and in 1986, “culture” means Miami Vice. It had come out a couple of years before and its impact on style has finally reached our little backwater — specifically, the “cool” boys are walking around in shoes with no socks and wearing comically oversized blazers on top of t-shirts.
My two older brothers are no exception, but Mormons aren’t known for their reverence to current fashion — at least, not the Mormons that I grew up with. Every Sunday, my older brothers don their best Don Johnson stylings, saturate their hair with gel, and go to church. Now, they started out with socks on; we know this because they were wearing these getups for a few weeks without issue. Then, one day, there is.
After Sunday School is over, my younger brother and I convene at the MoonBuggy, alone. We begin playing on the grass next to the parking lot, and only after we notice that many of the cars have already left the church do we begin to get a little bit worried. Where are our parents, our brothers? Another few minutes pass and then the four of them come out of the church: My two older brothers have their heads hung low, my mother is looking irritated, my father resigned. They reach the MoonBuggy and, before we can say anything, we’re ordered to get in and we leave. As the youngest members of the family, we’re often not included in Important Things, and neither my parents or older brothers are interested in sharing with us what had happened. So we promptly forget about it.
The next Sunday, there are muffled shouts coming from my parents’ bedroom as we are getting ready for church. I can’t really make out what they’re saying, but since they fight often, I also don’t really care. I instead try to focus on the game of pretend that I’ve fully launched myself into, hoping to shut out the yelling. My parents finally open the door, my father stomping to the other side of the house and shouting something at my older brothers. My younger brother and I are still in the dark as to what’s going on, but again — we don’t really care. We’re just happy that we’re not the ones in trouble for once, and we climb into the MoonBuggy with an air of benevolent self-satisfaction. It feels good to be the Good Ones!
After a ride to church in total silence, we give ourselves over to the order of the day: A two-hour-long testimony meeting, then two hours of Sunday School. Again, my younger brother and I convene at the MoonBuggy alone. But, this time, we don’t have to wait long, because our mother comes storming out of the church, my brothers following sheepishly behind her, our father walking along much more slowly, looking particularly pained.
When they reach the car, my brothers climb in and sit quietly in the back; my younger brother and I are looking around confusedly, asking what’s going on. We’re told to just get into the van and that we were going home. The ride home is again in silence, and now my younger brother and I do really care. When we reach our house, I send my younger brother out on a mission of reconnaissance; he returns with eyes gleaming.
“They weren’t wearing any socks!” He exclaims triumphantly.
“What do you mean? They had socks on this morning I thought.”
“They told them that if they came to church again without socks on, they couldn’t come back. So today they went there and they took their socks off in the bathroom and so they got into trouble. And mom and dad had to talk to the bishop and they told them we couldn’t come back until the boys were wearing socks.”
“So are we going back?”
We didn’t go back. It seemed so serious then, but now, in my shaded apartment decades later, we laugh about it.
“So that’s what I always thought, that we stopped going because the boys wouldn’t wear socks! I didn’t know you had been having issues with it for years.”
“Why did you even become a Mormon? It’s not like you were born into it, so what happened?”
“I just wanted things to be normal, you know? And my friends who were Mormon seemed to have the most normal lives I had seen. Their parents were around, they ate dinner together every night, they had clean clothes. There wasn’t the kind of chaos that I had at my house, the drinking and the fighting and the abuse.” She laughs to herself a bit. “I guess trying to be normal was my teenage rebellion.”
There isn’t much of a sunset to be seen tonight, but what little light has been able to filter through the clouds has dimmed a bit more. We each take another sip of wine as we stare out the window, caught in our own individual reveries of perspectives past.
Mr. Tale’s current adventures in middle-management-stooge-dom have him stationed in Detroit. In early February, I joined him there for a couple of days, but it was far too cold and blanketed in snow to really get out and about. In fact, all I could really do was chitter chatter down the Riverwalk a few feet, and then make snow angels on top of the Renaissance Center. I wanted to explore the joint more, though, so we arranged a visit in early September to do so. And, also, to play Mario Party. (Priorities, etc.)
