November 30, 2005

Caesars Palace Death March

This is the original version of the piece that ran in the Las Vegas Weekly. The published version was edited to cut out... well, cut out everything negative, from societal indictment to drunken taunt. Who knew my moment of journalistic speaking truth to power would involve making fun of fratboys? Anyway, here's the original, for those of you who are interested...

Before battle, a great warrior may take a moment to gaze upon the territory soon to be conquered. To view your enemy in his last moments of unsuspecting glory, and know that you will soon seize that glory and add it to your own. Which is what I was doing on the roof of the Barbary Coast parking lot at 7:57 pm on a Saturday, as I prepared to take the first steps of the Caesars Palace Death March.

The Caesars Palace Death March. Wherein one has a drink in every bar in Caesars--not counting restaurant bars, or the cocktails available while gaming--which makes 10-12 drinks. Several people had voiced their concern about my consuming a dozen alcoholic beverages but, honestly, with time and pacing, it wasn’t gonna be that hard. The relative ease with which I can dispatch that many drinks was something to brag about at 19, but now I’m a bit more secretive about my superpowers. And it’s not just about the booze: How better to watch the ebb and flow of Vegas than touring the bars of our archtypical casino?

I had mapped out a tentative plan of attack and corralled my troops—Sally, whose husband was working late, and Keith, who was still taking the occasional jab from last night’s bender. I knew they would not falter during this, our glorious campaign to take Rome, top shelves and all.

The Spanish Steps
Caesars Palace has expanded to the very edges of the civilized world—or as far as the borders of Las Vegas Boulevard, Flamingo and Industrial Road will allow. The first outpost, beyond the ridiculously overdone staircases (you don’t just walk down, you walk around and down and stop and then go around and down again) is the Spanish Steps bar, a row of tiny washing machines churning drinks, with flatscreen TVs and Venetian glass lamps above and barstools and heat lamps all around. Strawberry, watermelon, mango, peach, banana, pineapple and blue daquiris, all swirling Technicolor slush. Then there’s the forty-plus specialty libations: Brutus’ breeze, Medusa’s stare, Zeus juice, toga-tini.

We passed up these excess for three Coronas. The only nearby bar patrons were a pair of middle-aged women. One resembled Sally Field and was drinking a bright pink daiquiri that matched her fuchsia sweater and contrasted with the mint bubble gum she blew out in little pops between sips and chats. She seemed to have drained all the color out of the dishwater-blonde, beige-clad, club soda-sipping, silent lady next to her.
“You know,” I began, “if we’re attacking Rome, then we must be Barbarians. Visigoths, Vandals, Huns, something like that.”
“I’m a beserker!” proclaimed Keith.
“I’m a little more civilized than a Vandal,” Sally mused. “I know what I want and I get it. I’m a Visigoth.”
“I’m a Vandal,” I said. “I take everything whether I want it or not and leave overturned trash cans and graffiti in my wake.”
A trio of men walked up to the bar. They all wore untucked button-down shirts with faded jeans and leather shoes. They each had a little string of white beads or shells around their necks and identical haircuts, close-shaved to downplay the receding hairline. Even their bland, pink faces seemed duplicated. It made me uneasy. They ordered three Coronas.
I put down my beer and picked up my purse. “I believe it is time to mount our offensive.”

