So it’s been nine years. For nine years, I’ve been thinking and writing and whining about cracking my head open. That can’t be good, right? To be fixated on something for that length of time. Nine years. No matter how unfortunate. No matter how traumatic. No matter how life-altering, nine years is a long time. But that’s what is has been. Short recap: nine years ago, Whirl goes out of town to visit her cousin dying of brain cancer and I step out in front of a guy on a bicycle racing a red light. I get knocked on my ass and land in a coma for ten days. Whirl and my family get calls from the Chicago Police and race across the country. I spend the next several months in hospitals, therapy and other dark rooms putting my life back together. I was lucky. By all accounts I should be dead. But I’m not.
The first year back on my feet, my friends and I took a trip to Las Vegas in part to celebrate. We’ve repeated that anniversary trip a number of times since then. The last two years met some some logistical and financial complications and we didn’t go. But this year we succeeded in our return. We put together a two-city tour: first to Los Angeles to take in the NHL Stadium Series game between the Ducks and the Kings at Dodger Stadium and then on to Las Vegas.
It was a small group, this year, four of us: Whirl, Farmboy, Princess and me. While in California, we stayed with Tom and Lisa in Palmdale. So that increased the number to six for the first leg of the tour. Plus Molly. I would be remiss if I failed to mention Tom and Lisa’s delightful pet cocker spaniel. Don’t be fooled by my practiced disposition of indifference, I loved this dog. She was so sweet and friendly and made me happy just to be in the same room with her. Wonderful, wonderful dog.
In Los Angeles, we attended the most surreal hockey game I’ve ever seen. I can wrap my head around hockey outdoors. I can even wrap my head around hockey in a baseball stadium given that the calendar says January 25th. It’s the fans in shorts playing sandlot volleyball and the thermometer that reads 75°F that take the story into the land of the slightly bizarre. Other than not wanting to see the league-leading Ducks gain another two points in the Western Conference, I did not have a particularly strong loyalty to either team playing. I came to the game because I like to watch hockey, the timing worked out with the the rest of the trip and Tom and Lisa are LA Kings fans. So that made me a marginal Kings fan for the day. (Just to get the painful part over with quickly, the Kings were shut out 3-0 by the Ducks and the game never really went their way from the beginning.)
The USC band marched out. The crowd heavily weighted in support of the Kings booed– the Kings fan standing next to us clarified that this was a UCLA crowd. Legendary Dodgers announcer Vin Scully introduced the teams. And this time the crowd roared louder. And then there was the strut. Wayne Gretzky emerged from the cloud of smoke stridently pacing his way to the ice for the ceremonial puck drop. Gretzky’s relationship with the NHL has been strained recently, mostly to do with the financial troubles surrounding the Phoenix Coyotes. A settlement was reached in December and Gretzky’s appearance at the game in Los Angeles was seen by many as the the symbol that the ship had been set to right. Did Gretzky ever own that walk!
To underline the strangeness of the evening with eyeliner and whiteface, KISS played two short sets. This is after you take in the skateboards and yoga circles and inline skate park. KISS opened with the curious choice “Lick It Up” and included the three songs I expected them to play: “Dr. Love”, “Rock and Roll All Nite”, and “Shout It Out Loud”. Whirl was particularly amused by the fact that the band was shuttled onto the field with golf carts– stark contrast, indeed, to The Great One.
The hockey game itself had a little bit of everything but not a lot of anything. There was a short-lived fight (two punches and a fall), an Anze Kopitar penalty shot (missed) and a shutout (for the Ducks). But that was quite alright with me. I enjoyed the spectacle of the whole thing. I brought my camera and took some photographs, but after the first period I just put it away and soaked in the entire experience. That’s what I try to do on these anniversary trips– to turn off thinking about things and just enjoy where I am and who I’m with. So I did.
The exit from Dodgers Stadium provided another bit of amusement we carried with us through the remainder of the trip. The mood of the crowd was much more mellow than any other sports audience I’ve been a part of. It would be easy to chalk this up to Southern California sun-soaked stereotypes, and maybe I should just do that rather than try and analyze it too deeply. But two things happened in short succession as we were making our way out of the parking lot. For setup, the parking lot did not have much in the way of traffic control. People drove pretty much wherever they wanted in whatever order they wanted to get to one of the various exit points out of Chavez Ravine.
And at one point as we were about to turn onto one of the main arterial streets away from the stadium, a guy appeared in front of us, oblivious to the fact that he had stopped all traffic from exiting. We sat for a few moments before tapping the horn. No movement. So Farmboy laid on the horn longer to secure his attention. The fan slowly turned and blinked. Farmboy suggested the fan move out of the way. Fan responded in a mystified, lyrical tenor, “But I’m on the phone …?”
