A Vegas diary… Terry, Bob, Ellen and Richard on tour in 2004
8 days in Vegas… days five and six


From the Backpack ~ Strange and Unexpected

Normally when I post something from the archives, it involves bringing back an essay or article or such that had appeared on the In My Backpack web site and was removed during one of the updates or computer issues over the years.


This entry is a bit different though… in addition to appearing on the site, it was part of the Travel Trilogy project… or, more specifically, Strange and Unexpected: Backpack on the Road – Volume Three: Las Vegas.

And that means a couple of versions exist… somewhat specific, almost definitive versions if you will… the work that was on the site, and the chapter that was edited and potentially revised from that piece and used for the book.

This material was originally posted on December 31, 2004. It was later published in April 2013. Some minor proofreading edits and adjustments may have been made while bringing the material back to the site in this posting.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Day five, Tuesday, December 14, 2004

It’s our fifth day in Sin City, and our fourth morning waking up at the Fairfield Grand Desert Resort... and I’m back to their real name for a moment because we are about to encounter a story for which they deserve full credit.

One of the interesting things about walking into a time share unit and finding a checklist is that you tend to start paying attention to all the little things that normally don’t come to mind when you head to a regular hotel room. You know, things like… oh… say… the hairdryer in the bathroom with the top screws coming loose and the unit pulling away from the wall… the rack for the iron and ironing board in the closet that is missing two screws… the flyswatter in a room with windows that don’t open. Things like that. I’m willing to say, with a fair level of certainty, that if one completes a checklist that includes lids for mixing bowls and views that list seriously, one tends to look around for things that aren’t on the list as well.

When Tigg got in to bed on Monday night, I was still watching television. She called out to tell me that a metal brace running along the bottom of the headboard seemed loose. She thought I might want to add it to the checklist.

We had decided before splitting up on Monday night that today was going to be the day… stuffed French toast at Kahunaville. The alarm was set so we would wake up, get ready, and be at Treasure Island by about 10am, when they would still have another hour of breakfast service left.

Tigg was in the shower when I woke up. I got a drink and sat down in front of the television. After a few minutes, the alarm started. I went back to the bedroom to turn it off, and sat on the edge of the bed to see if I could figure out this unfamiliar thing.

As soon as I touched the bed, the edge of the metal brace for the headboard swung down behind the top of the mattresses.




Power outage.

I pull the top mattress away from the wall to find that there’s an electrical outlet centered behind the top of the bed. Brilliant room design there. (Not because of the outlet location… things get moved around, and you can never have too many outlets. Instead, because they were plugging items into it.) With no real bed frame (the headboard was attached to the wall), the mattress had been rubbing into the cord enough that the plug on top had come a bit loose. The metal brace had swung down, made contact with the metal from the plug, and shorted everything out. There was a black ring on the wall, extending about four inches in every direction around the outlet. There were black marks on the sheets.

We had our second fire.

Now, I ask you… once again, as I did in the section about day four… How many hotels have you stayed in over the course of traveling in your life? And the total number of fires you have encountered… big or metal-brace-striking-a-plug-and-shorting-out-the-power-with-a-flame-and-black-smoke-small… would be?

Well, if I was asked how many fires there had been in my hotel room in the past two days due to broken appliances or poor construction in the room… regardless of the danger involved (really there was none here either)… I would honestly have to say that we had two fires.


I’ve asked friends this fire question since our return. Friends that travel a lot -- including Ellen and Richard, who you may recall had troubles with an open door (could have been their fault) and the broken thermostat (definitely not their fault) on this same trip at this same resort. And, including the travels of Tigg and I before this trip, all of us came up with a grand total of no fires.

In two days, Tigg and I have now had two fires.

And yet… umm… I’m not superstitious… on the bright side yesterday’s fire started off a day that included winning enough money to buy Tigg jewelry in the morning and put us up after everything we bought on Monday night. I hadn’t even left the room and I was already looking forward to tomorrow’s possibilities from the Fairfield Grand.

On to Treasure Island for breakfast. We got to Kahunaville and had our stuffed French toast… a complete sweep of four orders. Tigg and I also got a side of potatoes that was pretty tasty. The French toast was delicious… to unanimous approval. So good was this breakfast, and so filling, that we didn’t even think about eating again until almost seven hours later. Not a bad deal.

We kicked around a few ideas and pretty quickly settled on heading over to the Stratosphere. Ellen, Richard and I enjoy roller coasters and theme parks. Tigg doesn’t mind sitting alone, but refuses to be left missing all the fun, and can be tricked into the lines. Las Vegas has its share of great rides and attractions… but each one comes with an expense. In order to ride three or four of them… one time only… it isn’t out of line to suggest that it would cost a minimum of over $50 per person to do it. Plus, there are other expenses… cost, time… that need to be factored in if these rides are all at different properties. Fine… maybe you ride one a day while moving around so you don’t really spend an hour just moving from one resort to the next. There’s still a $12 or more price involved per ride. Anyway…

In talking over roller coaster in Vegas options, we decided to ride the roller coaster on the top of the Stratosphere. It’s called the High Roller… and while it isn’t your standard high-speed, lots of hills and drops coaster… it does run around the outside of the tower, 909 feet above the ground.

We took a cab over to the property and walked inside. We have to ask a few people for directions to the player’s club desk, which isn’t along the edge of the main casino area. Once we get settled in, we find a $3 blackjack table and sit down for a while. In general the property isn’t amazing. Like a lot of the places we see off of the main strip, a casino is a casino is a casino.

(Funny thought my friend and I came up with when talking after we returned. There are high-end Vegas resorts… along the Strip, like Bellagio. There are middle-of-the-road Vegas resorts… say like this, ones that are just there, the Stratosphere. And then there are low end resorts… say, without naming names, where you don’t want to use the bathroom and are too scared to order a drink because the glasses likely haven’t been washed. The difference between the mega-glamour-properties and the bottom-feeders? In the mega-resorts, you can happily waste an afternoon just considering each waitress and whether or not her boobs are fake. In the bottom-feeders, you’re frightened that the waitress’s stitches are real.)