Galleria Bar
The automatic doors whooshed open. “Now we have breached the realm of the empire,” I declared.
“I’m shaking with fear,” said Keith. (Or it could just have been the shakes.) We crossed the marble floor, flipped off the statue of Caesar Augustus and headed for the Galleria Bar--a serene little island above the gambling tables and check-in desk, with plush chairs and slow waitresses and smooth jazz tinkling on the piano. Around us sat loud-voiced, ostentatiously jolly men with their button-down shirts straining from gold-buckled belts over prodigious guts. Some had wives with them--younger, but not young, with whipped-up, frizzed-out dry blonde hair and gleamingly lacquered nails. But mostly men, backslapping, sipping Scotch and puffing cigars in classic conventioneer fashion.
I contemplated the crystal-bedecked dome of the palace casino, the unchanged heart of Caesars Palace. Everything else as been ripped out and redone ad nauseum, but they’ve left the golden-era James Bond chic of the palace casino intact. I looked at Sally and Keith. She was watching a marine in full dress uniform get carded at the table next to us, he was peering wanly into his Jamesons.
“Keith, at the end of the march, we’re sacrificing you,” I declared. “As soon as we exit bar number ten, we’re stuffing you into the trunk of a taxi and driving you to the neon graveyard for ritual sacrifice. Or maybe we’ll do it in the parking lot where the Glass Pool Motel used to be. I haven’t decided yet.”
“Yeah, but you don’t sacrifice to Bacchus. You get drunk and have orgies.”
“Ah, but what about the Maenads? They were his most devoted followers and they’d get drunk, go insane and murder anyone they found. Dismembered Orpheus alive and threw his mangled corpse in the river.”
“True.” Keith took a large pull of his whiskey.
“So you must accede my point. And at the end of the march you must be sacrificed. You can choose death or rehab.” I had another swig of my girly drink.
Keith sighed. “Do you have to put me in the trunk?”

Seahorse Lounge
Ostensibly, the centerpiece of the Seahorse Lounge is the aquarium’s exotic aquatic life, but it’s hard to take your eyes off of the mermaid statue above the bar, which is about 10 feet tall and 52DD. The Seahorse favors the same hodgepodge of classical statuary as the rest of Caesars Palace, interspersed with an assortment of slick silvery art deco chairs and ashtrays. The waitresses wear sea-colored, ribbon-laced bustier dresses—a Donatella Versace knockoff, as opposed to the conventional cocktail girls’ ivory pleated minidresses with gold coin clasps, which is the most obvious Gianni Versace bootleg.
Sally: “To Caesar!”
Keith: “To his last days. May he suffer long.”
Me: “May he perish in glorious battle and ignominious defeat.”
We clinked glasses and drank in silence. I scribbled illegible notes, Keith wandered off to the bathroom, Sally attempted to chat up some guys next to us. I felt vaguely disturbed by them, but couldn’t figure out why. Then it hit me. They, too, were all dressed exactly the same: untucked button-down shirts with faded jeans and leather shoes and crewcuts—the only difference being that some went near-bald, others went the extra inch into near-fade. I looked around the bar and this description covered about 75% of the clientele. They could not have been more identical if they had all called each other this morning and planned it. I turned back to the sample next to me. Sally was doing her best to keep up the conversation, but it was like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playing basketball with the seven dwarves. “… So, how is it living in Delaware?”
They shrugged in near-sync. “It’s okay,” drawled one. Well, I suppose they don’t have much to work with. Delaware: You hear more about North Dakota.
Sally finally ceased feigning interest and sat swirling the ice at the bottom of her Jim Beam and ginger ale. We watched the Coliseum crowd trickle out. More conventioneers and wives, they all looked a bit dazed—but who wouldn’t after 90 minutes in the ring with Celine Dion? I watched the parade of red satin tunics and navy blue blazers, macramé scarves and Hawaiian shirts, his and hers cowboy hats and I thought about how nice it is when people aren’t in uniform.

Is that the line?” I don’t know who said it. Perhaps we all said it.
There had to be over 600 people waiting. Button-down shirts by the score, penned neatly between the crowd control tape into a line that extended past the Elton John gift shop and beyond the baccarat tables toward the Celine Dion store.
“No. Fucking. Way,” Keith looked stunned.
“I cannot imagine how packed it must be,” announced Sally.
“To the absolute fire code limit,” I said. “It’s a casino, so they won’t go over, but they’ll hit the exact max. Hell, I bet if they let a midget out, they’d let the next person on line in, but only halfway.”
We stood a moment, wondering what could be in there. Or, more importantly, what all these people thought could be in there. I imagined them waiting for two hours, finally getting past the velvet ropes, through the door and stepping right onto a giant inflatable slide that ended next to a dumpster on Industrial Road. Or Hell.
But it’s the club declared the “Word’s Hippest Hotspot” by E! Entertainment Television. And there’s those chicks who did that song that was on the radio all this summer—well, not those chicks, but some chicks with the same name. Pre-made product served up by the uniformed employees of the franchise, just like McDonald’s. I guess it’s one of those things you do just to say you did it: “Yeah, dude, we went to Pure. Y’know, Shaq hangs out there, and Britney and Paris and….” You don’t have to tell them that all you did was stand around in a crowded room with a bunch of other people from Wilkes-Barrie and Wilmington. Some experiences are more valuable for the retelling than the actual doing.