Now, much has been made of Detroit recently; it’s bankrupt and struggling, and it’s fighting a war on two fronts: Gentrification and criminalization. On the one hand, you have new recruits digging up empty lots to plant pea patches, and on the other you have gangland generals digging up moats around their neighborhood to keep the police out. You can see how the two might disagree with each other, but, in the middle, you have a grip of perfectly normal, brilliant, intuitive and creative individuals who love their city.
Historically, Detroit was arguably a one shop town, and while it hasn’t suffered as much as some other rust belt cities (I’m looking at you, Flint) it was largely built on property taxes. When the jobs to pay those taxes left, so did the people who owned that property, ultimately resulting in Detroit’s meager coffers. But if the same thing had happened in, say, Tampa, I don’t think we’d care as much; no offense to Tampa, but Detroit is a hallmark city — it represents some of the best elements of American ingenuity and intellect. There was a time when it was what we as a nation wanted to see reflected back at us when we looked in the mirror — economic strength, innovative might, intense creativity, progressive social values. And its fall reminds us that we are fallible, that we can make mistakes that reverberate across generations, that our own best intentions absolutely can pave the road to hell … and, in Detroit’s case, sometimes quite literally. How people act about Detroit also says a lot about us: Some of us are more than ready to dismiss it as a lost cause, while others are putting on the hip waders, rolling up our sleeves and digging in.
In many ways, it reminded me of pre-Katrina New Orleans, with a blend of immense wealth and abject poverty from neighborhood to neighborhood, street to street. It happened to be terrifically humid and warm while I was there, too, so I’m sure that lent something to the comparison … but there were also pervasive cicadas, lush tropical grass lawns, crumbling brick and freshly painted clapboard, endless crops of flowering hostas, gritty streets. And always a welcoming, warm smile from everyone I met.
The DIA’s collection is pretty awesome, and I spent a few hours strolling through their different selections. In addition to the usual Euro suspects (Van Gogh, Renoir, Degas, Picasso) they also have pieces from all over Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Central & South America. Particularly of note in these more regional collections were the Arabic calligraphy collection and video installation, and the variety and in depth analysis of African tribal masks. They also had some lovely Islamic art, and an interesting presentation on how the Silk Road trade influenced the art and crafts along the route.
Their contemporary art selection was pretty kick ass, too, with both pop and abstract examples, and their African American collection was particularly gorgeous. One of my favorite pieces was To Disembark: Billie Holiday, which visually doesn’t look like much, but which contains an audio player within the crate that quietly — hauntingly — plays Billie Holiday’s catalogue. Can you imagine having that piece squirreled away in your own home, for guests to discover as they stumble to the bathroom? It resonated with me deeply, but maybe only because I’m predisposed to having Billie Holiday playing in the background all the time, anyway.
Because it’s Detroit, they of course had an epic mural painted along the walls on either side of an atrium, detailing the history of the auto industry and labor movement. It was so expansive, I couldn’t really do it justice with my snapshot, but you get the idea.
One area of their collection that was particularly broad and deep was American art spanning the early 1600s through WWII. I haven’t seen as expansive of a collection of this style and era before, and it was easy to get sucked in. While I think, ultimately, I prefer more pop / modern / experimental art, I do tend to become rather engrossed in the basic technique employed in photo realistic paintings of aristocracy and landscapes. The brush work is always fascinating to me, and I was even chastised in Dallas once for standing far too close to a painting — I needed to get up in its grill to decode the artist’s masterwork! The content and historical cultural commentary isn’t as interesting to me, but examining how an artist rendered a perfect nose or leaf is quite riveting.
All in all, a wonderful collection, and even after spending the whole morning there, I felt like I only scratched the surface. I will definitely return on my next visit.
Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History
When I asked my brother’s coworker if I’d be able to visit both the DIA and the Wright in one day, she answered with an unequivocal, “absolutely!” But I’m assuming that she isn’t someone who really spends time in museums, examining each exhibit, reading every element. I am the type of lady who does.
So after spending the morning in the DIA, I walked a few blocks over to the Wright, prepared for a couple hours of adventure. Before entering, there was a large plaza with a wonderful lion sculpture, and while I had walked into the DIA under overcast, steely gray skies and 149% humidity, I was now under blindingly bright, silvery overcast skies and 275% humidity. I sat in the plaza for awhile, soaking it all in: The sounds of the construction along Woodward Ave, the smell of the moist heat reverberating off of the pavement, cars impatiently honking, and one solitary, forlorn bird chirping. I tried to find it; I couldn’t.