After losing about $50 between us in just over an hour, Tigg gets up to use the restroom. I toss another $20 on the table and have Ellen cut the deck for me after a shuffle. With Tigg taking her time… she’s a bit frustrated with me (probably quite justifiably) because I want to keep playing at the table… and Ellen’s good-luck cut, I managed to work the money back to where we started. I head over to a roulette table to play a promotional coupon that came in a packet when we signed up for the player’s club card. One of my numbers hits, and with that and a separate even-money bet called for on the coupon in order to qualify for the special pay-out, Tigg and I are now up about $22 for our visit.

Time to ride the roller coaster.

If we could only find it.

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to experience some of the moments from This is Spinal Tap. No, I’m not kidding. I love that movie. I don’t know, perhaps to be on some book tour, with a bestseller on all of the top lists, and have enough people interested that a reading was called for and I had to be led along back-of-the-house corridors to a stage while offering “Hello Cleveland! Hello Cleveland!” I think that would be pretty cool. Well, after visiting the Stratosphere, it turns out I no longer need to wait for that successful book tour to experience being impossibly lost…

In order to ride the coaster, you have to purchase a ticket to the top of the observation tower… or so we had been told by the promotions associate when getting our cards. (She believed there was a discount when you buy a ride ticket at the same time… she was wrong. There was just one price for admission depending on the ride, which also comes with a ticket to the observation level. Anyway…)

A security guard tells us to follow the path directly ahead of us to get to the ticket counter, and after asking only three more people in a game of “you’re getting warmer… getting warmer… you’re on fire” with the Stratosphere staff, we eventually find ourselves at the stairs/escalator that lead to the ticket booth.

(Five people to give us directions to where we purchase the tickets, and honestly it was because we noticed a sign that we made it to the counter. Not a good sign number one.)

We got our tickets… but we had to wait five minutes for them. See, evidently it was indeed a slow day at the old Stratosphere. As we arrived to get our tickets, the girl selling them was placing a hand-written “back in 5 minutes” sign in the window. With us clearly in sight, she walked away… I don’t know for certain, but let’s be forgiving and understanding and say it was probably a restroom break… and comes back, sure enough, in slightly over five minutes, to sell the tickets to us. She tells us to move ahead and then turn to the left.

(Waiting in state of stunned disbelief to purchases the tickets. Not a good sign number two.)

We move ahead and turn to the left.

And find a security check.

Hey, that’s a good thing. Tigg, Ellen, Richard and I are all for the security procedures in place when you travel now. We have no problems with them at all. However, it’s worth mentioning here because I have the “mom bag” with me. So Tigg, Ellen and Richard breeze through the metal detector, and I’m left waiting for someone to check the backpack. While I’m doing this, three people are trying to organize the rest of my group against a blue screen for a fake picture of them on top of the Stratosphere at night. My friends are trying to explain that I’m with them too, which apparently in Stratospherian sounds nothing like “if you’re going to force us to take a picture, fine, we’ll do it, but that guy over there is part of our group” and exactly like “where do you want us to stand?” because the staff is directing them to the screen and ignoring all of their efforts and comments to bring some attention to me. The more my friends point at me over by the metal detectors, the more the staff says “it only takes a moment, just stand here and smile.”

Finally the comedy routine takes long enough that I’m able to clear security, arrive at the screen, get into the picture, and they take it. (I was going to add this being sign number three… but honestly, stick with it, because you’re going to see I would run out of fingers and toes counting the bad signs by the time this is done.)

Here are three funny things about the whole picture thing: (1) We’re there during the day, having this picture taken at the base of the elevators that lead to the top of the Stratosphere Tower. We haven’t even been to the top yet, but whatever. Is there a special reason I don’t understand for why we would want a photo of us overlooking the Vegas strip at night to commemorate our memorable visit when our visit was actually early afternoon? Maybe they don’t have an afternoon display scene? (2) We were being stopped to take this picture before going to the top of the tower. Stop me if this doesn’t make sense… but wouldn’t it be a neat idea to take a real picture of our group at the top of the Stratosphere and try to sell that to us instead of a fake one shot at the bottom? Yeah… yeah… rain or bad weather or the sun shining into the camera lens. Still. (3) This is the best one of the three. After taking the picture, the staff members direct us to the elevators. We never see the picture stand again. We never see any other picture stand. In other words, we were never shown the pictures they took and never given an opportunity to even consider them. The only reason we knew it was a picture of us simulating a night view was that they had a monitor that we could see next to the camera, displaying the final image and what was being set behind us on the green screen. So much for working the sales.

After giving this careful consideration, I should be left with only one possible conclusion -- the pictures are a time management effort. A distraction. They don’t want to sell us something. Instead, say when it’s really, really busy at the old Stratosphere, the few minutes occupied to have the picture taken keeps the attention off of the wait for the elevator ride.

Unfortunately, we’re just racking up the bad signs at this point. And, experience would show that the picture incident was going to be a minor event, and a Kodak-photo-opportunity to distract us was hardly a likely theory compared to one of incompetence and apathy.

Moving along, we get in a line that winds around to the elevators. We are the only ones there, and yet we have to wander and stroll and twist and turn and parade around all of the chains and paths that lead to the front of the elevators. And once we get to the end… or, since the wonderful surprises will keep on giving with no end, when we reach a chain separating us from two staff members with radios standing in front of an elevator with a sign behind them indicating we just might be in the right place for the observation deck and rides… nothing happens.

We wait.

They ignore us.

We wait.


We’ve been silently exchanging looks, with all of us thinking some version of the same thing: “Wow. This place is just… wow.”

We finally ask them where to go. They tell us to go around the elevators to the other side.

Have you ever been on one of those elevators with doors that can open on either side? Well, we go around the elevator structure, through more paths and more chains, and, as directed, finally reach the doors to the elevator on the other side. The doors open, and as we get on, the doors open on the other side of the car and the two staff members that made us walk all the way around get on the same car with us.

We get off the elevator, and the operator tells us to follow the signs for the rides. The doors to the elevator close behind us, and -- TA-DA -- there are no signs.

So a group of us… a few others had joined us on the elevator at different stops along the way up… start wandering around the bends of the hall trying to find the way to the rides. Eventually we find someone that directs us to a corner where there is in fact a sign for a ride. Unfortunately, it’s not the ride any of us want. So we are sent further along the hall.

We do finally get to the roller coaster. We get on and it is pretty neat. The worst part was actually getting into the car. There is nothing directly opposite you on the far side of it, and it looks as though you could take one extra step and fall because you can’t see the tracks and netting below you. Once you sit down and get ready to ride though, it’s fine. In fact, they didn’t even say anything when I put my digital camera in front of me, turned on the video option, and taped the ride with a wonderful audio of my wife swearing.