Sports Book
“I’m not allowed to gamble,” Sally pouted. I had blocked her attack on the
three-card poker tables—after all, it’s conquest first, then pillage and plunder. Now she peered over the shoulder of an elderly man in a Members Only jacket and newsboy cap at the sports book bar. He was drinking a Miller Light, the spinning colors of the video poker machine blinking unheeded before him.
“Excuse me?” She tapped on the machine. “Excuse me, are you gambling?”
He didn’t look up, didn’t move. “After I finish my beer.” I got our drinks and began walking toward the wall of supersized screens and digitzed stats; Sally was still standing behind the guy who was bogarting the machine, glaring.
“Sally?” Keith said tentatively.
“Good luck,” she snapped at non-poker man.
“Enjoy your night,” he sneered. We joined the crowd of upturned faces, conversation trickling to a stop as we became captivated by whatever sporting event had caught our individual fancy. So absorbed was I in the highlights of the Nets/Bulls game that I didn’t notice Keith had returned to the men’s room until Sally nudged me. “Do you think he’ll make it?”
“Keith? I dunno. He looks a little green.”
“Okay, he makes it past 12:30. You think he will or he won’t? I’ll bet you ten dollars.”
“Uh… let me think about it.”
“Tell you what: If you decide to bet against him, that is you think he’s going home, do this,” she waved her hands over her head. ”Then if you think he’ll last, go like this,” she held her hands at her sides and waved them back and forth.
“No, wait, knock like this,“ she thumped twice on the counter in front of us, “if you think—"
“Too weird. If I’m betting on him going home, I’ll rattle my ice,” I shook my glass like drinky maraca. “If I think he’ll make it, I’ll move the ashtray.”
“He falls: drink. He stands: ashtray.”
“What?” Keith came up behind us. “What about the ashtray?”
Sally smiled benignly. “Nothing.”
“Oh.” Keith nodded and leaned against the counter, arranging himself carefully like he was afraid he’d dislodge something. I picked up my greyhound, jangled the ice cubes, and drained it to the dregs.

La Salsa Margarita Cantina
This was really more of a rest stop than a proper bar: Sure, drinks were had (in adherence to the rules), but it was also a chance to build a nice nacho-and-quesadilla foundation for the rest of the evening. What can I say about Mexican chain restaurants that you don’t already know: Chips and watery salsa, eight kinds of margarita, straw sombreros and inflatable parrots on the walls. Accordingly, nothing much happened during this lull in our campaign. Our lovely waitress Cecelia explained why the deer on the label of Cazadores tequila (“It is drunk by the macho men of Mexico. The hunters.”) and we watched the Bacchus n’ Apollo showvb while we ate: Their animatronic faux-marble faces and blank eye sockets somehow resemble Mongoloid burn victims more than godlike perfection. Keith declared that he would sit out our next sortie, mumbling something about the music and needing to sit down as Sally and I headed for the throbbing bass coming from beyond the Fendi store.

Another line, although only half as long as the one at Pure, which means its only about 300 people. Which wouldn’t have mattered if things had come off as pre-arranged but, ultimately, we wound up with the decision to pay $20 each or wait on line for an hour. But we’d gone this far, so may as well march right into the fray and ante up. Besides, they told us it was hip-hop night and, who knows, maybe there’d be a good song or two. And the décor is fetching, in a VIP Buddhist sort of way.
Our positive attitude faded at the top of the stairs. Somehow I don’t consider the Pussycat Dolls and the Black-Eyed Peas hip-hop: If I have to hear it at the mall, I don’t want to listen to it at the club. But none of this was for us anyway: It was for the untucked button-down shirts. Although this was the largest sample of females yet, also identically tricked-out in halter tops, jeans, stiletto heels, sparkly purses and two-toned highlights. I watched all the men drink beer and nod at each other and all the women twiddle cocktail straws and shuffle their feet. I began to wonder if there was some kind of cloning machine in a secret tunnel beneath the forum shops, churning out a barely differentiated mass of humanity, all swaying slightly and waiting for something to happen. I began to fantasize about an army of elephants crushing this place and everyone in it. At that moment, Sally returned from the bar. She handed me a greyhound, reached into her bag for her ringing cell phone and smiled.
“Caesars Palace,” she said, “is full of pussies.”