Farmboy accepted the fan’s right to talk on the phone, but pointed out many other places out of the way of traffic, where the conversation could continue that would not impede traffic.
“But I’m talking to my friend …?” came the fan’s bewildered rejoinder. The car erupted with laughter. The catch-phrase earned its place in our vocabulary.
But I’m on the phone. I’m talking to my friend.
Moments later, as we attempted to circumnavigate Phone-a-Friend, a van full of Anaheim Ducks fans cut us off from the right. Girls were hanging out the side window, one in particular must have thought herself quite clever with this taunt.
“Hee-e-eey, Kiiiiiings fa-aans! I saw a-aall the goa-a-aals!”
I don’t think I stopped laughing for five minutes. We might have been halfway back to Palmdale before I finally was able to collect my composure. This was a very far cry from the abuse I’m used to seeing Packers fans take at Soldier Field or Red Wings fans suffer at the United Center. Cardinals fans get more shit at Wrigley Field. It was hilarious. Sweet, peaceful, hilarious.
One final anecdote from Los Angeles: Farmboy’s iPhone navigation app was normally quite good at delivering directions. I mean, Siri wasn’t quite at the Scarlett Johansson level of engagement, but she did fine. Except for one street. She could pronounce all the Spanish street names in and around Los Angeles. She had no problem with expressways and bypasses. She pronounced French names like “Versailles” appropriately. But Valberg Street threw her and I have no idea why. She had to spell out. Really fast. Every time: Turn left at VEE AY ELL BEE EE ARR GEE street. What’s up with that?
The next day we said goodbye to our wonderful hosts, Tom and Lisa, and headed northeast across the desert to Las Vegas. Along the way, Whirl kept us entertained and informed with trivia surrounding Zzyzx Road. At breakfast, Farmboy explained that any of life’s problems can be overcome through the careful use of one or more of these three simple skills he learned in wrestling:
Before we dropped off the rental car at McCarren Airport we had lunch at In-N-Out Burger on Tropicana Avenue. Tom had given us some suggestions to try from the not-so-secret In-N-Out Burger menu, and while we waited for our food, we considered what had become of Maggie. Maggie had left her calling card on the picnic bench outside the In-N-Out and appeared to be in some distress. The photograph showed her missing both shirt and shoes– and pants! Hard luck all over, I suppose. Over the next several days in Las Vegas we speculated on Maggie’s story. Was she living across the street at Golden Palm Casino Resort? Was the limousine parked outside In-N-Out waiting on her arrival or that of her friends? Every day, usually over breakfast, the four of us expanded upon the scope of our conjecture about a day in Maggie’s life, taking clues from the people, places and exchanges we witnessed during our visit.
This year we stayed at the Mirage. We’ve been to the Mirage several times on previous trips: to play poker and pai gow, to have dinner, to see LOVE. And most notoriously I cajoled several friends into joining me to see the erupting volcano. Let’s just say my associates were not impressed and they remind me of that fact in a myriad of friendly ways and at any opportunity.
This year the highlights tended to revolve around food. We took advantage of the wide variety of restaurants in Las Vegas. We revisited Hash House A Go Go for a delicious breakfast on Monday. Tuesday night we traveled to the MGM Grand and had dinner at Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House before attending the evening performance of Cirque du Soleil’s Kà.
I should pause here and say something about Tuesday night. I’m struggling with how to describe it, exactly. I can’t condemn it as a bad evening. It wasn’t. I had a great time. But it was troubling for me. Tuesday night seemed off-center in a couple of ways and writing this now from the perspective of looking back at the whole trip highlights the differences. It was a good meal, but not the best. That came later. It was a good show, but flawed by very difficult circumstances. I’ll start there and work back to dinner.
I’ve wanted to see Kà since 2007. I’ve attended three other Cirque shows on previous trips and a combination of poor planning and bad luck have kept me from seeing Kà. My interest in Kà piqued when I saw an episode of “Really Big Things” that featured the mechanics of the 360 degree rotating stage. The stage is as much an element of the show as the actors and there are 86 of those. The stage does not have a permanent floor; it has several moving platforms that appear to float. Action takes place on the shifting positions of the stage, sometimes horizontal, sometimes at an angle, sometimes vertical. The Los Angeles Times, when describing the show, said it “may well be the most lavish production in the history of Western theater [and] is surely the most technologically advanced.”