After the ride, we want to head down to the observation deck. We are told to use the stairs. Back inside we go… and… well… let me wrap up the whole series of Stratosphere problems with this story…

A short time later we came off the observation deck and asked a security guard how to get down. He told us… and there were eight of us gathered together when I asked him, so I have witnesses… to head down the hall. That route turned out to be basically a dead end.

I can’t stress this enough... the entire group heard his directions -- all eight people, without another question being asked or comment being made after hearing what the guard said to me – and the entire group followed me down this path, since we all understood the instructions the exact same way. We all turned around and walked back to the same security guard. We’ve been gone for maybe twenty seconds. He rolls his eyes when I ask again and directs us down one flight of stairs.

When we reach the bottom of the stairs, I turn around to the other seven people and ask: “Didn’t he tell us to follow the hallway the first time?” After everyone tells me that I wasn’t losing it, we start walking along the next hall.

(I swear I am not making this up. And... go around and enter the elevator over there, go down this set of stairs, just wait and you will see me again so I can give you different directions while making a face as if you messed up... it sure feels like the employees at the Stratosphere are using us to play a game.)

There is a small arcade in front of us… one of those shooting arcades. There is plastic hanging from the ceiling, held in place by duct tape. And there is a wall with seven… 7… 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – seven signs on it. They are pieces of paper that have been run through a printer. Not a collection of time-consuming, machine produced signage. Six of them say “tower elevator” with arrows pointing to the left. One of them says “tower elevator” with a sign point to the right. We ask the clerk at the arcade if the elevators behind us are the ones the majority of signs are referring to, the ones we need to use to go back down. He points around to the other side of the arcade... which would be to the right, where the single sign was pointing.

And guess what? Sure… soon we’re right back at the arcade, in a line to get on the same elevators he told us weren’t the ones we wanted.

This time though, we didn’t again run into the person providing us with crappy guidance. In a span of thirty or so seconds, this particular guy is no longer there when we get back to the arcade.

One funny thing I noted was that the Stratosphere was missing some great sales opportunities, because in all of this mess, we hadn’t been directed to walk past a single store.

And, by the way…

(Deep breath)

A few moments ago I mentioned that one possible -- perhaps in some ways even reasonable -- explanation to the taking of pictures in front of a background that allowed for a fake top-of-the-Stratosphere picture would be to distract guests from the line… the wait… the passage of time. And I finished that off by saying “ignorance and apathy” would prove that theory wrong. And here it is… we kept running into staff that would give us poor directions, and then mere seconds later would meet those very same employees again while suffering because of their guidance. Use those stairs… not that elevator… the ride is around that corner… hop on your left foot while touching your right hand to your nose… almost adding up to some sort of game. Could it possibly be that they give bad instructions just to watch the resulting chaos?

Heck, it is so bad here that I can’t even recommend the view from the top of the Stratosphere. Between overlooking the Bellagio Fountains and being located in the center of the strip, the Eiffel Tower Experience was not-even-close significantly better. It’s not even comparable.

I would also like to recommend the roller coaster. But it wasn’t really a terrific coaster so much as it was really high off the ground.

And in the end… the entire experience was overshadowed by a property and a staff that were in disrepair and totally inefficient.

No thank you.

We get a cab and decide to head down toward the MGM Grand. We have tickets to see Carrot Top that night, and with Mandalay Bay, Luxor and Tropicana all in the area there are plenty of places we haven’t been to that we can explore for a couple of hours.

First though… I have a date with a green M&M.

I get very restless in hotel rooms. They’re fine and they have a place. But when I go on vacation, I’m usually not in town for the bed or the shower. While a good selection on the television is always nice, in my travels all of that stuff is usually for winding down at the end of the day or killing time while others are getting ready. So when we got into the room last Friday, Tigg was actually pretty excited to see the checklist. She figured it would give me something to do while she unpacked. (I should probably interrupt this background story to explain something else here…)

I’m normally a last-minute traveler. If I could, I would wake up the day of a trip, spend ten minutes tossing things into a bag after I finished taking a shower and getting dressed, and then leave. I hate trying to remember what I forgot because I didn’t pack my toothbrush when I packed the rest of the stuff from the bathroom. I don’t like not wearing certain clothes for a week or two because they’re clean and I may need them, so let’s place them out on a chair ahead of time.

With that brief explanation, what do you think the odds are that I’d want to unpack when I arrive?


Oh, I love the fact that Tigg does it… and unpacks my stuff too. Once it’s done, I think it’s pretty good. I just don’t like spending time actually doing it. And, in some ways to make up for the time she invests there that I don’t, I lug the mom bag around. So don’t think that I don’t provide my share of the work… I just do it in other ways.

In any event, it’s Friday, we had just arrived in Vegas, and I’m hungry, dying to play blackjack, and incredibly fidgety in the room. So, to try and stay out of Tigg’s way once the checklist was finished, I started flipping through some of the travel guides we had grabbed in the airport and the resort lobby. And here’s something I found…

“For chocolate lovers, it’s a fantasy from their wildest dreams.”

Hello! Picking up the Las Vegas Guide and reading that line about chocolate lovers… well… I felt like Navin R. Johnson in The Jerk when he finds a nice girl looking for a man with a special purpose. He had a special purpose… and I’m a chocolate lover.

Five years ago when Ellen, Richard, Tigg and I went to Disney World, we were standing on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom and had just watched one of the parades. They wanted to turn in after a long day and call it a night. I wanted to watch the fireworks over the castle. We left the park.

This trip… having seen Penn & Teller twice before… I said it was alright if we didn’t include them as one of the shows we went to. There was no way I was missing M&Ms World, and I let it be known so there was no fireworks-level misunderstanding.

We had actually stopped by the place a few nights earlier, but the movie they show was closed for the day. So we made plans to come back. The best recommendation that I can give for the movie is that they handed out free M&Ms when you walk in. Unfortunately, the movie was a 3D type of thing that was so out of focus it gave us a headache (we finally all watched it with only one eye open). Also, the narrator… a live character playing a lab assistant… had such a heavy accent that you couldn’t understand anything he was saying. Not a single thing. But then again… free M&Ms.