Sic Transit Slot Machine
We saw Keith off as he slunk to the taxi stand, muttering apologies. I reassured him that he would drink with the gods in Valhalla for all eternity, like all warriors who fall in battle. Sally and I watched Bell Cab whisk him safely off to bed.
“War is not for the weak,” she sighed. “Where we going now?”
“Terrazza Lounge. Cleopatra’s Barge. Shadow Bar.”
“We need new troops. That was our whole army. Gone.”
As we circled back through the sports book slots, our eyes were drawn from the colliding twenty-foot tall football players to a small group of people: An Elvis, a Liberace, the cast of The Anchorman, each guy accompanied by a young woman dressed up as Donna Pescow in Saturday Night Fever. Nikki wheeled over to a leisure-suited fellow in sunglasses and poked him in the chest, “Who’re you supposed to be?”
Pee Wee Herman!” He showed off his highwaters and white platform shoes but the pastel leisure suit didn’t quite cut it. “Where are your giant underpants!?” I bellowed.
“My what?”
“Your giant underpants!”
“What? These!?” He reached down the front of his doubleknit trousers and pulled up the band of a pair of extra-large tighty whiteys.”
“Yes!” shrieked Sally. He hitched them up further, cinched his belt and began doing a little shuffle dance. Suddenly, the Donna Pescows rose as a flock and bore all the boys away, off somewhere toward the food court.
“Damn,” Sally gazed after the retreating group. “I bet we could have recruited them.”
We passed Pure again—not only was the line even longer, but a crowd of hundreds of people were now standing in front of the club, staring at the door. But they weren’t unruly: They were just waiting.
We bought a half-pint of bourbon from the sundries store, sat in front of the Tailgate Party! slot machines and passed the bottle back and forth, occasionally dropping in a quarter. A balding man in a white sweater hurried by. Sally called to him: “Wanna shot?” He shook his head and scurried away. a guy in wrestling pants with muscles and mullet gone to seed walked along. Sally asked him the same question. He ignored her.
An older gentleman in a cowboy hat and boots passed. “Hey, Tex, want some Jack?” He nodded, but kept walking.
A fresh-out-of-college kid in his one grey suit, tie loosened. “Sir, would you like some bourbon? Sir?” He looked at us and speeded up.
“Jack? Jack? Jack Daniels? Anybody?” She waved the half-pint aloft. “Fucking swine. The people we come in contact with on this glorious and brave mission we embark on simply cannot handle the magnitude of our… expertise. They come to Vegas thinking that they are superior, are the people everyone looks up to. But do they recognize that they are shuffled through lines endlessly, through bar and bar, like cattle? Hopeless heifers and swine.” She extended the bottle to me.
I finshed all but a final gulp and handed it back. “We’re in Las Vegas. Sin City. After midnight on a Saturday. Two chicks in short skirts by a slot machine with a half-pint of Jack Daniels going ‘Wanna hit? Wanna hit’ and everyone’s like ‘Oh, gee, I better not, no.’”
That’s the problem with this place,” Sally drained the bottle and tossed it aside. “Amateurs!”

Terrazza Lounge
Pianist Ghalib Ghallab was starting his set when we shuffled in, the music mixing with the booze to put everyone in a gregarious good mood. The Terrazza is removed from the casino and doesn’t even have video poker, a nice break from the endless glowing and blipping and crowding—a big room with a fine jazz combo and seats for everyone. They even have pottery hanging on the walls.
Sally and I got our cocktails and settled in. We cheered a particularly adroit run across the keys and Sally lifted her glass at a couple sitting next to us. “What’re you up to tonight.”
The guy beamed, “We just came from seeing U2!” His button-down was tucked in, at least.
“Wow. How was it?”
“They were great. Just great.” His date nodded enthusiastically.
I nodded back. “Gee, I saw them back on the Unforgettable Fire tour—no, Joshua Tree. I must’ve been—“
“Please,” he waved his hands and laughed, “We don’t talk about age.”
“I don’t care.”
“No, no. Nothing about ‘how old’.” He seemed to be in his early forties, as did she. Nothing wrong with that. Sally broke in again. “What’re you two drinkin’?”
The woman took the straw out of her glass. “Absolut and cranberry.”
“Absolut and red bull. I gotta keep it up!”