Now, let me tell you: From the outside, the Wright is a commanding structure by any definition, but what’s truly impressive is that they have laid out the And Still We Rise… exhibit in a spiral fashion, with paleolithic Africa serving as the origin point. You are handed a map with 30ish separate exhibits, from the origin of the planet through the election of Barack Obama. And each of these exhibits are meticulously crafted. I immediately realized that I would be there for the rest of the day.
Some of the tale I was familiar with — we all are (or, at least, I assume we are, but yo, I don’t know what they’re teaching in schools these days) — ice ages, the origin of man, Lucy … but the Wright offered a detailed analysis of the origin of man without a Eurocentric bent. From there, they moved into an example of a West African city — Benin City, actually — at or around the time when the Portuguese first arrived as they searched for a way to get to the east. I loved that each chapter of history was laid out in a terrifically detailed, beautifully immersive experience: From the square in Benin City you walked into the smuggling forts on the West African coast, onto the deck of a slave ship, then down into the ship’s hold, packed with bodies, out into small town squares auctioning folks off, through slave quarters, Civil War battlefields, sharecropper’s homes and finally onto the streets of 50s Detroit.
I learned a lot. While I knew the basic gist of how the Atlantic slave trade came to pass, I didn’t know all the gory details — or, at least, the gory details according to the Wright.
They propose that the Atlantic slave trade began with the Portuguese showing up in the early 1400s with some super tight shit that the dudes from a West African tribal kingdom really dug. They wanted their fabrics, their jewelry, their cowrie. They had some things to trade in exchange, but not a lot; so the HBIC of the tribe offered up a grip of indentured servants that he had from raiding other tribes. These people were essentially slaves, but they did have a time limit to their contract, so the HBIC offered them to the Portuguese as contract labor.
As the Portuguese had just started farming sugar on the island of Sao Tome, they needed a lot of labor to help with the planting and harvesting, so they took them; and as their sugar interests grew, so did their labor requirements, and they wanted more of these servants. But the HBIC had a limited supply, as they were the spoils of war and weren’t that numerous to begin with. Eventually, the Portuguese had depleted the number of indentured servants already on hand, so they asked the HBIC to start kidnapping bitches. And the rest, as they say, is history. Only, really, it isn’t, because that kind of trauma doesn’t just fade, especially when there are reminders of it every damn day.
On this humid Wednesday afternoon, I was the only person in the museum, so the experience was rather absorbing and quite solitary. At one point, I was pouring over the spidery writing of a ship captain’s journal while standing on the deck of the mock slave ship: The floor boards were creaky and moved when I walked over them, giving me the proprioceptive illusion of actually being on a creaky old ship, and there were recordings of waves and wind and gulls, as well as the terrorized screams of a slave being branded in an installation at the ship’s bow — all which served to effectively put me squarely in a certain space.
I was suddenly jarred out of my reverie by a woman asking me if I was touring the museum of my own volition. Her manner was almost accusatory, as if I very well might be a plant. Behind her, two employees of the museum looked on with apprehension.
“I’m with the Detroit Free Press. I’m here investigating the fact that, on Charity Navigator, the Wright has a rating of 1 out of 4. Does that concern you? Are you worried about how they’re using their money? What do you think of the museum?”
The experience struck me rather ludicrous: Two white folks standing on the deck of a slave ship, discussing whether or not the black folks are performing to expectation.
“I can’t really comment on that, but I love how comprehensive and interactive the exhibits are.”
“Can I quote you on that?”
I shrugged and walked away, down into the belly of the ship, lined with crumpled mannequins.
But those kind of reminders are punctuated by others that vehemently cement the essentially resilient nature of a people, stolen, and challenged in ways we would rather forget than face the pain of naming, owning and honoring.
One such example of this kind of resiliency touched me quite deeply, and it was centered on the lives of the early American slaves. Given that folks were actually living lives, contributing to communities and building things before they were kidnapped, they had a variety of marketable skills, such as metalworking or pottery or masonry or specialized agriculture. The United States was nascent and needed the basic building blocks of society laid down, so many of the early slaves were brought over and paired with work based on their previous skills and experience. This was before the beginning of the cotton boom, which eventually transformed the use of slaves from artisans to hard laborers, and these first slaves served to establish the entire structure and community within which the United States would eventually flourish. They made the tools, the buildings, the cookware, the roads that built a nation.