Once we got out of the store… four levels of shopping and between the peanut butter, almond, and holiday-colored peanut varieties, I had over five pounds of M&Ms in a bag for Tigg to bring back to work… we decide to focus on dinner. Ah, but I have a quest first.

A friend of mine had mentioned the man-made beach at Mandalay Bay. We have roughly an hour before the sun is gone for the day. I figure that is just enough time to get to the beach, see it, and then discuss eating at Mandalay Bay or the Luxor. So off we head to catch the tram in front of the Excalibur.

We ride the tram to Mandalay Bay, and get pretty good directions to the beach from an employee at the tram station. Quickly heading across the edge of the casino floor and around a corner, we go down an escalator and start looking for signs. Eventually, we find ourselves outside, facing a wall. Turns out only hotel guests are allowed on the beach. One staff member tells us about an observation deck, but after walking to the other side of the enclosed area, we never find one. Another employee looks confused when we ask.

Got to be honest… the walk around Mandalay Bay felt longer than any of our walks outside along the strip.

We go back inside, check a couple of menus and decide everything we’re seeing is a wonderful combination of pricey and unappealing, and that we should head over to the Luxor and try the Pharaoh’s Pheast buffet. (Mandalay Bay charges over $22 a person for their buffet… Luxor comes in at just over $16. Bearing in mind that all savings can be directed to gambling, and Mandalay wearing a bit on our collective patience, Luxor wins.) Two properties impressed me for the way they approached their design and dedication to theme… Paris was one and Luxor the other. From the pyramid design to the statues and art inside, it is quite an impressive building. Though I never saw them, a friend tried to explain the inclinators to me… the Luxor version of an elevator, designed to rise with the incline of the pyramid as opposed to the standard up and down. The food was outstanding. Very good for a buffet, with a wide range of selections.

Tigg wants to get over to MGM about an hour before the show so she can check on our tickets and make arrangements if something unexpected happens. Looking at our watches, we have about an hour to use and still meet her deadline. A quick trip through the gift shop (I love Egyptian history and items, and bought two figures… one of Ra and another of Thoth), and we are heading for the door.

When we were walking over to the Excalibur-Luxor-Mandalay Bay row, we passed the Tropicana. They were handing out flyers for their player’s club, advertising free playing cards and free show tickets. It’s time to play theory and corollary…

The basic idea… or theory… about Vegas is that there is always something going on. Now, this isn’t a myth. It’s the truth. Everything out there is round-the-clock. Yes. Everything. And beyond the things you would readily expect… gambling, drinking, food… the city itself attracts an on-going procession of shows, conventions, and other events that transform the basic atmosphere. During our trip it was the rodeo. Next month it might be a major electronics exposition or a poker tournament. There is always something going on.

The corollary to this idea is that more often than not, what is going on isn’t what you expect to see going on. You might come in to the city with tickets to see Penn & Teller… Carrot Top… MystereO… and suddenly there’s a billboard showing long-term runs by Rita Rudner… or the opening of preview performances of Ka… or someone in town for one or two nights that wasn’t showing up on any of the performance schedules you checked just moments before getting on the plane.

In our case, we knew that the holidays were leading to some interesting things. For instance, Penn & Teller performed the first few nights we were there, and then their show went dark until after Christmas. O was going to be dark for our entire stay. Lots of shows were like that… Danny Gans and Lance Burton for example. But, we had tickets to Carrot Top and Mystere, and figured we might consider another show or two along the way. The unexpected thing was finding shows such as Sirens of TI… the pirate battle at Treasure Island… closed for almost all of our stay.

So here we are, heading in to the Tropicana, promotional coupons in hand, planning on getting some playing cards for the people at home. Maybe even score some tickets to a free show. (Maybe.) And… stupidity hits. Outside the Tropicana, they have people handing out information and flyers saying come on in and see a show for free. Inside the Tropicana at the player’s club registration desk they have people handing you a deck of cards and explaining that both of their in-house shows are dark for the holidays.

Vegas. It’s never the something you would imagine, but it is always something.

(I would like to make a note here for the management of the Stratosphere, that if they would like to purchase my “it’s never what you would imagine” campaign for use, they can certainly contact me.)

Over to the MGM for Carrot Top.

We get our tickets and the seats are pretty good. The show is in the Hollywood Theatre, a 740-seat room. We are positioned center-stage, perhaps four rows of tables back. I love this kind of location because as opposed to the seats up close, our table is elevated a bit. We aren’t looking up at the performer… causing blinding pain in our necks… and yet because of the other tables in front of us being lower, there is no one really blocking the view at all. It’s perfect.

But the drinks are not. (Sit back, this is going to take a while.)

There’s a menu on our table, listing prices for a few beers and liquors, and showcasing the special pay-even-more-and-keep-the-glass drinks. I’m not normally a big drinker… but with no car keys around, I’d been drinking a fair amount every day… and after the ladies each decide to go with a beer, I follow up by ordering a Malibu and pineapple. Richard asks for a black Russian. The bill comes with the drinks… at a total of $30 for the round. Tigg goes from happy to ticked off so quickly that the rest of us are left way behind at just plain incredibly upset. Why?

Well, she happened to see the breakdown of the bill first.

Allow me to back up a bit. The beers were served. A juice glass… and I’m being generous because it wasn’t as big as the smallest of juice glasses… was placed in front of me, with ice nestled from top to bottom and roughly a thimble of pineapple juice filling the spaces between the ice cubes. After that a white Russian is placed in front of Richard (he didn’t taste it, so it easily could have been one of a thousand varieties of Kahlua and cream drinks, but I’m guessing white Russian based on the drink’s color and what he ordered). Only Richard has noticed that his drink is wrong at this point, and… well, you may know we call him Mumbles. While I reach for my wallet, Tigg asks how much the bill is for. When I say $30, she takes it from my hand, looks at it, and realizes that they charged $10 for my shot glass of ice and pineapple juice and $9 for Richard’s drink. She’s off and running before any of us see the full bill, and we’re holding on to keep up once we understand.

Now, she isn’t yelling at all. She’s not mad about high drink prices. It’s that the bill doesn’t make sense to her.