Cleopatra’s Barge
Ah, Cleopatra’s Barge, another of the relics of the original Caesars that still makes one feel like Burt Reynolds or Farrah Fawcett-Majors circa 1976. We stood on the lurching boat under the purple lights and danced to Earth Wind and Fire tunes (a lounge band cover of “September” is the unofficial anthem of this town), we sat on velour barstools and got in shouted conversations with guys who were in town for AAPEX or SEMA or NACS and actually wore sweaters or sportcoats or something besides button-down shirts. Someone else paid for our drinks and, in short, we had a good enough time that I forgot to take any notes at all. All I have is a few seconds’ tape of me intoning, “Reagan was a hat wearin’, cymbal-clappin’, shit-slingin’ monkey. Bush is an ass-scratchin’ monkey. Therein lies all the difference.”
Unfortunately, I failed to record the response of whoever I said it to.

Shadow Bar
I’ve been to the Shadow Bar on a number of occasions—on a weeknight, its cavernous, clean, white space is a fine contrast to the bartenders’ sleight-of-hand, the shadow dancers’ gyrations and the sound system’s thump. You can sink into the oversized chairs, have your cocktail in an extra-thick glass and try not to be frightened by the guy at the next table pitching half-wood in his Dockers when a girl trying to hustle a drink sits a little too close. (Yup, he almost caught where he had his cellphone clipped to his belt. So happy I could be there for that. Only temporarily seared my retinas.)
But there’s really not much to see or do tonight, since the place is packed. Elbow to elbow, shoulder-to-shoulder and four deep at the bar. I gave up on getting a drink after fifteen minutes. I had been encouraged by the sight of a herd of marines going in but there’s no room to do more than stand around, gaze up at the silhouetted dancers and make the occasional shouted-in-the-ear comment to your buddy. The girls bumped behind the screens and the bartenders juggled cocktail shakers with martini glasses and the sound system pulsed through the speakers and everyone shouted over the din and stepped on each other’s feet and I wished like hell I was somewhere else. I caught Sally’s eye and leaned over.
“We could die waiting for a drink here. I’ve been to the bars. Let’s go.”
She smiled in visible relief. “Let’s go to the Double Down.”
“Yeah. I need to wash this place off,” I began the slow shoving process that would lead to the exit “Although I know there’ll be untucked button-down men there too.”

Las Vegas’ current marketing incarnation is as the place where you do all the harmful, sinful, wasteful and downright nasty things you’ll never tell anyone about—much less do—beyond Clark County. When you go back home, you’ll tell the crowd around the water cooler you “went to Vegas,” and everyone will snicker and nudge at what was surely a weekend of Caligulan excess. But it’ll be because they’re remembering an innuendo-laden tourist board commercial, not because they’re imagining you with a trio of hookers, a professional bullrider, a dessert cart, an accordion and several gallon-jars of mayonnaise. But it’s easier when you don’t need to actually have done anything, you just need people to think you did. And you’re certainly not gonna tell 'em that all you did was wear the same clothes, stand in the same lines, see the same people, eat the same food and listen to the same music as back home. Didn’t do anything you wouldn’t normally do, even if it was just taking a swig from a stranger’s half-pint of bourbon.
Of course, I’m just as guilty. I thought passing through a bunch of casino bars would teach me something about what brings people to Vegas. So I, too, stood around waiting, wondering when life’s rich pageant was going to make with the floats and clowns already. Although perhaps I was looking in the wrong place: It takes many rings to make a circus, many battles to win a war, Now, if we had marched down Fremont Street, I bet we would have run into some shit.…

Posted by lissa at November 30, 2005 08:16 PM