Now, imagine you have been stolen from your life, spent months on a ship not knowing if you were going to live or die, have no concept of where you are, have been forced into performing your skilled trade for free, are treated like an animal, can’t really communicate with anyone and have no hope of ever returning to the life that you once knew. That sounds like the kind of soulcrushing experience that would break the spirit of even the most ardent Pollyanna, right? How could you even begin to find joy, or beauty, or grace in a reality like that?
In the museum’s exhibit on these early slaves, they had a collection of pottery that had been crafted — pitchers and bowls and plates. These had been sculpted by people that had been completely robbed of their identities, and knowing their origin, you would think they’d be rendered as ultimately drab and utilitarian items, created under duress and without inspiration; and you’d be wrong. In fact, these pieces had all been intricately carved with designs to make them beautiful.
As I shared this experience with a couple of friends, and as I write about it now, I can’t help but be overcome with emotion (read: I’m sobbing). The purity of spirit, gorgeous resilience, unadulterated pride in themselves — in the midst of all this horror, these souls still wanted to make something beautiful. How fucking amazing is that?
My expedition to Detroit had many other highlights — delicious chow, lovely dirty bars, riveting conversations, too many gin & tonics, party stars. I was originally going to write up reviews for the eateries that Mr. Tale and I frequented, but they were all so legit, I will instead list them here:
The Redcoat Tavern – If I was going to be buried alive and I could only have one meal with me, it would be this burger.
Ale Mary’s – Their deconstructed chicken pot pie will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about chicken, pots and pies.
Chicken Shack – Delectable fried chicken delivered to your front door? Yes, please!
But other than doing one of my absolutely favorite things in the world (hanging out with Mr. Tale,) Detroit was overall a lovely reminder about what we are, who we are, why we are. I sometimes struggle with the core necessity of art, if it has a meaningful purpose or if it is ultimately an indulgence, and this sojourn absolutely reminded me how essential artistic exploration and expression is to the nature of humanity. That without it, we have no way of redefining our perspectives, or sharing our stories, or holding out our hands across generations. That taking nothing and turning it into something beautiful is an arguably perfect way to spend one’s time, and that art is everywhere.
We were both quite sour — for reasons so different they nearly bordered on the same — so we decided to meet for a few days in Las Vegas. I joked that it would be a fiery explosion of our respective surlitudes, and that we would rise like phoenii from the bright and tawdry flames.
As a writer and a reader, I maintain a cadre of quotes that speak to some sweet part of my soul, and one that has stuck with me for the last 20 years is:
people are like that: they can’t see how beautiful your life is, they think your life must be terribly sad if, for example, it is mid-summer and you don’t have a tan. they want you to agree with them where true joy is to be found, and if you are weak enough to go along with this you will never again have the chance to sleep alone in a ditch in the black night. – alina reyes
It is something that I have written on refrigerators in permanent marker, on personal ads when trying to get some tail, on scratch paper taped to my monitor to remind me that my joy — each of our joy — is something perfectly and painfully unique to each of us. That it’s very easy to take what someone else says should be joyful, to hitch your shit to their celebratory star, but if you just cosign and don’t delve into your own, sometimes terrifying, concept of joy then, truly, what exactly are you experiencing?
And if there is anywhere in the world that is the epitome of manufactured joy, it’s Las Vegas. Going there when I was deep within a valley was my way of challenging myself to piece back together the little shards of joy that I knew were all about me, and to fashion them into something, anything that would inspire light in my eyes once again. I needed a reboot … and here’s what that looked like:
If you’re going to playtend the world away for a couple of days, The Venetian is an excellent backdrop for your unreality. Its tacky gaucheness accentuates the sensation that you’re not really here — oh, but you are. You can spend all day & night strolling underneath the somewhat disturbing blue skies of St. Marks Square, watching other equally intrepid travelers attempt to enjoy faux gondola rides through the pre-fab canals. This highlights the bizarre timelessness in which Vegas is the universal expert, a state that is at once comforting and unnerving. You know that the skies aren’t blue at 2am, but you’re happy to be reminded that, somewhere out there, there are blue skies. And you might even see them again.