Tigg is trying to explain to the waitress that $10 is a bit extreme for this drink, especially since there isn’t any type of listing of drink prices, and not one of the drinks that is listed on the menu is even close to that high except the specialty-buy-the-glass-too ones. And that if we had known we’d be paying $19 for two mixed drinks, we’d probably have ordered one or two of those drinks with the souvenir glass. At this point, Richard gets our attention concerning that he has the wrong drink and hands it back to our waitress. As she is getting ready to leave, Tigg asks her if it would be possible to get separate checks and the waitress says she will take care of it.

A few minutes later she returns. Now… when she left, we had two beers, two mixed drinks and a bill for $30. When she returns with Richard’s new drink she brings two bills, each for $15.50.

She says that she fixed the problems and places Richard’s drink in front of him. So far, so good. Then she hands the bills to us. Those of you a bit faster at math may have already realized that $30 divided in two doesn’t come out evenly to two bills each for $15.50. Apparently, Richard’s black Russian is $1 more expensive than the white Russian.

So where do we stand at the Hollywood Theatre? Evidently when four patrons are upset over high drink prices, and then mention that one drink is wrong and separate checks would be appreciated… drinks that I’ll point out here are being served for free out on the casino floor not fifty feet away… “fixing” those problems means bringing the right drink and raising the bill.

Now… before you start trying to rationalize this from the side of the waitress (you know, “she’s only doing her job” or “she doesn’t set the prices” -- both of which are absolutely true enough)… please refer back to the Monday night cab ride from Fremont Street back home. You may recall that the transmission died, leaving us stranded in the left lane of one the busiest streets in the world. And I paid the fare.

In short, this incident in the Hollywood Theatre wasn’t really about the money. And I have shown on this trip that it isn’t about the money. It’s simply the best way of telling the story. See… we weren’t mad at the waitress for setting the drink prices or really even bringing the news of those prices. We were mad at her for ignoring our questions about the prices and instead pretending the problem was the single check. We were very mad at… well… put it this way…

If you go into a restaurant and order filet mignon and they bring you a hot dog, correcting that problem… and raising the bill from the $3 hot dog that was brought to the table to an $18 charge for filet mignon… makes sense. It’s a mistake, sure, the items involved though are vastly different. But if you order chocolate ice cream and they bring vanilla, and the mistake was made by them, when they correct that problem you don’t expect the bill to go up. Seriously. What’s the difference between a black Russian and a white Russian? Bonus points to those of you that quickly replied that a white Russian has cream and a black Russian doesn’t. In other words… and keep in mind, they were in part offering their sincere “sorry for the error” efforts… this new total for our drinks included an extra dollar for not adding cream.

As you may have guessed, the waitress never returned to our table to ask about a second round.

Carrot Top.

When I was younger I became a huge fan of Gallagher thanks to his cable specials. I have seen him perform many times. That excitement has wavered in recent years. The jokes started getting a bit stale. But I still appreciated the basics. I was impressed that he often took time to sign autographs after shows. Years ago I kind of tuned Carrot Top out. His humor is in many ways unique, but I have been watching Gallagher pull things out of trunks on stage for roughly twenty-five years. So when I would read that Carrot Top said no one ever performed this type of show before, it kind of confused me. (And I am not talking about watermelons here… I am saying that Gallagher had brought his own props and sight jokes on to the stage for years. Had he never heard of Gallagher? Doubtful… if not impossible considering his profession.) Currently, Carrot Top’s web site still says in his bio that he created his own brand of humor with this stuff. Yeah… umm… no.

But enough about that.

Because he converted me as far as viewing him as a performer.

He was very funny. And what I appreciated even more was his ability to laugh at himself. He went on for about ten minutes about his 1-800-CALL-ATT telephone commercials, making fun of himself and the entire situation. There was a ton of original material in his show, and he did a great job presenting it. I was impressed. I certainly didn’t go to the show expecting to say this after… but I wouldn’t mind seeing him again.

We left MGM after the show, and I was in full pack mule mode. I had a backpack completely stuffed and was also holding two bags from the M&Ms store. We wanted to play for a bit before heading back home, so we decided to see if one of the casinos nearby might have a lower-limit table. I thought someplace like the Boardwalk Casino might be the best place to look. But before we get to the Boardwalk, back to the dirty cards.

The cards are every place you look. They are positioned on trash cans. They are discarded on the street. People are handing them out. They are placed on poles with rubber bands holding twenty of them at a time. (And making you wonder how people got the bands around the poles.) And… in this case… there are those newspaper-style boxes on the street as well. While walking away from MGM and M&Ms World, I see the most beautiful card of all time. (Kids… skip ahead past the next five paragraphs.)

For some reason… which I consider a blessing, but more often than not it gets me into trouble… I have very good observation skills and a perverted mind. If there’s something dirty to be seen, usually I’ll spot it. So as Tigg, Ellen and Richard wandered a few steps ahead of me, I came to a complete stop and started laughing to myself when my eyes caught sight of a few cards… all versions of the same picture. There were two women on the card… and they obviously knew each other very well. I know this because they, umm, were involved in doing something that you wouldn’t normally see without needing a lot of dollar bills. So I call to Richard and tell him to take a look.

And he completely embarrasses me.

He turns around and I motion over to the cards. In my mind, to this day, I fully believe I had given him the perfect signal of “don’t make it obvious, but check this out.” He looks at the boxes, steps toward them, bends over so his eyes are perhaps a foot to a foot and a half away… and he squints at the pictures! I swear you would have thought he was looking at a picture of a couple of golden retrievers frolicking in a field of daisies instead of one blonde girl staring right at another blonde girl’s naked bum.

I don’t know, maybe he was savoring the sight the way you appreciate the first fragrance of a fine wine. But it doesn’t look like it’s registered with him… he’s taking way too much time to look at the picture… and we’ve been standing still for too long… Ellen and Tigg are on to us by now and step off to an angle so they can see what Richard is looking so intently at.

We’re bagged.

Ha ha ha Richard! The incident is sort of laughed at. Which… sure… what else were the girls going to do? Still, this has absolutely been filed away for possible use against us.

Across the street, the Boardwalk Casino is advertising their property as the home of the $3 minimum tables. We head over and find out that apparently the “s” on their sign should have been turned off. There’s only one $3 minimum table. They should also have a police officer outside… “move along, nothing to see here”… because I won’t need to head back on my next visit to Vegas, and you probably shouldn’t worry about stopping by either.

At this point we find ourselves at an entrance to the Bellagio. (We do manage to wander, don’t we?)

