I know I first saw Las Vegas as a small child. It was only six hours away from where we lived and I remember one time that I was sitting behind my dad as he drove the family from Los Angeles deep into the night. The two lane road back then was a roller coaster to me. It dipped up and down as the speedometer dipped up and down. I recall my mom gasping as my dad went over 80 mph, there was no speed limit in Nevada then, and how the pit of my stomach would drop with exhilaration from the car's speeding motion with the backdrop of the dark starry desert. And we then crested the road to see sparkling lights in the distance, all but blocking out the stars. Even then I could feel the pull of the town.
Las Vegas in the sixties was barren by comparison to the city today. What was called the strip was where the highway ran through the middle of the desert the marked with some colorful lights and large buildings to entice road weary folks to stop for a spin. There was not much in the way of civilization out that far from Los Angeles and what was there was mostly for adults only. Downtown, Glitter Gulch and the associated casinos and hotels, was neon at its most elaborate. This from a native Angelino, Hollywood did not capture my notice as much as this well lit desert oasis did even that long ago.
Cut to thirty years later. Steve Wynn's vision of Las Vegas has kicked most of my childhood memories to 'old school' tales. Massive structures that illuminate the landscape for miles create a new world. I have referred to it more than once as Disneyland for adults. Walt Disney's elegant use of miniature lights blown up with massive amounts of money and colors, not quite a child's destination, and yet the use of pirates, volcanoes, roller coasters and other attractions does make me wonder. I visited Las Vegas twice this summer.
The first time was for a wedding. No, not another one of mine, but one of my cousins who was married this past June. My weekend never ventured to downtown other than by my going to and from the airport. I did not see the side of Las Vegas most see on vacation taken annually. Rather I had a nice family visit with only minor feeling of heat exhaustion. Somehow 108 degree weather and I do not seem to get along very well. So while there at the wedding reception my aunt and I decided I needed to come back. I planned a trip for August to meet up with my aunt and play downtown.
During my ill----fated marriage, which was ironically done in Las Vegas during a major heat waveand who says God doesn't give warningswith temperatures well over 120 degrees. My future ex and I stayed then at the Desert Inn. On other trips we would stay there or the Imperial Palace if the Desert Inn was full. Since then I have spurned the 'new strip' for the old. My aunt found me a room at the El Cortez hotel. The hotel anchors the east end of the old Downtown section with the Plaza at the western end of Freemont Street.
The Union Plaza, as it used to be called, is next to the railroad tracks that cut through Las Vegas. In the year I was born my parents, along with a couple of my aunts and uncles met my maternal grandparents at the railroad stop next to the Plaza. My grandparents were just returning from a trip to Ireland by train back across country to Los Angeles. My aunt recalls that they stayed overnight in the train. My mom said they almost talked my grandfather into checking off the train to visit in the city, because he had never been to Las Vegas, but my grandmother was exhausted and did not want to budge. Back then you could pay to leave the train and return with minimum fuss. But for my grandmother it sounded like after a cross continental trip it was more than she wanted to do. I certainly understand. In my August visit I walked right past the very spot my folks had visited oh so many years - decades - ago. Today a Pullman car is elaborately set up as a museum like piece along side the sidewalk between the Plaza Hotel and the Main Street Station Hotel. There are placards with stories about the trains fastened to the car. Currently homeless folks beg from the foot of the rail where the hobos used to hide beneath the trains as they journeyed around the country. While we walked past them the policemen on bicycles were talking with a few discussing some travel plans.
I felt like my weekend trip was slices of many different visits. My aunt took me thrift store shopping. We went to three different types of stores. The Catholic Charities Thrift Store was holding a half off sale. Amidst the crowds we wandered the aisles searching for some good finds. The furniture was sparse and the household items seem to be pretty basic. Crammed full aisles of clothing deterred me from looking much. I think combined we spent maybe $1.50 after an hour or so of shopping.
Nathan Adelson's was a blast. It is right near the UNLV campus. It had more clothing than the other place. It was filled with brand new, tags still on them, clothing pieces that were separated by colors and styles. That shop was a bit pricier for my aunt, my cousin and me. Wonderfully helpful shopkeepers made the store accessible to everyone there. It was not nearly as crowded and we may have purchased more but we ran out of time.
