Elwood Blues Can Crush Both Dreams and BonesThree years ago I almost died. Do not worry. The story does not have a bad ending. I would not be sitting here writing it if it did. Besides, I have already told the story a number of times, so repeating it once more would not be particularly interesting for anyone. Including me. So I’ll sum up quickly: three years ago I was involved in an accident that put me in a coma. I suffered a serious brain injury, almost died and spent months in recovery afterward. I got better. The end.

That is the end of the bad part of this entry. The good part of this entry is that every year my friends and I celebrate this date by going to Las Vegas. Today marks the third year we have done so.

It was a really fun trip. The day before we were scheduled to leave two of our group wrote to let us know they would not be coming so there were thirteen of us instead of the originally-planned fifteen. We stayed at the Imperial Place, which is a dive-y sort of hotel-casino on the Strip across from Mirage and Caesars Palace and next door to Harrah’s and the Flamingo. This was the first time for most of us staying there. In previous years we stayed at the Tropicana on the south end of the Strip. This year we talked about getting a different view of things and Steamboat Wille and Hurricane scouted the Imperial Palace for us when they went to Las Vegas with Hurricane’s parents in May.

It's All GoodImperial Palace is not fancy. It’s a little tired. A little run-down. It has some charm and some unique characteristics, but it’s not the brightest gem on the strip, by any stretch. I particularly enjoyed the Dealertainers.

In 2003, the Imperial Palace spun off part of their long-running tribute show, “Legends in Concert” as blackjack dealers. Now the likes of Britney Spears, Jake and Elwood Blues, Gloria Estefan, Dolly Parton and of course Elvis deal you cards. Every once in a while, they step back from the table, climb up onto a small stage, sing and dance. It works as a quirky, kitschy dive-y diversion and is a lot of fun– a good match for the Imperial Palace.

Before I go on, I should talk about the fire. This interesting event unfolded just as we landed in Las Vegas. The roof of the Monte Carlo casino caught fire. To the best of my knowledge there is no causal relationship between these two events. Correlation does not imply causation, as my scientist child bride is wont to remind me.

Monte Carlo Fire Behind New York New YorkWe were driving north up the Strip and saw smoke rising in the sky. It was difficult to determine if Mandalay Bay, New York New York, or Excalibur were on fire. We were diverted off the Strip before we were able to see the Monte Carlo and caught the rest of the story when we got to Imperial Palace and were able to watch the news. This was a big story for Las Vegas, a major casino on fire on the Strip. I could not help but wonder why it was such a big story, though. It looked fairly obvious to me that it was a small section of the exterior facade that was burning rather than anything of real substance. And sure enough, the fire was extinguished fairly quickly, despite the smoke, falling flaming debris and gaggle of gawkers down below.

I have seen big fires in Chicago before– most notably the LaSalle Bank Fire and the Dexter Building Fire. Those were events: several hundred firefighters and serious property losses as a result. This was not. Now it may be a tribute to the Clark County Fire Department that it never got out of control, but the skeptic in me wants to assign the blame for the magnitude of the story to the media. Contrary to popular sloganism, what happens in Vegas rarely stays in Vegas. Flaming 40-story casinos make for dramatic copy.

Taking NotesOverall, we had a good time. There were no really big winners. Hurricane, Steamboat Wille and Smokes each won small poker tournaments. Itsy Bitsy and Whirl had a couple moments of profit with Wheel of Fortune. But there were no big losers either. I played some poker, some craps, and some Pai Gow. I won a little and lost a little. Ended up down about a third of the money I’d budgeted for gambling, so that’s cool. Whirl played more than I did: craps, poker, video poker and some slot machines– mostly Wheel of Fortune. She did very well at video poker and the slots and by the end of the trip was up enough to balance much of her losses elsewhere. I attribute this to her scientific approach to most things in life spilling over to a scientific approach to gambling. She always knows the odds.

I took in two shows: Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine at the Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino; and Penn & Teller at the Rio. Whirl, Farmboy, Steamboat Wille, Dr. Rob, Itsy Bitsy and Princess went with me to see Richard Cheese. I went by myself to see Penn & Teller. Both of the shows were really funny and highly entertaining. Richard Cheese takes pop, rock, and rap hits and turns them into Vegas-style lounge acts. “Swankifies the hits” as he croons. His show is irreverent and very funny. Penn & Teller do an act that is part magic, part comedy, part social commentary. They’ve been headliners at the Rio for five years now. I have wanted to go see them every year we’ve gone to Las Vegas. This year I finally did it.

The weather wasn’t great. Rainy and overcast a couple days and one day it was very windy (60+ mph at McCarran Airport). There was a lot going on in town: a concrete convention, the Miss America pageant at Planet Hollywood, and best of all, the Red Hat Society 10th anniversary celebration.

Red Hats Rock the HouseThere were thousands of women running around in wonderful red hats. We saw all these women in their fifties, sixties and seventies wearing red hats and so we finally approached a group of them and asked, “So what’s with the red hats?” It turns out that the Red Hat Society is a “dis-organization” for women over 50 with the aim of social interaction, and to encourage fun, silliness, creativity, and friendship in middle age and beyond. They did a chorus line on the Strip one morning and were generally everywhere you looked.

The Red Hat Society takes its name from the opening lines of the Jenny Joseph poem “Warning”:

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat that doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me.

I’d never heard of them before, but I’m really glad I got a chance to meet some of them and talk to them. Harrah’s, the casino right next to where were staying was the center for the anniversary. Harrah’s Entertainment also owns several blocks right where we were, so we saw thousands of Red Hatters at all of those casinos. I talked with many of them over the weekend and each time they were wonderful.

The last tidbits I will tell about our trip concerns the return home. We encountered two unexpected events on the way back. The first was Dr. Rob‘s dawdling on the Strip leading to his missing the flight back. We were booked on a 2:35 flight and Dr. Rob decided to join a noontime poker tournament at Treasure Island. You can see how it came to be he did not make it to MaCarran in time. The second was the weather at O’Hare: sub-freezing temperatures, 35-45 mph winds and a ceiling of about 500 feet made for a bit of excitement and a seasonally appropriate welcome back to the Windy City. We landed safely and without event, but the Brazilians sitting next to me were more than a little surprised by it all. I like to think that they made their connecting flight to Sao Paolo without incident.

It is the optimist in me– the part of me that returns to Las Vegas each year.