I’m not sure why I thought it strange that the canals were located on the third floor as opposed to the first floor, particularly given the fact that nearly all of Vegas’ pools are rooftop affairs. We had selected the Venetian partly due to its complement of pools, and planned to spend much of our time there, reading and sipping cocktails.
On our first afternoon, we happened upon a completely empty pool; given that all the other pools we had strolled by were virtually impregnated by shrieking children and bronzed seniors, it really was too good to be true. We began peeling off our protective layers, dropping possessions along the way, preparing to dive into the pool’s cool, clear, empty waters — only to be accosted:
“Ma’am, there was a biohazard in here, the pool is closed.”
Given that it was 100F in the shade and the pool was singing its siren song, for a not-too-brief moment, I considered to myself: What is the biohazard? Is it one that I personally mind? After all, I’ve swam in radioactive waters, what’s the worst that can be in there? Can I just swim around it? And isn’t there enough chlorine in this bitch to kill pretty much anything?
In that split second, I almost pretended that I hadn’t heard the pubescent attendant’s banal pronouncement. What if I proceeded to dive in, and then ask for forgiveness later? I mean, this is Las Vegas; it’s basically a biohazard in and of itself. It is not a place that was meant to exist; its very creation and continued existence flies in the face of any kind of natural ecology or biology in the region. So why are we drawing arbitrary lines?
It seems even more ludicrous when that same establishment also hosts Tao Beach, which, from what I could tell from peaking around the corner, should only be entered after confirming that you’re up to date on your entire Hepatitis A & B series, plus a couple of tetanus shots for good measure. From even one glance, we knew that, even though we appreciate a certain level of debauch, Tao’s definition of that would cause even Keith Richards to think twice. It’s okay for Tao Beach to exist as a glitter-covered, chi-chi-saturated bio-hazard in a string bikini, but it wasn’t okay for us to enjoy this delectable pool with no visual ailments and only the reports of a harassed life guard warning us off? Really, what could go wrong here?
But cooler heads prevailed — or, in this case, hotter ones — and we moved on to another pool, chock full of bros and babes. And the only way to contend with the “dudes” and “woos” was to order booze by the pitcherful, enjoy succulent prawn cocktails and treat ourselves to the only true vacation food: The club sandwich. We spent that afternoon and the next, sipping mint-infused pitchers of booze and bullshitting about — you guessed it — everything, and the sun.
Sweet & Sour Octopi
No sojourn to Vegas is complete without a serious exploration of the myriad of dining options available. On our first evening, we went to D.O.C.G, because I worship pasta and Scott Conant is always talking mad smack about his amazing pasta game. While it was true that the pasta was on point, the service was fairly lackluster. We made up for it, however, by chilling in a random casino-floor bar in the Cosmopolitan, sipping cocktails and watching everyone and their mother pose in a shoe.
We treated ourselves the next morning to a delicious breakfast at a French restaurant inside of the Venetian, Bouchon. We actually ate there twice, and the food kicked ass both times — plus, we got to eat on a patio fashioned like a Parisian street scene, yet overlooking a series of tropical swimming pools, again confirming the unreality of our situation. The beignets were legit and their croque madame didn’t even know where there may or may not have been a chain, so I’d definitely spend time in that pretend French street bistro again.
Now let me ask you the following: What is Vegas without steaks? And what are steaks without the accompaniment of oysters and dirty martinis? We knew that we were going to have a steak situation going on, but it took us a couple of tries to get it right. First, we hit up the Public House, admittedly on a lark, and while the octopus appetizer we had was tight, our filet and short rib entrees were just run of the mill. I mean, they were fucking delicious compared to most food one might have the opportunity / necessity to eat in one’s life, but if you’re dropping some serious loot on a steak, you want it to rock your world. Public House’s beef story merely shook it.
