Monday, June 23, 2008

Six Hundred Dollars I Didn't Earn

I'M SOMEWHAT ASHAMED TO ADMIT that for the past week, after our hilariously wasteful government burned even more postage (which is more what we who've played a lot of Illuminati would call a "money transfer" from the Federal Reserve to the Post Office) in sending me a second notice that I was due some cash as part of the Bush junta's "Spend Your Way Rich" plan, I've nonetheless been racing home after work to see if the check has arrived.

Not that I had any specific plans for the check. I'm not in any long-term debt; I have no major, vital purchases cued up that this would expedite; the Vegas vacation was funded via (horrors!) not going to Vegas for a year and saving up the money in ING Direct; and I've been reducing my apartment of what the great fallen hero of the Republic, George Carlin, would call "my stuff" — with no plan to make things worse by reintroducing needless crap into these halls. Yet the prospect of cash I didn't earn still had me zooming directly home for a few days. So I feel little better than the folks who'd already decided at which bonus-dangling retail emporium they would cash their check.

Needless to say, certain uses came to mind:

Playing that TV all-in game: This is worth two buy-ins at the $1/$2 no-limit hold'em games at the Atlantic City and Foxwoods poker rooms. What better way to recover the donations I made to the Vegas poker economy than by extracting it from the East Coast one?

Advantages: It's fun to take money from morons.
Disadvantages: Sometimes the morons take money from you. Plus driving the requisite 130 miles to either destination is no longer as painless as it used to be. And getting this check from the Feds is, by definition, "taking money from morons."

Getting it all in $1 bills: No easier way to illustrate the fallacious nature of this governmental move than to see it, in all of its paper glory, as a giant stack of singles. Which I can then toss in the air like a man in an invisible cash-blowing cube.

Advantages: Put a $5 on the outside, roll it up with a rubber band, and I will look like a BEEEEEEEEG MAAAAAAN. Or a gas-station attendant.
Disadvantages: Will attract every stripper within 20 miles.

Euro-papering the walls: The hilariously colored currency from the European Union is applying its Italian-crafted heel squarely to the greenback's ass. Cash this, then swap it for euros, then wait as the country continues to mortgage itself to China via the Saudi money laundering machine.

Advantages: Throw 'em in the safe deposit box, cash 'em in for Benjamins sometime late in Obama's second term, buy 45 Priuses, drive them all around with my followers like an energy-conscious Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
Disadvantages: The foreign-exchange market is juuuuuuuust a little more complex than this. The big move in EUR vs. USD already may have been made. Plus, Obama might actually improve our standing in the world, leaving me singing on a hillside with the children of every nation and a pocketful of gaily tinted Scottissue.

Index fund or T-bill: Go long. I'm talking out the chute and into the Giants' parking lot. I'm talking take a canoe halfway down the Meadowlands until you drift under the Pulaski Skyway. Pick an index mutual fund or ETF, or a long-term Treasury instrument, throw the cash in, and forget about it.

Advantages: Boring enough to work. Plus getting Uncle Sam to pay me more money on top of the dough he's already sent me is, as they say on the Internets, a "sick burn."
Disadvantages: Hard pressed to name any. Schizohedron McDuck will probably go this route.

PS. Does it strike anyone as more than coincidential that the $600 conforms to the maximum amount one usually can take out of an ATM in one shot?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Schizohedron's Delivery Service

THIS PAST SATURDAY, I WAS heading out to the gym, just ahead of a threatening mass of thunderheads bearing down on the area. I'd parked my car close to the front door of the apartment complex in anticipation of the coming deluge, but it hadn't struck just yet.

As I walked out of the complex, I was flagged by an elderly tenant, who asked me, "Where are you going?" In response, I pointed to my car, not 20 feet away. I continued walking to the vehicle, not knowing that this fleet-footed woman was following me. When I popped open the door, she asked — from right behind me, which nearly made me jump over the car from surprise — if I could drive her to church.