So I was really looking forward to seeing it this year. What I was not prepared for was the repercussions of the tragedy that struck the production last summer, when Sarah Guyard-Guillot fell to her death during a performance. It was the first– and only– death from an accident onstage in Cirque’s 30-year history. As a result of the death, the production has struggled with how to handle the show’s final battle scene. It’s not a scene that can be cut wholesale from the show; it is the climax. Guyard-Guillot played the show’s female protagonist. She figured prominently in that final scene. The compromise approach taken by Cirque was to present the final scene not with live actors, but with a projection of an earlier recording of the battle onto the vertical surface of the stage. That stylistic change was jarring to say the least. Other alternative approaches the troupe has tried included rewriting the scene from a battle to a wedding, to re-blocking it from a vertical orientation to a more traditional horizontal one, and training an entirely new troupe of actors. As a result, Kà is very much in a state of flux.
I think the original reason for the trip colors my reaction. For me, the annual retreat is a celebration that I am still around. That I’ve overcome something bizarre and unexpected and managed to hang on– even thrive in the aftermath. When things don’t work out that way, I feel it. With the run-up to the Olympics, I’ve noticed a number of stories resurface that have parallels to my own– all except for the ending– Michael Schumacher, Chelone Miller, Sarah Burke to name only a very few.
And now this has taken a rather darker tone than I had intended. Let me see if I can rescue it, because the message I want to leave about the trip is quite positive. I felt loved. I felt relaxed. I felt unburdened by worry and despair. I laughed a lot.
Before dinner, we’d spent the entirety of Tuesday afternoon at the Las Vegas Pinball Hall of Fame Pinball Museum reliving our youth. We carried around buckets of quarters and played dozens of pinball machines. The museum houses hundreds of machines from the 1950s to the 1990s. And the vast majority of them work. They’re playable. For a quarter. Some of the newer ones cost fifty cents. But still, twenty dollars goes a very long way here. Princess, Farmboy and I spent quite a bit of time looking at old Williams machines, scouring the painted credits for names of Midway Games coworkers who had started in pinball. We found a lot! In fact, a huge percentage of the machines were manufactured by various Chicago companies. Here’s a short list of the major manufacturers represented at the museum:
- Chicago Coin
- Chicago Dynamic
- D. Gottlieb & Co.
Not all of the games at the museum were pinball. There were a few stand-up video game arcade consoles and other arcade oddities. By far the most interesting game we played was Chicago Coin’s Las Vegas Shuffle: a combination of shuffleboard, bowling, skeeball and tic-tac-toe played with a mirror. It was made in 1973 by Chicago Dynamic Industries in (you guessed it) Chicago, Illinois.
We did some gambling, of course. I tried my hand at craps a number of times. I discovered that part of the remodeled Margaritaville restaurant in the Tropicana has been expanded into a gambling parlor, complete with dealers in flower print shirts and a fulltime soundtrack provided by Jimmy Buffett & friends. They also offered $5 craps and blackjack all the time. Farmboy finally found a slot machine that he liked, Goldfish, by our friends at WMS. We also played pai gow poker and spent an inordinate amount of time jumping from one big multi-cabinet machine we couldn’t figure out to another. The highlight of that late night romp through the Venetian being the discovery of IGT’s “Batman: The Dark Knight“.
The highlight of the entire trip was Wednesday night. We had been talking about ideas for what to do on the night of January 29th, the actual anniversary date of the injury. Farmboy had stated he wanted to get a steak at some point during the trip and Tom Colicchio had just opened his second steak house at the Mirage in late 2013, Heritage Steak. We could not have asked for a better experience. The meal was the evening. By that I mean that dinner lasted deliciously from 7 until well past 10 in the evening. Everything was exquisite. The atmosphere was intimate. Farzad, our waiter, was fantastic. He genuinely appeared to enjoy hanging out with us as much as we did with him. We talked to Kate, the sommelier, more than once and gave here a muddled confusion of requests for wine. (I don’t know much about wine, but I can tell you that I was rather confused about what Whirl and Princess were requesting.) Kate persevered and came through with some excellent bottles for us. Speaking of Whirl, she’s been anxious to try beef for some time. So she decided to give it a try this night. She ordered a fillet and about wept. The meal was just so much fun. At the conclusion of the meal, Kate joined us for a glass of port and the chef, Anthony Zappola, came out to speak with us for a few minutes.
I know we’re not high rollers. I know we’re not, in the big scheme of things, particularly noteworthy, but everyone at Heritage Steak made us feel comfortable, welcome, special. I’ll never forget it.