Two years ago, my daughter expressed a desire to go to Las Vegas on her 21st birthday, so she could celebrate the event in style. Said event being two years hence, and being a fan and frequent visitor of Las Vegas myself, how could I say no? So I said yes, and we marked it on our calendar.
The only real problem with the plan was that my daughter was born on December 20th. A Christmas baby. And an indulgent trip. The weekend before Christmas was going to be tough to administer financially. Add to the mix an unexpected death in the family which required air travel two weeks prior to the planned event, and we were looking at a shoe string budget for my daughter's dream birthday. Could we pull it off?
It was me, my daughter, Mari, and her boyfriend, Graham, who all set off on our journey that Friday afternoon. We were full of high hopes for fun and adventure. As a veteran of three other trips to Vegas, they were looking to me to be their guide into the inside of Sin City. We arrived at the airport in plenty of time to drink a beer at the airport bar(well, Graham and I did, Mari would not be 21 until midnight, when we fully expected to be in Vegas) before putting ourselves through the rigors of airport security.
Our flight was thirty minutes delayed, due to air traffic. We only had a 45 minute layover and we were changing planes in Newark, NJ. It didn't look good to make our connection, but we figured we might find a later flight out. We landed in Newark and raced to our next gate, seemingly miles away, my middle-aged, out-of-shape self huffing and puffing behind them. No dice. We missed it by minutes. No problem, we figure, we'll just get another flight out.
Except. There were no other flights out. Mari was going to have to turn 21 in New Jersey. Worse still, the airline would not put us up in a hotel, and with a limited budget in a high cost area, we were at a loss as to what to do. I called the travel agent, I called the hotel (who magnanimously offered to hold the room we had already paid for. How generous of them). I talked to cops, sky caps, ground transportation, anyone within earshot. Mari was upset and depressed about the turn of events, which, in turn, made Graham and I upset and depressed. We weren't even going to be allowed to sleep in the airport. Turns out that sleeping people are considered a security risk. So, we were going to have to stay up all night.
After considerable argument and discussion, and the input of a number of locals, we decided that we would make lemons out of lemonade and taxi into Elizabeth, NJ and have dinner and drinks at a local, locally-recommended bar. Our Russian female taxi driver was kind and put us at ease regarding our destination. The bar had good old American fried food and pitchers of beer, good music, but seemed lacking in atmosphere. Graham wondered if we could find a nearby (i.e. walking distance) establishment with a pool table. We are long-time pool players. We asked one of the employees and were directed to a tiny establishment a block's distance away called "Ben's Bar".
As we walked to Ben's Bar, I was reminded of my time in New Jersey when I was married to Mari's deceased father, and of how fondly he remembered the New Jersey nightlife. There were little bars everywhere, even within that short walk. And I knew that people who had grown up there had spent most of their lives hanging out in these bars. Christmas ornaments decorated every rundown house. Christmas is still sacred in New Jersey. It was an alien culture to the one Mari had grown up in. But it had been very familiar to her father.
Ben's Bar is quite literally a street corner bar, like many in New Jersey. It consisted of a bar, three cocktail tables, a package liquor service, a juke box, and a six-foot pool table. It was populated largely by middle-aged men, most with gold medallions hanging from chains displayed by open collars, nesting in mounds of greying chest hair, and was administered by an aging big-haired Jersey blonde. We walked in, put our names on the chalkboard for the pool table, and proceeded to drink and mingle. At least we were in out of the cold and not being thrown out of an airport for having the audacity to sleep in the middle of the night.
Soon, the patrons learned that Mari was about to turn 21. She was still about twenty minutes away from this momentous occasion, but they didn't stand on ceremony and began buying us drinks and helping us celebrate. Salsa music emanating from the juke box enlivened the camaraderie, along with a modicum of demonstrated prowess at 8-ball. Before we knew it, we were taken into the bosom of their little Jersey bar family and made a part of them. We danced, drank, and shot pool, long after closing time. We even have a few polaroids taken by one of the patrons to mark the occasion. One patron, upon learning that Mari's father was a born and raised Jersey boy himself, mentioned that it might not be an accident that she had reached her majority in a place where her father would have felt very much at home.
We returned to the airport, fairly drunk and exhausted, napping in shifts until it was time to check in on our new flight. The rest of the trip was touched with gold. Every time we thought we were going to run out of money, somebody won some, and we kept on going. We had the time of our lives and left feeling that we'd had a true Vegas experience.
And I left feeling that my daughter had had a true New Jersey experience. And now, I don't just a little bit wonder if her deceased father had some sort of hand in the events that played out. As if he had thrown her a little coming out party of her own, Jersey style.
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