A few nights earlier, Tigg had spotted someone she knew and stopped to say hello. He told us that very few places seem to even admit the holidays are close. (He was right… we saw a few Christmas trees and not much else.) But, he told us that the one thing we absolutely shouldn’t miss was the decorations set up in the Bellagio Conservatory. (And he was right again.) Not certain if we would be back this way, we take a chance and head in.

There are three basic scenes set up in the conservatory. The first is three huge polar bears created out of live flowers. (Mums, I think.) Each bear would easily stand about 16 to 18-feet in height. The second is a huge Christmas tree centered between two ponds and water fountains. The third involves reindeer, created out of cedar branches, skating on a frozen pond. Beyond the three scenes, ornaments and other details… such as music and occasional snow falling… are wonderfully incorporated into the display. I don’t know what they do the rest of the year, which supposedly consists of floral arrangements that are changed seasonally, but the holiday display was amazing.

After playing a few spins on a roulette table, our group leaves the Bellagio and heads back to the resort.

Day six, Wednesday, December 15, 2004

No fire today… actually the fires are done for the trip… but I do wake up and see the message light flashing on the phone. I call the front desk and have a fairly nice, quick conversation with an operator. I explain to her that on Monday, Richard had called down about his message light and was told to use the back of his room key for instructions. Mentioning that he eventually had to call back because there were no message instructions on the room key, and that he spoke with a different operator and was finally told to dial a number, I tell the operator that I need help getting my message. And she tells me… (wait for it)… the system Richard was told to use isn’t operational yet, so those room keys that he was told to look at aren’t being issued.

Good communication at the old Fairbanks Resort there.

It’s like the Stratosphere -- When something inconvenient or inexplicable or inexcusable happens once, it’s stupidly funny. When it happens twice, it’s embarrassing. When it happens three times, it’s enough checks in the “con” column for you to take it as fully and accurately representative of the person, place or thing in question. (Go four times or more… you have the Stratosphere and the Fairfield Grand Desert Resort.)


I check the message and find that it’s from the maintenance staff. They want to know how the repairs went on the electrical outlet, and let us know that if there are any problems we should call them. Fair enough.

Today is a special day for the group… or so I have decided. I had been watching the dirty cards all week. I kept thinking that there seemed to be dozens of them… all different. I figured it would be kind of neat to collect 52 and make a deck of playing cards out of them. Seeing the one with two women on it last night only gave me the motivation to try it.

So, Wednesday began, and I proclaimed it “Dirty Card Day.”

I was excited about this, but a bit disappointed that I had started doing it so late. After all, I had wasted five days of possible collecting. Most of the cards, to varying degrees of… ahem… modesty, had placed stars and dots to cover portions of the woman’s anatomy. Some were… ahem… less modest. Did I miss out on the card from the previous night? Beyond the wasted time, I was probably never going to find a card with two women posing like that again… that was the Holy Grail of dirty cards. And I left it behind.

But before we leave the Fairground Resort for a day of peaceful card collecting, it’s time to visit again with Cheryl… the arrogant casino host at Caesars.

We’ve been busy, so Tigg hasn’t looked at some of the stuff she had written down… recommendations from friends and such. But with no real plans for the day until Mystere that night, as we talk about the day ahead she remembers that she hasn’t tried to contact Cheryl again. So, she finds the number and calls. Someone answers, but it isn’t Caesars. When she hangs up, she double-checks the number and realizes that she called her friend’s number, which was next to the one for Cheryl. She dials again. Cheryl is off the property for the day, so she leaves a voice mail for her.

Tigg figures she should call her friend back and apologize for the strange phone call. His first question is whether or not we’ve met up with Cheryl, who he claims is expecting us. Tigg explains the Saturday message and the phone call today. He gets Tigg’s number, tells her to wait about five minutes, and hangs up. Barely three minutes later he calls back. He spoke with Cheryl and she’s on her way back to Caesars. He wants to know if we can meet her there in about thirty minutes. Tigg says we can and they finish their phone call.

Over we go to meet up with Ellen and Richard. Ellen has spotted an ad for free slot play at the Riviera, and wonders if we want to head up that way. Tigg explains about the phone call to her friend. The plan becomes simple… head over to Caesars to touch base with Cheryl, and then decide on the Riviera depending on how much time is left before tonight’s show at Treasure Island.

We take the Averagefield shuttle over to Harrah’s, head out onto the boulevard, and turn to walk toward Caesars. And there they are… Dirty Card Day is about to begin.

Along Las Vegas Boulevard you will see people standing around, holding cards, books and leaflets. They’re old… they’re young… they’re men… they’re women.\

To get a grip on the whole thing and how unsettling a few of these people are, consider Tigg’s comment about one woman: “I wonder if that’s her daughter on the card.”

Yeah… exactly.

Now, these folks tap the cards and such against their hands or other cards to make a noise and draw your attention. They all do this. And having watched them for a few days, I decided the best way to approach Dirty Card Day was with a bit of respect, a bit of decorum, and a bit of casual indifference.

Dignity, obviously, went flying out the window as soon as I decided it was Dirty Card Day and wasn’t even an option. But I can respect a naked woman on a dirty card. And I can hold a dirty card with enough esteem to afford it decorum. (Yes… yes… dignity and decorum are at times somewhat interchangeable. Let’s move on. After all, the real problem was going to be the casual indifference.)

My point is just that once you’ve decided to take a card like this, if you’re not in a group with about five really drunk buddies making seemingly brilliant observations about a woman’s breasts, the best approach just appeared to me to be to reach out, take the cards, and just keep walking as though nothing special had happened -- nothing at all.

And… I may not have my dignity, I do have my pride… I wasn’t going to pull a card out of a trash can or pick it up off the ground. If someone else threw it away, I didn’t want it either… even if it was the Holy Grail card and I didn’t have it.

Apparently though, in explaining the general concept to the group, I forgot to discuss and outline the whole approach to Dirty Card Day with Richard.

As we near the first wave of distributors, I reach out and grab two cards from an extended hand. This doesn’t go unnoticed, and the other two guys holding material try to lean toward me but I just shrug them off and keep moving.