The church to which she referred lies within sight from my front door, about a five-minute walk. (Maybe a little longer for her, an octogenarian, but one with few mobility issues, it seems, if she could sneak up on me like that.) I guess she was nervous about getting caught in the imminent rain. To which I initially thought, Your cure is an umbrella. But what sort of Nazi would I be if I just left her there?

I clarified that we were talking about the same church — this becomes important — then began clearing out my front passenger seat. She began working the back door latch. I shooed her away to clear the considerably more cluttered back seat. Amid a storm of "Thank you"s and "God bless you"s, I drove out of my parking lot and began negotiating my way over to the church, where a decision would have to be made over where to drop her off.

My plan had been to deposit her on the curb from my passenger side and let her make it into the church from there, but seeing as she'd beelined for my back seat (why do only old ladies want to get into my back seat? Who am I, Max Bialystock?). From that point, I'd be dropping her into oncoming traffic. So instead of just letting her out onto the streetside curb, where she stood a good chance of becoming one of those stuffed animals you find on the front of garbage trucks, I asked which set of steps she preferred to climb.

Now by this time, I'd already picked up on the fact that she wasn't quite all there. I'd had this exchange with her:

Me: It's a shame we're losing the resident manager to National Guard duty. He's the only one we've had in nine years who got anything done.

Her: Are you the manager?

So I wanted to get her clear intent before I made the last bit of her journey needlessly complicated by dropping her at the wrong point.

I asked her if she wanted to be let out in the courtyard or around the side. The courtyard had three fewer steps leading in than the side entrance, but would let her get right onto church property without walking through part of the driveway. The side entrance had more steps, but also sported a ramp . . . but in turn would also force her to share part of her approach with traffic under the porte cochere.

I briefed her on the differences, and she asked to be let out into the courtyard, again showering me with quite unnecessary proxy thanks on the part of her deity. From there, she walked back into the driveway . . . toward the longer steps of the side entrance.

I have no idea how my golden years will arrive, whether as a gentle slowing of function, a dissolution of mental capacity so slow I don't even notice its disappearance, or as an abrupt break with soundness of mind or body that revokes any connection with my past. With few if any remaining chances to produce children, much less to presage grandchildren, I suppose I, too, will have to rely on my wits and others' altruism to negotiate the days' challenges when I arrive at the same stage of life as this ride-wranglin' churchgoer has. Let's keep our fingers crossed for both.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Las Vegas 2008: Flash-Forward to Present

I STILL NEED TO CHRONICLE my Vegas adventures, which the march of time has once again outstripped, but I figured I would drop a note here to all readers to let them know I've returned safe and sound, and that I had a fun trip, despite donating some money to the local poker economy.

Before departing for Sin City, I called a number of folks to bid them goodbye, though I haven't done the same to herald my return. I think I know why, and I have the recent and stunning death of legendary reporter, newscaster, and debate moderator Tim Russert to credit for the understanding. I believe I wanted to at least leave folks with a gentle parting and a kind word before heading off into the unknown, just in case this was the last opportunity.

I have firm belief in the safety of air travel (though landings irrationally scare me a little), but there are many hazards in any travel, and definitely in Las Vegas. Though I feel safe transporting cash at midnight on the well-populated and policed Strip or walking the floor of just about any casino, there are dangers aplenty: hiking in the desert, driving along an alternate route away from the casinos' cameras, walking to my car in a vast parking garage, taking an elevator with two strangers. There are simple expedients to evade all these dangers, but it never hurts to keep one's guard up, as Vegas hosts many opportunists who don't fear a return to jail if a quick crime can fund their next hit or stave off a pimp-beating. Much as I love the town, it, like all major cities, requires discretion on the part of the solo traveler to avoid harm.

And harm might not be from a hostile source; it could be an accident, or a health problem, that makes a given goodbye one's last. I've read that Russert was under observation for a heart condition, but the sudden infarction still surprised most folks. Death can hit at any time, not just those with cardiac enlargement and coronary artery disease. It's best to part with friends and family in kindness and at peace. It's cliché by this point to hear folks say they wish they could've taken back an argument, or broken a festering silence, before losing someone.