My favorite place we visited was Lynn's World of Home Furnishings. It is actually a consignment business. It is in a strip mall on Pecos. This store brought home to me the differences between Las Vegas and elsewhere. The large number of extremely expensive dining room sets available at great bargain prices was explained to me by the store assistant as, "Most people don't entertain much here." If anyone near Nevada needs new furniture - run - don't walk to this store. The furnishings I saw were nearly unused and priced beyond reasonable. My aunt said after a certain amount of time some of the items would be reduced even more. Granted my shopaholic tendencies are surely obvious but still I was impressed with the quality and quantity of was offered. I walked away from a wardrobe set up that covered most of one wall which appeared to have never been used and it was all for the price of $2,800. Inlayed ovals with carvings were throughout the unit, a mirror set into a section of the piece to be used as a vanity in the center, there were slates of wood accented by nice hardware and all the while still taped to some of the shelves were other bits of hardware to make the insides functional like the baskets and clothing racks. The sales lady dismissed my awe by saying it was more than likely from a home that had been used as a model. All I knew was I wished I had a house to furnish, it was definitely a steal.
Another part of my trip was involved with food. I do not think you can visit Las Vegas and not eat well. I am admittedly not a fan of buffets so I can not recommend one line over another. The meals that struck my funny bone are two diverse meals on the same day. My aunt, cousin and I wanted to grab a quick lunch on Saturday. It was the middle of the afternoon and we decided on Mexican food. My aunt drove us over to a strip mall. The sun was beating down only a mild 95 or 96 degrees. So spicy sounded good to me. As we entered the restaurant the dark ambiance of the lobby dulled my eyesight for a minute. I blinked to see an Elvis was walking towards us. Biting the inside of my cheek I nudged my cousin and grinned. She tried hard to rise above it but smirked back. Could this actually be our host? To my dismay Elvis quickly left the building. We broke out in child like giggles and were seated by the real host for the place. Giving us 'girls' the patented parental look my aunt said the Elvis was a local somewhat known celebrity impersonator. That not withstanding the meal was so-so. My aunt swears our enchiladas were filled with cottage cheese not cheddar or jack. It didn't matter we had fun talking anyways.
Later that evening after we were checked into our hotel we made our way out into the night. The heat was not pounding up as intensely and there was a definite breeze in the air. My aunt cautioned me to hold my purse close to my body as we went from the El Cortez to the beginning of the Freemont Street Experience. I told her there was nothing in my purse anyways since my cell was in my shirt pocket and my wallet my front pocket. She smartly replied that thieves didn't know that. Sighing I obliged for the block over to the covered Freemont Street neon extravaganza.
The city of Las Vegas revamped the old downtown section of Glitter Gulch and the many associated casinos and hotels of world renown. The large neon cowboy is still on his building and the pretty neon lady hers but almost the entire field my vision was drawn upwards to the canopy above the street. On the hour after dark the underside of the canopy fills with lights and the music comes from speakers along the buildings. Time freezes as we all look upwards to see the show. There are stages set up along the street, which is blocked off and basically is a pedestrian walkway, where live bands play and they stop while the lights dart across the street. Even the ladies handing out Mardi gras beads stop trying to entice you in for their drawings on the half hour. The story is spun out, an Area 51 show was one show and a curlicue waves with vaguely Japanese appearing flowers and bits a second show, while we all gaze upwards. But dinner called. I had been to the Pullman Grille two years before and dragged my aunt over to the hotel unsure if it was even still there. I led her past the old fashioned front desk and went down to the restaurant. Amazed my aunt had never been there we were lucky to be seated a bit before ten. The dark wood and use of table settings is completely not what most associate with the old downtown section of Las Vegas. Elegant table settings and a choice of inside or outside the Pullman car inside the actual restaurant, we sat off to the back and had a lovely meal.
I ordered the small filet mignon which my aunt echoed. Choices of dinner Caesar salad or soup started our meal. Slowly we dined and talked. This is not a five dollar prime rib meal. But rather old world charm in an unexpected place. Dinner was pleasant and leisurely, thus fortified we went back into the fray. The Golden Nugget yielded enough silver to pay for what the meal cost in a half hour of play on the quarter slot machines. On the way to Fitzgerald's my aunt pointed out a posse of men headed our way. To my delight the thirty or so young men were dressed like John Belushi and Dan Akroyd from the Blues Brothers movie. Laughing we continued into Fitzgerald's to enjoy their live band. Afterwards we played video poker at our hotel's bar to round out a great trip. What stuck in my head was the phrase, "What happens in Vegas -- stays in Vegas." And yet what you see in Vegas you take home. Sunday was spent at the Bellagio which is a whole different story.