Now sensing that I fully intend to follow through on my plans for the day, Richard decides he’ll try to help me. (At least, that was his defense on the whole thing. He figured if Ellen gave him any grief about taking the cards, he could just say something like: “I just wanted to help Bob.” Secretly though, I believe he was hoping to assemble his own deck of cards during the day. I’ll give him credit for the idea, and if I’m right about his true intentions, then more to the point I admire his quick wit in developing a plausible cover story and sticking with it. For that, I will remember him when I start to think about what to do with the cards that made it home.)

Here on the street though, when the time for action arrived, Richard gets it wrong.

He isn’t watching too carefully, and the first thing he grabs is a booklet. It’s probably about twenty to forty pages thick, and if you want a true visual description, it resembles those real estate books you might find at the grocery store -- only these have naked women on the cover with stars that aren’t quite big enough covering the naughty bits instead of a picture and description of the $350,000 property of the week. (And yes, I will avoid making the “property of the week” joke that goes along with that, the money, and the women on the cover. In any event… time for a side story to help with your visual of the situation…)

I have two dogs. They’re great, and I love them very much. They love meat though, and they will do just about anything they can to get to it when they know it’s there. They’ll run over you for a piece of bacon. They’ll lean over the coffee table and drool on your plate for a cheeseburger. And when you are walking from one room to another with something good in your hands, their sole focus is on you… to the extent that they will walk into, over and through anything in the way… ottomans, door frames, small children… anything. (Keep these images in mind.)

I took the cards, placed them by my side and tried to ignore the other purveyors of fine adult literature, in the end waving my hand at the other two guys as they approached and they backed away.

Richard has taken a booklet from one of them. He slows a bit, unfolds it, and looks at the cover. Well, that did it. These folks with material to distribute dove for him. They shoved people out of the way. One literally jumped over a small bush that was planted in a cement pot by the curb.

(Allow me to pause for a moment. Consider that. A man… jumped… over a small bush… to hand something to Richard.)

All of this activity was taking place to get to the man walking with, and reading, a booklet in his hands. Their sole focus was to get to him and hand him whatever he would take.

It was hysterical.

Richard looked like someone that had never seen a dog in his life that suddenly found himself standing in my living room holding on to a steak. He quickly got rid of the booklet and decided to concentrate only on the cards in the future.

A side note about my casual card-taking theory. Another corollary if you will. There are a lot of things that go on in Vegas. Similar to handing out porn is the “want to see a show” approach from time-share representatives. (Trust me, in many ways the two groups are very similar... and honestly, the time-share people are actually more pushy and obnoxious.) Around the second day I started saying “we’re leaving tomorrow morning” any time someone came up to me asking what I was doing later or if I wanted to see a show. I’m still stunned by how quickly and efficiently that comment worked.

On the way to Caesars, we pass a Margaritaville that we had heard about, but hadn’t been able to place other than the fact that we knew it was at the Flamingo. Good to know. We arrive at the Palace, get inside, and head straight for a phone. Tigg places a call to Cheryl. Tigg gets disconnected, by an operator that at first said she didn’t know Cheryl. Another call or two is made. Finally, Tigg is speaking with Cheryl, and written words won’t completely do justice to the expressions on Tigg’s face.

Suffice to say, if a friend of yours insisted that you go someplace… and they went to great lengths to assure you that someone was waiting there for you… when you did arrive you probably wouldn’t be expecting that someone to act as though you were catching them by surprise and that they had never heard of you.

That’s how Tigg felt.

Apparently Cheryl was still off-property, and she explained that by the time she arrived she would only be there for about ten minutes before leaving for the day. She asked Tigg if we could come back on Thursday and she’d do something at a restaurant for us.

Tigg arranged a time with her and hung up. Then she explained to us that she couldn’t be sure, but Cheryl sounded like we were imposing on her and wasting her time. I won’t go into details, but Tigg is very knowledgeable about this subject… and if she says Cheryl isn’t a people person, and is acting very strange, then Cheryl is a self-centered fool acting very strange. Tigg was quite certain that the impression her friend had about what contacting Cheryl would mean for us and the reality of what Cheryl intended to do for us were two significantly different things.

We look at our watches and decide that heading north to the Riviera isn’t in our best interests for today. With all of us a bit hungry, I suggest appetizers at Margaritaville as a lunch and then checking out some of the smaller properties while making our way back up to TI.

(See what I mean? “TI” doesn’t work. It has to be Treasure Island.)

Here’s a question… What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Almost everyone has heard that ad campaign by now. So can someone explain to me the “what happens in Mexico, stays in Mexico” that Toby Keith is talking about? Because I didn’t get it. Probably just me… as it was playing I didn’t even know it was Toby Keith. I don’t listen to him at all, not really a big fan, and after our trip it was my niece that told me he sang the song.

(My web browser happened to be on a search engine a few moments ago, so I typed in “what happens in Mexico stays in Mexico” in the search box. The first five results I got included… two references to Toby Keith, one for the Vegas ad, one that said “what happens in Cuba stays in Vegas,” and one that said “what happens in Peru stays in Peru.” I still don’t get it.)

But it is odd to be in Vegas and hear Keith singing about it staying in Mexico.

We all end up abandoning the appetizers in favor of sandwiches and burgers. The meal is good overall… you may not love the menu completely, which is a bit short, but if you want a good burger you won’t be disappointed here. I’ve eaten at Margaritaville in Orlando, Key West and now Las Vegas, and they were all worth the trip. Music… good (even with Toby Keith). Food… good.

And now we’re on our way to the Casino Royale.

We begin running through our normal arrival routine… over to the player’s club, checking out any special events or such, walking around the tables trying to figure out what the table limits were and also how the slot machines were positioned. You know… getting a general impression and figuring out if we even want to stay… what is happening here that we might want to make sure we do… are we going to play any table games, and if we do are there any that would be better than the others… where will Ellen be sitting if the rest of us do play at the tables… the basics.

There is absolutely no reason at all to recommend the Casino Royale to you. And that said, we probably stayed there longer than we did for a single visit at any other property. It was the only place I found with a live roulette table playing 25-cent chips. (There were places offering 50-cent games, but you sat at a bank of video monitors to place your bets.) I played craps for the only time on the trip. Blackjack. Video poker. We all spread out and did a bit of everything.

Was it a lot of fun? I can’t tell you it was… but one thing I want from a casino is based on a simple idea -- I don’t expect to win. It’s nice of course, and I’m going to try to win. But if you’re going to take my money, at least let me use it for a little while and get some entertainment from it. And none of us was losing too much here, so we kept moving around and playing. Tired of roulette? Spend some time playing blackjack. Eyes blurring on the video poker machine? Try a few rolls at the craps table. We definitely got great value for the money we left behind.