I suspect that, and not the offer to throw a couple of bucks on a table as a proxy bettor in Vegas, was why I called around to bid my near and dear adieu. But I'm back now, and — again with Russert in mind — I've resumed my usual practice at the gym. I have a few Vegas calories to burn off, but also some stories to relate. Watch this space.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Las Vegas 2008: Stormbringer

I THINK IT'S ANOTHER ONE of those coincidences that, on my first day in Las Vegas, a rainstorm swept through the Valley. Some might say it was part of a nationwide system of turbulent weather. I claim that it was Vegas crying tears of joy at my return.

Okay, enough of that arty-egotistical horseshit. Back to the saga.

The flight out of Newark loaded on time but left a half hour late due to the tail end of a thunder-system sweeping out of the area. The captain seemed hopeful that we'd still hit McCarran in the allotted time, which leads me to believe that travel times now bake in some delays. Sure enough, we touched down exactly one minute late. The journey itself was uneventful. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on DVD and the iPod occupied me for the bulk of it. I may joke about Vegas getting lachrymose, but I definitely grew misty as I watched the familiar skyline sweep past my window.

The weather at 10:00 a.m. Vegas time was comfortably warm and dry, aided by a brisk wind, which would only increase as time went on. Before I exited McCarran, I snapped these photos from the terminal, part of a terrazzo inlay map of the area, these depicting some of the beasties you might encounter with enough desert wandering or mescaline:

Normally I expect to find lizards lounging upside a piano in a casino bar.

"There's a big snake in the airport, Jock!"

I think you need a fireball spell for this sort of monster, though nothing says love like a prismatic spray.

I grabbed my one checked bag amid a gaggle of tourists from all over America. Aside from trips to NYC, I don't often hear such a sampling of accents in one place. At one poker table, you can have the South, Texas, New Jersey, Canada, and any number of foreign lilts represented, to say nothing of what the dealers will add to the linguistic brew.

I took the usual shuttle to the Wynn. I prefer the scenic route when I roll off the plane; I've made it this far to any given hotel, so a guided tour for a little less than what a cab might cost, with the chance to scan the ever-changing Vegas skyline while other passengers are ferried to their destinations along the Strip, is a choice time to relax. This bus was sparsely filled, but included a black-haired girl with extensive black tribal tattoos on one arm who spent the ride fighting a losing battle against tears while saying an extended goodbye to someone on the other side of a cell call.

I didn't have much time to reflect on her plight, because — in my first win of the day — my dropoff was first. Though I was arriving far earlier than the usual 3 p.m. check-in, I decided to at least register. The lobby and registration area reflected the Wynn aesthetic toward floral decoration and artistry on every surface; if I'd had to wait, I'd have done so in splendid surroundings. This is a shot of the promenade nearby the registration desk (I will take some higher-quality shots soon; this is the first real workout I've given the camera.)

A Wynn clerk acting as a traffic cop of sorts pleasantly guided me to a desk clerk, who checked me in and took my cell number so she could call me when the room was prepped. I was primed to do some wandering to stretch my legs anyway. I read somewhere that Steve Wynn strove to arrange the space to let guests' curiosity guide them through his resort's many nooks and details. With this I agree. I spent about 15 minutes at a relaxed pace, soaking in all the little flourishes his designers had salted about the house. These sorts of mosaics are everywhere:

The beauty of the grounds is matched by the friendly and helpful staff. I've read isolated accounts of snooty attitudes from concierges, front desk staff, and the like, but everyone I've spoken to has been warm and congenial. I felt pampered. I can only imagine those reporting attitudes like the ones I did not find must've brought them in with them. Yoda had a thing or two on that way of being. Me, I found myself smiling from the moment I alighted from the shuttle bus.

Twenty minutes into my amblings about the place, my phone rang: The room was ready for me. The same staffer who routed me to the desk earlier took me around the substantial line and checked me the rest of the way in himself, handing me a key packet for my desired high, Strip-view nonsmoking room.

