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.
So, yeah. Found it.