We stayed there long enough that we decided to eat after the 7:30pm Mystere show. Eventually, it was time to head over to Treasure Island. And it was there that I would meet Melissa.

Quick note… we watched the volcano at The Mirage on the way over, and it was pretty cool. Nothing stunning, but good enough to be considered quite decent for a free street-side show.

Mystere is in its own theater at the Treasure Island complex. It’s quite close to Kahunaville, and along a row of shops. Across the corridor from some of those shops we found a small section of slot machines. In that area was a smiling, adorably cute waitress named Melissa. At the risk of Tigg reading this, I will tell you that there was no other cocktail waitress in Las Vegas that I liked as much as Melissa. Just a great combination of perky and pleasant. Anyway…

There were a ton of people doing exactly what we were doing… wasting time until the theater doors opened. Playing a few spins and sitting down to get a free drink. A woman gets a drink from Melissa, then points at a row of machines across from them. Watching this, I figure out she is pointing to her husband. Melissa walks two or three steps to him, takes a beer off of her tray, and politely reaches to his side. Without turning around or acknowledging her… apparently he was entitled to the beer and she was some insignificant servant to him… he grabs the bottle. She pauses for a moment, then walks away. No thank you, no acknowledgement of any kind, and no tip. The jerk just kept playing and ignored her. Forgive me… someone brings you a drink and you don’t want to tip them, fine. But at least say thank you. Nope. Not this creep.

I went up to Melissa later and gave her a business card about the web site… just as I had with Aaron, Ana, Biljana, Nick and some others. I told her I thought she did a great job and let her know I would be mentioning her. She said she didn’t have a computer, but thanked me and smiled as though my compliment had made her day. (Which naturally made my day.) I hope… and I really have my fingers crossed because it is a little web site and it’s a big internet, and selling a million copies would be nice but I don’t expect it from the book… that someone reads this, knows Melissa, and can tell her I mentioned her. She deserves it. Best personality I found in Vegas, and there were a few really great ones to consider.

Now… Mystere

The show is actually a summary of my problem with Vegas. I had a lot of fun on this trip. I will definitely be back to this city, and Tigg and I had a fantastic time with Ellen and Richard. But great and fun as it was, it never matched my expectations.

As I mentioned before, back in 1999 the four of us saw La Nouba in Orlando. It was brilliant. The entire show was incredible, with one terrific act taking the stage after another. The finale was amazing.

Mystere wasn’t the same for me. Overall I’d tell you that the show wasn’t as good. I enjoyed it. The performers were very talented and entertaining. La Nouba was simply much, much better. A few people have suggested that maybe since it wasn’t my first Cirque du Soleil show, perhaps it didn’t surprise me as much… many of their shows incorporate a few similar acts performing different routines. But I checked the La Nouba portion of the Disney web site. And I’m convinced that wasn’t it. Mystere was a very good show… not a really great show.

Occasionally I got that same feeling in Vegas… as much as I wanted to enjoy it, and much as I know I want to go back… it wasn’t as unbelievable as I thought it would be.

It’s time for dinner.

Ellen and Richard had gone to a restaurant before called the Hole in the Wall. They couldn’t stop talking about it. Once we spotted it early on… it’s on Audrie Street, pretty much right behind the Flamingo… it was only a matter of when we would get there. Battista’s Hole in the Wall is the full name. We enjoyed both Fiamma’s and Battista’s, but I’ll tell you right now that it is completely unfair to compare them to each other as Italian restaurants. The category doesn’t work. Fiamma’s might be considered a new age, high end, gourmet Italian restaurant… Battista’s is definitely the traditional, old time, neighborhood place.

Meals come as complete units... soup or salad, the entrée, and then a cup of cappuccino as a dessert (and it is a dessert cappuccino… tasting much more like a hot chocolate than a cappuccino). Because of that, even though most meals at Battista’s are posted as costing from about $20 to $30, the total price is more than reasonable. House red and white wines are on the table, and along with the bread, are refilled as needed. The food isn’t designed to be knock-your-socks-off-good. Same with the wine. This is a place to hang out, to feel comfortable. A place for the gang. Where the wine is homemade and flowing freely. Where the food is served hot and in big portions. In short, where everything is family-based. This isn’t a place working on plates fancy enough to show on cable television or worrying about what the local food critic might say in a review. And for people that don’t get this, they won’t enjoy the restaurant.

Example? Clarification? Ok. If you go to see Tom Hanks in The ‘burbs and are expecting to see the Oscar-winning performance from Philadelphia, you are going to leave disappointed and you won’t enjoy the movie for what it is… no thinking required fun. If you go into Battista’s expecting the best dinner ever, you are going to leave disappointed and you won’t enjoy the place for what it is… a place to settle in, eat good food, and not worry about anything. What I am trying to say is that some people will absolutely love it, others will prefer to find the nearest buffet.

Their loss.

We loved it.

Now… there was a “yes you did – no I didn’t” fight at the restaurant that night. It involved Ellen and Richard and their previous visit to the restaurant. So, in the interest of fairness, let the record show…

Ellen had the sausage.

Richard ordered the eggplant.

Tigg and I both went with chicken parmigian.

I also went with the minestrone soup instead of a salad.

We left Battista’s and decided to try and chase something else down. Tigg had been told that she had to go to Nobhill and have a cosmopolitan. So we’re off and heading down the strip to MGM.

It’s kind of funny picking on Ellen and Tigg tonight, because they have no clue where we are. They keep asking Richard and I if we are taking them the right way. We keep asking if they want to go to the MGM, and when they say yes, we tell them everything is fine. Soon, the conversation takes a turn…

I see yet another dirty card. This is our first time all day south of Flamingo Road… south of Caesars, etc… and after a long stretch of duplicates and triplicates and dear lord nothing new, I am starting to see a few dirty cards that I haven’t seen before. Tigg decides I’m a pervert… as if that’s news.

Nobhill was closed when we arrived. No cosmopolitans tonight. But the trip to the MGM Grand is not a complete loss… we passed those newspaper boxes again along the way and I found it.

The Holy Grail card.

I take two of them.

My Dirty Card Day quest is complete.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com