This is part of what you see from the 54th floor:

Incredibly, by mid-afternoon, this sky would plunge into threatening grey, as a cloudburst swept the area and drove gusts up to 60 mph against the curtain-wall of the hotel. Again, I'd lucked out; this weather no doubt snarled air traffic around the area. I can only imagine the agony of being stuck orbiting Vegas, having come so far only to be put in a holding pattern while rain lashed the desert below. (But the desert was in desperate need of the moisture, so this serves the greater purpose.)

Before the rain blasted in, I watched its heralding winds bend the foliage around the pool while eating lunch inside at the Terrace Pointe Café. After airline and airport food since 6 that morning, the burger with bacon, bleu cheese, and fries was a welcome change. It also acted like a sleeping potion, as an hour later, as the storm broke over Las Vegas, I felt the day catching up to me. I spent the next couple of hours napping on and off. Aside from getting a little walking in across the street at the Fashion Center Mall, and grabbing a strawberry ice cream, I spent the rest of the evening with my head still in Eastern Standard Time. Television and a stunning view of the Strip and the Las Vegas suburbs rolling out to the mountains were my evening diversion for the final couple of hours of consciousness.

With any luck, the late doses of Futurama, South Park, and the reel of Monty Python highlights on the Wynn's TV lineup (a Spamalot tie-in) were enough to drag my mind into Pacific time. As for Vegas time, where sleep is a weakness and dawn an unwelcome reminder of our vampiric devotion to the turn of the card, I'm sure I'll get there soon enough.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Las Vegas 2008: The Gathering Storm

TWENTY-FOUR MONTHS OF EXILE end today. With nearly all of the travel hurdles behind me, and a timely takeoff the final gauntlet to run, my return to Glitter Gulch, Sin City, the Neon Havens — Las Vegas, Nevada — lies scant hours away.

Once I escaped work yesterday, it was a downhill run to this morning. Nearly all packing was complete. My poker bankroll had been retrieved from its salt-mine redoubt, borne to my lair by vermillion-robed acolytes, swinging censers to smoke out all evil spirits. They also brought my laundry. (I can't be bothered.)

I set two clocks to arouse me from what brief, nervous slumber I managed to capture in nets of nonsensical dreams. A final check of the Continental website showed not only that my flight was on time, but that the center seat of my aisle was still open — an incredible break. I got downstairs 10 minutes early, where the car to the airport was already waiting, slick with rain. Colin, the Jamaican driver, welcomed me aboard and made for the Parkway. We had a fine chat that made the scant 35 minutes to Newark pass even more quickly.

The first challenge met, I checked one of my bags curbside and steeled myself for the security colonic within. I haven't flown since the current strictures were imposed, and I've listened to 2 years of civil-liberties infringement and aggro TSA horseshit since then. I'd bagged, tagged, and flagged what little I had in my backpack, but the proof would be served at the checkpoint.

No worries were needed. I declared my > 3 oz. bottle of contact lens solution to the agent, who waved it through. All of my metal was in the backpack, the shoes and laptop were in bins, and neither I nor my bag dinged the X-ray gadgets. My record of evading a detailed search remained pristine. It took longer to get my shoes back on than it did to fly through the security bullshit.

The terminal here also has flights going to LA and Frisco, so it's fairly well populated. It's fun to try and spot those going to Vegas versus those other destinations. Tropical shirts and an absence of children is a good indicator. Your average planeload of Vegas visitors is a lot happier than those going to other places, with the possible exceptions of Hawaii and areas with Disney parks. By grim contrast, the return trip from Sin City is a tableau of downcast faces: laden with losses, aching from hangovers, or merely stricken on the day that marks the maximum stretch of time between the last trip to Vegas and the next.

That's been my last two years right there.

Sadly, Newark Airport lacks free Wi-Fi (unlike McCarran in Vegas), so posting this note will have to wait. I've got another hour before the scheduled takeoff, so I'm gonna snag a chunk of grease from the nearby noshery. Further pre-Vegas dispatches as they warrant.