So, not having our steak wad sufficiently blown, we took on Morel’s, another French affair, this time located at the Venetian’s sister atrocity, the Palazzo. Now, I will admit that, after reading about the different steakhouse options available to us at that moment and the 3.5/5 review that Morel’s had, I wasn’t sure how it was going to pan out. And when we first showed up, our service was, again, lackluster. We were prepared to go to town on some serious business and they couldn’t get it together to even bring us water. But just as we were both questioning our decision to suffer through another perhaps only serviceable meal proffered via shitty service, they changed their game completely. The dirty martinis started flowing, the oysters started arriving and my god, yes: The steak was phenomenal. While their decor left some lingering questions, we were ultimately satisfied with our steak adventure — and what more can one ask for?
While all of our vittlesprees and full on decadent dining were above average overall, there was one disappointing experience, and perhaps only because my expectations were set too high. You know what I’m talking about: The Bellagio’s buffet. Over the years, I’ve heard fantastic lore, tall tales, life changing experiences, all happening at the business end of a king crab leg, provided without limit at this storied buffet. So it was time to finally experience it for myself. Let me be clear: I don’t have the appetite or the stamina to ever truly feel that I’ve gotten my money’s worth at a buffet — whatever the hell that means — so I generally opt not to join in. But if Vegas is about anything other than unreality, the manufacturing of joy and delicious steaks, it’s about buffets.
Perhaps our arrival at breakfast/brunch was the folly, but upon seeing the long line when we exited, we were glad we arrived so early and had to wait so briefly. With all of the disparate islands promising different culinary selections and moments of foodie joy, I was bummed that basically all we had access to was a fancy omelette bar and some polenta. Sure, I’m paraphrasing here, but those were my takeaways, so I stand by it. I wanted to be so impressed by the options, the array, the possibilities, that I would be struggling not to go again and again, that I would leave so engorged that I would welcome a reprieve at the penny slots on the way out, that I would live to regret that morning like no other morning, that I would feel shameful about it, but revel in it all the same. The reality is that I struggled to find anything I even wanted to eat, and going back a second time seemed like a chore. So, now I know: The Bellagio buffet is bullshit.
Sentient Light-Based Ether
Because it doesn’t actually matter when you go to Vegas, we chose a Wednesday through a Saturday. Earlier this year, I did my time with bootsandcats while slumming in Miami’s South Beach, so even though I wanted to hit the disco at least one time, I wanted to boogie to something more interesting. We checked out what was going on and were happily surprised to learn that Chromeo was in town! Too lovely.
Tickets purchased and post-Morel’s, we headed to The Cromwell, which, as best as I can guess, is Caesar’s attempt to attract a Millennial crowd by creating a hybrid South Beach boutique hotel / casino in the middle of Vegas. Yes, it’s as horrible as it sounds. But when you need to get your Chromeo on, you’ll go anywhere.
After several levels of security and navigating an incredibly misbehaving bank of elevators — which appeared to have no rhyme nor reason regarding doors opening, closing, going up, going down, etc. — we arrived in a rooftop club that was what you envision when you think of Vegas. Multiple levels, wading pools, excess and largely empty VIP areas, indoor / outdoor and $25 vodka sodas. Years ago, Seattle had a club that was constantly billed as Seattle’s own Las Vegas style nightclub! and I perennially questioned why they thought that was a selling point. Because, let’s be honest, Las Vegas clubs are utter shit shows. And that’s why they’re so amazing.
We chilled by the pools, sipping our overpriced drinks and listening to the so-so DJ, admiring the go-go dancers and waiting for the gents to arrive. And when they did, they were phenomenal. In fact, even though we were just a few people away from the stage by the time the show started, it was difficult to make out whether or not they were humans or just a chromatic concentration of light-based ether. Regardless, we danced our motherfucken asses off well into the morning.
So, at the end of it all, did we find our joy? While Vegas can’t solve everything (okay, it solves nothing) it did provide me with a reset, and some perspective. It reminded me that deep and silly conversations underneath the palms is always an excellent salve, that sharing a meal — no matter how amazing or lackluster — with someone you love is one of the cornerstones of why we humans even built a society in the first place, that sitting underneath the sun and feeling the honey warmth sink into your skin is equal parts transformation and revelation.
And that, with enough curious creativity, all the little shards of joy that had been scattered around my life can be collected and fashioned into a chrome plated instrument, which can be used to play with that joy in a completely new way.